Celebrating Carnival: a review of the recent photographic and testimonial history of Notting Hill Carnival by Ishmahil Blahgrove

Notting Hill Carnival and the August Bank holiday seems to mark the end of summer, kind of like a last fling in West London before the school-run returns and autumn leaves hit the pavement.
Through a new book out this year – written and edited by Ishmahil Blagrove and former CLR James publisher Margret Busby – captures the spirit carnival a little bit longer curtesy of a stunning new pictorial study.
This excellently researched collection of photos and personal testimonies looks back over the first 35 years of this two day urban extravaganza.
It gives credit to many of the unsung heroes that brought the event together and provides a political and social context on its early days including key moments such as the 1958 riots, the murder Kelso Kochrane and the 1976 Carnival stand off with the police.
Blagrove took part in a discussion at the book launch and afterwards he spoke to me about how the book was a labour of love based on the pictures of the late Allan ‘Capitan’ Thornhill who died in March 2014.  After Thornhill’s death Blagrove became the custodian for the largest collection of Notting Hill photographs in the country.
Building up a clear a visual narrative, Blagrove makes some useful corrections to urban myths.  The pictures themselves, while not always technically great, are still able to provide us with a fascinating visual archive of the black British experience.
The 40-odd credited photographers and agencies featured in the book give us a remarkable insight into how a local social event became an international institution.
The  photos plot the origins of the carnival, showing how it emerged out of  1950’s austerity Britain whose post war economic weakness manifested itself socially into a violent backlash against newly arrived West Indian immigrants in Manchester, Birmingham and more famously in West London’s Notting Hill.
The North West London enclave proved to be the sharpest point of resistance to racist attacks. It was where black people began to organise and take on the notoriously racist ‘Teddy Boy gangs’ and the last dregs of Oswald Moseley’s Union of Fascists.
Carnival was part of the post-war counter-culture wave starting out as a fundraiser for those embroiled in court cases stemming from the attacks. Under the direction of the South London activist Claudia Jones, a cabaret indoor event that took place on 30 January 1959 in St Pancras Town [Hall?] in London. It would be repeated again over several years at different London locations.
The key shift in the organisation of the Carnival came when it emerged from being an indoor cabaret event to its modern street transformation under the leadership of social worker Rhaune Laslett who was allied to a band of local hippies from the London Free School.
Added to her team were sympathetic Trinidadian musicians Russell Henderson and legendary promoter Tony Blacks.  Between 1965 and 1966 they created a small scale local multi-cultural event aimed at children, called the Notting Hill Festival. This was the start of the event we are more familiar with today.  
The in-depth commentary goes on further to explain how next critical phase of change, between 1972 and 1976,  was a period in which the carnival, now led by Trinidadian teacher Leslie Palmer and backed by community figures such  as  Merle major and Frank Crichlow, decided to expand its appeal by involving all the regional Caribbean communities.
They encouraged the static sound systems of soul such as Papa Weasel, Mastermind and Norman Jay’s Good Times. The set up was further boosted by live broadcasts with the Alex Pascal at the BBC and Greg Edwards at Capital Radio. As a result carnival expanded swiftly year on year despite its continued ‘peppercorn’ funding and persistent attacks from the established media. By the eighties attendance was upwards of one million people.
Palmer’s other innovation was encourage more masquerade elements which drew on the skills of Trinidad costume design legends Peter Minshall and Lawrence Noel. Early costume themes centred on issues of criminal justice and police harassment - not surprising given that carnival has always been about more than just a ‘Jump Up’.
Right from it’s beginnings it was at the very intersection of the British state, and race politics symbolised by the Mangrove court case. But more significant was the growing systemic police harassment of the black youths taking place in every major area where there were concentrated black communities.
Notting Hill provided a focal point for resistance and anger that would culminate in pitch battle between black youths and police at the 1976 event.  In many ways a precursor of the anti-police race riots that would engulf the country in 1980, 1981 and 1985. Indeed even this year one of the big carnival parties is called ‘Swamp 81’, a name linked to the para-military police tactics that provoked the 1981 Brixton Riots.
However it would remiss not to also consider how carnival has become more restrictive in the way it is run and policed. Even its strongest supporters have expressed frustration at its capitulation to heavy regulation and even heavier police street presence over the last 30 years.
At times more recently it’s taken on the character of a nervy, claustrophobic police-run event. Many carnival lovers no longer attend as a result. Furthermore; the argument that the event is now too big for the streets gains more currency every year. But popular opinion currently demands a street presence is maintained. Disgruntled residents will just have to keep slipping off to the Home Counties for a couple of days every year.
Speaking personally, like many people brought up in the capital city as a youth I loved the atmosphere that wrapped together people from across the Caribbean islands, the African diaspora and ordinary black and white carnival revellers.
In the 1970s and 1980s Pan players, Mas bands and sound systems provided a joyful soundscape and vibrant visuals that was unique in Europe. Notting Hill Carnival now sits alongside an international network of regular street carnivals that stretches from Berlin, Rotterdam, Jamaica through to - still arguably the best of the lot - Trinidad & Tobago.
Thank you Capitan.
Kunle Olulode