Monthly Archives: August 2016

Custom transcribed: Notting Hill Carnival

Standard

DSC_0431

What a custom! Vibrant, splendid, colourful, joyful, loud, proud and every superlative you can think of. A custom which is British terms is 50 years young (or so). A custom which draws at least a million visitors, something that many other customs would love to achieve. A custom which despite its firm fixture in London’s event calendar is one which has had a turbulent history and continues to attract problems, although considering nearly a million people attend statistically this is likely.

Notting like it

Arriving just before the 10 o’clock starting point the first observation is that it does not look like it will start on time! Indeed, the large numbers of police I was expecting them to form a procession – a police procession now there’s a thought- soon though one can hear the pounding sounds and a swirl of colour – mainly the bright green of the stewards – a mix a wash of gold.

DSC_0118DSC_0990DSC_0937

Soon the Carnival begins with this first procession, dancers wrapped in gold and holding aloft huge hands with 50. Celebrating 50 years (young) of the carnival, although this was also celebrated in 2014 and 2015. Then there was a big gap – which seemed like 30 mins – the next float. This is the first of 60 floats and countless colourful costumes, it will be a long day if you wait for it all to pass by. Many of course eschew the parade and stick to the 38 static sound systems dotted around this small enclave of west London.

DSC_0751

These floats are not like your usual float crammed full of themed participants, there would not be room, much of it is full of booming bass and tweaking speakers. Surrounding each float are some of the most wonderful costumes to be seen outside of the Rio Carnival. Massive tableaux of faces, feathers, bright vibrant colours. Samba dancers brightly adorned in their feathers and revealing costumes weave in and out dancing to whip up the crowds. Sounds of calypso, soca and reggae boom from the floats and bounce around the street.

DSC_0656

Notting allowed!

Sadly for what should be a great outburst of sounds and sights, its origins have been fraught. Born as a response of racial tension and the need for a unifying social identity. Although its official ‘birth date’ is 1964 this event was a descendent of a rather less impacting event, in was January and indoors, a Caribbean Carnival on the 30th January 1959 in Pancras Town Hall. This fused with a more hippie inspired street party organised in the mid-1960s to encourage cultural unity. This street party consisted of a procession of neighbourhood kids and a steel band. Roll forward to 1970 and it was described as:

the Notting Hill Carnival consisted of 2 music bands, the Russell Henderson Combo and Selwyn Baptiste’s Notting Hill Adventure Playground Steelband and 500 dancing spectators”

By the early 70s greater sponsorship thanks to an enterprising local teacher by the name of Leslie Palmer, resulted in an increase in steel bands, reggae groups and sound systems. The event begun to develop into two strands, a masquerade procession with floats and the establishment of stationary islands with their own sound systems.

From what clearly appears to be a very valid celebration of Caribbean culture was not popular with the authorities to begin with. The riots did not help in 1976 when disaffected youths battled with police and as a result for a long period of time this became the unfortunate media representation of the colourful event. However, such action could have been a result of heavy handed approaches of the police and the constant attempt to ban the event. It would not be until 1987 that the Carnival was officially allowed to take place. This has not prevented trouble (five deaths in the years since) or the need for high levels of police, but it has certainly reduced and fallen away to the fringes. Troubles and occasional serious crimes still arise from time to time – with around a million people swarming the narrow streets it’s not difficult to understand why something could boil over – but the media is much more favourable and is seen by the authorities as a celebration of London’s multicultural society.

DSC_0985

In a way, the Notting Hill Carnival typifies how customs become hybridised. Carnival is of course a Roman Catholic tradition brought over from France and Spanish colonisation. Through in the displaced masses of the African slave and brought back to Europe to be enjoyed by all races. All human life is here, of all ages, sexes and races. Despite the problems which create a sometimes poor reputation I would recommend the sounds and sights (and smells…of diesel and other intoxicants) to anyone. If you want to miss the crowds get there for the start and near the start and you’ll find it a pleasant experience. Go on experience it..

Advertisements

Custom revived: Lympstone’s Furry Dance, Devon

Standard

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Lympstone? Devon? Surely that is an error? The Furry or Floral Dance is a Cornish custom and one established at Helston deep in Cornwall. Well it appears the picturesque Cornish town has long had a rival – in both the custom and appearance too I might add.

In a bit of a furry!

I had discovered the custom by accident. Researching a holiday down in Devon I came across a reference and at first dismissed it as a mistake. After a rather tortured journey down to Devon – should have been four hours – but with delays, hold ups, detours etc, it took virtually all day and I just arrived 20 minutes before the dance! The sun was shining and the small town was in party atmosphere. Parking at the pub on the main road, I walked the surprisingly long walk into the town, within minutes the dance had begun.

DSC_0038

Furry history

Lympstone’s Furry Dance history is a bit confused. Locals will tell you it is something to do with fur hunters returning from Nova Scotia. The dance being established as some sort of celebration of their return. If so why does it have the same name as Helstons? Helston’s is associated with fertility. The coming of summer. Old pagan rites perhaps. But Lympstone’s is in high summer, although perhaps close enough to be associated with the old traditions of Lammas?

The custom is certainly over 100 years old although details are difficult to find. It appears that it was revived and associated of the Furry Dance tune in 1933 by a local band master Bill Chapman and indeed the day was established as a way to raise money for the band. The custom was suspended for the second world war, but was revived in 1946.

DSC_0030

Kick up your heels!

Stepping out at the front of the dance has always been a local honour and it appears traditionally the same man until they retired, Tom Kerslake did so until the 1950s, then apparently his son and then Graham Willis from until today. Dressed in top hat and tails they weave up the long street passing pubs and cheering visitors and locals, who make it a day of garden parties, kicking their heels to each side. Directly behind them the band belting out with vigour the traditional Floral dance tune. Then behind them a whole range of weird and wonderful costumes ranging Alice in Wonderland to Star Wars. The route is considerably lengthy and ends up with a well-earned rest at the Saddlers Arms where the curious assemble can be seen quaffing a drink and odd view for a passerby on the main road.

It is evident the Furry dance is more than a dance – albeit actually two, but a whole day of local of celebration with field events and some splendid fancy dress  – the town lighthouses being of particular simple ingenuity – in Candy Field and ends the day in a blaze of fireworks. After the dance there was the familiar site of some rather colourful Morris.

DSC_0059

One must add that the procession dance is no way as lengthy nor perhaps as impressive as that at Helston but it is nevertheless worthy of a visit if in the area.  As a postscript I noticed later in the month over the bank holiday weekend Totnes on the other side of the river Exe also had a Floral dance…it looks like there may be more than we knew! The origin of this one even more

Custom demised: Eton Ram Hunting, Berkshire

Standard

Schools begin again soon but amongst the curious rituals of the new term, none are as bizarre as that which – now would be done during school holidays – the hunting of a ram on Election Saturday. The College had an ancient claim upon its butcher to provide a ram on the Election Saturday, to be hunted by the scholars. In his 1847 History of Buckinghamshire, Lipscombe notes:

“the animal having been so pressed as to swim across the Thames, it ran into Windsor Market, with the boys after it, and much mischief was caused by this unexpected accident. The health of the scholars had also suffered from the length of the chase, or the heat of the season. The character of the sport was therefore changed about 1740, when the ram was ham-strung, and, after the speech, was knocked on the head with large, twisted clubs.”

An account in the Gentleman’s Magasine of 1731 notes:

“Monday, Aug. 2 was the election at Eton College, when the scholars, according to custom, hunted a ram, by which the Provost and Fellows hold a Manor.”

Eton was not alone with its custom, East Wretham in Norfolk also had a harvest related hunting the ram. John Blomefield in his 1831 History of Norfolk notes:

“When the harvest work was finished by the tenants, they were to have an acre of barley, and a ram let loose in the midst of them; if they caught him, he was their property but if he escaped then the Lord claimed him”.

Surprisingly at a school, this rather cruel act was not unique, for as Henry S. Salt in his Blood Sports at School – The Eton Hare-Hunt notes:

Even in the nineteenth century such sports as bull-baiting, badger-baits, dog-fights, and cat and duck hunts, were “organised for the special edification of the Eton boys.”

However, views on such barbarity were changing even Liscombe noted:

But the barbarity of the amusement caused it to be laid aside at the election in 1747, and the, flesh of the ram was prepared in pasties The dish, however, still continued nominally to grace the Election Monday.”

Salt also notes:

“It is a curious fact that the large majority of Etonians, though nowadays a bit ashamed of the ram-hunt and other sporting pleasantries of a bygone period, do not in the least suspect that their beloved hare-hunt belongs in effect to the same category of amusement. Thus, Sir H. Maxwell Lyte, in his history of the school, referring to the earlier barbarities, remarks that “it is evident that in the time of Elizabeth cruelty to animals was not counted among the sins for which penitents require to be shriven.” But what, it may be asked, of the time of George V.? It is entertaining to find the Eton College Chronicle itself referring to the ram-hunt of the eighteenth century as a ‘brutal custom’; and remarking that Etonians were “only so barbarous.” Once!”

I for one see this as one ancient custom not necessary to revive.