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Sun 20 September 2020
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Chis Sullivan examines the history of Notting Hill Carnival and its decades-long battle against the Establishment

It is ironic that, in 2020, when the Black Lives Matter movement has made more people aware of the horrors of the slave trade and the systemic racism that currently plagues modern Britain, London’s Notting Hill Carnival should be cancelled. 

“Carnival started in St. Pancras town hall in January 1959 and was a purely Caribbean Soca and Calypso indoor event,” explains DJ and film-maker Don Letts, whose 2009 documentary Carnival tells the history, cause and effect of the world’s second biggest street party. “It was organised by a lady called Claudia [Cumbernatch] Jones.”

Jones, born in Trinidad in 1915, was a feminist and communist black activist who was imprisoned four times for ‘un-American activities’ and deported from the US to London in 1955.

Her event intended to unite the community after the 1958 Notting Hill race riots on the August bank holiday, which saw hundreds of racist ‘teddy boys’ attack the black community, prompting a pitch battle involving fire bombs, machetes, axes and clubs.  

“In 1964, the Carnival moved [officially] to Notting Hill via the efforts of Rhaune Laslett,” continues Letts. “She wanted a street festival that would unite the fractured community that lived here – black, Irish, Spanish, Ukrainian, Moroccan, Greeks… It wasn’t just a big street party, there was a lot of social conscience and it came out of the same struggle and conflict that it is happening today.”

The Grove Notting Hill Neighbourhood Newsletter announced: “September 1966 will be a landmark in Notting Hill… for the first time this century Notting Hill is to have its own fair featuring a pageant, fireworks, music, plays and poetry.”

Its founder, London-born Rhaune Laslett, teamed up with Michael X – formerly known as Michael De Freitas – who described her idea as “a celebration of poverty”, a week-long event featuring Portobello buskers, totters parades, London Irish girl pipers, and Russell Henderson’s Trinidadian steel band.

According to activist Bill Richardson, the event was most accurately portrayed in the Portobello Road scenes in the 1971 film Bedknobs and Broomsticks.


Police Pressure

It was in 1973 that ‘Carnival’, as we now know it, came into existence under the auspices of its then director, the Trinidadian school teacher Leslie Palmer. He based the event on a commemoration of the abolition of slavery, while involving all the Caribbean communities of Britain.

“I only had six sound systems, six steel bands and only three costume bands but 50,000 people came that first year,” he says. “I borrowed stalls from the market and charged people £5 to rent them to sell food and drink. I used that money to pay the stewards. In three years it turned into 200,000 people.”

The Carnival office was at the Mangrove Restaurant at 8 All Saints Road. Owned by the late, great Trinidadian Frank Crichlow – an icon of black urban resistance – it was the most important meeting space for the Notting Hill black community. As well as intellectuals and activists, it was visited by, among others, Bob Marley, Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross and the Supremes.

Today, the original idea, which was this celebration of cross-cultural pollination of people of different colours and creeds getting on with each other, is more important than ever.

Don Letts

The Metropolitan Police hated All Saints Road, hated the carnival, and hated the Mangrove. They were determined to close down all three.

Despite a lack of evidence, between January 1969 and July 1970, the venue was raided 12 times by police. When 150 people protested, they were met by 700 police officers. Nine activists were charged with inciting a riot yet were acquitted, resulting in the first judicial acknowledgment that there was “evidence of racial hatred” in the Metropolitan Police.

By the time of the raging hot summer of 1976, tensions had mounted.

“There was vast unemployment and the National Front was on the rise,” explains Letts. “While the police’s relentless use of the Sus laws, that used the Vagrancy Act of 1824 to allow police to stop and search anyone they thought looked dodgy – which was mostly young black males… was making the British black community very angry.”

In 1976, 3,000 police officers – 10 times the usual number – were assigned to the carnival. When the police formed a heavy cordon, an altercation occurred – some say a fight and others say an unlawful arrest of a pickpocket – which caused the police to charge.

“It was extraordinary; if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes I wouldn’t have believed it,” recalls photographer Robert Golding. “There were women and children, and the police moved in with their batons out, pushing, shoving and beating people.”

Within minutes, the police were repelled by a volley of bricks and bottles. The Special Patrol Group was called in, inflicting random casualties and only helping to spread the rioting. Windows were smashed and fires started, while roads and tube stations were closed.

“It was a political uprising,” says Letts. “We’d had enough, which was manifest in this eruption of violence on the street in 1976. This was not a race riot. It was about what was right and wrong.”


A Global Event

In the years after 1976, Carnival grew, enveloping an array of music and culture. All were invited.

“I crashed into Cambridge Gardens in 1980 and set up my tiny sound system,” chuckles DJ Norman Jay who ran his ‘Good Times’ sound system there for 30 years. “In those days, Carnival was calypso and reggae music. I came there with my gay disco, jazz funk and John Coltrane records. I put the first track on and the rest is history.”

Confrontations were uncommon after 1976, yet Conservative Governments – fuelled by the right-wing press – continued to portray the event as a site of hedonism and violence.

This has barely changed, with wealthy locals, the Met Police and the Conservative Party continuing to complain about the noise and disruption caused by this festival of colour and life.

Notting Hill Carnival 2015. Photo: David Sedlecký/Wikimedia Commons

Carnival isn’t merely a cultural spectacle. The event generates at least £93 million a year for the London economy, at the cost of £6-10 million. It supports the equivalent of 3,000 full-time jobs, attracts an estimated 90,000 foreign tourists and, as a worldwide event, only Rio de Janeiro’s carnival in Brazil ranks ahead of Notting Hill in size.

Today, Carnival echoes both Claudia Jones and Rhaune Laslett’s multicultural dream. People can see local soca, steel bands, calypso floats, Brazilian samba schools, salsa, house, techno, grime and funk. Its crowd of more than a million is drawn from every country under the sun.

Even though this year’s Carnival has been cancelled because of the Coronavirus, its spirit lives on.

“I’ve thrived by moving between different cultures and classes, all of whom meet and get on at Carnival,” enthuses Letts. “Today the original idea, which was this celebration of cross-cultural pollination of people of different colours and creeds getting on with each other, is more important than ever and is the only way we all will flourish and prosper.”  

Indeed, for many locals, this year’s Carnival interruption is but a glitch that, like COVID-19, will be overcome.

“I’m a great believer in human nature,” concludes musician Gaz Mayall. “No matter what hurdles and obstacles are put in our way, we will always find a way to get out, dance, have a good time and make the world a better place.

“Carnival will be back stronger and better than ever.”


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