"So much things to say right now. We’ve got so much things to say." Bob Marley
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Rebellion To Romance – Writing Our Story
As part of the Out of Many Festival’s legacy, Susan Pitter, the Festival Director, has written a book called Rebellion To Romance, based around the photography featured in the hugely popular exhibition she curated at Leeds Central Library in 2022, which captures the story of the first generation of British-born West Indians in Leeds, of which she is a part. Here she talks about the experience of writing the book.
Why did you want to write this book?
I wrote a book based around the Eulogy exhibition in 2019 which reflected on the exhibition I had curated on first generation Jamaicans who came to live in the UK from the 1940s to 60s. People who had bought or had seen the Eulogy book kept asking if I was going to do one based around the Rebellion to Romance exhibition. It seemed like a natural progression to put together a book based on this because it was all about the second generation of West Indians and the impact of Jamaican culture on us. There were such moving and powerful stories, photos and memories that had been shared with us for the exhibition by members of the community that they deserved to be retold and recorded in a way that’s there for future generations.
What was it like putting the book together?
I have huge respect for those who write for a living. Writing books is filled with pressure. With an exhibition you can tweak things and move things around and when it’s over it disappears from a physical space. But with a book it’s there forever, so we can’t go back and change things once it’s out there.
Writing the Eulogy book was very emotional because it was about my parents’ generation, most of whom are no longer with us, so I felt a great sense of responsibility. Rebellion to Romance felt emotional in a nostalgic way. It was looking back at an era when we were growing up, coming of age and finding our own way and own identity. We were still very much a part of our parents’ culture but at the same time we were trying to find our own identity as that first generation of black, British-born members of society here in Leeds. My job was simply weaving it altogether. I say ‘simply’, because it was very much a labour of love, but also this is my generation so this exhibition felt personal.
Can you talk a bit about some of the themes captured in the book?
Sometimes there were tensions between the generations but there were so many similarities between us. The older generation had to be the activists who set up committees and organisations and fight for the rights that perhaps sometimes my generation and the younger generations have taken for granted.
At the same time there was a lot of activism amongst my generation because the 70s and 80s was an era of social and political upheaval. Looking back we can see why our parents might have been horrified that some of my generation were protesting and rising up against injustice, inequality and unfair treatment in the way they did. For some that meant taking to the streets, or making sure our voices were heard by supporting community led initiatives and programmes. For others it was through artistic and cultural expression. In a way it was our generation’s way of reacting to all the layers of racism and discrimination by saying, ‘Our parents had to take it. We won’t.’ So, I can see why it was sometimes troubling for our parents, who had been brought up under colonial rule, but also why it was a necessary stance for our generation as well.
But I didn’t want this to be just an exhibition and a book about struggle, I also wanted it to be full of joy. I wanted to capture the joy that our parents’ generation had felt in developing the culture and sense of community when they first came here, and for this to be a continuing thread in Rebellion to Romance, because there was a lot of joy and pride in the music, style, art and consciousness we were discovering in the 70s and 80s – in the black British culture that we were shaping.
How important is music in the Rebellion to Romance story?
Music was such an important part of who we were and who we became, like Jamaican reggae and the impact that had on the formation of lovers’ rock – our very own black British cultural phenomenon. Music brought our parents’ generation together. They’d all gather in their front rooms at the weekend and listen to the music on their radiograms. We ventured beyond our front rooms and our homes and went into the dance halls and sports clubs and the spaces that would let us be there and we listened to sound systems. And just like our parents, when we couldn’t find spaces that would let us in, we celebrated christenings and birthdays at house parties with sound systems playing the soundtrack we loved – reggae, lovers’ rock and dub.
Your book gives us a little glimpse into fashion from the 70s and 80s. How big a part did it play in people’s sense of identity?
We were very much British but we were also deeply attached to our Caribbean cultural identity. The Gabiccis knits, Farah slacks and pleated skirts were very much us. This look, with the expensive Italian knitwear, was partly inspired by the whole sound system culture, movies coming out of Jamaica like Rockers, or black British movies like Babylon. The more rootsy Rasta-inspired style of Jamaican artists who were singing songs of resistance and consciousness like Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, The I-Threes, and British bands like Aswad and Steel Pulse also appealed to many of us.
I look back at the pleated skirts and bow-tie collars and frilly blouses and we looked a bit like Princess Diana! We weren’t trying to emulate her at all, we were just taking an aspect of mainstream style and fashion and making it our own. A lot of us girls would wear a boyfriend’s Gabicci cardigan with our pleated skirts and patent leather court shoes, or sport head wraps and hooped earrings. Our style icons were Rockers star and reggae icon Gregory Isaacs and lovers’ rock queens Carroll Thompson and Janet Kay who we were starting to see on Top of The Pops from the 70s. So yes, fashion and our own black British interpretation was very important to us and you can see this from many of the photos.
Potternewton Park pops up throughout the book. Why is it significant to so many people in Leeds?
This book tells a Leeds black British story and it couldn’t be told properly without talking about Potternewton Park, which is still looked on today with real fondness and affection. In the 70s and 80s we had nowhere of our own to come together and relax.
Aside from it being the start and end point for the annual Leeds West Indian Carnival, on a sunny Sunday afternoon there was joy in seeing hundreds of young people hanging out and listening to reggae beats from sound systems set up for the day, or playing sport, or just sitting and watching the world go by. We claimed that green space as our own and that’s why it’s so important to so many of us – just as it was for our parents. I remember going there as a five year old on family picnics when it was such an important space for West Indian and South Asian families in Chapeltown in the 60s too.
Commissioning ‘Godfather of Black British photography’ Vanley Burke to capture portraits of second generation West Indians taken in ‘Potty Park’, as we affectionately called it, was a real honour. It’s really touching to have his portraits sit alongside ‘back in the day’ photos in the book.
Can you talk about a couple of your favourite photos and the stories behind them?
There are so many brilliant photos but there are two that particularly stand out for me. The first is a group shot from the West Indian Carnival in 1982 (I’m in the picture at the back).
For me it’s such a joyful picture and it brings back a lot of happy memories. My sister’s in front of me and there’s our lifelong friend Diane Stewart on the right hand side. That photo captures the joy of being young and being in Potternewton Park. I remember the picture being taken. I remember us all getting together and making a carnival costume that had nothing to do with sequins and feathers, or any of the traditional sparkle associated with the festival. We just liked the look of the pleated skirts and that American-inspired look. It was just before the carnival set off and I can remember the excitement of it all. I can even remember the smells of food cooking on the barbecues. It was such a happy and carefree moment.
The other photo I really love was taken at the Rebellion to Romance Show at Leeds Playhouse. It’s a homage to lovers’ rock and the wallpaper you see was the design Lee Goater recreated from an original photo from the exhibition. It was typical of the kind of wallpaper you’d find in our parents’ homes where we often held house parties. That photo was recreating a lovers’ rock scene with couples dancing against the wall. It was so familiar to me and so many others.
There’s something about telling those stories and knowing those stories authentically that resonates with people. When the wall was being created at the exhibition I wanted to scuff up areas on the wall and the reason was simply that when young couples were dancing against the walls they rubbed off part of the pattern. I didn’t explain it on the launch night, I just took some people over and said, ‘look at this.’ And they just squealed or laughed because it brought so many memories flooding back. It’s details like this which seem quite small in the grand scheme of things but mean a lot to people who were there and lived those moments. Details which are rarely, if ever, showcased in the archives, museum, or gallery spaces in our city – and they should be because they’re a part of Leeds’s story.
Why is it important that these stories are told?
What is heartening is that over the past few years we’re beginning to see stories and narratives in books and on the big and small screens that tell some of these stories. It’s great to see and it needs to continue. But it’s rare that those stories relate to us in Leeds or the North. Not everywhere had a Potternewton Park, or went to a Della’s takeaway on Chapeltown Road after a night out. These things were our stories because they were here in Leeds, and I think these stories should be told in every city because they will be different in each place.
Nobody can tell your story, whoever you are, wherever you’re from, like you can. So nobody can tell our stories like we can and nobody will. Communities need to be at the heart of telling our communities’ stories and protecting and preserving them. To omit them means a true and full story of our city remains untold.
What do you hope people get from reading your book?
The response has been brilliant and not just in Leeds, but from people around the world who have a connection to the stories in some way, or are nostalgic for the era. This book is a lasting legacy that shares all these precious images and memories and it gives people another chance to see those wonderful Vanley Burke portraits that were such an important part of the exhibition.
I’m a grandparent now and I hope my grandchildren can look at this book and see that yes, there has been a struggle against discrimination and inequality that unfortunately must continue. But most importantly, I want them to see the joy and pride there was in our shaping of black British cultural identity – and that they too will experience the pride of protecting and preserving it.
Both the Eulogy and Rebellion to Romance books are available from;
Colours May Vary instore at Corn Exchange, Call Lane, Leeds LS1 7BR and online HERE
And instore at Petals & Stitches, 233 Chapeltown Road Leeds LS7 3DX