Excavating the Social Layers of London
Sociologist, archivist and documentary filmmaker Colin Prescod has lived at the same address in West London since 1958. He has focused on Black British community struggles against racism and for belonging for over two decades. Here he mines Sumayya Vally’s extensive research into diasporic sites of meeting, organising and belonging across London, with particular focus on West London and Carnival.
Counterspace’s Sumayya Vally, architect/philosopher/ethnographer, arrives as a visitor to the great metropolis of London, and lands in my neck of the woods. She is no mere tourist, rather, a knowing traveller. She sets out to map significant historical research sites of ‘gathering’ where ‘hybrid identities’ have been forged in contested districts/territories/spaces. She speaks of seeking out/touching on how “people have made [the] city a place to take hold, and in turn, a place to be held”. And she refers to searching out “existing and lost spaces of gathering and belonging”, “with particular relevance to migrant communities across the city”.
It soon becomes evident that there is a past-continuous project to each of Vally’s mapped metropolitan sites. She has chosen places that, over many decades, seem to be the same, yet always changing. A rich mix of locations make her list – community centres; nightlife clubs; libraries; theatre spaces; sites sacred to different religions [some, like the Brick Lane Jamme Masjid in east London have passed from mid-18th century French Protestant chapel, to late 19th century synagogue, to late 20th century mosque]; cinemas; centuries old street markets; arts centres, restaurants; archive repositories, book-publishing premises; street festival spaces.
Download a list of the sites that inspired this year’s 2021 pavilion by Counterspace here.
Digging down into Vally’s Serpentine Pavilion paradigm
Among the places that Vally fixes on are a variety of West London public places and spaces that are legendary in the annals of peoples’ struggles to belong – ‘counter spaces’.
Having lived in the North Kensington area of this part of the city, I know something of these spaces, and of the links between them – the world famous 50 year old annual Notting Hill Carnival: the Mangrove restaurant come community hub situated on the All Saints Road, now only a memory, which with its Mangrove masquerade-band and steel-pan orchestra was one of the foundation sites of the Carnival; also spark of a state-versus-the-people confrontation that resulted in perhaps the most famous anti-racist victory in 20th century British history, bar the routing of the fascists at the battle of Cable Street in 1936, namely the conspiracy to riot 1970 Mangrove Nine Trial: the All Saints Road, the notorious ‘frontline’ of a Caribbean migrant-settler ghetto area from the 1950s to the 1980s, now a street dotted with expensive designer item businesses, bars and eating places, with the odd reggae record-shop and Caribbean-cuisine remnant: the Tabernacle , once an Evangelical church, but since the late 1960s a community centre building, serving and servicing a constantly shifting diversity of local residents from a myriad of national and ethnic origins; managed over the last two decades by a business charity run under the banner of ‘Carnival Village’, which in recent years has overseen the organising of the Carnival, among other creative cultural endeavours: the Maxilla/Grenfell ‘Wall of Truth’ memorial-remnant of London’s largest ever council-housing fire disaster, where, in 2014, 72 people were killed and hundreds displaced, following years of contemptuous neglect and incompetence by the local state authority in the face of years of insistent community health and safety complaints; a scandal, now thoroughly exposed in a Government Enquiry sitting over three years and counting.
A community-insider’s take on the Carnival – Europe’s largest street festival: legacy site of militant struggles against racism and for belonging
Metropolitan cities are places where diasporas meet – and as it turns out Vally’s chosen locations are sites of intersection of the local and the global: sites where worldview changing imaginaries have been and will again be dreamed up. Her sites all function as portals to the psychogeography, the ‘zeitgeist’, of the residential districts in which they sit. They also provide important clues to the genesis of urban.
Several ‘curatorial ‘questions arise. Where and how is all this knowledge to be located, stored, archived, re-animated? How will these histories become known to those who come after – to posterity? Who and what determines what is to be remembered, or valued, or re-appraised in the longer term? In London, the established institution of ‘Blue Plaques’ provides one kind of answer to these ‘curatorial’ questions by marking special places and events. London’s Notting Hill Carnival provides another kind of ‘marker’.
It could be argued that the Carnival was reaffirmed as a site of protest and subversion, as well as recovery, when a ‘Grenfell-green’ dressed/decorated/themed quarter of the Carnival’s street parade route appeared, just a stone’s throw away from the still standing though burnt out tower block – site of the 2014 disaster where 72 people were killed, with the lives of all their families and friends devastated. This ‘Grenfell-green’ quarter of the Carnival grew each year, until 2019’s COVID 19 lockdown saw a first time break in its annual August bank-holiday takeover of the streets.
The Carnival is here, in England, because we Caribbeans are here in England, and because it is part of us. Everybody knows why and how we came to be in England – to help rebuild the once mighty mother country of the British Empire, after the devastating WW2. So, we plant Carnival in England. But it takes root here for very distinct reasons when contrasted with its Caribbean roots. Bear with me, those who already know this history inside out.
In the beginning – in the Claudia Jones and Rhaune Laslett organised beginning, Carnival was useful and promoted as a kind of ‘healing’ ceremonial – initially indoors, in the period immediately following the 1958 Notting Hill (race) riots, as an annual event, initiated by the extraordinary Claudia Jones (activist, Marxist, womanist); and, eventually, in the late sixties, on the streets, as the most joyful element of a little Notting Hill Fair, launched by another woman, Rhaune Laslett (community activist). By the late 1970s, this gathering had taken on a proportion and a social significance that no one had anticipated. What had been a few hundred and then a few thousand people at Carnival, became hundreds of thousands and even millions – and that’s just in London. Leeds, Manchester, Birmingham and any number of other cities brought hundreds of thousands more to the Carnival movement in the UK. And the money generated by this instant, once a year, super-market sites ran to tens of millions of pounds.
The numbers participating in the Carnival leapt dramatically, when the born-here generation of Caribbeans came to the party. They weren’t masquerading, playin’ mas, but they were at the party – famously, banding around the street sound systems. Veterans recall the early ‘culture clash’, inside the Carnival – with acoustic pan and mas on the road suspicious of and even opposed to blaring, electrified sound boxes and their overexcited, street-rushing youth followers. But, paradoxically, at the very same time, all sides were united by a new realisation. Our Carnival had shifted from being a large ‘social healing’ gathering to being a large ‘proud occupation’ gathering. We took over and ran the streets for two days – and the state’s agencies just had to put up with it. Carnival became a kind of once a year ‘temporary autonomous zone’ – which really disturbed the authorities and particularly the police whose law and order operation swamped the event. 1976 and 1977 saw Carnival riots of great intensity, when the agendas of the police and the Carnival clashed bloodily.
At this juncture, what was interesting was the way in which the old, historical Caribbean spirit of post-slavery celebration and freedom to ritually take over the streets, was joined with a new, very contemporary need of Black youth, to relish being part of something that allowed them to be ‘large’ in the very streets where, in all year round, everyday life, they were being tormented by relentlessly racist policing. Throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s, the ‘sus-law’, was used to justify relentless ‘stop and search’ operations that targeted working-class youth and especially Black working-class youth, all year round. It was as though the police were trying to make the streets ’no go’ areas for Black youth. In these times Carnival in the UK had stumbled upon a new purpose. It became a cultural resistance festival of creation and recreation, with historical as well as contemporary roots, saying – “We are here, and, we ehn goin’ nowhere else. You carn’ move we. You carn’ sen’ us back, unless we decide to go. And you carn’ run us off the streets on these two ritual days”. And that is the spirit that survives to the present day – sort of. The people’s liberation of Carnival was not merely ‘light entertainment’.
Just as interesting as the complex history and sociology of the emergence of the Carnival in the UK up to the 1980s was what happened next. Because – at the same time as the policing arm of the authorities panicked about the size, the energy and the spirit of the Carnival, there were also moves by more liberal parts of the very same authorities to adopt it as a kind of proud multicultural trophy, and to exploit it as a tourist attraction. It then attracted substantial public and private support – both cash and in kind benefits.
In the Caribbean, Carnival had emerged as a post-slavery cultural statement. It said – “we’ve freed ourselves and we are freeing-up ourselves”. And it is this spirit of ‘being free’ that is rekindled and stoked up, ritually, each year. Carnival in the Caribbean is, then, a critical, questioning, renewal of creative free-spiritedness – ritually celebrated each year. We see all these three characteristics in the ‘griot’ storytelling and the biting, sometimes scandalous, social commentary tradition of kaiso/calypso/soca. We also see them in the astounding invention and socially challenging rise of pan/Steelband in the Carnival. (Who says that Caribbean people are only mimics, who only copy other people, especially Europeans, and who have never invented anything of note!) And we see the mix of the critical, the questioning and the creative in the fantastic tradition of Carnival mas making and mas playing. Just think of the wonderful variety of themes, and styles, and functions of mas (pronounced ‘maarse’) – makin’ mas and playin’ mas. Because mas is not simply about making masquerades. It is also and essentially about playing the mas – using the body in its free-spiritedness to make a mas live, to give expression to the mas and to the spirit of the people playing the mas. There is much to be deconstructed in all that.
But there is an anomaly. Carnival in the Caribbean, in Trinidad and Tobago say, with all its critical free-spiritedness, involves and engages the whole, the entire society. In the UK, the mother country of Empire, we talk sometimes as though Carnival here is the same as in the islands, but that ehn true, ehn! It is true that, here, Caribbeans play the spirit of Carnival – but the whole society of our fellow citizens does not get involved and engaged with the vital meaning of Carnival. And it is true that Carnival get big big big in England, with millions of people gathering to watch – but most of them know nothing of the real reason for makin’ and playin’ mas, ehn. In other words, we have it all to do. We cannot take it for granted that the entire society is behind the Carnival, behind our Carnival – in spite of the millions who are attracted to the big street party.
In its vigorous infancy, from the 1960s to the 1980s, the UK Carnival rode on the back of a militant street vibe generated by the insurgent anti-racist politics of the wider Black community. That was then. Today, Carnival is no longer seen as the cutting-edge solution to race relations come multicultural problems/challenges faced by the authorities in London and the wider UK. This is to say that Caribbean Black people, no longer define the frontline of challenges to discrimination and injustice, along with demands for cultural change in today’s UK. Blackness and sections of Black youth bring other kinds of social challenges today. The old racisms survive – but new generations of continental-African migrants (as distinct from African-Caribbean), alongside new Black and Brown identity-driven politics are now added drivers of anti-racist causes. And now there is what Sivanandan has called a new ‘xeno-racism’ abroad – aimed at people who often have ‘fair’ skins. And, interestingly, activists have been suggesting that we Caribbeans and Brits of Caribbean descent are not particularly active in the new resistance campaigns against ongoing racism – the racism against new migrants, asylum seekers and refugees.
What all this means is that when we look at the wider, shifting cultural and political agendas of the authorities and the establishment – the agendas that the arts and culture establishment jump to – they are not our agendas anymore, and they are not agendas defined or driven, anymore, by our social, political and cultural rebellion. So that, if we are to influence these changing and changed agendas of the authorities, we have to find ways to take back the scene.
Traditions that are not self-nurturing and internally dynamic die – or, at best they get kept as ‘dead’ traditions, in festivals and museums. How is the Carnival to make its past continuous?
For all the glorious history of its emergence, the hiatus of two COVID-19 plague-stricken lock-down years of cancellation has again opened the question of what the Carnival is about, and what its vital purpose is. In 2020, the loud street protest marches of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) erupted globally – muted only by the COVID-19 dampener on public assemblies. And in a 2021 summer where Extinction Rebellion’s (XR) peaceful but seriously militant demonstrations have taken over central London’s streets and public spaces, with large, themed and colourfully masked demonstrations of hundreds adding up to thousands of participants, sounding a planetary emergency in the face of the Anthropocene and extreme climate change – the Carnival has competition. If it is to make a come-back the Carnival must seed a future with a fresh liberation imaginary.
 Throughout September and October 2021 Sound Systems, a series of live events takes place at partner venues where the Fragments of the Serpentine Pavilion 2021 are placed. The series at the Tabernacle will feature six sound systems played on selected Sundays co-programmed together with artist Alvaro Barrington and CEO of Notting Hill Carnival Matthew Phillip.