The Politics of Partying
As 1958 drew to a close, a despondent mood drew over the offices of the West Indian Gazette in Brixton, south
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,
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
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
Either way, it starts with Claudia Jones, a Trinidadian communist who came to
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
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
"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
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
The evening itself went excellently. There was calypso singing, dancing and lots of souse, peas and rice and other
"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
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.' "
"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
"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
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
The carnival's primary constituency had changed radically. In the mid-1970s, 40% of all black people in
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
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
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.
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
The preparations started the year before. The riots in Bradford and
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
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."