St Pauls Carnival’s demise is a big loss for Bristol. It’s often talked about as a cultural festival, a celebration of the African Caribbean community’s place in the city. And it is. But that simple description does not capture it’s full meaning.
For many of us Carnival was part of our childhood. We’d begin the day jumping on and off the backs of the floats, being lifted up past the lorry wheels. We’d end the day hot, thirsty and exhausted, walking home to the sound of heavy baselines pumping into the early hours. We’d watch TV that night to see if we, or someone we knew, had made it onto the news coverage. Then we’d talk about the adventures in school on Monday.
Carnival was us and ours but it was also a special contribution to Bristol by African Caribbean people. In the face of the ongoing inequalities in health, educational outcomes, disproportionate unemployment, political under-representation and sense of marginalisation, carnival represented success, dignity, significance, ownership, and value.
This contribution was made all the more important because carnival has, perhaps more than any other festival, from the Harbourside to Keep Sunday Special, brought people together from across the race, geographical and class fractures that divide Bristol. Its been unique.
I have spent the last few days talking with people about the loss of carnival. There is a genuine sadness. It’s difficult to appreciate how deep this goes.
It’s a sadness compounded by an overarching sense of loss felt many people in Bristol as our city becomes increasingly unequal and unaffordable and is subject to a complex combination of gentrification and insecure housing. Along with the loss of CEED and Kuumba, the loss of carnival is yet more evidence of a community losing its physical and cultural foothold in Bristol.
In the coming days the city leadership must come together with the community to ensure the future of carnival. Clear political will and leadership is needed.
This cannot be left up to city managers or acts of charity. The money allocated must be ring-fenced and planning and work must start immediately towards carnival 2017.
We must learn lessons from this. A review is needed and it must ask questions of the organising committee. But it must also ask questions of the city.
In working with the community, many of whom work as volunteers, did we pay enough attention to training and capacity building? How have we come to this again so quickly?
In anticipation of the findings of any review, I suggest we launch a City Festival Office tasked with developing a festival strategy to ensure we promote, protect and maximise the financial and social return on the full schedule of Bristol festivals, from Bristol Pride to the Bristol’s food festivals. It would administer a festival fund, a city budget for direct grants, commissions and invest to release match funding.
This would be supported by a specialist staff on hand to offer financial guidance and practical services and training in areas such as health and safety, accountancy services and IT, freeing up community members to lad in their strengths.
My fear is that if we don’t do this, if we take a laissez faire approach, it will be the festivals attached to the best connected and resourced communities that will go ahead while others will face the ongoing danger of going to the wall. That would leave us with a very socially lopsided culture of city celebrations.
I am not sure where the city leaders are on this but even if there isn’t the passion to save carnival for the sake of the African Caribbean community itself, there should be an interest for its economic footprint. 100,000 people are mobilised as spenders to the benefit of a grass roots economy made up of many small, seasonal entrepreneurs.
Many of these spenders are from outside Bristol and there has always been potential to exploit this further. Market carnival as a weekend experience. Get people here on a Friday, checked into a hotel with an evening meal at Café Kino or Pieminister. Carnival all day Saturday before heading back to the hotel. Eat out for lunch on Sunday before heading home.
It’s good for brand Bristol and puts money in our pockets.
The emphasis over these coming days must be on getting the commitment to St Pauls Carnival’s future and ensuring the central role for the community leadership that gives it its authenticity. It simply cannot be beyond the wit of Bristol to achieve this.
Saving carnival is saving a heritage that makes Bristol, Bristol.
Marvin Rees is a candidate for next years’ Bristol Mayor election in May. Read about all the candidates here.