“The old longing I had thought dead, rose in me like a flame.”—Samuel
At a time when a briefest of snowfalls had already melted giving way to
an unending damp that penetrated multiple layers of down, wool, cotton
and leather, and given me the depressing look of a permanently pregnant
woman, I heard a single pan echo in a tunnel in a tube station.
Out on the cold street I went into a coffee shop, cradling my large
white cup swirling with caffeine and cream, vaguely aware of jazz in the
background, of men and women locked into their world with their
A single note and I felt I was part of a collective heartbeat chippin’
down the road in St James to Las Lap. I could smell the heady lady of
the night, see the hills, paler green with the heat, feel the boom of
speakers. I saw Tan Tan and Saga Boy and Peter Minshall’s impassioned
face (how he loves us), the feathers, bikinis, glitter, mud, paint and
clay, the thundering of a thousand feet.
I remember mas camps, all nighters they pulled, interviewing Sparrow on
a searing day, the roar of Panorama when any conversation felt possible
and the shortest pum pum shorts failed to raise eyebrows.
A journalist from home messaged me to ask me what I felt about the
sexualisation of Carnival. A hundred images came to me while I treated
myself to a pastry. The girl wining on the pole like a pissing dog. The
little child, barely aware that she’s making herself into a sexual
object imitating her mother, wining like a grown woman, vulnerable to
paedophilia, to the act of sex without emotional maturity. People do
intimate things with body parts but seldom hold hands. Create Carnival
babies, throw some into the underworld.
But today was not that day, not today, when I could still hear that pan
which reminded me of going to see Despers on the hill, sitting on the
steps cut around a hill and clear sounds reaching up to a bright full
moon, all of it tugging at the heart. I don’t have it in me today, to
spoil the joy.
I don’t want to critique the mas, the dumbing down, the
commercialisation, the shouting of instructions to jump and sex up
somebody people say is kaiso, the whingeing broken words about rum and
girls and grandmothers and sex they say is chutney.
But I miss Minshall. Minshall’s mas has been our moral compass, our
calalloo mirror for a nation made up of people uprooted from old
continents, replanted here, carelessly, brutally, given oil but no
remembrance of what it is to be tender, to love. Remember the River
trilogy, with the pure washerwoman, the greedy Mancrab, the river people
holding up a mile long white canopy under a white hot sun and the next
day turning on one another with muddy purple, sullied with pollution
(think of the highway), the creation of Tan Tan and Saga Boy, the
Hallelujah, Song of the Earth and Tapestry.
His work was prescient. The sad thing is it was meant to be a reflection
of the 80s and 90s but more relevant than ever because we are frozen in
our lethargy. In our grandiosity, our posturing ‘the greatest show on
earth,’ Carnival the centre of our world. It’s when our industry and
timing and creativity shines, glitters like a firefly, or butterfly
fizzles against the light and disintegrates. In this new world we
celebrate a feast of the middle ages. The medieval Catholic church,
cleverly incorporated into the Catholic faith “a final binge—carne vale
= farewell to flesh” before the fasting period of lent.
What a binge. As Rudder famously sang “SOMEBODY letting the cocaine
pass,” a man who expected to be paid for the sale of his cars is killed.
The traffic is gridlock, nobody is taking on noise inflation, women are
blowing two to three months of salary on fetes, dan dans and costumes.
The murderers keep the grim reaper busy. And people die before and after
fetes on the road.
Sitting drinking coffee, reading in this ordered old European city,
where things generally work, intellect is valued, institutions strong,
the law upheld, the service brisk and kind, that I lost my lens.
Walking the streets in a haze, holding on to railings, seeing of
everything, spires, domes, traffic lights, as I made my way home, I had
a clear vision in my mind’s eye—of the exuberance of momentum that
drives Carnival. A collective atavistic visceral force; a leveller,
where beggar and judge chip together. It’s sacred and profane, and its
insanity allows us to be sane on Ash Wednesday.
So let it begin, and let it be, all the mud and chaos and beauty and
history of it. All the loss and the din and the nonsense and the art,
and the shedding of the bitterness, injustice, dependency, resentment,
the rot on top playing with the treasury, the rot at the bottom playing
with the bullets, and the burgeoning of joy.
And for me, a lonely Londoner, I think
of a moment, carried along with the crowd, in a band, in the music, in
the J’Ouvert where I was no longer myself but part of a river. Let the
mas begin. And on Ash Wednesday, let us, renewed and sated, reveal our
newly slaked tender skins, finally grow up.