Friday, March 22, 2013

Farewell to the Flower Queen

 "You know what?   Life is one  beauty contest after another. School, then college, then work..."

  - Little Miss Sunshine 2006

Driving up to Spalding on a Friday evening I saw a hitchhiker  on the A17, hoping to catch a ride home. It's dark and  raining. I pull  over and flip  the passenger door - more out of a sense of guilt than altruism.

We make our way North, falling in behind the slow moving HGVs and mud covered tractors. The hitcher says he's going home after being sent away early from a  shift at McDonalds. 

Signing on for 8 months before landing this job he's employed under a 'zero hours' contract which requires him to turn up for work every day at the appointed time, but allows the manager to dismiss him at anytime without payment if there is not enough work to be done or his performance is considered unsatisfactory.

Spalding Flower Parade 2012

He makes about £25 a week more than signing on and the job centre are happy because he can be chalked up as one off the unemployment figures, despite the fact that he's only moved from Job Seekers Allowance to Working Tax Credits.

As I make my way into Spalding, passing the closed up pubs and houses for sale it occurs to me that an hours drive along a main road tells you more about contemporary Britain than you might like.

Spalding has been Britain's flower capital for nearly a century. Every year the town's people rejoice in  the fertility of the soil with a flower festival.
The  Flower Parade celebrates the first harvest of May and the return of life to the landscape.

With it's origins  the 1920's, the depression of the 30's, the war years and 1950's austerity. All the way until 2013 when  the parade became just another expense that could be done without.

And with it goes the Flower Queen, a girl chosen annually from town's young women who could become a symbol of renewal, fertility and a promise of  prosperity for the future.

Flower Queen finalists, Inca Peekaboo Honnor (17), Heather  Turner (17), Florence Butters (19), Rachel Perkins (17), and Shelley Wilson (24).

The Flower Queen heads the parade and represents Spalding throughout the year both at home and abroad, undertaking to promote both the commercial and cultural life of the town. 

Which is why on a cold night in March five finalists are here, competing for the honour to be the last Flower Queen. 

For the winner there will be flowers, gift vouchers,  foreign travel, and perhaps opportunities that lie beyond Spalding, but first they must be subject to the scrutiny of the judges who will assess both their appearance, their character and their suitability to represent the Spalding to the world.

Being pretty is not enough: Florence Butters is quizzed by the judges.

Consolation for the losers will be the chance to accompany the Queen's attendants on the final parade through the town before the event is relegated to history and memory.

The finalists are interviewed by the local newspaper.

Being pretty is not enough anymore and the contestants know this; Florence Butters is a National Apprentice of the Year, Heather Turner raises funds for cancer research, Shelley Wilson is a published poet, Rachel Perkins is a potential hockey Olympian and Inca Peekaboo Honnor teaches dance.

As each contestant is called there is a palpable sense of tension as they make the  short   walk into the chamber.  The double-doors are shut behind them and the interview commences. 

The judges make detailed notes on each finalist's achievements, comparing one against another behind closed doors in a underlit wood panelled Victorian drawing room. All the while overseen by oil paintings of the good and great of Spalding's past.

Amy Harrison, Flower Queen of 2012 shows off the Queens dress and talks to the finalists about the duties and responsibilities of the role.

When they re-emerge, flushed and blinking under the lights all eyes in the room turn to them as  a glass of champagne is thrust into their hands and they exhale,  relieved that the ordeal is nearly over.

9 year old Millie Weller, Flower Princess admires the finalists' dresses as they wait for the judges decision.

After  the finalists have been interviewed  there is an unbearable wait which seems to go on and on. Then  a  whispered conversation between a judge and the compere who taps his microphone to announce  that after careful, difficult consideration  Inca Peekaboo Connor is the winner!

There are gasps and tears - not just from the finalists. It's difficult not to get caught up in all the emotion.  

Inca will lead the parade in May as it make it's way around Spalding for the last time, before going on to fulfil her duties as queen in the coming year. 

What happens after that is anybody's guess. Maybe the Flower Queen will return at some point or maybe it will  just become a detail of the past as austerity and Tesco-towns  increasingly come to dominate the landscape and mentality  of the UK.

Good luck Inca!

Inca Peekaboo Honnor, Spalding Flower Queen 2013.

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