Carnival: They get debauchery, we get pancakes

From Mardi Gras to Easter, Richard D North plots the ersatz and ascetic of the carnival
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Indy Lifestyle Online
One can't expect the British to take carnival seriously, and we don't. Even in carnival's strongholds, there's now something ersatz about the affair. In New Orleans, a town which has re-invented itself as a sort of Disneyland of Sin, it's the busiest time of year, and as theme parks go, this one has great music and food.

New Orleans has even invented today as "Lundi Gras" (Fat Monday) and advertised it as "the newest carnival tradition", with no apparent irony. Rio's carnival is sponsored by a couple of beer companies, and it is followed by a Lenten observance much slackened in recent years.

In this country it's not so much bastardisation as lethargy which is the problem. Probably hardly any of us know that tomorrow is carnival season. Beyond lies Ash Wednesday, and - more firmly, if vestigially, on our calender - Lent's remembrance of the 40 days and nights Christ spent in the wilderness, preparing for his shortlived mission, and calvary.

Not that we wholly ignore the immemorial stirrings of custom and habit. Shadows of primitive mores, and their christian reclothing, remain. What else would move Alternative Arts to hold its annual Great Spitalfields Pancake Race tomorrow? City types will make fools of themselves in London's organic fruit and veg market. Then there is a fair chance, according to Mr Ram, of the Post Office at Toddington in Bedfordshire, that the children of the place will be released by the Pancake Bell, and desport themselves on Conger Hill, perhaps to hear the pancake witch frying her underground fare of yore. "It doesn't always happen, though," he cautions (not of the frying, but the children's escapade).

At Richmond, North Yorkshire, and plenty of other places, church bells will ring to call people to their "shriving" - confession - at church. Lichfield, Staffordshire, will hold its Shrovetide Fair as it has for hundreds of years. You could also thrill to a day's hare-coursing in Lancashire where the unfortunate creatures compete for the nobly named Waterloo Cup.

Somehow, Britons never did quite cultivate the refinement of depravity which is best sustained by the powerful attractions of sin and repentance. It's as much a matter of geography and, perhaps more especially, of heat and sunlight.

Somewhere south of 45 degrees north, is the real Carnival Belt. It's a region which created and nurtured a particular sort of Roman Catholicism.

There is something of excess in it - of feuds and high temper. Carnival, like magic realism, is nurtured best in lands where the contrast between light and shade is greater, and where enervation and hot blood alternate in the course of a day, let alone a year, and where truth and falsehood are jumbled up in a soup of deceit, rumour and gossip.

Our mild latitudes don't boil up such stuff. Go further north, now, and the torrid story picks up again. There is the Suicide Belt, northwards of the 60-degree north mark somewhere in Scandinavia, where people are differently excessive, with their binge drinking and shamans.

It's a shifting thing, though. Europeans used to be wildly enthusiastic for the Carnival qualities of dissidence, hysteria, unease. Nancy Mitford (in her Madame de Pompadour) reminded us that in February 1745 the Dauphin's marriage was celebrated by Louis XV's throwing a masked ball which threatened to become riotous. Such events were in the spirit of Venetian wickedness, and it was customary for the entire royal palace of Versailles to be flung open to the public for the night, provided you could blag a sword from somewhere to "prove" gentlemanly status.

But whoever celebrated it, the point of carnival had always to do with the period of withdrawal, penance, abstinence which followed. The Chambers Encyclopaedia (1904) is very clear that the Latin which lies behind "carnival" means "taking solace in the flesh", not at all "farewell to flesh". So it's not that carnival is just a blow-out before the tedium of Lent takes over. It's more that carnival and Lent are different approaches to the same problem of finding solace. It's not as though carnival's solace was necessarily inferior to Lent's, either.

The alternation of feasts and fasts may be something our materially comfortable age can't quite grasp.

The point is that feasting need not be purely physical and abstinence has a sort of physical excitement of its own. It's not necessarily particularly innocent, either. The church fathers were always warning people against the excesses of asceticism. Hunger and sleeplessness famously induce extremely corporeal fantasies, and the meditational states can be deliciously but distractingly horny. This is why a period in the wilderness was so much a matter of temptations to be resisted, as half the depictions of saints in story or picture accentuate.

And then there is the important paradox that self- denial can be obsessively self-centred. That was always the risk of "Designer Buddhism" and the worst prattle of the New Age spirituality which smacks of the self-serving as well as the quacky and the credulous.

So while this is the best possible season to relive the habit of Lent, it's as well to do so with a good guide to hand. I'm coy and nervous about such things, and enjoyed best the time I spent with various monks or nuns on retreat, who seemed to bring a professionalism - literally, something workmanlike - to the business.

Goodness knows that anyone who offers spiritual advice is in severe danger of having it remarked how unspiritual he seems, and - perhaps worse - of undoing whatever bits of spirituality he has managed to put together, but I'd risk this one thought: spirituality, like virtue, is almost always an unsung merit. And another, more cheering, one: if you vaguely feel drawn to a spot of Lenten austerity, you needn't worry that any of the retreat professionals in monasteries will be dogmatic, prosletysing or smug. The best of the monks and nuns insist that they have the easy life and that the people who live in the world are the ones who have it tough.