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Saturday, July 2, 2022

Notting Hill Carnival book launch – creating harmony out of adversity


Book launches can be dry affairs, usually involving a thin crowd of rather bored people making small talk for just as long as the cheap wine holds out, while the author sits forlorn at a table desperately hoping someone will ask them to sign a copy of the book.

It’s safe to say that on Friday 9th August the launch at The Tabernacle of Carnival, edited by Ishmahil Blagrove, with a preface by Margaret Busby, failed to live down to those dreary expectations. It was, in fact, a fair approximation of carnival itself – lively, crowded, slightly chaotic, but good-humoured and enthralling. All it lacked were barriers and lines of the boys in blue!

Subtitled ‘A photographic and testimonial history of the Notting Hill Carnival’, the 360-page book is a heavyweight, weighing in at over 2 kilos. The pages are crowded with characters, specifically the pioneers who turned a local community parade into Europe’s greatest annual outdoor festival of music, mas and culture. Soca News will carry a full review of Carnival shortly.

The event began with speeches in the bar/entrance area. The speakers ‑ who included Prof Gus John, Ishmahil Blagrove and photographer Charlie Phillips ‑ highlighted the way the culture flourished both in spite of and in response to adversity. And let’s not forget, the adversity was real and harsh. Notting Hill was far from the privileged enclave it is today. Housing was in appalling condition and rooms available only at extortionate rents (the term ‘Rachmanism’ was coined to describe the rack-renting, bullying tactics of the area’s most notorious slum landlord, Peter Rachman). Boarding houses welcomed prospective clients with signs proclaiming “No Irish, no blacks, no dogs”. For children, play areas were the wrecked remains of bombed houses. Relations with sections of the white community were often uneasy, and in 1958 degenerated into racially inspired rioting.


The need to improve respect and understanding within the community motivated Claudia Jones to start the West Indian Gazette’s annual series of indoor events in 1959 and Rhaune Laslett to inaugurate a week-long ‘Notting Hill Fayre’ seven years later. The event’s opening and closing parades formed the basis for today’s Notting Hill Carnival, although, as Colin Prescod reminded us later in the evening, it fell to another community leader, Leslie Palmer, to take this local festival to the next level, that of a truly national Caribbean-inspired carnival, in 1973.

Laslett pulled out of organising the festival in 1970 over fears that the always-edgy, but rapidly deteriorating, relations between the community, especially black youngsters, and the police would boil over into violence. When that finally happened in 1976, few who knew the area well, including local journalists, were surprised, but it came as the rudest of shocks to the country as a whole. National media, politicians and certain deeply prejudiced interest groups called for the carnival to be banned. In this turbulent atmosphere, the community was divided, but fortunately remained strong enough to fight successfully for carnival to continue in the streets of Notting Hill. As Ishmahil Blagrove and other speakers emphasised, the entire country owes a deep debt of gratitude to those courageous and doughty pioneers.

The unadorned facts of Notting Hill Carnival’s creation were rather lost in the succeeding decades. Ignorance, confusion and faulty memory all played a part, but so too did the agendas of those who chose to rewrite history. Rhaune Laslett, as a ‘white’ woman (in appearance only, as she had native American blood in her) became an embarrassment to the keepers of the carnival flame.

Carnival, we were told, was invented by Claudia Jones, even though her events, influential and pioneering though they undoubtedly were, took place indoors. Others asserted that Notting Hill Carnival began in 1964 or 1965, when steelpan players are said to have paraded in the area. If so, it was a significant step on the “road make to walk on carnival day”, but it fell short of a true, organised carnival. It was Laslett who brought together the crucial ingredients for the carnival callalloo, although it was left to Palmer to add the final element in London’s distinctive take on the dish, namely static sounds.


The book launch included a touching tribute to the memory of ‘Miss Las’ as an immaculately attired Sonny Blacks presented an award to Rhaune’s son. Mike Laslett told us, rather diffidently, that he was there only by “an accident of birth”, but revealed that his two young sons are learning to play steelpan at The Tabernacle. It seemed a fitting closure to the circle begun when Rhaune Laslett had her dream of a parade attended by crowds of people of all races and backgrounds, coming together in harmony.

Writer and publisher Margaret Busby also made an appearance on stage, while Alexander D Great gave us what he insisted was a “first and only” performance of a specially composed calypso. The proceedings were introduced, and punctuated at intervals, by drummers.

Later in the evening, a panel of speakers gave a capacity audience in Tabernacle’s theatre brief talks on aspects of Notting Hill Carnival’s disciplines. Colin Prescod ran through some of the early history, Ansel Wong gave an excellent presentation on the contribution of carnival arts to British society, and London Notting Hill Carnival Enterprise Trust board member Lyndon LaCrette considered the economic impact of the event. Adrian Hudson, an environmental health officer with the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea, revealed that the experience gained from carnival was critical in the event- and safety-planning of the globally praised 2012 Olympics in London. Alexander D Great noted the universality of the subject matter of calypso, Pepe Francis highlighted the steelpan’s ability to change the lives of young people, and Ricky Belgrave, of BASS, enthused about the inspirational effect of carnival. Finally, a hoarse-voiced Dexter Khan gained a big cheer for pledging to bring big mas back on to the streets of Notting Hill.

The inaugural Carnival Village Trust Annual Awards closed the evening’s formal proceedings. These are intended to recognise in each arena an individual who has made a significant, sustained contribution to the artform, who has been innovative and acted as an exemplar. The winners were as follows:

ABC    Merle Blondelle

BAS     Russell Henderson, MBE

BASS   Daddy Vego

CAMF  Gloria Cummins

CMA    DJ Fats

Henderson and Cummins were unable to be present, so Sonny Blacks and Sister Monica Tywang accepted their awards on their behalf.

The launch was meant to end at 9.30pm, but to no one’s surprise The Tabernacle was still buzzing two hours later. The spirit of Carnival never did keep fixed hours!


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