23 MAY 2008


1 Portobello Carnival Film Festival 2008
2 Lord Holland’s Slavery to Work Scheme
3 The Notting Dale Gypsies
4 Portobello Busker Parades
5 1966 London Free School Michaelmas Fayre
6 1968 Interzone International Times Fair
7 1977 Two Sevens Clash Punky Reggae Party
8 1983/4 Aswad Live And Direct Carnival
9 1995 Hugh Grant Mas and Mayhem


Carnival was traditionally a Catholic festival taking place on Shrove Tuesday or Mardi Gras before the beginning of Lent, the period of fasting and abstinence. It is a time when all caution is thrown to the winds, there is much festivity and feasting, the Lords of Misrule are celebrated in a wild party prior to a month or more of self denial. It eventually became an opportunity for slaves in the New World to temporarily throw off their shackles.
Historically such delirious excesses go back beyond Christianity and represent a very real need for people to let their hair down, to be free albeit briefly from the restraints of polite society, to make the dreary day to day life of the rest of the year more bearable. It was the theme of the fairs and festivals in the middle ages, and the pagan orgies of Greece and Rome.
Its other contemporary roots lie in the magical hallucinatory rituals of Africa and America, a powerful race memory preserving vestiges of atavistic cultures going back to the dawn of time displaced and ravaged by the slave trade and colonialism. Notting Hill Carnival itself is a direct descendant of the Carnival in Trinidad, from where many migrants came to the UK and the Second World War.
The art of Carnival, as celebrated in Brazil, New Orleans and Notting Hill, can also trace many of its influences back to the original Masquerade, the Carnival in Venice: the dressing up and cross-dressing, the masks, the processions, the circus element, the spectacle, the music, Punch and Judy, Harlequin and Columbine, Commedia Del Arte, the Comedy of Art.
For this is a joyous art form: it is happy, it is colourful, it is exuberant, it is satirical, it doesn’t take itself too preciously, it is the art of the people. It doesn’t sit on its arse in museums, it gets out in the streets, it is free, which matches the central theme of the Portobello Film Festival, it makes people happy. Even the morbid theme of the Mexican Day of the Dead, another third world carnivalist collision between church and paganism, is subverted by comedy and joy.
Portobello Film Festival proposes to weave together some of the above themes that have contributed to the phenomenon of Carnival and present them as a 21st century compliment to the Notting Hill Carnival 2008.

Local historian Tom Vague examines the origins, definitions, influences, traditions, legends and myths of Notting Hill Carnival (Vague 48)

The Goose Fair Origin
The London Free School Fayre in 1966, the first modern Notting Hill Carnival, is said to have been inspired by an earlier Goose Fair or Fayre, in what could be hippy confusion with the renowned Nottingham Goose Fair. As described in Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, Goose Fairs were ‘formerly held in many English towns about the time of Michaelmas, when geese were plentiful. That still held at Nottingham was the most important. Tavistock Goosey Fair is still held, though geese are seldom sold, goose lunches are available.’ In another Goose Fair coincidence, the 1966 procession began on Tavistock Road in late September.
Michaelmas Day, the festival of St Michael and All Angels, is September 29, a former Quarter-day when rents were due, magistrates were chosen and geese were presented to landlords from ancient times. In another tradition, Elizabeth I is said to have started the custom in 1588. Whilst dining on goose with Sir Neville Umfreyville on her way to Tilbury, she made the toast “Death to the Spanish Armada”, whereupon news arrived of the weather assisted demise of the invasion fleet. However this happened in July.

The May Events
During the reign of Elizabeth I, according to the Puritan Phillip Stubbes’, throughout the land in ‘May, Whitsunday, or other time, all the young men and maids, old men and wives, run gadding over night to the woods, groves and hills, and mountains, where they spend all the night in pleasant pastimes; and in the morning they return, bringing with them birch and branches of trees, to deck their assemblies withal… But the chiefest jewel they bring from thence is their May-pole, which they bring home with great veneration.
‘They have twenty or forty yoke of oxen, every ox having a sweet nose-gay of flowers placed on the tip of his horns, and these oxen draw home this May-pole (this stinking idol, rather), which is covered all over with flowers and herbs, bound round about with strings, from the top to the bottom, and sometimes painted with variable colours, with two or three hundred men, women and children following it with great devotion. And thus being reared up, with handkerchiefs and flags hovering on the top, they straw the ground round about it, set up summer haules, bowers, and arbors hard by it. And then fall they to dance about it, like as the heathen people did at the dedication of the idols.’
In Notting Hill in Bygone Days the area was noted as a venue of May dances and Jack in the Green wickerman processions. JG Frazer described the Jack in the Green leaf-clad mummer in The Golden Bough as a ‘relic of tree-worship in modern Europe’, featuring a chimney sweep in ‘a pyramidical framework of wickerwork’ covered in holly and ivy and crowned with flowers and ribbons, at the head of a May day parade of fellow chimney sweeps collecting gratuities

Carnevale, Fasching and Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday)
In the Oxford Concise Dictionary, Carnival is defined as the festivities in Roman Catholic countries in the half-week or week before Lent, or riotous revelry; reckless indulgence in something, carnival of bloodshed, etc. The Latin term ‘Carne Vale’ means ‘farewell to the flesh’ or ‘flight of the flesh’, before the 45 day fast of Lent from Ash Wednesday till Easter in March. The term dates back to the 16th century and is derived from the Latin carne, carnovale, carnelevarium, from caro – flesh and levare – put away.
The Carnevale in Venice dates back a thousand years, and the Germans had a dubious sounding ‘Fasching’ carnival-style festival. The Paris Mardi Gras ‘Fat Tuesday’ festival featured an ox crowned with a fillet (presumably a ribbon or head-band rather than a piece of meat or boned fish), which was paraded through the streets with mock priests and a tin band, imitating a Roman sacrificial procession.

Caribbean and New World Carnivals
The French took their Roman Catholic carnival festival to Trinidad, in the form of dinners, balls and fetes where slave masters dressed as slaves with blackened faces at the culmination of the elite French Creole social season. In Brazil, Cuba and Barbados ‘Crop Over’ Carnivals developed without the French influence. In New Orleans the first Mardi Gras krewes formed out of aristocratic secret societies.
After the 1833 Emancipation Act abolished slavery in the British empire, West Indians celebrated their liberation with annual carnivals, using the European Catholic format with an African cultural spin. The most famous in Port of Spain, Trinidad, acquired an anti-slavery dimension in the mas playing role reversals of former slaves mocking former slave masters by dressing up, or masquerading, in devil costumes. The ‘Canne Brulee’, cane burning festival, celebrated with stick fights, fetes and rum drinking, developed into mass carnivals mocking authority.

The Porto Belo Carnival and the War of Jenkins’ Ear
By the 1720 Treaty of Utrecht Assiento, Britain was transporting 5,000 African slaves a year to South America. To curtail any further British trade guard-ships patrolled the Spanish Main. In the late 1730s a war over shipping rights was sparked by an incident in which a British captain, suspected of smuggling, reputedly had his ear torn off by a Spaniard. ‘The War of Jenkins’ Ear’ began with a small fleet under the command of Admiral Edward Vernon taking the Spanish stronghold of Porto Belo (now in Panama). In all likelihood, it was in celebration of this victory that the local farmer Abraham Adams named his farmhouse, and hence the lane/road to it. At the same time in New York there was an uprising of Africans, Irish and Spanish known as ‘the Slave Plot’ of 1741, brought about by recruitment for the British war.
With some historical irony, in the 20th century the former Portobello farmland became home to Afro-Caribbean, Irish and Spanish communities, while Vernon Yard on Portobello Road hosted the offices of Virgin Records including the Frontline reggae label. Meanwhile back in Porto Belo, Panama, the descendants of escaped African slaves hold a proper Lent carnival in March.

The World Turned Upside Down
In the King Mob ruled 18th century of more or less non-stop riots, rebellions and carnivalesque revelries, English fairs with mock mayor ceremonies were closer to pagan king killing rituals than Catholic carnivals. William Hogarth’s 1761 ‘A View from Cheapside’ depicts rowdy festivities featuring a black horn player. In Old London, Edward Walford wrote of hangings at Tyburn, ‘execution day, as it was termed, must have been a carnival of frequent occurrence.’
John Wallis described a Northumberland Christmas ritual in 1769, in which ‘young men march from village to village, and from house to house, with music before them, dressed in an antic (odd, grotesque) attire, and before the entrance of every house entertain the family with the antic dance with swords or spears in their hands, erect and shining. This they call the sword-dance. For their pains they are presented with a small gratuity in money, more or less, according to every house-holder’s ability. Their gratitude is expressed by firing a gun.’ Such activities were duly suppressed and more or less ended by a combination of the Industrial Revolution, the Protestant work ethic, labour laws and land enclosure.

part 2: Lord Holland’s Slavery to Work Scheme




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