Don Letts - Culture Clash, Chapter 14
Thursday, 23rd Aug 2012
No Don’t Stop the Carnival
London’s first Caribbean Carnival was held in St Pancras Town Hall in January 1959. The idea stemmed from a meeting at the Brixton office of the West Indian Gazette a few months earlier. Claudia Jones, who worked for the paper, wanted to do something to improve the morale of the West Indian Community in Notting Hill. Race Riots had spread from Nottingham to Notting Hill during 1958 when locals waged their racial war on the newly settled West Indian community. Held at the Town Hall, the Carnival went well, with dancing, lots of curried goat, rice n’ peas. It was not until 1965 that it moved to Notting Hill after Rhaune Laslett, a local resident, spoke to the police about holding a carnival there. She wanted to involve all of the community; Irish, Spanish, Caribbeans, Africans and Portuguese to name a few. Notting Hill at that time was a piss-poor area, but it had a real multicultural vibe to it. Laslett ran the Carnival for several years and the attendance grew to about 10,000 people. The event was a great success and blurred the lines between participant and spectator and quickly became a symbol of freedom.
By 1976 Carnival had become a predominantly Caribbean event built on Jones’ racial offensive and Laslett’s cooperative activism. For my parents’ generation the Carnival was a reminder of life back home but for my generation it was statement about duality of our existence which was black and British. Tensions had been building through that year and it came to a head when police tried to arrest someone close to Portobello Road. Several black youths went to help the guy and it escalated into a riot. The police had to grab dustbin lids to protect themselves from the bricks and debris raining down on them. To this day people think that there was a racial theme to the riot in 1976, but it was not a black or white thing. It was a wrong or right thing. Working class people being harassed by the police. Hence the Clash song “White Riot”, with the words “Black man gotta lotta problems/but they don’t mind throwing a brick.” The Clash were saying, “look our black brethren have had enough and they have done something about it.” Ironically it was misunderstood by some as being a right-wing song.
During the Notting Hill riot I was wandering around with my Super-8 camera, torn between getting the shot and throwing a brick. The infamous picture of me that ended up on the front of the ‘Black Market Clash’ album was taken at this time. It looks like I am fronting the cops off, but I am actually crossing the road.
Behind me are 500 brothers all armed with bottles and bricks and the police lines were right in front of me. It was best that I moved out of the way. Joe Strummer and Paul Simonon were also caught up in it. They were throwing bricks. The white youth were right in there alongside the black youth, including myself, all sick to death of the SUS law. The SUS law was a stop-and-search policy based upon Sections 4 and 6 of the Vagrancy Act, 1824, which made it illegal for a suspected person to loiter in a public place. SUS was routinely abused, usually to the detriment of black youth. If I went to the cinema I had to schedule an extra half hour, because I knew that I would probably get pulled up and miss the start of the film. When I saw a police car behind me, I’d pull over before they could pull me over. I’d walk up to the cops and say, “Look, what do you want? You make me really nervous and you’re going to make me crash so let’s get it over with.”
I remember one particular time they pulled me up somewhere off the King’s Road, Chelsea. I got out of the car and jumped up onto the bonnet and I was like, “Yo, what are you guys trying to do, crucify me?” and all of a sudden passers-by were watching me. From that point on, every time I got pulled up on the street I would stand with my legs spread-eagled and my arms in the air, sort of American stylee. The cops would be shocked and say, “Look young man, there is no need for that.” I’d simply reply, “It’s OK officer, I feel a lot more comfortable like this, and you can’t say I have done anything wrong.” The minute you did that on the street everybody was looking. I flipped the script on them. I even remember being pulled up in various places and I’d start taking my clothes off and walking around in my underpants. It was my way of taking control of the situation. However if you were pulled up in the middle of the night with no witnesses, you were screwed.
Nowadays the Notting Hill Carnival has grown to be the biggest ‘street’ festival in Europe. Over a million pleasure-seekers every year cause a roadblock in the heart of London, oblivious to the Carnival’s political, social and historical background. In its early days, it was controlled by the first Trinidadian settlers of Ladbroke Grove, but it was not long before all the Islands found a voice at Carnival. It was nearly hi-jacked by the Jamaican sound systems in the seventies and that’s where I came in, listening to sounds with names like ‘Shaka’ and ‘Coxsone Sound’. After an initial sound clash, a balance was struck. Reggae and Calypso provided a running commentary on current events. Journalism set to music. And if you can resist the smell of the various foods on sale then you are a slimmer man than I.
Today regular fixtures like Norman Jay’s ‘Good Times Sound-System’ and Gaz’s ‘Rockin Blues’ really capture the evolution of the carnival sound. One of my favourite spots used to be on the junction of All Saints Road and Westbourne Park Road; sound systems piled stories high on every corner, just as the steel band pulls in. Calypso, Soca, Soul, Ragga, Reggae and Hip-Hop. The tree-lined harmony of west London gets slapped upside the head. Ladbroke Grove—Ladbroke groove—dub town. By my logic 2009 was the 50th anniversary of Carnival and that same year I was moved to make a documentary celebrating that fact as it continues to be a kind of a cultural barometer for the times, charting and reflecting the journey of multi-cultural Britain.
Read all posts by Don Letts HERE