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Sunday, March 26, 2023

Why does politics turn men into toads?*


Answer: Because they are being mercilessly lampooned in a European pre-Lenten carnival.

In past centuries Carnival in England used to be an opportunity for poking the Establishment with a very sharp satirical stick – somewhat akin to Trinidadian Ole Mas traditions. The festivities gave working people a few days of freedom and licensed disobedience, offering a rare chance to speak truth to power. Eventually, though, Church and State to combined to crush the life out of Carnival until the arrival of migrants from the Caribbean revived its spirit in Britain.

The radical/alternative roots of Notting Hill Carnival are often forgotten, but they were in the mix from the start encompassing the Black Power movement, punk rock, community activism and demands for racial equality and justice, as Michael La Rose relates in The city could burn down we jammin still!. Michael and Keith La Rose were the founders in 1982 of People’s War Carnival Band ‑ its name alone reflected the rebellious vibe of the times. The band “designed simple mas that had to say something. It had to comment about our history and condition in the J’ouvert mas tradition. We called it ‘Radical Mas’.”


Since those heady days, though, the mas passing the judging point in Great Western Road is as about as radical and provocative as a cucumber sandwich. T-shirts, dutty mas, and inoffensive, essentially meaningless pretty mas rule the road. No minds will be changed, no politicians discomfited, no views challenged by the feathers, bikinis, chocolate and sponsored T-shirts.

In Europe there’s a lot more appetite for the strong meat of satirical mas. Local and global leaders parade in monstrous, unflattering effigy to be ridiculed by the crowd; bloated caricatures, clever and crude, provide wickedly sharp-edged commentary on the burning issues of our day.

This year, the Rosenmontag parade in the German city of Düsseldorf featured a naked Donald Trump being straddled by a grinning Russian bear (perhaps a difficult image to explain to an inquisitive child!), while German leader Angela Merkel appeared as a scarily effective black widow spider surrounded by the bones of other politicians. Last year, top designer Jacques Tilly created what he called “a real shitstorm of hate and insults” – the phrase probably sounds even more graphic in German ‑ with his attack on right-wing populism. Trump (again) was shown taking a rear-end approach to the Statue of Liberty, who is on her knees; the figures’ expressions make it clear this is no consensual wine! The next float – for these are tableaux rather than mas bands, of course – portrays a grinning Liberty holding the severed head of Trump in one hand and the US Constitution in the other.

The explicit nature of the images on the carnival floats is startling to British eyes, though they are well within a British tradition of extravagant, sometimes coarsely sexual, cartoons in newspapers ‑ Hogarth, Gillray and Gerald Scarfe come to mind. On the street, however, such depictions would surely attract the attention of those fearless defenders of public decency, the Metropolitan Police. Doesn’t Tilly get into trouble with the German authorities? Apparently not. He told English language German magazine The Local recently: “The Düsseldorf Carnival Committee holds the responsibility for the parade, not me. They have the last say as to what floats can go ahead.… They want satire that bites, and if they have any complaints it’s that it doesn’t bite hard enough.”


The carnival in Torres Vedras, Portugal, attracts 350,000 people over five days. For the overall theme of ‘Tides and Oceans’ ‑ which at Notting Hill might produce little more than blue bikinis and some fish ‑ was portrayed by an all-too-realistic Trump figure sitting on a toilet representing the Earth while small figures emerge from the water tank emblazoned with the United Nations symbol. For another group, President Putin of Russia and President Kim of North Korea were sharks, ready to dine.

In France, too, the carnival art of political caricature is in robust health. At the 134th edition of the King’s Carnival in Nice, an impressively well-sculpted Trump stood behind a fairground-style rocket from whose barrel emerged a disgruntled-looking President Kim.

The papier-mâché Nice Carnival figures must have required considerable time to conceive and model; these are works of Carnival art compared with the rougher-edged, but possibly more effective, ‘cartoon’ style of the German and Portuguese figures. In Düsseldorf, topicality is vital and Tilly’s creations are produced only a few weeks in advance. “If necessary we can put together a new float in as little as a day,” he told The Local.

In Europe, Carnival appears to be far less constrained by notions of “outraging public decency”, by council fears about offending residents or by the dead hand of the police placing crushing restrictions on freedom of movement and freedom of expression. In France, Belgium, Germany and Italy, there appears to be the will, the skill and – most importantly – the resources to produce provocative Carnival art on a huge scale, free of obvious commercial considerations. Both local/regional and national government appear committed to supporting such subversive public displays.

It is almost impossible to conceive of anything similar being achievable in Britain under current conditions. The commercialisation of Carnival effectively prevents a designer from producing anything that is not pretty – and therefore saleable. The funding crisis means that for many bands art for Carnival’s sake has become a distant memory. The cramped and inadequate route at Notting Hill, artificially congested by the Met’s ‘containment’ policy, has forced a drastic reduction in the size of king and queen costumes, severely damaging the visual impact of mas. The inability of past Notting Hill Carnival organisers to engage with journalists, editors and broadcasters has led to superficiality and misrepresentation of Carnival in the media. The politicians and the police are, year by year, rule by rule, succeeding in turning our once powerful and rebellious Carnival into an emasculated and irrelevant sideshow. And that is what they have always wanted: a poodle of a Carnival, not a lion.

We can only look with envy across the English Channel, where it is still possible Pour transformer un politicien en un crapaud géant – to turn a politician into a giant toad.

* The title is from a song by Tone Deaf and the Idiots, an obscure British punk band of the late 70s.




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