There goes summer...and, in a slightly damp coda to the season’s end, there went another Leeds West Indian Carnival. Since the event, more often known as the Chapeltown carnival, has been going since 1967, there should be not much to report.
The carnival paraders wore costumes as inventively and utterly daft as ever, the police enjoyed being given permission (or possibly instructions) to smile, even in the presence of suspicious whiffs, and all the entrepreneurs of Chapeltown were out with their oil-drum barbecues and improvised, unlicensed alcoholic outlets. Two of them asked me to adjudicate on who made the best rum punch, but I thought it best to pretend to that I didn’t understand the question on the grounds that I was Ukrainian, which, in Chapletown, is a very plausible excuse
The Chapletown carnival didn’t get where it is today (the biggest European Caribbean carnival after Notting Hill) without some remarkable work by its founders, Arthur France and Ian Charles, who showed that, contrary to the prevailing ideology in 1967, isolated individuals can really have an impact on history.
Why else would the Leeds carnival be so much bigger than other Caribbean carnivals in cities with similar or bigger Caribbean populations – Birmingham, for example? Chapeltown started, with around 1,000 carnival-goers; today it’s around 150,000.
The coaches arriving at Chapletown came from all over – Derby, Leicester, Nottingham and all points north of Watford. We even met a black woman from London who, because of work commitments, couldn’t make the Notting Hill carnival and so went to Chapeltown as the next best thing, and, she said, enjoyed it every bit as much, or maybe more.
Because, since retirement, I’ve had the time to mentally mess about with my space-time continuum, I wondered how I would have reacted to the first, 1967, carnival at my present age, which is of retirement proportions.
The answer is that I probably wouldn’t have gone, or would have stood well back. In those days, ageing white people were unsure about the Afro-Caribbean population (or ‘coloured people’, which was the progressive, liberal term of the day); they thought there was a difference or a danger there, even if they weren’t sure what it was.
At the Bank Holiday weekend in Chapeltown there were scores of ‘seniors’ (now the progressive, liberal term for clapped-out) white people, as well, because the Windrush generation isn’t getting any younger, of aged West Indians. They wouldn’t have mixed before.
But I think now that, when it comes to dividing-lines, in particular with regard to opinions on the loudness of music or the skimpiness of the costumes, age may have become more important than colour.
And colour, as a dividing-line, has grown very indistinct. There were black-and-white couples and extended mixed-race families covering 50 shades of not-quite-black nor definitively-white at the carnival. The world is not so uncomplicated as to be, as Blue Mink claimed, a great big melting pot; but I think it comforting that once-upon-a-weekend in Leeds, we can pretend it’s getting there.
My other way of saying goodbye to summer was the Leeds South Headingly Community Association’s annual coach jaunt to Whitby. There was, was you would have expected if you knew anything about South Headingly, a collection of very diverse trippers of all ages and types, united only in their diversity.
But against that there was the solid assurance of Whitby – the harbour, the boat trips, the countless steps to St Mary’s church (199, I’m told, although I’ve always been too out-of-breath to count), the seafood stalls, the perfect fish-and-chips, the brilliant Captain Cook museum and the gypsy fortune-teller who can sort out all your financial problems, and would almost certainly do it better than my bank.
I enjoy changes and I enjoy continuity. I’ve been coming to Whitby for about 40 years and I’m pleased that it’s changed very little. I’m equally pleased that inner-city Leeds has changed so much.