Ruth Thompsett


Carnival Conference Feburary 2012

Ruth Thompsett

Ruth Thompsett Transcript (Click to read/hide)

Ruth Thompsett:

Carnival archiving. Now in the early 80s I played an insect in a bat band, a carnival band of bats and insects. We insects were basically bat food. This wasn’t my first time at Notting Hill Carnival, but it was the first time I’d played Mas. The sun shone, the freedom of the street was exhilarating, being an insect and interacting with bats and bystanders freed up my body and spirit. The sense of release and good vibes was unbeatable, and you know what I’m talking about.

The next day national newspapers reported on trouble at Notting Hill, under Westway. Every paper spoke of a late night bottle throwing incident as an indicator of carnival violence. Meanwhile in towns and cities across the country similar incidents happening outside pubs and clubs, as normal end of Bank Holiday behaviour, went unreported. I was already familiar with such skewed reporting since I’d started collecting cuttings in the late 70s. This time I’d been there with more than a million other people in the thick of it. It had been safe and glorious, beautiful and hugely enjoyed for 2 days. The press had an agenda.

As a teacher I wanted people to know the carnival I and a million others knew that weekend, not this newspaper version.

In 1985 I talked to my course leader at Middlesex University where I was teaching, a proposal for a carnival module to be included on the performing arts degree, and, forward thinking, open minded and creative person that Byron Davies was he got the module validated and up and running for 1986.

Well of course students had to write essays for assessment on this carnival module, it was a degree course after all, as well as undertaking practical projects; where was the reference material in the library for their essay research? I’d got a number of books ordered but there were only a few around. Collecting all material of potential value became crucial. For a start press reporting, photographic documentation, carnival magazines, Mas band flyers, promotional material; beg, borrow and steal.

By years 2 and 3 it was really building. Lucky to have family in Trinidad, I collected carnival material and experience in both Trinidad and Britain, from photographing costumes to recording interviews with designers and [??? 3:16]; reading and trawling cuttings of carnival in the University of West Indies’ library; getting out to remote rural nooks to catch local stick fighting, get an interview and some photos; working in [??? 3:33]; documenting processes; seeking out books, pamphlets, policy documents, oh those policy documents, reports. When you want to learn about something and document it for others’ use your determination carries you forward.

Now I’m going to just sidestep to a few attitudes that I believe the collector needs. I am speaking here of actual collecting. I am not trained as an archivist; I’m a teacher and a carnival collector. I would like to learn more about archiving skills, I’m not putting that out of the possibilities. I would suggest for a collector for archiving you need to have passion, and I’m immensely encouraged that this word ‘passion’ and ‘passionate’ has come up so many times just in the few hours I’ve been here. I’m amongst others who share the sense, if you’re going to go for something, whether it’s organising carnival or collecting archive whatever, you must be passionate. Conviction, determination, and never letting an opportunity to learn pass you by.

For me what I saw and experienced at Notting Hill Carnival was remarkable as art and performance, and was culturally profoundly important. I was passionate about carnival. I was a believer. I believed in the value and importance of carnival, and as a teacher I was determined for carnival to be better understood, and to pursue ways of furthering that aim whatever it took, and if was I was getting involved I certainly needed to keep on learning.

Moving on now from talking about how I got involved in collecting for carnival, why and what, I want to consider who’ve come to be the users of the material and what purpose such a collection serves.

Now of course the students on the carnival module were the first users, and, in addition, they brought to the collection material they found elsewhere or subsequently. In the 90s there were more and more individual students, undergraduates, postgraduates, as well as school students from elsewhere in Britain wanting to do projects or dissertations on carnival, similar type festivals, that needed study resources and archive material. As the collection constantly developed it got used more and more. There is a need for carnival archiving, Notting Hill Carnival yes, but also the carnivals of Southend, Northampton, Norwich and Luton.

When I’d first lobbied for a carnival studies module on the performing degree back in 85, my motivation was to get 20 or 30 good students each year learning about carnival arts, the historical origins, the social and community importance of carnival and so on, rather than seeing it as trivial or, in the case of Notting Hill Carnival, mistaking it for dangerous, as was so often the presentation made of carnival. I wanted at least that number to go out from our performing arts degree each year with an informed and experienced view they could take into life, and indeed their work. Some did, carnival gets everywhere.

The more people that come to your archive, your archive and yours, the more that serious interest is developed, the function of your festival is better realised and understood. I’ve heard examples of that today. In this way archives can be part of a process of opening up thinking, changing ways of seeing. Sometimes a journalist, teacher, a film or programme maker, comes to use ARCS, Archive and Resource for Carnival Study is now what my collection is formally termed. Does your town or city have substantial, on-going, accessible archive about your local festivals and carnival for teachers to use and journalists to draw on, over and above the tourist or visitor information?

The more substantial my carnival collection became the more chance there was, for example, that journalists making use of the carnival archive could produce well informed articles about Notting Hill Carnival for their paper or magazine; could we shift the agenda a bit in that newspaper reporting?

If, for example, a teacher is undertaking a costume making project with a class he or she can research the carnival history, the meanings of characters in carnival, and so on, from a carnival archive, and give the practical work she’s doing, on say costume making, a meaningful context, the why, the how, the when, the what is the value, what is it about, context to that costume making. You see how carnival archiving and the archive itself can have so many functions.

Our carnivals and festivals are not side issues. It’s not just messing about or having a bit of fun, though I have to say if it’s not a bit of fun it’s not carnival. For example, Notting Hill Carnival is profoundly important as a cultural event, it has long and multiple histories, which is white and black history. It’s an art form as remarkable and valid as painting on canvas, presenting a play in theatre, and other examples of the arts. Like your carnivals, it is free, open, and inclusive. It brings people together and can develop a sense of community and pride.

The seriousness of carnival is underlined when you look at what topics and subjects students and writers are coming from. I have a file about that thick [ 15 cm ] just from the last few years, people emailing to enquire, and I just picked out a few to give you a flavour of the rich variety of demand on the archive you’re working on.

‘I am a PhD research student at the Sorbonne University in Paris preparing a thesis on the political, cultural and social representation of West Indians and Africans in Britain from 1948 – 1962, and I’m interested in including a chapter about the beginnings of Notting Hill Carnival ...’

‘I am a student at the Arts Institute at Bournemouth and studying costume for the screen and stage. I’m in my third year, decided to base one of my projects on carnival ...’

‘I have to write a history of Notting Hill Carnival for Kensington and Chelsea Council. Could you help me out?’

‘I am writing to you from the BBC in Bristol where I work on a series called, ‘Time Shift’ for BBC4. Recent programmes have included … we are now beginning to work on a programme about Notting Hill Carnival. I’m looking for early footage …’

‘I’m a social anthropology MSc student at Oxford University. I’m currently preparing to write my Masters dissertation …’

‘I’m a GCSE student studying textiles and have chosen the theme of carnival ….’

‘I’m pursuing my MPhil in cultural studies and looking for information about history, development of Notting Hill Carnival …’

‘I’m at Pembrokeshire College in Wales studying for a HND in travel and tourism marketing …’

‘I’d like to use the archive and study resource for Notting Hill Carnival for my GCSE traffic design advertisement project …’

‘Thanks for replying so swiftly. As our geography project is on St Lucia it would be good to focus on Caribbean carnival, but images and videos are hard to find. I want the children to be able to understand and give them the flavour …’

‘I’m a college lecturer working on my PhD on the British Caribbean dub poetry …’

‘I’m in my final at the University of Luton and studying public relations …’

‘I’m about to enter my third year at Nottingham University where I’m studying geography …’

‘I’m currently studying A-level textiles in Norwich …’

‘I’m a third year dance student at Roehampton …’

‘I’m trying to find a copy of Police Carnival 1989. Do you have a copy in your archive?’

‘This is a query about carnival archive at Middlesex. Mental Health Media, a charity promoting the voice of mental health service users, is putting together an antidiscrimination toolkit …’ It does connect with carnival in the end, and why not mental health.

We get somebody from the University of Hamburg here who is Trinidadian, and the theme of her work is, ‘the deconstruction of the gendered representations in carnival.’

[ Flicking through letters ] literature, culture, modernity, more textiles.

‘What’s the influence for the Caribbean and African community in London, where Notting Hill Carnival is concerned?’

‘In view of recent news stories concerning the organisation of Notting Hill Carnival 2009, I’d like to propose a case study in one of my classes about this particular event. I was wondering if your archive could assist me. I have so far managed to collect some information, the most important of all perhaps being the report by the Director of Waste Management and Leisure, Notting Hill Carnival 2008, how environmental impacts and community safety …’

‘I’m conducting research on historical patterns and stratification of ritual behaviour …’

‘I’m an Italian student and with some friends we’d like to come to London for Notting Hill Carnival. Is it possible to find special accommodation for students, a Youth Hostel, B&B? Would be really grateful if you could let us have some information, thanks a lot.’ I don’t know how that one slipped it but I did try to help [ laughter ].

Being involved in collecting material about your local carnival matters. Collecting and creating an archive on your local festival is crucial to that process of people learning about it, writing or teaching about it, to their better understanding of its value. In creating a record you are developing interest in the event, fostering community and pride. Your archive can be part of a process that develops the value and function of that festival or carnival. You know it and I know it.

Thank you.

Recording ends 16:41 minutes

Partners and sponsors