For a world-renowned festival, Notting Hill Carnival has been poorly served by writers and film-makers. Its representations in the UK’s national and regional newspapers are, when not actively antagonistic, marked by superficiality and ignorance. A sentence or two about weather, crowds and crime statistics over a few seconds of mas processing down the Grove satisfy the broadcasters’ need for something to fill what is traditionally a ‘slow’ news day.
The last book of any consequence was Marcel Knobil’s purple-covered, Lilt-sponsored Images of the Carnival, reviewed in Soca News in November 1996. The title said it all – a brief introduction was followed by uncaptioned pictures, the masqueraders shamefully anonymous, the bands of which they were a part never mentioned, the themes and sections apparently not worth recording. Three years earlier, Abner Cohen’s Masquerade politics was published. There were no pretty pictures, just a cool, evidence-based account of the carnival’s history and the internal and external politics that drove it.
If you were lucky enough to find a copy, Cohen’s book has remained probably the best starting-point for any serious student of the turbulent history of Notting Hill Carnival – at least until 9th August this year. On that day was launched Carnival: a photographic and testimonial history of the Notting Hill Carnival, edited by film-maker Ishmahil Blagrove and with a preface by writer, editor and broadcaster Margaret Busby.
The publisher, Rice n Peas, is to be congratulated on a magnificent work that truly does justice to its subject. That subject – the early history of Notting Hill Carnival ‑ is a highly contested and often mythologised one, the subject of bitter disputes, faulty memories, outright lies and highly partial private agendas. It is, in short, a reflection of Carnival itself, a contested space. The book ought to lay some of those troublesome ghosts to rest, though, given the passions involved, that hope may be an unduly optimistic one. Still, those who criticise the book’s central thesis, that Notting Hill Carnival as we know it was started by community worker Rhaune Laslett in September 1966, now have the challenge of proving otherwise.
They will have a hard job, because of the research invested in the book, much of it based on the testimony of those who were there at the time, backed up by contemporary newspaper reports and documents such as posters and flyers. There are barely 14 pages of text, but they should be read by anyone who cares about our carnival. No one who ventures into Notting Hill on the August bank holiday weekend should do so without an understanding of how carnival reached these hallowed streets, and the epic struggle involved in keeping it there over the past five decades. As Busby notes, “The real triumph is that it [Carnival] has survived at all… Many see it as nothing short of miraculous that Notting Hill Carnival continues to thrive.”
But there was no miracle, no saviour, no fairy godmother able to wipe away Carnival’s troubles, just hard work, sometimes bitter disputes and terrible disappointment and feelings of betrayal. The Carnival we see today was born almost by accident, had a slightly shambolic childhood, a violent yet magnificent adolescence and a still-problematic adulthood. No easy life.
The bulk of the book’s 360 pages are devoted to pictures that tell the story of Notting Hill Carnival up to about 1980, from the vicious racist attacks of the 1950s through Claudia Jones’s famous West Indian Gazette indoor ‘carnivals’, the pioneering days of the Notting Hill Fayre initiated by Rhaune Laslett and her London Free School colleagues, the precarious events of the early 70s, the radical step-changes instituted by Leslie Palmer from 1973 and finally the years of great mas and roiling mayhem during the Carnival Development Committee’s tenure.
The photographs – notably those from Allan ‘Capitan’ Thornhill, Charlie Phillips and Carl Gabriel – are a revelation. Never have so many images of Notting Hill Carnival in the years to 1980 been gathered together in one place. Unlike Knobil’s infuriating book, every picture is properly captioned, naming, wherever possible, the people and the context. Some of the images are far more than snaps of a passing scene, but are of considerable artistic merit, and thankfully they have been given enough space and are reproduced large enough to do them justice. There are some remarkable views by Vernon St Hilaire of the police under attack in 1976, rare colour images of the 1968 carnival by Fitz Piper and important records of 1970s mas by Carl Gabriel and Capitan. The quality of the mas is a real eye-opener for those accustomed to a bland diet of bikini-and-beads costumes – when will we see a return to those standards?
Complementing the illustrations are well-chosen quotations by mas-makers, pan-players, organisers, activists, artists, designers, photographers, musicians and others. At the end of the book are reproductions of posters, letters and flyers that will bring back memories for older carnivalists, and a useful index to the people, bands and organisations featured in the photographs. Take a look, too, at the credits at the front of the volume – they read like a ‘who’s who’ of Notting Hill Carnival.
The hardback book has been thoughtfully designed and beautifully printed in Italy. It is, in short, an inspiration, and Soca News has no hesitation in recommending it to anyone whose view of carnival extends beyond the next bumper!
- Blagrove, Ishmahil (ed). Carnival: a photographic and testimonial history of the Notting Hill Carnival. London: Rice n Peas, 2014, ISBN 978-0-9545293-2-1, £25.