Monday, 29 July 2013

Nottingham Carnival & The Carnival Tax

The longest British heatwave in seven years may be a distant memory as the unsettled spell of weather continues, but nonetheless we are of course in the middle of the summer season.  It is a period of the year which is illuminated by the festivals and carnivals which add so much character to the calendar.

I have written previously about my love of carnivals and the symbolic importance that it represents for so many including myself.  During the same piece I held up Nottingham as a shining example of defending the spirit of what carnival stands for by the decision taken in 2011 to become the first carnival to go ahead after a summer of civil unrest.  The carnival followed just days after a police station in the city was firebombed and I commended the decision as being both correct but also brave since other carnivals around the time were being cancelled.

Yet for the last five days I have been involved in a campaign of awareness regarding some quite extraordinary plans by organisers of the same carnival to introduce something truly revolutionary without any degree of public consultation whatsoever.  A concept which if successful will have ramifications for carnivals all over the UK and may one day lead to extortionate tariffs being imposed on events like the Notting Hill Carnival where such gatherings will become the preserve of an elite.

I am talking about plans for an admission fee being applied to the entry of the Nottingham Caribbean Carnival.  It is an idea I have dubbed as the “Carnival Tax”.

First let us assess the plans as they were unveiled on the 25th July when the promotional posters were released to social networks on the same day.  The organisers have requested that attendees make a voluntary suggested contribution of £1 per day upon entry to the event.  This conjures up images of visits to museums where containers are placed within the grounds for patrons to submit contributions of their choice.  These are normally accompanied by a written instruction such as “suggested contribution £1” or other various amounts.  And the containers are usually transparent and are filled with various denominations including many banknotes far in excess of the suggested amount.  It is an indirect message that patrons should “give what they can” so that those who can afford more will contribute more and those who cannot will contribute what they can spare.

It’s a tranquil gentle image and we know it works because we have all seen those containers filled with all sorts of coins and banknotes.  However critically it is managed in a way so as to ensure that nobody feels that they are under duress to make a contribution.  There is no security guard within a few feet accompanied by police officers providing any kind of impression that they are in any way connected to the process of donations.  And most importantly of all the procedure is managed within the grounds of the museum and is not at the entry point nor could it be interpreted as being a condition of entry.

When most people heard about Nottingham Carnival’s plans for a suggested contribution of £1, the initial image many would have dreamt up would have been something broadly along the lines of the scene from the museum.  This would be the idea of patrons roaming freely into the grounds of the event and making a suitable contribution free from any pressure.  It all projects the same gentle operation which would suggest that any opposition would be completely irrational and unjustified.

Unfortunately this is simply not the case in terms of the plans that the organisers of Nottingham Carnival have lined up for next month.  I have had to press them on a number matters over the last few days, including a lengthy exchange of emails with the CEO Richard Renwick MBE but can now confirm that the romantic timid image of the example of museum contributions is a world away from what is being plotted.

Visitors to Nottingham Carnival will know that the event is staged on the Forest Fields in a section of the park which is cordoned off using tall metal temporary railings which serve as a fence.  Some observers have likened the image to “animals in a cage” and whilst I do share the sentiments, I do equally believe that it is a debate to have on a different day and most certainly as part of a different post. 

Entry to the event is solely through one point at the front of the cordoned off area.  It is a designated security point, manned by several security staff of a burly appearance, usually with a police officer or two nearby.  This is the only entry point to the grounds of the Nottingham Caribbean Carnival.

It can be quite an intimidating scene even for people like myself who always attend carnival with the essence of the spirit for which the festivities were designed for.  I have my flag, horns, whistle and vuvuzela ready for action, but even as I am ready to enjoy one of my favourite occasions in the calendar, it is an uncomfortable part of the carnival experience as security staff look you up and down, waiting for any excuse to scrutinise you further at the entry point where you are searched using various metal detectors.

It is this uncomfortable part of the carnival experience where the organisers of the Nottingham Carnival are seeking to enforce their voluntary suggested contribution.  I have requested that they relocate the collection zone to an area within the grounds of the carnival, so that it cannot in any way be misinterpreted as a condition of entry.  This request has been repeatedly declined on the grounds that they have attempted to make collections within the grounds before without any success.  I have countered that the previous collection campaigns lacked enough focus to inform the public who may not have realised just how much trouble the organisers of the event are in trying to put on the show every year.  This could easily be resolved with posters and leaflets emphasising the point, but again from within the grounds of the event itself.

Even the literature which has been produced for the event does not tally up with the message they are now scrambling to ensure is heard.  The poster does not make any reference at all to the contribution being voluntary or that it is suggested, simply that it is £1 on the day.  Oh and that kids go free.

There is little doubt in my mind that nobody from the organisation would be stupid enough to stop anyone attending the event if they failed to make a suitable donation at the point of entry.  Unfortunately there is a broader problem here which will potentially arise.  The process is managed in full view of intimidating security staff and police officers, not to mention a queue of people who are anxious to get beyond the other side of the perimeter fencing.  While the designated individuals managing the collections may not be naïve enough to prevent someone entering who did not want to make the contribution, they can still make the non-contributor’s life uncomfortable.

For example if someone did not wish (or indeed did not have) the necessary funds to cover the voluntary suggested contribution there is nothing to stop the organisers requesting the contribution from amplifying their voices to a higher decibel.   This would enable others in the queue behind to be left in no doubt that this person at the front of the queue was not paying the £1.  It could then lead to anxious queue members becoming frustrated, possibly calling out insults which are then echoed by others also keen to pass the entry point and enjoy the rest of the day.  Therefore it will have a knock-on effect as others in the queue who may also have lacked the funds to cover their contribution that day, will prefer not to be subjected to such ridicule or abuse and decide to leave the queue early to head home instead.

It is as someone described to me last week as a visual deterrent.  An almost covert strategy to prevent others who do not have the necessary voluntary suggested contribution from joining the queue in the first place.  Is it worth paying £1 to avoid the humiliation or abuse incurred by other members of the queue?  Is it not better to stay at home in order to ensure that exposure to such a situation is avoided?

What about if someone retaliates at the abuse they are subjected to?  What if a fight broke out at the entry point, in full view of police officers nearby?  Essentially the catalyst for such a flashpoint would be an apparent revolutionary idea which was implemented without any consideration for the implications it could lead to.  This in turn would damage the event as a whole because statistically the arrests would be connected to the event and would be used as ammunition by parties who are opposed to the annual festivities.

There is little doubt that Nottingham Carnival is in trouble and the amount of funding it has lost in recent years has been breathtaking.  There are severe funding issues at the core of this issue which serves as a motivation for the organisers to head down this road. However there are questions that they must in turn answer because recent actions do not reflect the responsible conduct of an organisation working under restrictions in funding.  We have all experienced the perils of the current economic depression which has engulfed this country for the past five years, so we all have experience of sacrificing luxuries in order to ensure necessities are managed.  It’s the old cliché of “working within your means”.

So why have the organisers of Nottingham Carnival responded to a reduction in funding by continuing to indulge in lavish “international acts”?  Artists which could be deemed to be extravagant, expensive and unnecessary.  Nobody could deny that the announcement that Ms Dynamite would be headlining one of the days at the event was met by near-universal approval.  But if there was any suggestion that Ms Dynamite attending would lead to such an unsavoury scenario many would have condemned such an idea unequivocally. 

It is a set of circumstances where Nottingham will make history as being the first UK carnival to charge patrons to attend, something which fills me with shame and embarrassment.  It is a fact which I highlighted to Mr. Renwick when I suggested that should his idea go ahead he might wish to contact the city council about their “Proud” campaign as such a pledge could no longer be accurate given the humiliation a lot of us will feel as residents of a city that has allowed such a travesty to go ahead.

Carnivals offer a unique experience.  Performing artists are seen more as a bonus to compliment proceedings instead of being the centrepiece of the annual celebration.  When I attended Preston and Huddersfield Carnivals earlier this summer, I was not enticed by seeing Beenie Man in Lancashire or Shy FX in West Yorkshire.  It would have been a nice surprise but it was not my motivation to attend.  I was attracted by the idea of the carnival atmosphere, in two cities that I had never visited before and provided me with enough happy memories to ensure that I will be returning to both next year too. Both were very simple events with less emphasis on huge headliners but both were delivered without the need to impose a tax levy on visitors.

When people attend festivals there is an expectation to see a superstar.  When I attended the recent Lovebox event in London I was excited by the prospect of seeing the 90s R&B legend D’Angelo.  If I had attended and found the stage was instead filled by Debbie from Dalston, I would have demanded my money back.  Thus my expectation is that the festivals will be full of established stars not “hidden gems”.

Amy Winehouse was one of the biggest artists that this country has ever produced but the story of her on the MasterMind stage in a Sainsbury’s car park in Notting Hill is one that is remembered fondly by all lucky enough to have been in attendance that day.  She was not paid a penny for her performance as at the time she was an unsigned act and was still very much a “rough diamond”.  Where are the opportunities to find the new Amy’s of Nottingham if the stages are filled with Ms Dynamite or Shy FX?  What about Stacey from Sneinton or Rachel from Radford?  This is where the true meaning of carnival has been lost amidst a ruthless strategy to turn Nottingham Carnival into some kind of festival which now charges attendees an admission fee.

I have lobbied the organisers and the CEO about having the name changed; if this farce must take place then at least they could change the name to festival.  Such an alteration may seem trivial or even cheap points scoring, but it is a highly significant amendment.  Festivals normally charge people to attend their events, in return for seeing popular headliner acts.  Carnivals do not, but equally they do not necessarily have “international acts” either.

The £1 Carnival Tax at Nottingham Carnival will not be sufficient to safeguard it's future. The 2013 event will purely be an experiment to see how many people will pay up.  Assuming enough do so, the price will almost certainly rise next year.  And the year after that.  In fact it will keep rising until the number of visitors tails off.  Ultimately it will lead to other carnivals around the UK also following suit.  Each using the current austerity measures as a smokescreen to more sinister motives.  Which will only eventually lead to the biggest of them all: Notting Hill Carnival.  Should that happen, the admission charge will be a lot more than £1.

At the time of writing the organisers behind the Nottingham Caribbean Carnival have been unwilling to offer any compromise on three crucial areas.  Firstly they have refused to cancel the £1 voluntary suggested contribution.  They have also refused to relocate the designated collection zone away from the entry point.  And finally they have refused to rename the event to a festival. 

I have asked that they give way on just one of the three areas, but this has been declined repeatedly.

Consequently I have started an awareness campaign under a slogan of boycotting the Nottingham Carnival.  This is something which has been deeply traumatic because of my own passion for carnivals as a whole and even more so because it is the carnival in the city that has been my home for eleven years.  It is a bizarre position I find myself in but one that I have sought to defend because as I have stated a lot over the past few days: this is far bigger than Nottingham.

This potentially affects carnivals all over the UK and if I do nothing then I am being complicit in a crime which will fundamentally change the events as we know them.  It will inevitably become a watershed moment in years to come and one day someone will tell me that they are unable to attend the Notting Hill Carnival because they cannot afford the £75 admission ticket.  As a result I will be forced to explain how I saw how it started and sat back and did nothing.  I can’t do that.  And if you care for the future of carnivals then neither can you.

Say no to the Carnival Tax.  On the 17th & 18th August boycott Nottingham Carnival.