Rule the school: Mobile’s juvenile Mardi Gras king and queen in 2010. Photo: Jeff and Meggan Haller/Keyhole Photo/Corbis
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The secret history of Mardi Gras

Segregated Mardi Gras in Alabama tells us a lot about life in the South.

There were only three of us in the Mardi Gras museum – me and two costume designers on tour with a circus from Brooklyn. I’d seen about as much of Mobile, Alabama, as I could stand in the midday heat: the cemetery full of yellow fever victims, the State Street Zion Church, set up by slaves ejected from mainstream Methodist services in the 1820s.

I wanted to know more about the purple beads that I’d seen slung in the trees in New Orleans years earlier, a full three months after Mardi Gras had ended: the residue of a wild week in which, as I understood it, frat boys joined outrageous queens and black jazz players in a binge of Green Hurricane cocktails. This deliciously debauched and liberal celebration of all human life apparently started here in Alabama – which struck me as strange, somehow. A tiny old lady led us into a large room where a carnival float the shape of a dragon stood against the wall. The parades are in January, she said, but really, the festival went on all year and there was a party that night.

Mardi Gras arrived with French settlers in 1703, but in Mobile they like to start the story with Michael Krafft, a one-eyed cotton broker who got drunk with friends on New Year’s Eve in 1830 and raided Partridge Hardware Store, seizing hoes and forks and marauding through the streets to the mayor’s house, where he was invited in for breakfast. Krafft formed the first society – or “mystic order” – to lead a parade around the city. Other cotton workers set up a rival group. Then more emerged, tied up with the city’s businesses, with names like medieval guilds: the Knights of Revelry, the Maids of Mirth.

There are more than 40 mystic societies in Mobile today. The social and economic lives of powerful local families revolve around them, though their influence remains hard to assess because membership is secret – as with the Masons. Some gatherings are masked.

We pass photos of families from the 1920s decked out in Charles II wigs, tights and ballet shoes. Every year, a young man is elected as King Felix III, the carnival ruler, with an appropriate girl as his queen. They are graduate age, not generally a couple, and from “good families”, our host says. The elaborate trains they wear in the parade can cost thousands of dollars apiece. On video screens, we see the esteemed young monarchs presented at “courts” (the country club, the civic centre), draped in fur and satin, picking their way through tough, unspoken codes of conduct.

They are all white. Mobile has a segregated Mardi Gras. The black group was set up in 1938 as the Colored Carnival Association. We ask why the two events remain separate in 2015. Our host explains that this is the way it has always been. “The black community want it that way,” she says.

There’s a small display dedicated to the Comic Cowboys, an order who ride behind the posh floats bearing irreverent banners: a cartoon of a moustachioed gay man pissing a rainbow, a caricature of the first openly gay (and black) NFL player, with the slogan “Cowboys cut Michael Sam – not because he’s gay, because he sucks”.

“Those guys are pretty cheeky,” our host says.

There has been a lot of talk, after the shootings in Charleston, South Carolina, about Southern ways, Southern attitudes and the shadows they cast. One weekday afternoon in Mobile tells you things are still done differently here. At night, I walk back past the museum to find its community life in full swing. The open windows cast pools of light on the garden, where very young, very smart white boys in patent leather shoes, chinos and short-sleeved shirts are gathering – future King Felixes, some of them.

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

This article first appeared in the 26 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Bush v Clinton 2

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Hillary and the Viking: dramatising life with the Clintons

August radio should be like a corkboard, with a few gems pinned here and there. Heck, Don’t Vote for Him is one.

Now is the season of repeats and stand-in presenters. Nobody minds. August radio ought to be like a corkboard – things seemingly long pinned and faded (an Angela Lansbury doc on Radio 2; an adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s The Professor on Radio 4 Extra) and then the occasional bright fragment. Like Martha Argerich playing Liszt’s Piano Concerto No 1 at the Albert Hall (Prom 43, 17 August).

But on Radio 4, two new things really stand out. An edition of In the Criminologist’s Chair (16 August, 4pm) in which the former bank robber (and diagnosed psychopath) Noel “Razor” Smith recalls, among other memorable moments, sitting inside a getaway car watching one of his fellows “kissing his bullets” before loading. And three new dramas imagining key episodes in the Clintons’ personal and political lives.

In the first (Heck, Don’t Vote for Him, 6 August, 2.30pm), Hillary battles with all the “long-rumoured allegations of marital infidelity” during the 1992 Democratic primaries. Fenella Woolgar’s (brilliant, unburlesqued) Hillary sounds like a woman very often wearing a fantastically unhappy grin, watching her own political ambitions slip through her fingers. “I deserve something,” she appeals to her husband, insisting on the position of attorney general should he make it to the top – but “the Viking” (his nickname at college, due to his great head of hair) is off, gladhanding the room. You can hear Woolgar’s silent flinch, and picture Hillary’s face as it has been these past, disquieting months, very clearly.

I once saw Bill Clinton speak at a community college in New Jersey during the 2008 Obama campaign. Although disposed not to like him, I found his wattage, without question, staggering. Sweeping through the doors of the canteen, he amusedly removed the microphone from the hands of the MC (a local baseball star), switched it off, and projected for 25 fluent minutes (no notes). Before leaving he turned and considered the smallest member of the audience – a cross-legged child clutching a picture book of presidents. In one gesture, Clinton flipped it out of the boy’s hands, signed the cover – a picture of Lincoln – and was gone.

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue