We’re going to kick off this afternoon with Steve Fletcher from the South Wales Intercultural Community Arts. Steve is the founder and Artistic Director of Swica, which is Wales’ leading carnival arts organisation. Since its inception in 1990 it has successfully delivered hundreds of carnival events and parades across Wales and beyond, including the annual Cardiff Carnival, and that’s on Saturday 10th of August this year, so if you happen to be ever so slightly towards Cardiff then that would be a really good time to get there. Please give a very warm welcome to Steve.
I’m going to speak for about 20 minutes; I’m not sure about what because I’m making this up as I go along. I want you to enjoy this so whilst I speak my glamorous assistant, come wife, Lorraine will move amongst you, how many people are familiar with the child’s book phenomena ‘Where’s Wally?’, everybody, lovely. This picture is part of a game we play when we’re bored, it’s not going to happen to you obviously, and it’s called, ‘Where’s Lady Di?’ You have 60 seconds with this picture in front of you and if you spot Lady Di you’re allowed to take one of the jelly babies from the bags. There is, however, one proviso you can’t have one of the green ones, they’re Lorraine’s, that’s the way it works and you wouldn’t want to mess with her if she gets nasty. Here we go, we’ll start at this table, you’ve got a minute each, and I’m going to carry on talking.
Whilst the game of ‘Where’s Lady Di?’ is going on, let me introduce myself, since other people have given themselves a bit of background as it were. From Aberystwyth in mid-Wales, chose to go to Bradford University because it’s a very different post-industrial, multicultural background, met the devil at a crossroads in September 1984, was offered a PhD at the European University Institute in Florence to rewrite post-European history, or become the administrator of Cardiff Laboratory Theatre Company, who if you’re into your theatre were quite a radical group. I chose the latter and I’ve regretted it ever since, so I’m going now, I’ve had enough!
Along the way Chisenhale Dance Space, organising gigs, being paid to work with people like New Order and U2, and then whilst in Chisenhale approached by a fabulous, innovative, intercultural community group called Theatre [??? 3:49] in Wales, who invited me back to Cardiff, and we did a trilogy of ground breaking plays in a Gujarati [? 4:01] Centre, which had recently been fire bombed, and which the public and the local authorities wouldn’t give any funding to, so the men, women and children of that community were physically building it themselves. That’s where we based our work and many great friendships grew out of that.
Like a fool then in 1990, Glasgow is the European Cultural Capital, I accidentally raised £250,000, which is 1990 is proper money, and the company went to Glasgow but I decided to stay behind. Having got people excited on a project-by-project basis I sort of felt morally obliged, I want to have a good time quite frankly, to start my own organisation which would just be about South Wales and try to create developmental opportunities.
The first ever workshops we did in April 1990, one was with the City Farm, which is a lovely libertarian space which now has a huge retail park on it, strange how history / time can do this to us, and the other was in the local school, down the docks, which had the only black head mistress in Wales. I was fortunate enough having to have met in St Paul’s Carnival in Bristol, over the river, as we say in Cardiff, Kathryn Chang, who was an accolade of Peter Minshall, a name that I know a number of people have checked, but his name keeps coming up. He had appointed her to be his designer for his kiddies band, the children’s’ section, and she was our first ever carnival artist in residency, that’s April 1990. That went well and here we are 23 years later.
People have asked me, ‘Swica, what does it stand for?’ and sometimes I say, ‘everything decent and true about the American way of life’, and they look at me blankly, a bit like yourselves, other times I say, ‘South Wales Intercultural Community Arts if you like us, or Silly Wankers in Costume Again if you don’t.’ I’m here partly to lower the tone, and also partly to send a little collective shiver through your spines, because when I was thinking about what on earth I was going to talk about today, amongst the things I wanted to do was to remind people about the alternative history, or the secret life of carnival, which perhaps won’t come out immediately in the obvious stuff, which, it’s fabulous, it’s life affirming, I’m here today I’m having a great time, it’s about smiles, it’s about pleasure and the rest of it.
When I thought back to our early days, and some of the problems we’re even encountering now, I remember all the good times but I remember all the terrible things that happened to us, which we had to overcome, and which, despite John, quite rightly telling me off for not archiving for a long time, if I was knocked down by a bus today before I get the archiving done might never be recorded. I’m quite interested in the archiving process, if it got in touch with some of these people who had effectively tried to derail, or even worse …… I better get on to the stories; this is proving chattier than I thought it might be.
First ever carnival parade we learnt what not to do. It was 200 strong, it was our interpretation of a Trinidad style fancy sailor mask, and Kathryn Chang was the designer. We marched up half a road, I’ve never done it before or since, there were cars passing on that side, absolutely ludicrous, not least for our audience, I mean half the audience couldn’t see because there were bloody buses in the way, and also that we restricted it to young people.
The next year we began the model then that carried on for well over 20 years, which is to take over a huge space, stock it with enthusiasm, vision and free materials, make it free of charge, and make it a very concentrated hothouse experience. The carnival camp, even now we’ve just been able to secure funding, is a 12 hour day experience for 18 days, we start with absolute emptiness and we end up with a road full of creativity, all the wonderful and good things. But as Meera Syal said, and certainly wrote, life isn’t all ha-ha-ha, he-he-he, so at one point I thought I might do the entire thing in the tradition of film noir, be a sort of investigative journalist and the rest of it, but then I woke up so it’s never going to work. What’s he talking about, what are these terrible things that happened?
If you operate in a public space, or road, in this country you will directly or indirectly, directly if you’re the organiser and immediately responsible for what’s going on, be dealing with the police. In our early days because there was no precedence, the police in South Wales had never seen anything like this, they weren’t sure at all what was going on, and they weren’t very pleasant or helpful at all. Indeed in the very first one I learnt a very sad lesson, I’ve been reading a lot of Sherlock Holmes and it’s the strange case of the yellow bib.
In the very first one in 1990 I had a costume on, and the point at which I was trying to deal with the policeman, who hadn’t been part of the briefing and wanted to cut the parade in half so that some traffic could pass, you know it was like 5 minutes, but ‘that wasn’t what had been agreed with the authorities’, and I was trying to explain to him and mention the right people in the police force, you know I was white faced, huge hat and all the rest of it, and he just couldn’t take me seriously and he just told me to go away, ‘you’re not the organiser.’ Ever since then sadly my perspective on the carnival parade has been the person, it’s a bit like, I believe in Vietnam you’d have somebody on point going through the jungle, I’m about 20 yards in front of the first reveller, I’m looking for trouble and all the rest of it, I’m wearing a yellow bib and helping sort of clear the path as it were.
The police for the first 3 years really weren’t happy bunnies, and finally one of them sat me down and they were saying, ‘we think we understand where you’re coming from’, and, ‘this is going to happen every year isn’t it?’ and I said, ‘yes it is going to happen every year’, they said, ‘I’ll be honest with you we’re a bit confused because we’re policing you under the guidelines for a political demo that we think’s going to kick off, which is why we’re very antsy and all the rest of it.’ I was trying to explain about carnival, that it can be fun, that that’s not our prime motive. In 1994 I was actually beaten to the ground by the community liaison person, had six constables around me who were invited to kick me for a while.
Weird experiences for carnivals in this country to go through, and stuff which I don’t think I’ve really reported it much. It’s that underside, that perhaps I’d encourage some of the archivist to …… I’d be very interested to know the rather large, brutish policeman who gave me a dead leg and I went down, what he thinks about that now all these years on, what on earth was he doing? Archiving the good, bad and the ugly really, I think is my message, to try and spread it out.
Again in the early days, and I’m going back to the 90s, things do get better, and John Fox who I adore and honoured to be speaking with, let’s have another round of applause for John Fox, let’s go for it. John said, ‘whatever you do don’t make it all doom and gloom and all the rest of it’, so what I have decided to do, it’s a bit like I did get to ask a question of Mary from RASPO, I asked her, ‘what was your best ever gig and why, and what was your worst one?’, so I’m going to intersperse some of the nastier stuff with memorable stuff, perhaps the three most memorable parades.
We’ve done hundreds; I mean we’ll parade in South Wales at the drop of a hat, whoosh we’re off. They can be traditional, they can be small scale, large scale, and they can be associated with sporting events. One of my most memorable and uplifting, it’s a happy, positive story, is there used to be this awful woman who said there was no such thing as society, and all the mines got closed down, and then a group of miners bought out the colliery. Tower Colliery opened again on January the 1st, this is after News Year’s Eve, several hundred people in the local community, the brass band, samba galez, which we set up, and our costumes came up the hill to the colliery gates which opened, and then there was much merriment inside, all the rest of it. It was a cold day but I do remember there was a certain amount of leakage from my eyes, so there’s a parade that will stay; it was a moment of history. It was just an absolutely fantastic thing.
Now, back to the dark side, as our name suggestions inter-culturalism is very much what started us off in the beginning, and to some people inter-culturalism, particularly carnival, which is inspired in the first instance by the Mas the Caribbean Mas Parade, is an anathema, and so in 1999, this is quite a good one, we took our Cardiff experience, thanks to the lottery, we replicated it with the local community in Swansea. This was big news, we got the front page of the local paper, and this led to me and the Arts Development Officer, who was also named in the paper, getting hand delivered death threats from a racist to the Guildhall. I thought, not from round here but equally be careful walking down dark alleys at night, you know I was alert to it.
The Arts Development Officer, a lovely man, a big guy, ex-Army, a bit nervy, and the council who look after people, because they can I suppose, anti-stab jacket, special red button phone, car and all the rest of it, he came home soon after that, look under your car and this sort of stuff, and they’d peed through his letterbox, and there on the mat was a shiny tin foil pouch, that’s very much how he felt. Anyway long, short and tall of it he called in the bomb squad who blew up a foil pouch of new style Kitty Cat, it was a sample that had been pushed through his letterbox! There we have the case of the exploding cat food. Archivists haven’t caught that yet.
St Johns Ambulance has got great stories as well, you know we’ve only ever had one person go down to hypothermia, and then somebody else had to be hospitalised through the other extreme. When we archive yes get the participants and the rest of it, but everyone has a story in carnival, the stories are predominantly pleasant and all the rest of it, but carnival is about human nature, I say, good, bad and ugly. On carnival day there will be heroes but there will be villains as well, the stolen costume, we’ve all been there and had to make those line calls. Carnival it’s a wonderful experience.
How’s that picture doing going round, has anybody actually had a jelly baby yet; I forgot to say could you say ‘bingo’ when you do it, bugger.
Memorable carnival day number two: It’s 1991, Lady Di’s in town, St David’s Day and what’s memorable about that parade, one that it was an opportunity to work with the National Dance Company of Somalia, who had appeared in my office 10 days earlier, having escaped the Civil War via Yemen, arriving in Cardiff with only a suitcase each. I was able to find some funding at the last minute to have them in the parade, put on a showcase, and I’m delighted to say that one of their members is now a full-time recording star, lives in Norway and records for WOMAD and the Real World, so there was that lovely connection there.
The other thing that sticks in my mind from that parade are the images you’re looking at: Kathryn Chang, a Peter Minshall acolyte, looking at the slave collar, looking at leaf cutter ants. If you’re in Trinidad and you’re having a lie-in, you’re sitting down, then you might find, well you can’t see the ants because they’re underneath the big leaf aren’t they, but these leaves go marching past you, and so she put those two ideas together. I thought that was a very interesting background and a very stunning visual statement. That was the second thing I remembered late last night.
The third thing was < laughs >, the military don’t swing. On parades sometimes you have the civilian and you have the military, obviously they’re coming with very different backgrounds, and on this St David’s Day, with Lady Di being there and all that stuff, the Welsh Regiment were there, including at the very front a bearded goat with a coat called Shenkin. He was really irascible, he was a very bad tempered goat, but he was as nothing compared to the Sergeant Majors who were in charge of the men behind him.
I’d set up samba galez, there were now ten samba bands in Wales, they’d been independent for the past 10 / 15 years, we’re playing samba, and it became quite plain, there were musicians with these soldiers as well, that there was a certain machismo going on, we can play louder than them. Worse than that our Musical Director started to swing a rhythm and the soldiers, once they’d started, would have to march very properly, and it was wonderful to see them all bumping into each other, and the Sergeant Major was absolutely, to the extent I think we ran to a different part of the parade. It was something about them trying to do their thing and Brazilian rhythm just knocking them over like skittles, something in the human heart, brain or their feet, whatever it was they couldn’t, you know carnival triumphed. It was visible, it was funny and we got away with it, which is quite important.
Talking about getting away with it, I’ve probably got about 1 minute left, so I’m going to try and think of something else that might raise a smile or an eyebrow.
How about the policeman in Swansea?
Very quickly. I said to Lorraine, ‘oh I’m going to tell them about the case of the exploding cat food and our contact with the bomb squad’, and Lorraine said, ‘oh that’s good, are you going to tell them about the other times with the bomb squad?’ ‘Sorry?’ and she reminded me.
Two more bomb squad jokes, one was again in Swansea, we had a community liaison officer, a policeman, huge man, physically very front life stuff in terms of policing drunks on the weekend, but very softly spoken. We managed to persuade him, some wouldn’t, to come to the carnival camp, and he was there like a kid in Willie Wonka’s factory or whatever, he kept coming back, it was quite clear that carnival had a place in his heart.
Either way there we are parading, I think it’s 2007, 2006 possibly, it happens to be the parade well over a 1,000, certainly in our history the longest and biggest parade we’ve ever put on, it took over a mile, 35 minutes to pass any given point. Swansea is a bit like Rome it’s on seven hills, only not as pleasant, you just couldn’t see the end of it. We’re proceeding down this into town and this policeman comes running up, ‘halt, Steve can you halt the parade?’ I said, ‘yes’, went like that, < stopping gesture > and everyone stops, it’s great, everyone’s carrying on doing their thing. I said, ‘what’s the problem?’ and he said, ‘we’ve got a suspect device, a package at the corner down there’, we were still getting stuff from [??? 22:08] and the rest of it, our first van was taken out with battery acid and swastikas by Combat 18, you never knew what was going on, he said, ‘there’s a suspect device.’
The long, short and tall of it, he went down and finally ran back after about 10 minutes, which is fine because people were enjoying themselves, performing, the audience was there, it was all cool, and he said, ‘no it’s okay, somebody has broken a computer’, whatever, ‘everything’s okay.’
We went to the very end of the event, he’d never been through an experience like that before, Lorraine and I were asking him, ‘how was it for you and the rest of you?’ and then she said, ‘what would you have done if it was a suspect device?’, and he looked at her, I swear to god he had tears in his eyes, and he whispered, ‘I’d have picked it up and I’d have run to the beach to save you all.’
When I come back to Swica after a project, those who haven’t been on it go ‘how was it?’ and traditionally I say, ‘nobody died’, and I think hopefully I haven’t in terms of this audience. Thank you very much.