Things You Never Knew About Carnival

I spoke to Ishmahil Blagrove about the history of London's best street party.

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Aug 21 2014, 9:57am

Doctor Rat was a former leader of the notorious Renegades, one of the oldest steel bands in Trinidad. He came to England and helped to establish a chapter of the band alongside his long-time associate Darcus Howe. 1977. (Photo courtesy of Norman Reid/David Hoffman Photo Library)

There's plenty of folklore surrounding Notting Hill Carnival. Arguments over who's truly responsible for founding it; stories about Pink Floyd playing in a church hall its first ever year; mixed reports on how many jaws were accidentally broken that time "Next Hype" came on at Rampage. However, for whatever reason, nobody's ever really tried to sift through the history and work out a proper timeline of events. So Ishmahil Blagrove Jr – writer, founder of Rice N Peas Films and a regular face at Speaker's Corner – and publisher Margaret Busby took it upon themselves to do just that.

Their new book, Carnival: A Photographic and Testimonial History of the Notting Hill Carnival, dives into the history of the biggest street party in the best city on Earth, with help (and photographs) from people who've lived in the community since its inception. Hoping to find out a bit more about that history, I spoke to Ishmahil about the Notting Hill race riots, the early days of Carnival and how he and Margaret put the book together.

Notting Hill Carnival, August 1979 (Photo courtesy of the David Hoffman Photo Library)

VICE: Hi Ishmahil. Let's start at the beginning: what are your earliest memories of Carnival?
Ishmahil Blagrove: My earliest memories are probably of going with my family in around 1974. I remember, as a young kid, seeing the parades and all the bright costumes. I wasn't as focused on the soundsystems.

They had systems at that point?
They introduced the soundsystems in 1973. It started off as an ordinary parade – steel bands and stuff like that – then Leslie Palmer introduced the systems because she wanted the carnival to encompass young people. The reggae music that was coming up was very strong, but there wasn't any representation of it at Carnival because the event was primarily dominated by the traditional Trinidadian procession.

Let's talk about those early days of Carnival, which you discuss in the book.
Yeah, the book isn't one of bright colours and costumes; it really takes you through the history, from 1958 up to the early 80s, and looks at the Notting Hill race riots, the murder of Kelso Cochrane and the groups that then came out as a result. There was a communist party, for example, that would parade throughout Notting Hill; placards challenging racial discrimination. This was the time of Oswald Mosley, and there were groups coming out to raise awareness of these racial tensions.

How successful were those early years in settling the tensions?
Very successful, I think. The murder of Kelso Cochrane had pricked the community at that time; it was a sort of a marker – a reaching a high point, if you like, in the racial violence and tensions. There was a sense of, "It's gone too far now; someone has been killed." At that funeral there were over 1,200 people, both black and white. There was more solidarity with the black community and immigrants in the area. You started to see graffiti going up that countered the racism of Mosley and his group, who were very prominent in Notting Hill at that time.

You also mention that Carnival became more militant a few years into its inception.
Well, there were a lot of pressures being placed upon the black community: stop-and-search, police harassment, arrests... There was a legendary policeman in the area who would often plant drugs on people. In fact, there was a protest in 1969 where they made an effigy of him and paraded him through the carnival. Then, from July of 1969 to July of 1970, there were 12 or 13 police raids on the Mangrove restaurant, which had just been opened by [Trinidadian civil rights campaigner] Frank Crichlow.

The black community saw that as an attack. There was a protest as a result of that in August, just before the carnival was due to start, which broke out into civil disobedience. Rhaune Laslett sort of withdrew from organising the carnival after that, and it took on much more militant connotations in terms of Black Pride, black identity and black resistance, if you like.

Notting Hill Carnival, 1979; the people sitting on top of the soundsystem van are members of the reggae band Aswad. (Photo courtesy of Vernon St Hilaire/David Hoffman Photo Library)

How has the police resistance varied over the years?
Initially, the police and the council were quite supportive of the carnival. However, they became much more concerned when they started to see real growth. There were just a couple of hundred people in '65, '66; by 1969, there were around 10,000. What changed it forever was in 1975, when Capital Radio – broadcasting to millions of Londoners – said, "Get down to Carnival." Then there were the riots of '76, which put Carnival on the map internationally – in the same way Brixton was put on the map by the 1981 riots – and led to increased policing.

What do you think of the state's attitude towards Carnival these days?
I think the state is quite threatened by it – that they've gone about their handling of it in a way that's counterproductive for the black experience and incorporating the black identity into the British landscape. It's the same for the media; whenever they report on Carnival, they report on crime statistics – it's almost like a scoreboard at the end of those two days. Does the media report on the spectacle of multiculturalism, of bringing people together, of the dance, the music, the great works that people have slaved over? They don't focus on that – they report on how many people were arrested for drugs.

Forcing a negative dialogue out of it.
Exactly. At Glastonbury last year there were 170 arrests out of nearly 250,000 people. You look at Carnival last year – a million, a million and a half people, and there were around 300 arrests. But they don't report on crime at Glastonbury; they report on the sense of unity and enthusiasm.

Notting Hill Carnival, August 1979 (Photo courtesy of the David Hoffman Photo Library)

Don't you think the reporting's becoming more balanced?
The reporting is certainly changing. Whether it's changing fast enough is something I'm concerned about, because it's something that should be embraced; Rhaune Laslett started the festival to bring people out onto the streets, celebrate their differences and recognise what they had in common. I think that's a great and beautiful thing, and it really does beg the question as to why it's not endorsed further by the state. Why the people who put on the carnival are struggling on a peppercorn budget – £250,000 for a spectacle for over a million people.

What are your thoughts on the gentrification of Notting Hill and how that's played into Carnival?
People move into the area because they've seen the film Notting Hill, or because it's become a trendy area. And then when Carnival comes they start complaining about the noise. I wouldn't buy a house next to a football stadium and then complain about football every Saturday, you know? People know this is part of the area for two days a year, and it's what's branded the people of Notting Hill. It wasn't the movie that made the area; it was Carnival. It was the bohemian characters and rebels of the community who created that identity that everyone wanted to buy into.

And now most of them are gone.
Yeah, a lot of people have been pushed out. Most of the cottage industries have gone. And they've got dog spas there now – places where your dog can get a massage. Of course, these changes have been happening everywhere, and it's good in one sense, but it also marginalises people in the community who can't afford to engage in it.

Notting Hill Carnival, 2013 (Photo by Chris Bethell, not from Ishmahil's book)

What are the positives?
That provisions the council provides now are massively improved compared to what they were. I lived here during the 80s and there were four crack houses on my square. Now, they've been pushed out. I've got street sweepers coming once every couple of days. My children can now play in a park without graffiti or broken swings. We're reaping the benefits of the borough catering to a more well-heeled community, but we have to ask ourselves, "Where were these provisions before? Why weren't they catering for this community in this way beforehand?"

Perhaps if they do have this sort of social vision and the ability to care for a community in this way, they could use it to help communities that are blighted by poverty. Why not start providing the sort of social provisions these communities need?

Onto the book – you've said that it was created by members of the community, that you just organised it.
I lived in the community of Notting Hill and knew the characters, knew the stories, knew the rumours, knew the sort of camps people were in, and so it was all about reconciling these different narratives that existed. We had an open-door policy, and people could come in and present their story, look at the images, identify the characters, and then you can start to piece everything together.

There were highly political groups – like "Mangrove", for example – that would come out in costumes relating to all sorts of mass themes. In 1978, for instance, they brought out "The Life and Times of Emiliano Zapata", in homage to the life of the Mexican revolutionary. But they didn't know which years they did all these costumes – if it was the early 70s or the late 70s – so it helped to create one definitive archival document.

Notting Hill Carnival, 2013 (Photo by Chris Bethell, not from Ishmahil's book)

You mentioned that there were several camps among the community. What were they?
There was Rhaune Laslett camp, and the camp for [Trinidadian-born journalist and political activist] Claudia Jones, who organised an indoor event after the Notting Hill race riots and murder of Kelso Cochrane. People said that her event, in 1959, was the real beginning of Carnival, but it had nothing to do with the carnival we know today. I believe the issue there is that Rhaune Laslett [who organised the Notting Hill Festival, which evolved into Carnival] is a white woman, and Carnival is seen as a black Caribbean and West Indian event. It was that issue that was very controversial. You know, I had one person say to me, "How could one little white woman who couldn't even dance conceive of the idea of a carnival?"

Right. And the project is also going back into the community?
Yes. We decided that 20 percent of the proceeds would be reinvested back into a community group that's dedicated to carnival arts, and 25 percent would go to the people whose photos we used – we want to give them a sort of ongoing revenue stake in the production. The community had a big stake in it, and the way in which it was produced – the experimental manner in which we approached the construction and editorial policy of the book – is certainly the thing I'm most proud of.

Thanks, Ishmahil.

@jamie_clifton

More about Carnival:

How to Conquer Notting Hill Carnival

A Big Day Out at... Notting Hill Carnival!

Why I Hate Notting Hill Carnival

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