Celebrate! 50 Years of Leeds West Indian Carnival by Max Farrar

Max Farrar tells us about the origins of Leeds West Indian Carnival and the vision of its founder, Arthur France, MBE. A new publication, Celebrate! 50 Years of Leeds West Indian Carnival is out now and documents this glorious history in hundreds of photographs, many never seen before.

Founder of the Leeds Carnival, Arthur France MBE leading his Queen onto the road, for the 49th successive year.

In 1967, a couple of young, intrepid, black men from Leeds drove to nearby Otley market to buy twenty live chickens. They told each of their friends to buy one for their Sunday lunch. First, they had to pluck the chickens and store the feathers. They were about to launch the first Caribbean-style street carnival in Europe. As everyone in the Caribbean knows, you can’t make a carnival costume without feathers. And Leeds market, in those dreary days of yore, didn’t have any feathers. Nowadays, carnival feathers are imported from China. That’s how globalised carnival has become.

Celebrate! is a new book feting the 50 triumphant years of Leeds West Indian Carnival. It has hundreds of photos and lots of them include pretty women wearing feather costumes. That’s the image the media love to show and it does provide an antidote to the negative press black people so often receive. But the photos and the accompanying text demonstrate that there’s much more to carnival than flesh, feathers and sequins.

L-R: Vince Wilkinson, Hughbon Condor, Hebrew Rawlins, Arthur France, Kathleen Browne, George Archibold outside Cowper Street Middle School, Cowper Street, Leeds, 1974

Arthur France was one of the men buying those first chickens and he’s been steering the Leeds Carnival, making costumes and performing, for each of the succeeding 50 years. It’s an extraordinary achievement for which he, and his co-founder Ian Charles, have been awarded the MBE. In his Foreword to the book, Arthur explains that the costumes he and his team create speak of their roots in Africa, and emancipation.

He realised long ago that carnival can show people their history without ‘switching them off’ by ‘telling them too much’. His 2016 costume was called Ashanti, pointing to the high culture of Ghana, the home of so many slaves. Another year he made King JaJa from Nigeria. With a life-long commitment to education, Arthur writes of the pleasure he got when a young black man saw the costume and immediately used his phone to start to research Nigeria’s history.

Furthering this educational ambition, Celebrate! was awarded a grant by Arts Council England so that it could be provided free to every school and library in Leeds. The book aims to be both a resource for learning and a means of inserting hundreds of people’s names into the historical record. Not just the carnival committees over the years, one of whom was Mel B’s aunty, but the designers and the performers.

‘Man on Hos Back’ costume designed by Hughbon Condor, with Charlene Smith as the Queen, on stage in the marquee in Millennium Square.

The narrative traces Carnival’s origins in various city centre venues, Chapeltown Community Centre, Primrose Hill High School, a marquee outside the West Indian Centre, Millennium Square and, finally, showing the Queen and King costume contestants at their very best, in the West Yorkshire Playhouse. Best of all, the book is a riot of colour, creativity and joy, in photos.

In the mid-1980s I went with a black friend to Otley. In over 30 years in Leeds, she’d never been to that pleasant market town. “We wouldn’t be welcome here on our own,” she said. That’s no longer the case, I hope. Over the August Bank Holiday, at Carnival, divisions are forgotten and multicultural conviviality flourishes. Leeds, and Otley, has increasingly taken that message to heart. Carnival is one of the vehicles of the change, celebrated in this book.

Celebrate! 50 Years of Leeds West Indian Carnival by Guy Farrar, Tim Smith and Max Farrar is available direct from Guy Farrar at guyfarrar@btinternet.com , from Leeds Waterstones, The Tetley, and from Cafe Bliss and Union 105 on Chapeltown Road, or online here. Price: £20. ISSBN 9 781911 148159.

Celebrate! will be launched at the School of Cultural Studies at Leeds Beckett University on 7th February 2018 at 4pm. This is a free event but please register your attendance here.

Photos courtesy of Max Farrar.

Fiona Gell

Fiona is a lifelong reading enthusiast and book lover. Her career started as a bookseller and has never really veered away from the written and spoken word. It was a dream for her to be a founder member of The Leeds Big Bookend and the Northern Short Story Festival. She continues to be its Director.

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