Sunday, December 17, 2017

Carnivals past

Part III

In the third and last of my pieces looking at sources for studying the history of Carnival, I want to consider two documents about Carnival in the 1940s: an autobiography written in the author’s old age, and two newspaper articles.

In my last article I introduced Percy Fraser (1867-1951), whose autobiography, Looking Over My Shoulder, was published in 2007 but was written between 1939 and 1948. He described the Carnival of his youth—the late 1800s—with real affection.

But his view of Carnival after World War 2 (1939-45) was very different. “When I think of what Carnival was in my younger days and what it is now”, he wrote, “I do so with a sigh of regret. The last few years of Carnival were very poor indeed”—he is referring to 1946, 1947 and 1948, after the four-year ban during the war.

Now, we often think of the post-war Carnivals as a sort of Golden Age, when the steelbands emerged and when beautiful and creative costumes were made by skilled hands and presented with style and art. So it’s useful to remember that not everyone saw it that way at the time. In his old age, with conservative views and perhaps anxious about the fate of his own class (and race—he was white) in a rapidly changing time, Fraser had nothing good to say about the post-war Carnivals he witnessed.

People from his own class/ethnic group did take part, he notes. They formed “pretty mas” bands with expensive costumes, won prizes for them, and drove around the Queen’s Park Savannah in trucks, singing calypsoes. They also staged “confetti battles” from cars driving around the Savannah or parked at the Botanic Gardens. These would have been seen as ways to enjoy Carnival without close contact with the ordinary folk in their bands.

Fraser described these working-class band costumes as “ridiculous disguises” and regarded the behaviour of those who wore them as objectionable. He was especially disgusted at the sight of “boys and girls of tender ages following the inferior bands and imitating their crude and vulgar gestures”. From his verandah, he writes, during the Carnivals of 1947 and 1948, he saw “enormous crowds following one of the notorious steel bands, singing, and performing the most atrocious, vulgar and sensuous torsorial contortions”—also known as wining—including children as young as 10 or 11. He believed that “the practice of the young following these savage bands” had to be stopped by the police, and if this couldn’t be done, “then I say it is high time to put a stop to the Carnival”.

A very different assessment of the 1947 and 1948 Carnivals was made by Alfred Mendes (1897-1991). Mendes, born a full generation after Fraser, was a Trinidadian of Portuguese descent, and one of the pioneer creative writers of the 1920s-30s, publishing two novels and many short stories. A book published last year, Selected Writings of Alfred H Mendes edited by the literary scholar Michèle Levy, includes two newspaper articles by him about these two Carnivals.

For Mendes, Carnival had great social value. He believed it was “one of the very few customs, peculiar to Trinidad, that give us the opportunity for identifying ourselves with our island”. Nearly every group which had lived there for a couple of generations, regardless of ethnicity, had adopted the festival as its own. “Despite its noise, its pagan abandon, its vulgarity, or perhaps because of these very attributes”, he writes, Carnival was “sacred and dear” to nearly everyone.

So in his view (perhaps overly optimistic), Carnival was a unifying force in a society emerging from colonialism—he was strongly anti-colonial. He also saw it as a “democratising” force: it exerted “levelling and equalising influences upon our people, Negro, Indian, European, Chinese and the fantastic mixtures among them all”. Mendes believed that Carnival could help Trinidadians to “create a culture of our own” and to put “race distinctions” behind them, both necessary “before we can begin to stand on our own feet and behave like a mature people”.

He accepted the “safety valve” theory of Carnival: it gave “two glorious days of escape from the slime and sewers of the slums” in which the majority of Trinidadians, like the “natives” everywhere in the colonial world, had to exist. The porter with a malnourished child, the out of work stevedore, the barely paid domestic or washerwoman, could briefly enjoy “a status and a stature they will never know this side the grave”.

Like Fraser who regretted the passing of the old-time pierrot, Mendes, writing in 1948, was already lamenting the disappearance of some of the traditional characters. Dame lorraine, he writes, “has gone underground”, and the old stick-fighting dance, the “calinda”, was now “only occasionally seen” on the streets of the city during Carnival—and even when it was, it was a shadow or relic of the Canboulay times in the past.

Along with films, photographs, drawings and recordings when these exist, and orally transmitted traditions and memories, written descriptions will always be among the most important sources for understanding what Carnivals past were like.