Notting Hill Carnival: The Guardian

The politics of partying

In the run-up to the Notting Hill carnival next weekend, Gary Younge
delves into the roots, the history and the symbolism of the largest
street party in Europe

Saturday August 17, 2002
The Guardian

Notting Hill Carnival dancers in their colourful costumes. Photo: PA

As 1958 drew to a close, a despondent mood drew over the offices of
the West Indian Gazette in Brixton, south London. A decade after the
Windrush docked, with the symbolic arrival of the postwar generation
of black Britons, a series of racist attacks in Nottingham had
sparked several nights of rioting in mid-August. By the end of the
month, conflict had spread to west London, to Notting Hill, where
white youths regularly went "nigger hunting".
The Gazette's founder-editor, Claudia Jones, had had enough. "We need
something to get the taste of Notting Hill out of our mouths," she
said. "Someone suggested we should hold a carnival," says Donald
Hinds, who was in the room at the time. "We all started laughing
because it was so cold and carnival is this out-on-the-street thing.
It seemed like a ridiculous suggestion." But Jones had other ideas
and set about making arrangements.

A few months later, on January 30, 1959, London's first Caribbean
carnival was held in St Pancras town hall. Televised by the BBC for
Six-Five Special - a forerunner to Top Of The Pops - it was timed to
coincide with the Caribbean's largest and most famous carnival in
Trinidad. The brief introductory statement to the souvenir brochure
came with the title "A people's art is the genesis of their freedom".

More than 40 years on, a bright array of oversized peacock feathers
made its way down the Mall towards the royal family. Along with the
household cavalry in plumes and gleaming breastplates, and the Red
Arrows streaking the sky red, white and blue, Notting Hill carnival
took pride of place in the Jubilee celebrations. This was a legacy of
Empire with a difference, not an exhibition of how much has been
preserved but a demonstration of how much has changed.

"There was more military involvement last time," said Michael
Lewington, 62, standing in almost the same spot he took for the
Silver Jubilee in 1977. "I certainly don't remember calypso bands."
Here was an irrefutable sign of black people's permanent presence and
cultural contribution in Britain - a fact as widely conceded today as
it was contested in the 1950s.

Notting Hill carnival's journey from a response to race attacks in
1958 to pride of place on the Mall in 2002, passing revelry, riot and
resistance en route, is both powerful and painful. It is the tale of
how a marginalised community built, protected and promoted what is
now the largest street party in western Europe, using the radical
cultural politics of the Caribbean to confront Britain's racist
political culture.

Either way, it starts with Claudia Jones, a Trinidadian communist who
came to London, via Harlem, courtesy of the red-baiting senator
Joseph McCarthy. Jones moved to New York with her parents when she
was seven. It was there, during the campaign to defend the Scottsboro
boys, a group of young African-Americans framed for rape in the
south, that she joined the American Communist party in which she was
later to play a leading role. Twice interned for her political
beliefs on Ellis Island - ironically, the spiritual home for
immigrants fleeing poverty and persecution - she was eventually
ordered to leave in 1955 and sent to England.

Jones was a turbulent character, manic in her energy, masterful in
her skills as a political organiser and chaotic in her personal life.
A lifetime of illness, engendered by poverty and exacerbated by
prison, was further compounded by overwork.

"She was so full of energy, she exhausted everyone, including
herself," recalls Corinne Skinner-Carter, one of Jones's closest
friends. "She used to chain-smoke but I never saw her actually finish
a cigarette. And she talked liked she smoked."

Her journey across the Atlantic had brought her to a very different
racial and political context. She left America, at the start of the
civil rights era, when African-Americans were asserting a new
confidence. She arrived in Britain to find asmall Caribbean community
more divided by island allegiances they had left behind than united
by a racial identity they were coming to share. "It was only in
Britain that we became West Indians," says academic Stuart Hall.

In March 1958, Jones launched the West Indian Gazette, attempting in
part to cohere these disparate groups around their common experience
of racism. In many ways it was a period that echoes our own, with the
sparks of popular prejudice fanned by a bigoted press while a
complacent and complicit political class allowed the consequent
flames to rage.

On August 18, 1958, the Ku Klux Klan sent a letter to the Gazette
addressed to "My Dear Mr B Ape". "We, the Aryan Knights, miss
nothing," it said. "Close attention has been paid to every issue of
this rag and I do sincerely assure you, the information gleaned has
proven of great value to the Klan."

A fortnight later, Majbritt Morrison, a Swedish woman, was spotted by
a gang of white youths. They had seen her the night before, arguing
with her Jamaican husband Raymond outside Latimer Road tube station
near Notting Hill, and they had started throwing racial insults at
him. She had enraged them by turning on them. When the youths saw her
again, they followed her, throwing milk bottles and shouting, "Nigger
lover! Kill her." Later that night, the "nigger hunting" started and
the area was ablaze.

"1958 was a big moment," Hall recalls. "Before that, individuals had
endured discrimination. But in that year racism became a mass,
collective experience that went beyond that."

This was the taste Jones wanted to get out of her mouth. Only she,
says Marika Sherwood, author of Claudia Jones: A Life In Exile, had
the combination of new world confidence and political maturity to
launch carnival under those circumstances. "Her experiences of
campaigning against racism and McCarthyism in America put her on a
different level from other Caribbeans here."

Trevor Carter, Corinne's partner and stage manager of the first
carnival, agrees. "Claudia, unlike the rest of us, understood the
power of culture as a tool of political resistance. The spirit of the
carnival came out of her political knowledge of what to touch at a
particular time when we were scared, in disarray."

There had been concerns that the unruliness of carnival would not
translate from the outdoors of Port of Spain to indoors in London.
Since many did not have cars, they arrived at St Pancras town hall in
their costumes via public transport. "The bold ones did," Carter
recalls. "It was our way of saying to the dominant culture, 'Here we
come - look, we here.' "

The evening itself went excellently. There was calypso singing,
dancing and lots of souse, peas and rice and other Caribbean
dishes. "We disrobed ourselves of our urban, cosmopolitan, adopted
English ways and robed ourselves in our own visible cultural mantle,"
Carter says.

Thus began London's first annual Caribbean carnival, moving the next
year to Seymour Hall, alternating between there and the Lyceum until
1963, growing bigger each year. By the time Jones was found dead on
Boxing Day 1964, it was a large, established event. But while it was
born out of experiences in Notting Hill, it had yet to return there.
For that we must turn to another remarkable woman, Rhaune Laslett.
Laslett, who lived in Notting Hill, knew nothing of Jones or the
carnivals when she spoke to the local police about organising a
carnival early in 1965. With more of an English fete in mind, she
invited the various ethnic groups of what was then the poor area of
Notting Hill - Ukranians, Spanish, Portuguese, Irish, Caribbeans and
Africans - to contribute to a week-long event that would culminate
with an August bank holiday parade.

"The histories of these carnivals are both independent and
interlinked," says Sue McAlpine of the Kensington & Chelsea Community
History Group. "They were linked by their motivation and the
constituencies they were seeking to motivate."

Laslett, born in the East End, of Native American parents, was a
community activist who had been a nurse and a social worker. She died
in April this year, after suffering from multiple sclerosis for 50
years. Her motivation was "to prove that from our ghetto there was a
wealth of culture waiting to express itself, that we weren't rubbish
people". She borrowed costumes from Madame Tussaud's; a local
hairdresser did the hair and make-up for nothing; the gas board and
fire brigade had floats; and stallholders in Portobello market
donated horses and carts. Around 1,000 people turned up, according to
police figures.

Steel band player Russ Henderson was among those roped in. Laslett's
partner, Jim O'Brien, knew him from the Colherne pub in Earl's Court -
a favoured West Indian hang-out - and Henderson had played at the
first event in St Pancras organised by Jones. At the Notting Hill
event, he was playing alongside a donkey cart and a clown, and he
felt things were getting flat. "I said, 'We got to do something to
make this thing come alive.' " Henderson, now 78, decided to walk his
steel band to the top of the street and back. When that went down
well, he got a little bolder, marching them around the area like so
many pied pipers. "People would ask, 'How far are you going?' and
we'd say, 'Just back to Acklam Road' and they would come a little way
with their shopping, then peel off and someone else would join in.
There was no route, really - if you saw a bus coming, you just went
another way."

"With the music, people left everything and came to follow the
procession," O'Brien says. "By the end of the evening, people were
asking the way home."

In the evening, Michael X - radical, hustler and firebrand - turned
to Laslett, pointed to the throng and said, "Look, Rhaune, what have
you done?"

"I was in a state of shock," Laslett said later. "As I saw the huge
crowds, I thought, 'What have I done?' "

During the years Laslett ran the carnival, it was identified more
with Notting Hill than with the Caribbean, though as word got round,
more and more Caribbean people started coming. The numbers had grown
to around 10,000, and O'Brien says a mixture of police interference
and the growing assertiveness of black power meant too many different
groups had vested interests. "It was something we didn't want to have
responsibility for," he adds. "The police didn't want it because they
thought they were losing control of the streets for the day, and we'd
had enough. So we decided to hand it over to the community."

Carnival, Trinidad-style, with no entry fee, is truly open to
everyone. Blurring the lines between participant and spectator, it
thrives on impulse as well as organisation. With its emphasis on
masquerading and calypso, it takes popular subjects of concern as its
raw material for lyrics and costumes. Massive in size, working-class
in composition, spontaneous in form, subversive in expression and
political in nature - the ingredients for carnival are explosive. Add
to the mix the legacy of slavery and it soon becomes clear why so
long as there has been carnival, the authorities have sought to
contain, control or cancel it.

In 1881, Trinidad's former police chief, Fraser, submitted a report
on the carnival riot in Port of Spain. "After the emancipation of the
slaves, things were materially altered," he wrote. "The ancient lines
of demarcation between classes were obliterated and, as a natural
consequence, the carnival degenerated into a noisy and disorderly
amusement for the lower classes." He had a point. Trinidad was
colonised at various times by both the Spanish and English, with a
large number of Frenchsettlers, and after emancipation in 1834, its
carnival lost its elitist, European traditions and became a mass
popular event.

"Carnival had become a symbol of freedom for the broad mass of the
population and not merely a season for frivolous enjoyment," wrote
Errol Hill in The Trinidad Carnival. "It had a ritualistic
significance, rooted in the experience of slavery and in the
celebration of freedom from slavery. The people would not be
intimidated; they would observe carnival in the manner they deemed
most appropriate."

Similar tensions have emerged here in the UK. The key dynamic within
them is ownership. Ask anyone involved who owns carnival and they
will say the same thing: the people. The trouble is, which people?
Since Rhaune Laslett handed over responsibility for the carnival, the
primary body organising the event has split, reinvented itself, then
split again several times. It has been called the Carnival
Development Committee, the Carnival Arts Committee, the Carnival
Enterprise Committee and, at present, the Notting Hill Carnival
Trust, which is itself riven by internal rows. Each group has its own
version of the carnival's history and development.

As carnival has outgrown its grass-roots origins, it has brought with
it a constant process of negotiation and occasional flash points;
there have been inevitable conflicts, over both its economic
orientation and its political function. Carnival, wrote Kwesi Owusu
and Jacob Ross in Behind The Masquerade, is "the most expressive and
culturally volatile territory on which the battle of positions
between the black community and the state are ritualised".

And so it was that, less than a century after the disturbances at the
carnival in Port of Spain, there were riots at the Notting Hill
carnival in 1976. By that stage it had become a Caribbean event - the
by-product of Jones's racial militancy and Laslett's community
activism - complete with bands and costumes. In 1975, according to
police figures, carnival was attracting 150,000 people. It was also
the first time most remember an imposing police presence.

The carnival's primary constituency had changed radically. In the mid-
1970s, 40% of all black people in Britain were born here. Having made
the long march through the institutions of education, employment and
the criminal justice system, many felt alienated in the land of their
birth. It was an experience that found its daily expression in the
form of the police, whose racist use of the sus laws made for
harassment and indignity. In 1958, the first generation used carnival
to protest the racism of the mob, but in the 1970s their children
used it to take on the Met. For them, carnival was not a cultural
reminder of a distant and different home but a means of asserting
their claim to the only home they knew.

It was a claim that, on the one hand, was increasingly under threat,
thanks to the rise of the National Front and skinhead culture. But on
the other hand, it was a claim constantly being asserted by the
powerful role music was playing in shaping British youth culture,
through reggae, then ska. Along with Rock Against Racism, culture had
become a key battleground for race and there was no bigger racially-
connoted event than the Notting Hill carnival.

"Carnival was their day," says one Metropolitan police officer in an
off-the-record interview. "For the rest of the year, police would be
stopping them in ones and twos in the street, where they would be in
a minority. But for one weekend they were in the majority and they
took over the streets."

The 1976 riot took most people by surprise. "I just remember seeing
these bottles flying," says Michael La Rose, head of the Association
for a People's Carnival, which aims to protect and promote carnival's
community roots; he describes it as like watching a relentless parade
of salmon leaping upstream. The police were ill-equipped and ill-
prepared. Defending themselves with dustbin lids and milk crates,
they were also outmanoeuvred. "That whole experience made the police
very sore," one policeman says. "They had taken a beating and were
determined that it would not happen again, so when the next one came
about, there was some desire for revenge."
From then on, thanks largely to the press, carnival moved from being
a story about culture to one about crime and race. For years after,
carnival stories would come with a picture of policemen either in
hospital after being attacked or in an awkward embrace with a black,
female reveller in full costume. The following year, Corinne Skinner-
Carter missed carnival for the first and last time, in anticipation
of more trouble. There were indeed smaller skirmishes in 1977. At one
stage, late on the Monday night, riot police were briefly deployed.
The next day, the Express's front page read: "War Cry! The
unprecedented scenes in the darkness of London streets looked and
sounded like something out of the film classic Zulu."

Calls for carnival's banning came from all quarters. Tory shadow home
secretary Willie Whitelaw said, "The risk in holding it now seems to
outweigh the enjoyment it gives." Kensington and Chelsea council
suggested holding "the noisy events" in White City Stadium, a mile or
more away. "If the West Indians wish to preserve what should be a
happy celebration which gives free rein to their natural exuberance,
vitality and joy," argued the Mail on August 31, 1977, "then it is up
to their leaders to take steps necessary to ensure its survival." The
Telegraph blamed black people for being in Britain in the first
place, declaring: "Many observers warned from the outset that mass
immigration from poor countries of substantially different culture
would generate anomie, alienation, delinquency and worse." Prince
Charles, meanwhile, backed the carnival. "It's so nice to see so many
happy, dancing people with smiles on their faces."

As recently as 1991, following a stabbing, Daily Mail columnist Lynda
Lee-Potter described the carnival as "a sordid, sleazy nightmare that
has become synonymous with death". By this time, however, its
detractors were in the minority. Like the black British community
from which it had sprung, there was a common understanding that it
was here to stay. Latest police figures suggest attendance of one
million; organisers say it is almost double that.

In west London, not far from the carnival route, the Mighty Explorer
launches the calypso tent. The first of many older Caribbean men, in
pork-pie hats and matching waistcoats and trousers, who hope to
become this year's calypso monarch, he sings his home-written lyrics
with the help of a small band and some backing singers. Along with
women in shiny, sequined dresses, they fill a sweltering night with a
medley of topical ballads. Almost all contain a strong moral message
about the dangers of drugs, infidelity and prostitution blighting the
black community, from people whose stage names include Totally
Taliban, Celestial Star and Cleopatra Johnson.

This is the first of the heats running up to the carnival itself. The
standard is higher than a karaoke bar, lower than the second round of
Popstars. But the evening is more fun than both - accessible,
unpretentious, raucous and, above all, entertaining.

Earlier that day, at the Oval House Theatre, south London, the sewing
machines ceased humming in anticipation of curried goat and rum
punch. It's time to lime (relax) after a day of stitching and cutting
to calypso tunes and boisterous banter. South Connections is one of
the scores of mas camps around London and beyond, where mostly
volunteers come from mid-July to start making the costumes for the
bands. Some are in people's living rooms and back gardens, others in
community halls and offices. With only a week to go before carnival,
a camp like South Connections will be attracting around 100 people a
night - a rare focal point for relaxed inter-generational mixing. The
youngest person to go masquerading with the band is two, the oldest
is 75.

The preparations started the year before. The riots in Bradford and
Burnley provided the theme for this year's designs, entitled Massa
Dougla: One People, One Race. "In this story, the people travel on
this earth searching for a better future and an identity," says Ray
Mahabir, the designer. "Red is for the blood flowing in us and gold
is for our golden hearts."

On the day of the Golden Jubilee celebrations, designer Clary Salandy
had trouble getting to the Mall. The police wouldn't let her and the
rest of her mas camp over the bridge, even though they were supposed
to be leading the procession. Chipping down the Mall - that slow
shuffle-cum-toyi toyi of the masquerader - filled her with
pride. "I'm not a monarchist, but this was a recognition by the
establishment that we have made an artistic contribution and took
carnival to people who would never go to it."

In the Harlesden offices of her company, Mahogany, in north-west
London, Salandy explains her craft. "The best costumes," she
says, "have to work well from a distance. So they have to be bold and
dynamic and have lots of movement. But when you get close up, you
have to be able to see the detail. Carnival is a language. Every
shape, colour and form is used like words or symbols. And the best
costume speaks that language fluently."

Her favourite costume that day spoke the language of defiance: one
person armed with several huge, multicoloured shields defending his
back. "It's called Protector Of Our Heritage," she says. "It was
there to defend carnival."

Posted: Mon - February 3, 2003 at 09:12 PM