Being unexpectedly released from watching test cricket meant that I could join the crowds making their way to Potternewton Park for the 52nd Leeds West Indian Carnival.
The weather could not have been more Caribbean, with the thermometer hovering around 30c and the sunshine unbroken. I have to admit that this is my first visit to what has become a National Institution. In fact, I was speaking to a lovely family who had come from Nottingham especially.
The start of the parade, which is the highlight of the day for most, was supposed to be at 2.00pm and a large crowd had gathered around the open area in front of the stage, hoping to see the participants do a lap of the parade ring in the manner of racehorses before they go down to the start. However, it was postponed for half an hour and then the groups left quietly, without ceremony, by the side of the stage. This meant that it would be another two and a half hours before they returned for the prize giving.
I had managed to get some photographs of those about to strut their stuff, so decided to go for a wander around the park and take on some liquid as instructed by lots of signs, as well as the launch party on stage. A can of Red Stripe fitted the bill perfectly – yes, I know – I had a bottle of water as well! There was an amazing array of food and drink stalls as you would expect, with lots of Windies goodies such as jerk chicken, curried goat and dumplin, as Steve Wright would say ’No G’. There were various alcoholic concoctions being served from scooped out pineapples which looked very refreshing as well. I had decided to postpone eating as it was hot and my appetite was A.W.O.L. so, duly watered, I set off for a stroll around the area with a view to following the carnival route in reverse, thus meeting up with the parade about half way, where it would hopefully be a little quieter.
The first thing which struck me was the extent to which the event had taken over seemingly the whole of Chapeltown, with the side streets and main thoroughfares being lined by pop-up shops and restaurants in people’s gardens. Those who were not trying to make a few quid from the event seemed to be having al fresco parties and the music, food and drink were everywhere, as was the smoke from barbecues. The strange thing was that although all of the music systems seemed to be turned up to 11, I didn’t seem to get any overlap between them. It could be because my hearing had just about gone by then.
After my sojourn along Spencer Place, which was really rocking, I walked up Grange Avenue, a little more subdued in the entertainment stakes, and on to Chapeltown Road, which was to be the last leg of the parade before it returned to Potternewton Park. It was surreal to be able to walk down the middle of Chapeltown Road with no traffic and here again the party was in full swing, with the smell of food and barbecue smoke all-pervading. As I reached the junction with Barrack Road I saw the police outriders which indicated that the parade was imminent, so I took up residence on a central reservation to get my photographs. I don’t think that I have ever seen such a display of colour, but more importantly, as many smiling people. The whole atmosphere of the day had been one of joy and this feeling was now cranked up even further.
After the twenty minutes or so that the parade took to pass, my hunger kicked in, so I thought that I would continue my walk against the grain and return to the park for something to eat. Spencer Place was rocking even more now and it took all of my self-restraint, of which I have none, to pass the impromptu food stands. Don’t get me wrong, I have taken my chances and eaten in some very dodgy places in even dodgier parts of the world, but my main reason for eschewing at this point, rather than chewing, was that the park traders will have had to pay for their pitches, which is what has helped finance the event in the first place, so it is only fair to use them.
On arriving back at Potternewton I was unable to cross Harehills Avenue to the park itself as the parade had beaten me to it. Eventually, after a second helping of the free show, I reached the sanctuary of the green grass and trees. It came as another surprise as to how much cooler it is, being in a grassy expanse rather than a tarmac one surrounded by buildings acting as storage heaters. Obvious, but surprising to a simple soul such as me.
By this time, the atmosphere at the Carnival site had changed with the influx of a lot more younger people who were there to enjoy the music and dancing from the various stages which had been set up in my absence. Whereas the afternoon was for families, the evening was for partygoers, many of whom were sporting towels round their necks for when the inspiration turned to perspiration. I partook of a bottle of water, a carton of jerk chicken with rice and peas and made my way to the bus stop, via Seven Arts Cafe for an al fresco pint.
Whilst quaffing the ale, I had time to reflect on what a great day everyone seemed to have had and how it was so good to attend an event where differences were ignored and similarities highlighted. Long may Leeds West Indian Carnival continue, and may it always experience the wonderful weather it did on my visit.
All photographs by Stan Graham.
Stan writes Let’s Do Lunch for Leeds Living. He also reviews special events for food and drink, which sometimes takes him beyond Leeds. He has also developed an interest in writing on culture, most frequently dramatic and musical theatre.