Belette draped over his shoulders, ostrich feathers in his hat, clinking jewellery and a black dress: Such is the costume that “La Baronne” insists on wearing for the “Trois Joyeuses” of the Dunkerque carnival, the three days culminating in Ash Wednesday. In real life, Patrick Loock, an artistic director and photographer in Lille, walks around in jeans with a cap pushed firmly down onto his head. In exile for professional reasons, Patrick, originally from Dunkerque, wouldn’t miss the Dunkerque carnival for anything in the world. As a Greeter, he talks about it with passion and with emotion, sometimes even with a tear in his eye.
You experience and learn about the Dunkerque carnival from a very early age. Patrick was lulled to sleep by its melodies and immersed in it by his father. As early as your school years, you sing carnival songs and learn to wear fancy dress. But carnival is above all in the very heart of the people of Dunkerque, a story intimately bound up with the sea. From the 17th century onwards, after months spent fishing off Iceland, the fishermen would return to port, happy to see family and friends again. The fish would waltz around as a sign of their joy. And today this tradition survives, with smoked herrings hurled from the top of the town hall. Patrick knows all the nooks and crannies and the maze of streets leading to this ivory tower. And for Patrick, carnival is also a hymn of praise to Jean Bart, the local hero, one of Louis XIV’s corsairs who saved the town from famine.
Dunkerque carnival, for sure, it’s to do with the sea, which resonates in the very hearts of its inhabitants, a period of celebration in which all the social barriers come crashing down. But the celebrations remain intimate and private in spite of all of the excesses that are seen from the outside. Carnival is well-earned and you’re not initiated into its mysteries without a proper Dunkerquer to guide you. So to help you understand carnival fully, Patrick shares a few secrets with you.
It all starts with a few notes of music. When pipers and drum majors strike the first chords Patrick’s heart starts thumping in his chest. He puts on his make-up and his fancy dress and joins his band of cheerful characters down at the fire station. Then they all set off. The drum major, a character set up by the Maire himself, sets the tone and the first songs ring out in unison. His favourite song? –“les pêcheurs d’Islande”. They start elbowing others and creating an uproar. The front rows are reserved for those who have done this before, you need to know how to hold a crowd back and keep the rhythm. A magic moment?: “when the Malo carnival gang get back to the esplanade, the waves of feathers and hats with the sea in the background are a wonderful sight!” After all the crowds every good reveller needs some sustenance. They head off to “chapels” where the people of Dunkerque open up their homes to friends. On the menu is halibut, pudding, onion soup and good humour. But the day’s not over, even though carnival is ending. At 7 o’clock, opposite the town hall, La Baronne and his friends begin their “cantata to Jean Bart”, a hymn to the sea and to lost fishermen. Emotion overcomes them, some tears are shed and quickly give way to the celebrations. Patrick will be at the ball this evening surrounded by his friends, to let himself go and break the monotony. And if some masked and unrecognisable characters should tease him, it’s all in the spirit of intrigue…