Ruth Tompsett: Archiving And You!


Ruth Tompsett Carnival Conference March 2013

Here’s One We Made Earlier. The 2nd Carnival Archive Conference March 15th and 16th 2013

Ruth Tompsett: Archiving And You!

Ruth Tompsett Transcript (Click to read/hide)

Hilary Carty:

Today it’s really trying to get underneath the skin of the Archive Project, to understand it, so what better way to start off than with Ruth Tompsett. Ruth is a visiting academic at Middlesex University, she’s been involved in carnival since the 1970s, and she’s really passionate about carnival, the value of carnival beyond the parades and processions, about what carnival and involvement in carnival can do for individuals, and very keen to share that carnival spirit with everyone. Ruth is also a carnivalist herself and plays with the Notting Hill Mas Bands.

Ruth Tompsett:

I’m going to be speaking to you from personal experience, hoping you can take some enthusiasm and some ideas out of it, in terms of areas that you’re collecting.

Although I was collecting in the 70s some of the press reporting for Notting Hill, it was in the early 80s that I played in an insect band, it was a bat band actually with insects designed by Mouret Cambo [? 1:49]. A carnival band with bats and insects, we insects were of course the bat food, we were eaten by the bats. Now this wasn’t my first time at Notting Hill but it was the first time I’d played mas, the sun shone, freedom in the street was exhilarating, being an insect and teasing the bats, playing with bystanders, it freed up the body and the spirit, the sense of release was fantastic.

The next day in the national newspapers there were endless reports of trouble in Notting Hill under Westway. Every paper spoke of the late night bottle throwing incident as though it was some indicator of regular carnival violence. Meanwhile, in towns and cities across the country, similar incidents were happening outside pubs and clubs as normal end of Bank Holiday behaviour, and all of that went unreported.

I was already familiar with it from collecting 1976 press reporting, for example, an occasion when the police first overreacted to carnivalists.

At this time [??? 3:14], I’d gone round the whole route, I’d been in the thick of it, it was safe, glorious, beautiful, hugely enjoyed by more than a million other people; the press had an agenda. As a teacher I wanted people to know the carnival I and a million others knew, not this newspaper version.

In 1985 I took to my course leader, Byron Davies, a proposal for a carnival module to be included on the performing arts degree at Middlesex University. When it got up and running I cannot tell you the kind of animosity, the sense of how outrageous it was to have carnival studied at a university. Yes!

The module lasted 21 years because, forward thinking, open minded and creative person that course leader was, he got the module validated in record time and up and running for 1986: The history of carnival, that context; colonial history right through to how Notting Hill started; that history of violence; carnival, art itself; the calypso development of pan; who were the key people involved in Notting Hill back in the 50s. Everything bubbling, the huge, complex, rich narrative that was carnival.

As well as undertaking practical projects for assessment in this module, students had to write substantial essays, that’s academia for you, but where was the reference material, what had the library got, how could students research for their essays? Well I had a number of books ordered but there were very few things published. I started collecting all material of potential value; it was crucial, press reporting, photographic evidence, carnival magazines, the odd conference paper, mas band flyers, promotional material for starters. There were practitioners, they came in to do a lot of the teaching, pan players, calypsonians, mas leaders, they were part of the teaching frame of that module in the first years. We got video tape or sound recordings as a resource, making as well as collecting. By year two or three it was really building.

I’m lucky to have family in Trinidad. I collected in Trinidad and in Britain on carnivals, photographed class gyms, recorded interviews with designers, calypsonians, reading, trawling cuttings on carnival in the University of West Indies’ library, getting out to remote rural nooks to catch local stick fighting; we’re talking Trinidad, it’s still happening, don’t believe anyone who says they don’t really do it anymore, usually in the middle of the night. I worked in mas camps, documenting processes, seeking out books, pamphlets, policy documents, reports, indeed making resources as well as collecting them, for example, through photographing. Today we can all photograph, we can all document, interviewing, go and check things out. We’ve just had some brilliant pan playing, maybe Ian’s up for some interviewing locally about the origins of pan, his experiences of it. That can become part of an archive.

When you want to learn about something and document it for other people to learn from it’s a matter of determination, never letting an opportunity pass by.

I want to use some time to show you things. Can I just point out that although I’m talking books, images and things, an archive is things too, what is this piece of wood < holding >, it’s from a Trinidadian poui tree. A bit of a red rag tied on one end and god what happened here < other end >, but I was given this by somebody from who I was getting a lot of information about stick fighting, he was introducing me to all stick fighters. Before I left Trinidad on that occasion he came with a stick that was broken, he kept one half and he said, ‘look it’s so important to me that you know this history and take it forward over in Britain, I want you to have the other half.’ This was a stick from a stick fight, the poui is a tough tree, stick fighting is holding the stick at both ends, parrying, it is full of dance footwork, music, drumming which leads, which builds almost to a trance like state sometimes, chanting. It is an art form, it is true battle, blood is drawn, the final blow is that kind of a blow < strong >, but parrying is here.

Something like this I found in teaching, started people looking at it, at those frayed edges, started them saying, ‘stick fighting, what is it, where does it come from, what’s it about, you say “art” what’s art got to do with fighting?’ a lot in stick fighting. Sometimes it’s an object that can inspire and be a source for a lot more.

Sidestepping for a moment, I’m not talking about digital archives today as you’ve noticed. Digital and real hands-off both are very important and needed, but I’m talking of the real actual hands-on collecting.

I’m not a trained archivist, but in my experience if you’re collecting you need passion, conviction, you need to believe, determination, you want to learn yourself, you want yourself to find out and to experience, to be inside the experience of that festival. To me in many ways it’s a magical mystery tour, you have to seek, and this seeking, experiencing, determination, these are the driving forces behind collecting carnival material, hand-in-hand with wanting others to know, learn, discover and experience.

Perhaps when you hear people talking about archiving you think, god that’s a bit of a dry old number, but I can assure you that for somebody who wants to collect on festival, experience it, experience the festival, talk with people who are doing the music, playing those carnival characters, whatever. Learn everything you can, it’s crucial, and then you’re aware of what you actually need to be collecting.

An archive actually grows out of your own learning, your experiences, and we make archive material by interviewing, photographing, writing notes, whatever, so never be fooled. I don’t know what being an archivist is but I do know that collecting is creative and experiential. ‘Creative’ and ‘experiential’, how many times have I used those words about working performance, theatre, art, dance; it is a very experiential experience.

Moving on now from looking at the how I got collecting, the what and why, I want to consider who’ve come to be the users in the material, what purpose a collection can serve.

Now students on the carnival module are the first users of course, and in addition they brought material in to give to the collection, that they’d found elsewhere themselves. In the 90s there were more individual students and undergraduates, postgraduates, school students from elsewhere in Britain beginning to want to do projects and dissertations on carnival, or their local festival, and they needed the study resources. The collection constantly developed and it got used more and more. There’s a need for carnival archiving, Notting Hill yes, but your carnivals and festivals in this region and right across Britain.

When I lobbied first for a carnival studies module on that degree in 1985 my motivation was to get 20 or 30 good students each year learning about carnival arts, historical origins, social, community importance of carnival, and rather than seeing it as trivial or dangerous, as it was often presented, they could take an informed and experienced view into their lives and work, and many did and have done. The ocean is made up of drops, but the more people come to your archive the more the interest is developed, the better the function of your festival is realised and understood, the more people get to know about that festival with respect and with amazement.

In this way archives being part of a process are really opening up thinking, changing the ways of seeing things, just in the way, for example, that some of you younger people here when you do a project, you start investigating something, they look rather dull on the outside, but as you find things out it becomes exciting and it opens your mind.

Sometimes a journalist, teacher, film or programme maker comes to use the archives and resources that have been collected in the last 30 years by me. Does your town or city have substantial, accessible archive on your local festivals for teachers to use, for journalists to draw on, over and above tourist information?

The more substantial the carnival collection became the more chance there was that journalists, making use of the carnival archive, could produce better informed articles about Notting Hill Carnival for their paper or magazine, or, for example, if a teacher is undertaking a costume making project with a class, he or she can research the carnival history, the meanings of characters in those costumes, and so on. Give the practical work a meaningful context. Do you see how a carnival archive, a festival archive, can function, it can be quite important.

Archives of festivals aren’t side issues, they’re not just messing about or a bit of fun, they are all those things as well, but, for example, Notting Hill is profoundly important as a cultural event, it has a long multiple history, and that is white and black person history. It is an art form, remarkable, and as valid as a painting, a painting on a canvas in a gallery; as valid as presenting a play in a theatre. Like your carnivals Notting Hill is free, open, inclusive, it brings people together, it helps develop a sense of community, of pride, even of identity, who am I, I’m part of this.

The seriousness of carnival is underlined when you look at what topics and subjects students and writers are studying. I’ve had a huge number of emails from people, just to give you some idea:

‘I’m a MA conference and events management student at the University of Westminster. I was given your name by Chris Boothman. I’m writing a research paper following the course on Notting Hill Carnival …’

Susan Langford, Teacher: ‘Thank you for your help and access to the library way back last year. Our carnival was wonderful, it was hot and sunny, remember those days. Hope your own conference went well. I have enclosed this material as I thought this might be of interest …’

Jolly good somebody who’s come and used the archive, joy, found it valuable and sending some new information for the archive.

‘I’m interested in booking a time to visit your library collection to gather some information about carnivals, particularly Notting Hill. This would be a great help to my daughter’s project …’

A mum here who’s on the case, I wonder if any of your mums are that keen; hope the daughter was.

Here we have somebody from North Eastern State University, wherever that is, a Professor in Sociology in the States: ‘Last year I had the opportunity to view your archive collection on Notting Hill for a research study I’m conducting. I’ve received another research grant and I’ll be returning to London in March, would it be possible for me to view the collection in that time?’

It certainly would.

‘I’m a PhD student in the University of Hamburg and my area of study concerns postcolonial discourse within Caribbean society …’

‘Colonials’ an interesting term.

‘I’ve tried to contact you lots of times, but unfortunately couldn’t find you. I’d be pleased to meet you any time …’

That was a student from Italy.

‘I’m a journalist doing my MA in photojournalism at Westminster …’

‘I’m currently studying my Masters at the School of Speech and Drama …’

‘I’m Jung Jung Wun a member of On-Trend, a group of Korean University students who will be visiting London and want to research foreign festivals …’

On it goes. We even get the odd thing that’s something like:

‘I’m coming from Italy to London for Notting Hill, could you recommend me some accommodations …’

That’s not actually what I normally recommend but I did my best.

Students from all over Britain here < showing letters >.

Somebody me phoned me one day and said, ‘I’m on the governing body of a nursery, and I’d love a teacher in my child’s class to do a festival in the nursery, can you recommend anything?’ Now I have taught primary, I’ve taught 5 / 10 year olds, I’ve taught secondary, I’ve gone through the university gamut and I’ve supervised PhDs, but I’ve not taught nursery, but I had a jolly good go at it. I’ve got a page here of suggestions I sent to her, she phoned and said it was great, that they did those and it worked fine, so anything. It might be a nursery teacher or it might be, as this one was, a query about the carnival archive at Middlesex:

‘Mental Health Media, a charity promoting the voice of mental health service users is putting together an antidiscrimination toolkit. One component will be a video, opens with views of civil rights and equal opportunity struggles. Could we use short clips or any material in your archive?’

Thoughtful person, yes I think we could help there.

Just coming from everywhere, and in amongst them occasionally some very odd enquiries, but all attended to if at all possible. That’s what festivals do they get people interested all over the place.

Being involved in collecting material about your local carnival really matters. Firstly, as I’ve just illustrated, a carnival or festival archive may valuably be used within the disciplines of history, psychology, music, theatre, culture, anthropology, geography, cultural studies, and mental health. Now hang on a minute did you know that before, what does that tell us?

For example, when once, amongst other things, I was interviewed for the Evening Standard at Notting Hill Carnival time, unbeknownst to me Claire Holder, the organiser, was also interviewed; the article appeared and I was quoted as saying any number of things I didn’t say, and selectively bits I did say. This was put in opposition to Claire Holder, as though we’d been interviewed together and was in argument. That was definitely not the case.

The next day a letter appeared in the Evening Standard from a medical student saying, ‘who is this woman who appears to waste our valuable taxes and money teaching a course on carnival studies. I’m training for medicine and I want to know why our taxpayer money is going towards a course like that?’

Well I would say, ‘come and have a look at the hundreds of enquiries for using carnival archive’, because carnival isn’t trivial, your festivals aren’t trivial, they have histories, they tell us about ourselves. They are experienced with strong artistic content, they build our confidence in our town, our city, our village, in our ethnic group, or our pride when it gets taken more widely, and then we find that actually there are school students, right up to PhDs, who are studying in geography, mental health, wherever who recognise that carnival has something which is important for them in their disciplined study. Don’t let anyone convince you that you studying any aspect of carnival is something trivial and superficial, unless it’s being taught or studied that way. Intrinsically it is important.

Being involved in collecting for carnival matters and the possible relevance of a carnival archive to a range of disciplines demonstrates the serious value of both the carnival and the archive. A carnival or festival archive can truly bring new insights and knowledge into so many disciplines.

Finally, collecting and creating an archive on your local festival is crucial to that process of people learning about it, writing, teaching about it, to the better understanding of that festival’s value. Your archive can be part of a process that develops the value and function of that festival. In creating a record you are developing interest in the event and fostering community pride, a sense of that community, a sense of identity, and fulfilling all the objectives of painting, theatre, dance, that any of the arts are doing.

Two things, who is he? < Shows audience picture > anybody know who this is, a younger version of a man who died about 4 or 5 years ago?


It’s not [??? 25:32] is it?

Ruth Tompsett:



Lord Kitchener.

Ruth Tompsett:

Lord Kitchener. Aldwyn Roberts was his born name. Lord Kitchener, the [??? 25:46], the kind of calypsonian name, came to Britain in 1948 on the Windrush. He drove buses in Birmingham, he got enticed back to Trinidad and he became one of the great global calypsonians. I brought this along with much affection; it was a Christmas present from my brother and sister-in-law in Trinidad.

What is interesting, and anybody who’d like to follow it up I’ve brought some material, is tracing Lord Kitchener, it’s a fascinating journey through calypso development from the last 60 years. I’ve got some examples I can show you.

I grew up with calypso and so on, a rather less than pleasant picture on the front < calypso melodies >, but that’s how this jolly form of calypso was viewed in the 50s, a wonderful collection of Calypso. My father loved Calypso, it was so popular in Britain in the 50s, and maybe that’s a surprise to some of the younger ones.

What am I doing with this < teddy >, well sadly he’s been around so long he doesn’t always work, let’s give him a go, < pulls paw, teddy sings ‘who let the dogs out’ >. Anyone remember the Baha men, that popular calypso that went global? It was a calypsonian in Trinidad who sold his rights after he’d made that calypso in the 90s, a top calypso in Trinidad. What this shows you is that something made in China, sold in London, gives you the commercial version that the Baha men made money on of a calypso that was written, sung, and won prizes in Trinidad. A lot of things can tell you big stories. Thank you.

Hilary Carty:

Before you go are you going to leave those items there for people to have a look at?

Ruth Tompsett:

Yes, and I’ll be around today so anybody who wants to talk about archives or anything, look at some things, come by.

Hilary Carty:

A very rich example there of collecting and the importance, as Ruth said, of the physical collections as well as the digital, any questions?


I’m interested in how the younger generation now are perceiving carnival information when you teach it?

Ruth Tompsett:

I would say that if you can introduce carnival to people who don’t know about it, for example I would normally start physically, start with a physical warm-up. I’m no big deal on the dancing but we can all use our pelvises and all the rest of it, get them to warm up a bit. Pick up anything to hand, pick up a spoon and a CD case, let’s have five people with that get some rhythms going, then get moving to it, that’s been one way I’ve found with students in. Then I start actually, ‘whoa, feeling good’ experiential. Some are better approached with amazing images of carnival and telling them what’s behind those characters. It’s hooking people, but once they’re hooked in then they’re passionate too. Also if I’m teaching people and there are people there who go to carnival I get them to lead a warm-up, get them to talk about the mas camp they work in. It’s using people as well if they’re in that class. I think that’s hugely important. Thank you.

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