Sweat and Sequins

In 1982 I was awarded a travel grant by Arts Council England which I converted into three months researching the workings of the carnival in Trinidad and Tobago, possibly the biggest piece of street theatre in the world. I managed to include several of my mates in the escapade, and my diary, by the wonders of that fantastic new invention, the fax machine, was published in installments in Out West magazine, the forerunner of Venue.

The art deco hotel is still there, now converted into a corporate HQ and apartments

Here are some diary excerpts:

Roll Dat Bumbulum!

Today I am able to reveal that Somerset Maugham is alive and well and staying at the Queen’s Park Hotel, Port of Spain. At least, what looked like Maugham in drag just stepped out of the creaking lift, ordered a Milk of Magnesia and wobbled off towards the bar.

I am here courtesy of the Arts Council to study that extraordinary phenomenon, the Trinidad Carnival. Not that there’s much sign of the festivities in this huge 1930’s pile, even though it overlooks the Savannah Park where the million-strong crowd of revellers will roll their bumbulums and wine their bodies on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday to the rhythm of a hundred steel bands.

Behind its moss and cactus shrouded Art Deco façade this once gracious establishment is quietly crumbling, a last resort for those of a colonial bent. It’s a vast place, even though much of it is closed and derelict. In its enormous public rooms, large numbers of uniformed geriatric staff tend to the needs of a minute number of even older and exclusively white guests. Tables in the echoing dining room are laid daily for a hundred at least. Five is a crowd at breakfast, and even fewer (just me once) at lunch.

My room is along a veritable runway of a corridor, straight out of The Shining. 307, 308, 309-not a sound or a light from behind the louvered doors. Mine, 310, is furnished with a complete set of chrome 1930’s bedroom furniture. The thought that there might be 309 matching sets in the building is enough to give a Walcot Street dealer a coronary.

My air conditioner, The Elite, sounds like a bulldozer, so I turned it off for fear of waking the bird-like crones I occasionally see flitting girlishly across the distant ends of corridors. Floral prints and white pumps seem to be de rigueur and although they look the epitome of English ladies, when I caught some at tea I was surprised to hear them speaking in exaggerated West Indian accents. Posh patois I dubbed it, as they referred to the ancient waiter as ‘dat fellah dere’. Later I read in a V.S. Naipaul novel (yes, I have all the right literature with me) that this is an affectation left over from plantation times.

Somewhere a long way away there is the constant clatter of monogrammed dinner plates even though there are usually only half a dozen guests at dinner. Or maybe it’s the sound of those antique dealers loading valuable retro crockery into their vans?

Bizarrely, a leaking roof-top water tank constantly leaks, sending a permanent cascade down one of the wooden staircases, causing the laminated planks to fan out like a pack of cards. Rather than repair the leak, moisture-loving ferns have been strategically placed on the steps, resulting in a tropical display worthy of the palm house in Kew.

Nobody seems to use the rather Hockneyesque pool on the terrace, possibly put off by the sign which reads ‘Notice: when pool-side lights are on, guests swim at own risk due danger of electrocution’. At midday in brilliant sunshine the coloured bulbs were glowing merrily and the pool deserted.

The dinner menu bears the government stamp 13th October 1980. It’s the same choice every night, chicken or steak with Calaloo soup on Sundays a lone nod towards local cuisine). I’m not sure if this proves tedious or reassuring to the small group of guests who actually live here.

 Several Colonel Blimps, left over from something great and exciting that happened here a long time ago, e.g. the British Empire, regularly frequent the basement bar. I spotted Norman Parkinson, one-time royal photographer, now the proprietor of Parkinson’s Bangers, an exclusive range of pork sausages (I swear!) holding court amongst a bevy of ex-colonial ghastlies (white moustache, stiff tanned upper lip and a rather camp chain belt holding up his linen chinos). One of the chaps declared it must be Carnival soon as it always followed the cricket.

Meanwhile, outside nobody has the least doubt as to when Carnival takes place. Teams of men are erecting endless avenues of ramshackle shed that will house the snackettes, roti stalls and shark sandwich shops surrounding the grandstands that have gone up on the carnival route. On the door of the nearby Ministry of Health, closed for the duration, an official notice orders stallholders not to post stool samples through the letterbox as no more hygiene certificates can be issued.

On the streets, every car is a mobile disco as people play the latest sounds over and over again in an attempt to decide which song will become this year’s ‘Road March’, carrying the dancing crowd along for two whole days of ‘jumpin’ up’. It’s a process of natural elimination, and on the day, almost everyone will be playing the same tune, more often than not a rude or controversial calypso banned by the government radio station!

Banners everywhere proclaim a plethora of pre-Carnival events. Every possible venue from old barracks to multi-storey car parks has been commandeered for fund raising fetes with titles such as ‘Fixed Deposit Jam’ presented by the Bank of Nova Scotia,’Subway Jam’, ‘Soca Fever!’ and Carnival With Tears’ at the St John Ambulance H.Q.. Even the government departments get into the act: I’ve seen both the Regimental Carnival Party and the Customs Chix Count Down widely advertised (Not sure which one I’ll go for yet).

The city squares resound at lunchtimes with free soca and calypso (very loud, Bath City Council take note) sponsored by various cigarette companies. The police calypso band is also in evidence, and really hot stuff it is too, right outside the courthouse. Court is in session, by the way, windows open with the occasional bewigged barrister seen jigging to the rhythms.

The calypsonians have exotic pseudonyms. Most honkies have heard of Mighty Sparrow and Lord Kitchener, but Scrunter, Chalkdust, Relator, Short-Pants and Black Stalin are household names here. Many songs contain words of social protest: ‘A man who could rape a woman 90 years old kyar have a heart’. Many others contain words that are simply rude: ‘My bamboo is harder than yours!’

Vacant lots have been taken over as Pan Yards where masters and aspiring masters of the art of pan prepare for the national steel band competition or ’Panorama’ which precedes Carnival. The sounds of pan can be heard on many street corners as the instruments are painstakingly tuned. On Sundays, a stroll round the ramshackle downtown area is a musical treat, especially if you come across one of the 100-strong steel orchestras polishing up their rendition of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake as I did.

The main event of Carnival however is the Parade of the Bands. Almost everybody takes part, the parade taking up to eight hours to pass a given spot. Around the town, Mas’-camps have been set up by the band committees. Here, the costume designs are displayed. You choose your outfit, pays your money and dozens of paid and unpaid workers set about making it. Each group has an overall theme, with various ever more elaborate and expensive sections to choose from, depending on your budget. I’ve spotted Dance, Zulu Dance (witch-doctor section sold out), Cosmic Legends of the Ancient Maya, The Barbaric Age and Victory of Trafalgar. The latter promises to be quite a spectacle, as it has over 4000 members, which is, I think, more than took place in the actual battle!

Some of the costumes it is claimed have over 200,000 sequins, which puts ‘Come Dancing’ to shame, and are over 15 feet high. Another band Papillion also has several thousand members and is depicting all walks of life seen as different kinds of butterflies. A sparkling Mohammed Ali naturally features, but extraordinarily, so does a sequinned Ayatollah Khomeini.

Perhaps it sounds kitsch, but here kitsch is a fine art. In a country the buses tend to break down, there are frequent power outages and places go without water for days on end, Carnival is a triumphant success. Everything is beautifully made and breathtakingly colourful. There are costumes to suit all pockets, rich or poor. Carnival is a way of life and the rest of the year is simply an interruption. Politicians and press constantly argue for the ‘Carnival mentality’ to be applied to other facts of life. In fact, in his recent gloomy budget speech the Prime Minister said ‘The Fete is over…’ No harm in trying I suppose.

Next week I’m going to visit some of the people who have been sewing, sticking, pleating and wire-bending so frantically since last March. One of this year’s creations is said to have 1900 plumes, which is a lot of ostriches. How do they fix all those onto one lady? Where do all the tons of glitter, millions of sequins and miles of stretchy leopard skin fabric come from I wonder? And how did the rather sedate 18th century Fete Champetres brought here by the French colonists grow into what is now the world’s biggest fancy dress party (and piss-up)? This is what my project is all about (hic).

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