Laslett family history

The politics of partying

Gary Younge
Saturday August 17, 2002
Rhaune Laslett, who lived in Notting Hill, knew nothing of (Claudia) Jones or the (Caribbean) 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 (2004), 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.