[this is a pre-publication final version of the chapter in my edited collection The Pop Festival
Chapter 1. ‘The pose … is a stance’:
popular music and the cultural politics of festival in 1950s Britain
the pose held is a stance…
Thom Gunn, ‘Elvis Presley’ (1957)
The aim of this chapter is to contribute to our understanding of the relation between
popular music, festival and activism by focusing on a neglected but important area in
festival history in Britain, what can arguably be seen as its originary decade, the
1950s. So I chart and interrogate the 1950s in Britain from the perspective of the rise
of socio-cultural experimentation in the contexts of youth, some of the ‘new … old’
(Morgan 1998, 123) sonic landscapes of popular music, social practice and political
engagement. I foreground the shifting cultures of the street, of public space, of this
extraordinary period, when urgent and compelling questions of youth, race,
colonialism and independence, migration, affluence, were being posed to the
accompaniment of new soundtracks, and new forms of dress and dance. Some of the
more important popular culture events where these features manifested, performed
and celebrated themselves, produced what I see as a significant phenomenon: the
youthful gathering of the festival, the surprising splash and clash of street culture
The chapter offers an other narrative to contest or complement the national
gesture of celebration, post-war reconstruction and post-imperial positioning (though
the empire itself was ‘the place that was barely represented’ in the Festival: Conekin
2003, 5) that was the 1951 Festival of Britain (see Figure 5), but I acknowledge that
presenting the 1950s as a decade of festival—rather than simply one of, say, post-war
austerity—is an argument considerably aided by the 1951 opening event. After all, its
purpose over ‘five summer months’ in London and nationwide, was to present
Exhibitions, Arts Festivals, conferences, pageantry, championship sporting
events, simple village celebrations—the living record of a nation at work and
at play. Never before has anything been planned quite like the Festival of
Britain. Its outward manifestations will be gay and arresting. Its serious
purpose will be to demonstrate the continuing vitality of the British people in
the Arts, Sciences and Industry, and their ability and determination to play
their full part, now as in the past, in the peaceful progress of mankind.
(Festival of Britain 1950)
Figure 5. 1951 Festival of Britain advance publicity leaflet: ‘Never before has
anything been planned quite like the Festival of Britain’
Becky Conekin argues for a complex understanding of the Festival of Britain. It
presented ‘competing versions of Britain and “Britishness” … [it] was a government
strategy to increase foreign tourism … [it] was a Labour extravaganza, with a social
democratic agenda’ (2003, 27; emphasis added). Yet I also acknowledge that
questions of post-imperial positioning as well as of the shifting consensus on the
construction of national identity are inscribed problematically within the cultural
praxis of many of the festivals I go on to look at, too, from, for instance, a peer of the
British realm embracing American jazz as the soundtrack of modernity, to Caribbean
migrants in London releasing calypso records in celebration of Ghanaian
independence in 1957, to the foundation of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament
(hereafter, CND) in 1958 as a British project ‘to seize the moral leadership of the
world’ (Veldman 1994, 118). For post-imperial positioning and shifting national
identity were among the compelling questions of the day in official and alternative
political discourse and cultural praxis alike. Also, like the Festival of Britain, these
festivals in Britain were among the kinds of event innovations that ‘announced the
end of scarcity and the arrival of post-war affluence’ (Mort 2007, 44).
The significant festival events that interest me in both city and country from
the 1950s are:
1955 first Soho Fair, London
1955 first Sidmouth Folk Festival, Devon
1956 first Beaulieu Jazz Festival, Hampshire
1958 first Aldermaston CND march, Berkshire
1959 first Trinidadian carnival at St Pancras, London.
There is a cluster of issues including social change, youth, popular music, race,
national identity, carnivalesque irruption, and political engagement—within and
frequently breaking out of the special boundaried space and practice of festival—that
requires closer attention. My first argument, then, is that the new formations of social
and cultural gathering in 1950s festivals reflected and generated developments in
modes of political identity, that the crowds observing and participating exploited these
group opportunities for solidarity, that the new public spaces carved out, even if
temporarily, were often understood or claimed as expressions of cultural creativity
and social innovation at the same time. I present this argument via a critical mapping
of the significant festival events of the decade, their significance delineated by their
cultural and political imperatives. It includes the necessary (historical) process of
narrativisation, since not all of the stories themselves even are familiar to cultural
studies. I am interested and always intrigued by what might be characterised as the
cultural marginalia of the new (if such it was) politicking of the period. What attracts
me here as elsewhere are strands of the zeitgeist of cultural innovation, the often
elusive or discarded cultural traces that really do or did melt into the air (and I am
hearing music in particular now). But there are some persistent difficulties with such
critical terrain. Tracing the influence or impact of some cultural forms at the time
under discussion is problematic, due to their elusive, emotive or transitory nature, and
the festival as a carnivalesque combination of pop and protest is emblematic in this
context. As Neil Nehring (echoing Raymond Williams) has both helpfully and
unhelpfully noted in Flowers in the Dustbin, a study of ‘cultural anarchism’ which
includes analysis of the 1950s literary-cultural arena and its relation to activism and
The linkages here … are not meant to suggest a direct correspondence
between imaginative activities and economic and political pressures, but a
deeper, not always conscious connection. Directly or indirectly, various
creative efforts responded to the structure of feeling or ideological tone.…
(Nehring 1993, 179)
Also, such cultural forms and practices have not always been treated well over the
course of time—some have been discarded, or forgotten, or remembered without
During the 1950s the politics of culture and indeed of attitudinality—central to
subculture theory and cultural politics—were beginning to be articulated and
interrogated: not simply the claim that ‘the pose … is a stance’, but also asking
(posing) the question, what is the relation between stylistic or musical pose and
political stance? And in what felt like the rarefied new space-time of the festal, this
question could seem one of compelling experimentality and urgency. Of course, it
remains necessary to qualify the extent of social, cultural and political innovation on
the part of the new carnivalisers of the 1950s by acknowledging the existing
connections between street culture, a pleasureful proto-carnival and political
mobilisation in Britain (see also McKay 2003). Mick Wallis has traced ways in which
the British left exploited ‘the potential of historical pageant-making … [as a means
of] taking history on to the streets’ during the 1930s (1998, 54). According to
Lawrence Black, in the early 1960s the Young Socialists organisation ‘still undertook
traditional socialist youth activities, familiar to its League of Youth predecessor:
speakers’ contests, camps and rambles—the Aldermaston marches were not such a
novel departure’ (2003, 62; emphasis added). Nonetheless, the 1950s, as we will see,
begin to offer glimpses of alternate formations of carnival which would confirm its
capacity to ‘invert … the everyday, workaday world of rules, regulations and laws,
challenging the hierarchies of normality in a counterhegemonic, satirical, and sartorial
parody of power’ (Kershaw 1992, 72).
The development of popular music, its festivals and politics, in 1950s Britain:
Soho … Sidmouth … Beaulieu … Aldermaston …
Figure 6. Omega Brass Band play at Soho Fair, c. 1955: ‘it was in the first Soho
Fair that the real spirit of Aldermaston was born’—Jeff Nuttall, Bomb Culture
During the 1950s both jazz and folk musics rode waves of popularity and visibility,
demonstrated by the ‘trad boom’ of New Orleans-style jazz in the popular music
charts, and the second folk revival (see Frith et al 2013 for wider developments in live
music during his decade also). Each of these musics’ enthusiasts claimed a decentred
authenticity for their form, manifested in the perception of their music being one
rooted within a sense of struggle and history (race and class respectively), possessing
an anti-commercial ethos, predicated on a grassroots organisation, produced by
amateurs. On the other hand, folk largely claimed a white indigenous Britishness,
while jazz was understood in the context of its transatlantic blackness. But this
opposition is too simple also: folk had its transatlantic impetus through the influence
of the likes of music archivist Alan Lomax, while nearly all ‘trad’ and revivalist jazz
in Britain was played by white musicians. What is intriguing is the relationship with
the export cultures of the United States within the leftist political areas of Britain’s
‘affluent society’ since, as Black argues, ‘affluence chafed with socialism. Socialists
were hostile to hire-purchase, consumerism, commercial TV, advertising and
American mass culture’ (2003, 13; see also McKay 2005, introduction). Nonetheless,
as noted, the politics of jazz and folk alike sprang from a common grassroots aesthetic
and practice. Debatably the two musics came together within the burgeoning youth
culture to form skiffle, which was itself a short-lived but important DIY popular
music practice, centred originally on the Soho area of London (McDevitt 1997,
Brocken 2003 ch. 5, McKay 1998). According to Frank Mort,
Soho was London’s cosmopolitan quarter consisting of a square mile of
densely-packed streets and narrow cross routes sited south of Oxford Street,
east of Regent Street, and west of Charing Cross Road. The district’s heavily
gendered and sexually specific forms of cultural production and consumption
had long distinguished Soho as an exotic space, not just in terms of the
organization of the West End’s pleasure economy but also in the national
imagination…. Soho’s reputation for cultural exceptionalism was both
historically sedimented and extremely diverse. (Mort 2007, 30-31)
Soho Fair was an annual summer event established in July 1955, which ran until at
least 1961 (see Figure 6). It was designed as a commercial and cultural celebration of
that cosmopolitan, musical (and also to an extent underworld) area of central London,
held over a week, and featuring street processions, ad hoc outdoor performances,
popular music competitions, which drew crowds of the young, the curious, the
partying. As a contemporary marker of the cachet of the event, pop guitarist Bert
Weedon released a single in 1957 entitled ‘Soho Fair’—a late effort to catch some of
the market of the brief skiffle craze then sweeping Britain, which was centred on the
new socio-cultural spaces for young people that were the coffee bars of Soho. Chris
Welch describes the musical and social ‘change [that] was in the air’:
In July 1956, during the annual Soho Fair, Wally Whyton, leader of The
Vipers Skiffle Group, popped into the 2Is [coffee bar] and asked if his band
could play in the basement…. [T]he cellar bar was only 25 feet long and 16
feet wide, but soon it was packed with fans. It wasn’t long before teenagers
were queuing round the block to get in. (2002, 18)
As an austerity-era event organised in a context of consumerism it was unusual in that
Soho Fair was effectively a trade fair which also had an occasional unexpected
political resonance—or could be interpreted as having such by some attending: the
1956 Soho Fair, for instance, was ‘held to coincide with Bastille Day’, noted skiffle
musician Chas McDevitt (1997, 113). Jeff Nuttall, critically nostalgising in Bomb
Culture only a decade or so later, recalled that, during the 1950s,
Soho was alive with cellar coffee-bars, where skiffle and jazz could be played
and heard informally and where the rich odour of marihuana became, for the
first time, a familiar part of the London atmosphere.… It became obvious that
parental control was going to stop at about the age of fifteen for a large
number of young people. Teenage wages were going up and so were student
grants.… The Soho Fair … was a festival of the ravers. Bands and guitars and
cossack hats and sheepskin waistcoats flooded out of the cellars and into the
streets. It was so good that it had to be stopped, so good that it was in the first
Soho Fair that the real spirit of Aldermaston was born. (1968, 40; emphasis
Nuttall here connects carnivalesque cultural celebration (the transformed and
transgressive urban space of Soho Fair), political energy (CND and its annual
Aldermaston marches) and generational division (parents losing control of
increasingly financially independent teenage children)—a point also made at the time,
interestingly enough, in the right-wing newspaper the Daily Telegraph, even if its
motivation differed. Its report of the ‘motley’ crowd of protestors on the first
Aldermaston march of 1958, who ‘laughed, talked and “skiffled” their way along’ on
the first leg from Trafalgar Square to the Albert Memorial, may have been intended as
a dismissive evaluation of youth politics through juvenile pop, but it was also an
astute recognition of the fact that the youthful marchers themselves were stepping
newly and rhythmically, in a corporeal display and confirmation of the link between
music and mobilisation (quoted in McDevitt 1997, 34; emphasis added). According to
McDevitt, the skiffle repertoire confirmed political sympathies: ‘most skiffle groups,
whether consciously or not, favoured the politics of the left and songs like “Union
maid”, ‘The miner’s lifeguard”, “We shall not be moved” and “Joe Hill” were great
favourites’ (1997, 134). John Hasted, organiser of the Soho-based 44 Skiffle and Folk
Song Club, who helped launch the radical folk magazine Sing in 1954 and contributed
to the writing of what became the CND anthem ‘Don’t you hear the H-bomb’s
thunder’, was to observe in his Alternative Memoirs that ‘[v]ery seldom was there any
complaint that our folk revival was part of a communist plot, despite the strong
political convictions of many of the prominent singers’ (quoted in McDevitt 1997,
133). There are other important connections. Revivalist New Orleans style jazz
musicians Ken Colyer and Sonny Morris formed the Omega Brass Band, the first
formal and uniformed jazz parade band in Britain, for the inaugural Soho Fair (see
McKay 2003); the Omega went on to lead many political demonstrations, most
notably the Aldermaston marches (see Figure 9). Writing in 1958, David Boulton—
himself a jazz historian and CND activist—speculated on the cultural and political
potential of the ‘British marching style’ of the parade band, of this jazz in the streets:
‘If we were to bring jazz out into the streets of our towns and cities, reviving the
functions and parades which characterised old New Orleans, then jazz might once
again develop a music of the people, moving perhaps from jazz as we know it to a
new and self-contained urban folk-music’ (Boulton 1958, 137; emphasis added).
Figure 7. Folk-dancing in the streets by the English seaside: Sidmouth Folk
Innovations in folk and jazz music festivals during the mid-1950s contributed
directly and indirectly to political developments. We can see this by looking at the
experiences of the Sidmouth Folk Festival (founded in 1955, and remaining a
significant annual event in the British folk calendar—though see Morgan 2007 for
ways in which the organisation of the event has changed over the years), and the
Beaulieu Jazz Festival (1956-61). The fact that important festivals such as these were
being established at the time is further evidence of the popularity of both musics, but
also of a desire on the part of young people to participate in the relatively liberatory
practice of festival-going—24-hour peer company; life outside the domestic
everyday; alcohol, drugs and sex (or the promise of them); dancing under the summer
stars or clouds; the green escape to nature at the beach or in the countryside;1
sometimes camping in tented communities; the now familiar, and today tirelessly
marketed, festival template of excessive possibility of the carnival first being set….
Although I am emphasising connections between these two new festivals,
established within a year of each other, there are important differences that should not
be ignored. Primary in the context of practical ideology and political engagement are
their contrasting origins and motivations: Sidmouth came about in part through
enthusiasts for indigenous song and dance gathering at an English seaside town (see
Figure 7), Beaulieu as a commercial transatlantic enterprise by the scandalous young
peer of the realm Lord Montagu at his stately home. (Montagu’s bisexuality, and his
public trial and imprisonment on homosexuality charges in 1954, prior to establishing
the festival, signal an intriguing potential perspective of the queer origins of pop
festival.) Yet, such obvious differences notwithstanding, at these coastal or rural
gatherings young people enthused over what they considered new music, in a largely
new form of participatory social behaviour, where politics formed a topic of debate,
and the very culture of festival itself would be employed in contemporary protest.
This last point refers in particular to the carnivalesque social and political weekend
that was the annual Aldermaston march.
Georgina Boyes has noted that, while ‘jazz bands provided much of the music
for the marches organised by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, it was folksong
which became synonymous with protest’ (1993, 214). Dave Harker has traced some
of the concrete connections, arguing that ‘the intervention of the Communist Party
and its fraternal organisations was absolutely crucial in the second folksong revival,
and to a lesser extent in the blues revival which was to follow’ (1980, 151). The folk
magazine Sing printed folk songs from the national and international repertoire, but
also contained articles on the political issues of the day—the first edition alone
featuring ‘material entitled “Talking Rearmament”, “The Atom Bomb and the
Hydrogen!” and “Kenyatta”’ (Brocken 2003, 44). Even in recent years, the latest
version of Sidmouth Folk Festival has maintained a kind of political edge: the
homepage of the Sidmouth Folk Week 2010 website featured among a very small
number of linking logos that for the campaign ‘Folk Against Fascism’, which was
established to challenge the British National Party’s then cultural strategy of
appropriating folk music and seeking to construct it as an indigenous, white and
exclusive traditional form (Sidmouth Folk Week website).
1 I do not think I am claiming ‘green’ as environmental consciousness in these early festivals; in fact,
even in later rural-based festivals a green consciousness can be elusive. Researchers have found for
example that ‘almost all (94%) of attendees of the Sidmouth Folk Festival use cars to get there,
whereas larger urban events such as … an open air concert by “The Who” in Hyde Park were more
likely to be patronised by users of public transport’ (see Laing and Frost 2010, 263).
Yet, while folk music and the left were closely associated, in fact the febrile
sounds and bodies of jazz, and its clashing forms and clashing groups of enthusiasts,
would throw up the most carnivalesquely irruptive moment of early British festival
culture. The so-called ‘Battle of Beaulieu’ on the Saturday night of the summer 1960
festival (Figure 8) saw a small battle between rival groups of trad and modern jazz
fans, the event filmed and partially broadcast on BBC Television’s live outdoor
broadcast coverage of the festival (see McKay 2004). This moment of subcultural
contestation and negotiation, with its mediated display of minor violence and damage,
remains framed and effectively obscured by (scholarship on) more spectacular or
notorious subcultural innovations: the ‘race riots’ or ‘white riots’ of teddy boys of one
or two years earlier, the seaside confrontations between mods and rockers of a year or
two later. Yet the Battle of Beaulieu, the ‘beatnik beat-up’ of one newspaper’s gleeful
coverage (quoted in McKay 2005, 76), is a compelling early example in festival
history of the capacity of carnival to challenge or invert social norm.
Figure 8. Poster for 1960 Beaulieu Jazz Festival, at which ‘the beatnik beat-up’
According to Colin MacInnes, in a 1962 article on anarchism,
suddenly, from 1956 onwards, there came a crack in the social-political
situation that released old allegiances and left conventional parties frozen into
postures that ignored these changes. There came Poland, Hungary, Suez, death
of Stalin, rise of Africa, the New Left, the teenage phenomenon, the race riots,
the teacher strikes, Osborne and the new wave writers, and, for what it is
worth, CND.… (quoted in Gould 1983, 123; emphasis added)
MacInnes’s casual dismissal of CND, only four years old at the time of his writing, is
harsh. The annual CND Aldermaston Easter marches from 1958 on stand as the most
politicised carnivalesque development of the period. Here, each year, not simply was
there a political-cultural-social gathering that formed an influential constituency, but,
because it extended over several days and nights (marchers sleeping in town halls and
churches en route), a community of activists was constructed and refreshed annually.
From its beginnings just prior to the Aldermaston Nuclear Weapons Research Centre
marches from 1958 on, we can see in CND what would become recognisable as a
youth or lifestyle protest movement. David Widgery memorably described the
Aldermaston march as ‘a student movement before its time, mobile sit-in or marching
pop festival; in its midst could be found the first embers of the hashish underground
and premature members of the Love Generation as well as cadres of forthcoming
revolutionary parties’ (1976, 104). Aldermaston did not spring from nowhere, nor did
it only spring from an earlier tradition of leftist public mobilisations: my point is that
the new combined practice of music, politics and festival occurring from the mid-
1950s on contributed significantly to the Aldermaston generation’s innovation.
The cultural countermodernism of nuclear disarmament found its most visible
expressions not in the city but in the countryside. For some, the rural English
landscape was experienced to the soundtrack of early jazz marching bands, folk and
dance, and the easy participatory pleasures of skiffle. The political strategy employed
in this landscape and culture embrace was that ‘the English past could be and was
used to criticize and challenge the nuclear present’ (Veldman 1994, 203). The
eccentric tribal gathering in the deep green ancient New Forest that began to
characterise the Beaulieu Jazz Festivals, as with the collective spring-time excursion
through the English Home Counties countryside that was the Aldermaston march, and
too the seaside jaunt of folksong and dance that happened annually on the streets of
Sidmouth—each sought to satisfy ‘a hungering … for the pastoral’ (Nuttall 1968, 41-
42). The concurrence of the first Aldermaston CND march of 1958 with the first
large-scale jazz festival at Beaulieu is important: New Orleans-style bands playing for
the camping marchers, packed with youth, through green Berkshire at Easter 1958,
New Orleans-style bands playing for new audiences, packed with youth, in the ancient
New Forest of green Hampshire a few summer months later. Lord Montagu of
Beaulieu has himself acknowledged that the ‘Aldermaston March and the Beaulieu
Jazz Festival were foremost among the high days of the alternative society’ (Montagu
2000, 273), even if this statement seems to wear its importance as a historical revision
extremely lightly: for most, ‘the high days of the alternative society’ would be around
1968, not 1958. The Beaulieu-CND subcultural conjunction was more widely
reported as well: the Glasgow Herald wrote of ‘all the usual Aldermaston-cum-Jazz-
Festival uniforms—tight jeans, baggy sweaters painted with the CND symbol, bowler
hats, long hair for all sexes’, for instance (31 July 1961; emphasis added).
Figure 9. Omega Brass Band marching at a political demonstration, late 1950s:
‘FREE OUR HEALTH SERVICE’
Notting Hill Carnival (1959-present)
Overall then, the festivals and fairs that popularised the participatory musics of skiffle
and the wider folk and jazz movements were recognised at the time as contributing
directly and indirectly to the developing political consciousness and cultural practice
of the New Left, especially through Aldermaston. (Jazz and folk musicians would also
become active in the Anti-Apartheid Movement of 1959 and 1960, of course, but
there is not the same level of festival input with this campaign. What there was within
the AAM was a clear recognition of the legitimacy of culture in political discourse
and practice, the radical priest and key organiser Trevor Huddleston having called for
a cultural boycott of South Africa as early as 1955: Denselow 1990, 49.) There is one
further essential carnivalesque moment from the period that I want to introduce
though, because it widens the political scope of campaign and understanding out to
include questions of race and post-colonialism, and it speaks still compellingly to
contemporary Britain. This is, or this became, the Notting Hill Carnival. According to
[t]he entry of blacks into national life was itself a powerful factor contributing
to the circumstances in which the formation of both cultural studies and New
Left politics became possible. It indexes the profound transformations of
British social and cultural life in the 1950s. (Gilroy 1993, 10)
Both the Windrush generation of 1948 (its name taken from the first ship carrying
migrants from the Caribbean to Britain as part of post-war mass migration: see
Phillips and Phillips 1998) and other migrants soon following strengthened the
Caribbean culture of London and some provincial cities significantly. Included on
board the Windrush’s original passengers were a number of important Trinidadian
calypsonians who would make their mark in London and internationally. According to
In London they joined a milieu of fine band musicians familiar with Caribbean
musical forms, and already represented on numerous recordings crucial to the
development of British swing and jazz music. Travelling with their own core
audience, the Trinidadian calypsonians brought with them the vocal music of
Carnival.… During [the 1950s], certainly, it was the enthralling soundtrack of
Black Britain. (2002, no pagination)
The diaspora sounded in other ways too: Trinidadian calypsonian Mighty Terror
migrated to Britain in 1953 and the following year recorded and released ‘No carnival
in Britain’ (at a time when, of course, there was no carnival in London). In Noblett’s
view, this song ‘gathered poignancy when Terror won the [prize] Crown at the
concerts—a prelude to the world-famous Notting Hill Carnival—organised by
[communist and black activist] Claudia Jones after attacks on the West London Black
community’ in 1958 (Noblett 2002; see Figure 10). Intriguingly, the recording’s
actual chorus as sung by Mighty Terror is ‘No mas here in Great Britain’; presumably
it was translated on the record label from ‘No mas[querade]’ to the less idiomatic ‘No
carnival’ (Mighty Terror 1954).
Figure 10. Notting Hill Carnival 2004, articulating and processing the ideals:
UNITY RESPECT PEACE LOVE
Others were not so keen on some aspects of a changing Britain. Teddy boys
were the one highly visible youth culture of the 1950s which the left had difficulty in
viewing sympathetically, let alone recruiting. Debates about the place of youth within
the affluent society stumbled at what was perceived as the cultural inarticulacy and
social violence of this subculture. The teddy boy not only interrogated but seemed
also actually to embody the limits of youth subcultural innovation and attitude for the
left. Clustering whiteness, working class masculinity, the threat of violence, and the
brash commercial American soundtrack of rock ‘n’ roll, teds were an intimidating and
unpleasant presence. According to Brocken, there were clear class-based expressions
of cultural value around the new popular musics. For instance, ‘[s]kiffle was welcome
at the BBC and with the left, in youth clubs and coffee bars, because it was politically
correct, safe and jolly—unlike rock ‘n’ roll’ (2003, 74). Colin MacInnes articulated
the left’s anxiety in terms of racial politics, in a piece of writing published before
what he called the ‘nigger-hunting expedition’ of the summer of 1958 in West
London, which led to what he subsequently termed, in a notable nuance, the ‘“race
riot”, not a race riot’ around Notting Hill (quoted in Gould 1983, 132, 134). MacInnes
wrote of the teddy boys that one could see, ‘in their teenage neutralism and
indifference to politics, and self-sufficiency, and instinct for enjoyment—in short, in
their kind of happy mindlessness—the raw material for crypto-fascisms of the worst
kind’ (quoted in Gould 1983, 128). Actually, fascist organisations like the White
Defence League and the Union Movement did rapidly attempt to exploit the situation
in London (Gould 1983, 133)—‘KBW’ had been a familiar graffito in the area for
some time (‘KEEP BRITAIN WHITE’: Olende 2008). Though critical of the ‘aimless
frenzy of their leisure life’, Stuart Hall did perceive in teddy boys the possibility of
political energy and social change, imagining their alienation as a step towards a
radical critique (quoted in Black 2003, 75).
Figure 11. Carnival as cultural expression and celebration of the ‘politics of
While ‘youth served as an index of social anxiety at the same time [as] it was a
metaphor for social change’ (Nehring 1993, 187), music and carnival played a part
here too. There is a neglected musical and social campaign organisation directly
addressing race and racism in Britain, which was formed in response to the
disturbances during the summer of 1958 in Nottingham and London. Although short-
lived, it is just about possible to see the Stars’ Campaign for Inter-Racial Friendship
as a precursor to a more successful organisation such as the heavily carnival-inflected
Rock Against Racism of the late 1970s. At its peak in 1978, RAR’s ‘politics of
polycultural solidarity’ were displayed in a series of five major carnivals combining
popular music and anti-racist politics (Dawson 2005, 11; see also Widgery 1986),
while 30 years later an anniversary carnival was organised (Figure 11). The purpose
of SCIF two decades earlier was to articulate through the combined presence of
popular music and popular culture, and left activists and writers, a cultural politics of
racial inclusion and social solidarity at a time of crisis. Colin MacInnes was a
founding member of SCIF, and others active or willing to lend their name included
Britain’s highest profile multiracial jazz couple Cleo Laine and John Dankworth; jazz
musicians Ken Colyer, Humphrey Lyttelton, Chris Barber; from the skiffle and pop
world, Lonnie Donegan, Tommy Steele, Frankie Vaughan; and left-wing music critics
like Max Jones and ‘Francis Newton’ (Eric Hobsbawm’s pseudonym when writing
about jazz). An eight-page free newssheet entitled What the Stars Say was produced
by SCIF and distributed to houses in the riot area of London—though the contents
were apparently ‘mostly showbiz stuff about Sammy Davis Junior’ (quoted in Gould
1983, 137). Another SCIF activity in 1958 was a televised ‘inter-racial’ children’s
Christmas party in North Kensington. In her 1960 book Newcomers: The West
Indians in London, Ruth Glass observed that SCIF had ‘a rather energetic,
“newsworthy” start … [but] since then it has been rather quiet’ (quoted in Gould
1983, 138). Other activists though made what would come to be seen as less gestural
and altogether longer-lasting responses to the worsening racial context of youthful
England. Following the 1958 disturbances in Nottingham and London, and the racial
murder of a young Caribbean migrant, a group of activists and cultural workers drew
on Caribbean socio-musical traditions to present a new kind of festival for London.
The first carnival—a Caribbean ‘fayre’ staged in St Pancras town hall in
1959—was … an attempt to galvanise London’s black community. Arranged
by the Trinidadian communist Claudia Jones, founder of the West Indian
Gazette, the fayre embodied Jones’ recognition of the political force of
culture. With something of the Harlem Renaissance emphasis on folk tradition
(Jones grew up in Harlem), the early fayre drew on Trinidadian traditions of
costume and the scurrilous political commentary of Calypso. (Melville 2002)
This early effort at Trinidadian carnival would be relaunched within a few years,
when strands of the urban white counterculture of the mid-1960s worked closely with
black British community groups campaigning around housing issues to establish the
Notting Hill Carnival (see McKay 2000, 7-11).
Figure 12. Notting Hill Carnival, 2006: spectators as participants
From the Festival of Britain in 1951 to Aldermaston or Beaulieu or St Pancras in the
latter 1950s constitutes a decade span containing a series of considered experiments
on the possibilities and limits of festival, organised from above (Festival of Britain),
or below (Aldermaston, St Pancras/Notting Hill), or commercially, when the event
could be adapted (Soho Fair) or subverted (the Battle of Beaulieu) by its participants.
These regular festival events, whether as urban carnivals or rural gatherings, have
rung the ethnic, stylistic, attitudinal and sonic changes of the times. Such changes
resonated socially and politically, as well as culturally, as the carnival embraces
spectators, second liners (Figure 12). Many of them have become of the characteristic
cultural-political-social spaces of the left, new or otherwise, as accessible, high
profile, and public or media events. Across the decades they have struggled and
thrived, all the while energetically adapting themselves to shifts in cultural taste and
political context alike. In 1959 E.P. Thompson could write of the labour movement
with controlling confidence that ‘[t]he bureaucracy will hold the machine; but the
New Left will hold the passes between it and the younger generation’ (quoted in
Sedgwick 1964, 131). Yet, when we begin to examine the carnivalesque moments of
the period itself we can see that in fact spaces without passes, for raging or singing or
dancing against the machine, were already being built up, torn down, and all in
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