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Gary Younge

Notting Hill Carnival dancers in their colourful costumes. Photo: PA
The politics of partying

As 1958 drew to a close, a despondent mood drew over the offices of the West Indian Gazette in Brixton, south London. A decade after the Windrush docked, with the symbolic arrival of the postwar generation of black Britons, a series of racist attacks in Nottingham had sparked several nights of rioting in mid-August. By the end of the month, conflict had spread to west London, to Notting Hill, where white youths regularly went "nigger hunting".

The Gazette's founder-editor, Claudia Jones, had had enough. "We need something to get the taste of Notting Hill out of our mouths," she said. "Someone suggested we should hold a carnival," says Donald Hinds, who was in the room at the time. "We all started laughing because it was so cold and carnival is this out-on-the-street thing. It seemed like a ridiculous suggestion." But Jones had other ideas and set about making arrangements.

A few months later, on January 30, 1959, London's first Caribbean carnival was held in St Pancras town hall. Televised by the BBC for Six-Five Special - a forerunner to Top Of The Pops - it was timed to coincide with the Caribbean's largest and most famous carnival in Trinidad. The brief introductory statement to the souvenir brochure came with the title "A people's art is the genesis of their freedom".

More than 40 years on, a bright array of oversized peacock feathers made its way down the Mall towards the royal family. Along with the household cavalry in plumes and gleaming breastplates, and the Red Arrows streaking the sky red, white and blue, Notting Hill carnival took pride of place in the Jubilee celebrations. This was a legacy of Empire with a difference, not an exhibition of how much has been preserved but a demonstration of how much has changed.

"There was more military involvement last time," said Michael Lewington, 62, standing in almost the same spot he took for the Silver Jubilee in 1977. "I certainly don't remember calypso bands." Here was an irrefutable sign of black people's permanent presence and cultural contribution in Britain - a fact as widely conceded today as it was contested in the 1950s.

Notting Hill carnival's journey from a response to race attacks in 1958 to pride of place on the Mall in 2002, passing revelry, riot and resistance en route, is both powerful and painful. It is the tale of how a marginalised community built, protected and promoted what is now the largest street party in western Europe, using the radical cultural politics of the Caribbean to confront Britain's racist political culture.

Either way, it starts with Claudia Jones, a Trinidadian communist who came to London, via Harlem, courtesy of the red-baiting senator Joseph McCarthy. Jones moved to New York with her parents when she was seven. It was there, during the campaign to defend the Scottsboro boys, a group of young African-Americans framed for rape in the south, that she joined the American Communist party in which she was later to play a leading role. Twice interned for her political beliefs on Ellis Island - ironically, the spiritual home for immigrants fleeing poverty and persecution - she was eventually ordered to leave in 1955 and sent to England.

Jones was a turbulent character, manic in her energy, masterful in her skills as a political organiser and chaotic in her personal life. A lifetime of illness, engendered by poverty and exacerbated by prison, was further compounded by overwork.

"She was so full of energy, she exhausted everyone, including herself," recalls Corinne Skinner-Carter, one of Jones's closest friends. "She used to chain-smoke but I never saw her actually finish a cigarette. And she talked liked she smoked."

Her journey across the Atlantic had brought her to a very different racial and political context. She left America, at the start of the civil rights era, when African-Americans were asserting a new confidence. She arrived in Britain to find asmall Caribbean community more divided by island allegiances they had left behind than united by a racial identity they were coming to share. "It was only in Britain that we became West Indians," says academic Stuart Hall.

In March 1958, Jones launched the West Indian Gazette, attempting in part to cohere these disparate groups around their common experience of racism. In many ways it was a period that echoes our own, with the sparks of popular prejudice fanned by a bigoted press while a complacent and complicit political class allowed the consequent flames to rage.

On August 18, 1958, the Ku Klux Klan sent a letter to the Gazette addressed to "My Dear Mr B Ape". "We, the Aryan Knights, miss nothing," it said. "Close attention has been paid to every issue of this rag and I do sincerely assure you, the information gleaned has proven of great value to the Klan."

A fortnight later, Majbritt Morrison, a Swedish woman, was spotted by a gang of white youths. They had seen her the night before, arguing with her Jamaican husband Raymond outside Latimer Road tube station near Notting Hill, and they had started throwing racial insults at him. She had enraged them by turning on them. When the youths saw her again, they followed her, throwing milk bottles and shouting, "Nigger lover! Kill her." Later that night, the "nigger hunting" started and the area was ablaze.

"1958 was a big moment," Hall recalls. "Before that, individuals had endured discrimination. But in that year racism became a mass, collective experience that went beyond that."

This was the taste Jones wanted to get out of her mouth. Only she, says Marika Sherwood, author of Claudia Jones: A Life In Exile, had the combination of new world confidence and political maturity to launch carnival under those circumstances. "Her experiences of campaigning against racism and McCarthyism in America put her on a different level from other Caribbeans here."

Trevor Carter, Corinne's partner and stage manager of the first carnival, agrees. "Claudia, unlike the rest of us, understood the power of culture as a tool of political resistance. The spirit of the carnival came out of her political knowledge of what to touch at a particular time when we were scared, in disarray."

There had been concerns that the unruliness of carnival would not translate from the outdoors of Port of Spain to indoors in London. Since many did not have cars, they arrived at St Pancras town hall in their costumes via public transport. "The bold ones did," Carter recalls. "It was our way of saying to the dominant culture, 'Here we come - look, we here.' "

The evening itself went excellently. There was calypso singing, dancing and lots of souse, peas and rice and other Caribbean dishes. "We disrobed ourselves of our urban, cosmopolitan, adopted English ways and robed ourselves in our own visible cultural mantle," Carter says.

Thus began London's first annual Caribbean carnival, moving the next year to Seymour Hall, alternating between there and the Lyceum until 1963, growing bigger each year. By the time Jones was found dead on Boxing Day 1964, it was a large, established event. But while it was born out of experiences in Notting Hill, it had yet to return there. For that we must turn to another remarkable woman, Rhaune Laslett. Laslett, who lived in Notting Hill, knew nothing of Jones or the carnivals when she spoke to the local police about organising a carnival early in 1965. With more of an English fete in mind, she invited the various ethnic groups of what was then the poor area of Notting Hill - Ukranians, Spanish, Portuguese, Irish, Caribbeans and Africans - to contribute to a week-long event that would culminate with an August bank holiday parade.

"The histories of these carnivals are both independent and interlinked," says Sue McAlpine of the Kensington & Chelsea Community History Group. "They were linked by their motivation and the constituencies they were seeking to motivate."

Laslett, born in the East End, of Native American parents, was a community activist who had been a nurse and a social worker. She died in April this year, after suffering from multiple sclerosis for 50 years. Her motivation was "to prove that from our ghetto there was a wealth of culture waiting to express itself, that we weren't rubbish people". She borrowed costumes from Madame Tussaud's; a local hairdresser did the hair and make-up for nothing; the gas board and fire brigade had floats; and stallholders in Portobello market donated horses and carts. Around 1,000 people turned up, according to police figures.

Steel band player Russ Henderson was among those roped in. Laslett's partner, Jim O'Brien, knew him from the Colherne pub in Earl's Court - a favoured West Indian hang-out - and Henderson had played at the first event in St Pancras organised by Jones. At the Notting Hill event, he was playing alongside a donkey cart and a clown, and he felt things were getting flat. "I said, 'We got to do something to make this thing come alive.' " Henderson, now 78, decided to walk his steel band to the top of the street and back. When that went down well, he got a little bolder, marching them around the area like so many pied pipers. "People would ask, 'How far are you going?' and we'd say, 'Just back to Acklam Road' and they would come a little way with their shopping, then peel off and someone else would join in. There was no route, really - if you saw a bus coming, you just went another way."

"With the music, people left everything and came to follow the procession," O'Brien says. "By the end of the evening, people were asking the way home."

In the evening, Michael X - radical, hustler and firebrand - turned to Laslett, pointed to the throng and said, "Look, Rhaune, what have you done?"

"I was in a state of shock," Laslett said later. "As I saw the huge crowds, I thought, 'What have I done?' "

During the years Laslett ran the carnival, it was identified more with Notting Hill than with the Caribbean, though as word got round, more and more Caribbean people started coming. The numbers had grown to around 10,000, and O'Brien says a mixture of police interference and the growing assertiveness of black power meant too many different groups had vested interests. "It was something we didn't want to have responsibility for," he adds. "The police didn't want it because they thought they were losing control of the streets for the day, and we'd had enough. So we decided to hand it over to the community."

Carnival, Trinidad-style, with no entry fee, is truly open to everyone. Blurring the lines between participant and spectator, it thrives on impulse as well as organisation. With its emphasis on masquerading and calypso, it takes popular subjects of concern as its raw material for lyrics and costumes. Massive in size, working-class in composition, spontaneous in form, subversive in expression and political in nature - the ingredients for carnival are explosive. Add to the mix the legacy of slavery and it soon becomes clear why so long as there has been carnival, the authorities have sought to contain, control or cancel it.

In 1881, Trinidad's former police chief, Fraser, submitted a report on the carnival riot in Port of Spain. "After the emancipation of the slaves, things were materially altered," he wrote. "The ancient lines of demarcation between classes were obliterated and, as a natural consequence, the carnival degenerated into a noisy and disorderly amusement for the lower classes." He had a point. Trinidad was colonised at various times by both the Spanish and English, with a large number of Frenchsettlers, and after emancipation in 1834, its carnival lost its elitist, European traditions and became a mass popular event.

"Carnival had become a symbol of freedom for the broad mass of the population and not merely a season for frivolous enjoyment," wrote Errol Hill in The Trinidad Carnival. "It had a ritualistic significance, rooted in the experience of slavery and in the celebration of freedom from slavery. The people would not be intimidated; they would observe carnival in the manner they deemed most appropriate."

Similar tensions have emerged here in the UK. The key dynamic within them is ownership. Ask anyone involved who owns carnival and they will say the same thing: the people. The trouble is, which people? Since Rhaune Laslett handed over responsibility for the carnival, the primary body organising the event has split, reinvented itself, then split again several times. It has been called the Carnival Development Committee, the Carnival Arts Committee, the Carnival Enterprise Committee and, at present, the Notting Hill Carnival Trust, which is itself riven by internal rows. Each group has its own version of the carnival's history and development.

As carnival has outgrown its grass-roots origins, it has brought with it a constant process of negotiation and occasional flash points; there have been inevitable conflicts, over both its economic orientation and its political function. Carnival, wrote Kwesi Owusu and Jacob Ross in Behind The Masquerade, is "the most expressive and culturally volatile territory on which the battle of positions between the black community and the state are ritualised".

And so it was that, less than a century after the disturbances at the carnival in Port of Spain, there were riots at the Notting Hill carnival in 1976. By that stage it had become a Caribbean event - the by-product of Jones's racial militancy and Laslett's community activism - complete with bands and costumes. In 1975, according to police figures, carnival was attracting 150,000 people. It was also the first time most remember an imposing police presence.

The carnival's primary constituency had changed radically. In the mid-1970s, 40% of all black people in Britain were born here. Having made the long march through the institutions of education, employment and the criminal justice system, many felt alienated in the land of their birth. It was an experience that found its daily expression in the form of the police, whose racist use of the sus laws made for harassment and indignity. In 1958, the first generation used carnival to protest the racism of the mob, but in the 1970s their children used it to take on the Met. For them, carnival was not a cultural reminder of a distant and different home but a means of asserting their claim to the only home they knew.

It was a claim that, on the one hand, was increasingly under threat, thanks to the rise of the National Front and skinhead culture. But on the other hand, it was a claim constantly being asserted by the powerful role music was playing in shaping British youth culture, through reggae, then ska. Along with Rock Against Racism, culture had become a key battleground for race and there was no bigger racially-connoted event than the Notting Hill carnival.

"Carnival was their day," says one Metropolitan police officer in an off-the-record interview. "For the rest of the year, police would be stopping them in ones and twos in the street, where they would be in a minority. But for one weekend they were in the majority and they took over the streets."

The 1976 riot took most people by surprise. "I just remember seeing these bottles flying," says Michael La Rose, head of the Association for a People's Carnival, which aims to protect and promote carnival's community roots; he describes it as like watching a relentless parade of salmon leaping upstream. The police were ill-equipped and ill-prepared. Defending themselves with dustbin lids and milk crates, they were also outmanoeuvred. "That whole experience made the police very sore," one policeman says. "They had taken a beating and were determined that it would not happen again, so when the next one came about, there was some desire for revenge."

From then on, thanks largely to the press, carnival moved from being a story about culture to one about crime and race. For years after, carnival stories would come with a picture of policemen either in hospital after being attacked or in an awkward embrace with a black, female reveller in full costume. The following year, Corinne Skinner-Carter missed carnival for the first and last time, in anticipation of more trouble. There were indeed smaller skirmishes in 1977. At one stage, late on the Monday night, riot police were briefly deployed. The next day, the Express's front page read: "War Cry! The unprecedented scenes in the darkness of London streets looked and sounded like something out of the film classic Zulu."

Calls for carnival's banning came from all quarters. Tory shadow home secretary Willie Whitelaw said, "The risk in holding it now seems to outweigh the enjoyment it gives." Kensington and Chelsea council suggested holding "the noisy events" in White City Stadium, a mile or more away. "If the West Indians wish to preserve what should be a happy celebration which gives free rein to their natural exuberance, vitality and joy," argued the Mail on August 31, 1977, "then it is up to their leaders to take steps necessary to ensure its survival." The Telegraph blamed black people for being in Britain in the first place, declaring: "Many observers warned from the outset that mass immigration from poor countries of substantially different culture would generate anomie, alienation, delinquency and worse." Prince Charles, meanwhile, backed the carnival. "It's so nice to see so many happy, dancing people with smiles on their faces."

As recently as 1991, following a stabbing, Daily Mail columnist Lynda Lee-Potter described the carnival as "a sordid, sleazy nightmare that has become synonymous with death". By this time, however, its detractors were in the minority. Like the black British community from which it had sprung, there was a common understanding that it was here to stay. Latest police figures suggest attendance of one million; organisers say it is almost double that.

In west London, not far from the carnival route, the Mighty Explorer launches the calypso tent. The first of many older Caribbean men, in pork-pie hats and matching waistcoats and trousers, who hope to become this year's calypso monarch, he sings his home-written lyrics with the help of a small band and some backing singers. Along with women in shiny, sequined dresses, they fill a sweltering night with a medley of topical ballads. Almost all contain a strong moral message about the dangers of drugs, infidelity and prostitution blighting the black community, from people whose stage names include Totally Talibah, Celestial Star and Cleopatra Johnson.

This is the first of the heats running up to the carnival itself. The standard is higher than a karaoke bar, lower than the second round of Popstars. But the evening is more fun than both - accessible, unpretentious, raucous and, above all, entertaining.

Earlier that day, at the Oval House Theatre, south London, the sewing machines ceased humming in anticipation of curried goat and rum punch. It's time to lime (relax) after a day of stitching and cutting to calypso tunes and boisterous banter. South Connections is one of the scores of mas camps around London and beyond, where mostly volunteers come from mid-July to start making the costumes for the bands. Some are in people's living rooms and back gardens, others in community halls and offices. With only a week to go before carnival, a camp like South Connections will be attracting around 100 people a night - a rare focal point for relaxed inter-generational mixing. The youngest person to go masquerading with the band is two, the oldest is 75.

The preparations started the year before. The riots in Bradford and Burnley provided the theme for this year's designs, entitled Massala Dougla: One People, One Race. "In this story, the people travel on this earth searching for a better future and an identity," says Ray Mahabir, the designer. "Red is for the blood flowing in us and gold is for our golden hearts."

On the day of the Golden Jubilee celebrations, designer Clary Salandy had trouble getting to the Mall. The police wouldn't let her and the rest of her mas camp over the bridge, even though they were supposed to be leading the procession. Chipping down the Mall - that slow shuffle-cum-toyi toyi of the masquerader - filled her with pride. "I'm not a monarchist, but this was a recognition by the establishment that we have made an artistic contribution and took carnival to people who would never go to it."

In the Harlesden offices of her company, Mahogany, in north-west London, Salandy explains her craft. "The best costumes," she says, "have to work well from a distance. So they have to be bold and dynamic and have lots of movement. But when you get close up, you have to be able to see the detail. Carnival is a language. Every shape, colour and form is used like words or symbols. And the best costume speaks that language fluently."

Her favourite costume that day spoke the language of defiance: one person armed with several huge, multicoloured shields defending his back. "It's called Protector Of Our Heritage," she says. "It was there to defend carnival."

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