And the Band Played On? The Steel Band, Carnival and Children’s Literature

Last week at Seven Stories’ archives I came across a book of poetry by Marian Lines with illustrations by the award-winning Charles Keeping. It stood out to me because of the pictures—which, though in Keeping’s distinctive style were, unusually, in the kind of garish colors that hurt one’s head after a while—but also because of the title: Tower Blocks (Franklin Watts, 1975).

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The colors of Keeping’s illustrations prevent you from remembering the grim greyness of the post-war tower block.

I’d just recently seen the film version of J. G. Ballard’s novel, High Rise (which for those of you interested in the depiction of childhood, has some interesting portrayals of childhood and class), depicting a degenerating society living in a very 1970s cement tower block such as proliferated in Britain after World War II. By the late 1960s and early 1970s, tower blocks also regularly appeared in British children’s literature of the city, often symbolic of the poverty, isolation from nature, and social immobility of the working class (White and Black). Eric Allen’s The Latchkey Children (OUP, 1968) is one of these that I discuss in my book Soon Come Home to this Island: West Indians in British Children’s Literature; the tower block kids in the novel are trying to save a tree which is to be replaced with a cement railway to climb on instead.

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So the vivid colors and depictions of movement (of people, transportation, rivers) of Keeping’s illustrations for Tower Blocks provided an unexpected contrast to my expectations. But the London that Keeping depicts is also remarkably monocultural. This may be partly due to the printing; crowd scenes and people on buses might include non-whites, but it is unclear. The only evident depiction of multicultural Britain is on a two-page spread with a poem about “Street Bands”. This poem contrasts a brass band made up of elderly white men (“the Old Retainers”) with a group of much younger Black men playing in a steel band. The way that Keeping has depicted the older men walking “off-stage” as it were while the majority of the younger men face the viewer of the illustration, and the poem’s labelling of the brass band players as “old retainers” suggests a changing of the guard, a new London that is not portrayed anywhere else in the book of poems. It’s a hopeful vision.

Unfortunately, the place where most Londoners would have seen a steel band (including Charles Keeping) would have been at the Notting Hill Carnival, and the very year after Tower Blocks was published, Notting Hill became a contested space. The carnival, which had moved to Nottting Hill (from the indoor celebration at St Pancras Town Hall initiated by Claudia Jones in 1959) in the early 1960s, became the site of a riot (http://news.bbc.co.uk/onthisday/hi/dates/stories/august/30/newsid_2511000/2511059.stm) and was shut down early by police. As Alex Pascall put it in his poem, “We Ting,” “music stop, mas stop, road block, riot start/ Mr Speaker the year 1976 was Blue, Bottle and sticks”. Although Notting Hill Carnivals continued to take place every year on August Bank Holiday weekend, tension between police and carnival attendees continued throughout the late 1970s and 1980s. In children’s literature, books such as Nini at Carnival by Errol Lloyd (Bodley Head, 1978) depicted all-children carnivals in unspecified locations rather than the grown-up steel bands of Keeping’s illustrations.

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Lloyd’s children are in a utopian setting–if you take the original meaning of utopia, that is, no place. They are surrounded by white space.

In the early 1990s, the idea of carnival and the steel band began to reappear in children’s books published in the UK, but these books—such as Caribbean Carnival: Songs of the West Indies (Macmillan, 1993)—were about carnival in Caribbean islands, not Notting Hill. It is not until after the turn of the twenty-first century when the Notting Hill Carnival is once again depicted as a vibrant and joyful part of British life. James Dunn and Helen Bate’s ABC UK gives the letter C over to carnival in an illustration that rivals Keeping’s for color vibrancy. Although the steel band is not present in the illustration, the section at the back that gives further detail about each letter says that carnival “is a noisy, colourful celebration of Anglo-Caribbean culture with costumes, calypso, soca, steelpan and sound systems” (n.p.).

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Carnival is colorful again in Dunn and Bates’ ABC UK.

Any child interested in a more in-depth and serious discussion of the steel band would do well to look at The History of the Steel Band by Verna Wilkins and Michael La Rose, with illustrations by Lynne Willey (Tamarind, 2006). The book is for the most part about the history of the steel band in Trinidad, where it originated, but it starts and ends with Notting Hill. The photograph opposite the introduction is of the Nostalgia Steel Band at Notting Hill in 1998. And the final photograph in the book is of Sterling Betancourt and his steel band in 1963. Betancourt, according to Wilkins’ text, had played at the Festival of Britain as far back as 1951, and afterwards settled in the UK and taught steel pan to children and adults. The photo from 1963 has strong visual links with Keeping’s illustration—note the hats!—but with one difference: Betancourt and his band (all male, as in Keeping’s illustration) are joined in their parade by two children holding hands: one dressed up in costume, one not; one white, the other non-white. This image of an inclusive, community-based and ebullient event is at the heart of what carnival represents—and it is the sense of community and joy that will keep the steel band playing on long into the future.

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Sterling Betancourt in Wilkins and La Rose’s History of the Steel Band.

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