By Alex Cater
One of the last surviving founders of the festival that evolved into the St Paul’s Carnival has spoken out about the state of the event in the wake of this year’s cancellation.
Community activist Roy Hackett, who is now 84, was among a small group that launched the festival in 1968 and while his active involvement ended 11 years later, he has kept closely in touch with this key event in the Bristol calendar.
It was due to take place on 7 July but after a cash shortfall, organisers announced in February that it would be scaled back, and at the end of April said it would be cancelled, citing funding and crowd safety concerns.
Hackett criticised a lack of transparency in the organisers’ dealings with the public. “They seem to have a closed door policy. It’s only when the money ran out that we heard how much they had got and how much they had spent.”
He is concerned that the event was successfully run without subsidy for many years but now seems unable to function without costly financial support.
Hackett said: “We ran it for 11 years without this council or any council, ever putting any money in. So when they are talking about how this carnival hasn’t got any money, I want to know why.”
He added that after decades when the event ran fairly smoothly, a rising tide of problems seem to have occurred only in recent times: “It has been cancelled three times in its whole history, but in the last 10 years it has been stopped twice.”
Hackett fears that between the money worries blamed for the latest cancellation and other problems of the past few years, the St Paul’s Carnival may have lost it way.
He is scathing about the use of external advisors – “A consultant to tell you how to run a community event?”– and people being paid when carnival should be community-owned and community driven to stay closer to its roots.
“The festival was never a business. It was a community event. The event involved everybody that was living in the community. Everybody did their little bit. We went with caps in hand, begging pennies, and half a crown. If you give five shillings, that is a whole lot of money.
“People always asked me: ‘Do you get big pay?’ I say: ‘For what?’ I’ve never charged anyone for what I do because I don’t need to; I have a job, I have my wife, I have my family.”
Hackett was interviewed as part of Bristol Archive Record’s ongoing oral history of the city. An individual who is almost an institution in Bristol and St Paul’s, he arrived in the UK from Jamaica in 1952 at the age of 24.
A career in construction took him all over the country, with spells building the Hinkley Point nuclear power station on Somerset’s coast and even working alongside Welsh star and The Voice coach Sir Tom Jones: “He was always singing.”
After settling in Bristol, Hackett became engaged in community activities, including anti-racist protests.
He was strongly involved in Bristol’s bus boycott in 1963, called in protest at the failure to hire black staff for the city’s transport company, which led within weeks to the lifting of the so-called “colour bar”.
Hackett said his role in creating the annual celebration that became carnival came from his habit of attending meetings and joining committees.
As he puts it, some people preach, others enjoy gambling, but he “fell into sitting in on associations and committees”. Even today, in his eighties, “I go to the meetings because I am a nosey person, because I want to know what’s going on.”
Carnival is seen as something strongly derived from Caribbean culture, in particular Jamaica, and Hackett’s childhood memories are of Christmas celebrations: “We don’t have anything back home on as big a scale as the St Paul’s Carnival. In Jamaica, the carnivals move from parish to parish.
“I lived in the countryside in Jamaica until I was 16. There, carnivals are part of the Christmas amusement; everybody dresses up as a god or a devil and has their own role in the carnival. Each year we looked forward to it and it would go right on through to New Year’s Day.”
Hackett is saddened that the St Paul’s Carnival he helped launch has hit so many problems when the original ideals of 1968 were very simple.
“At the very beginning we just wanted to do something to say thank you to our community. I thought it was a good idea because everybody could have a part in it. The old people could watch from their doorways and the children would have smiles on their faces and shout, ‘Mum, look here, Look here.’ That brings joy.”
© Alex Cater 2012