Some people are special. Larry Ford was very special. He taught me one of life’s most important lessons: die young. He fulfilled that last week, aged 80, to the end as vivacious as a ten year old, albeit a worldly-wise and wily child. In the past months I saw him occasionally on the Harrow Road, always upbeat. Many times I didn’t see him; he was at home, ill in private.
The most recent time we spent together was last autumn. I’d made an enormous kite, for flying cameras. We skipped off to Wormwood Scrubs. Larry balanced the lines, flew this 12 foot monster, and reminisced about Trinidad’s beaches, kites and his childhood.
We met in 1975. Pippa Smith and I had set up Paddington Printshop in the derelict factory that would later become Yaa Asantewaa. Larry was looking for a summer space to build costumes. We had a room, so Larry, and his newly formed band Sukuya, moved in. That summer we laughed, fought, overdosed on music and made things side-by-side. On August Bank Holiday Monday, Sukuya rushed onto the streets of North Westminster. A band of imaginary Zulu warriors, semi-naked men and women with raffia skirts, shields, strange masks topped by ‘African-like’ sculptures, one adorned with an enormous phallus, waving spears at flabbergasted locals. This, you could see it on everyone’s face, was the prelude to Enoch Powell’s prophesied ‘rivers of blood’. Then the realisation; this is a wonderful joke. ‘Do you really think we’re savages?’ NO, this is Carnival, come-on, loosen-up, have a drink, let’s party. Back then, Carnival was a small-scale community affair. Larry was one of a handful of artists who made it what it is today, Europe’s greatest street festival.
Arriving in a war-ravaged London in the early 1950’s, a sharply dressed handsome man from the wrong side of the tracks, Larry learnt book-keeping in the British army, and politics from the streets. Demobbed, he opened a jazz café in the Golborne Road. Some of it’s clients, Christine Keeler, Mandy ‘he would say that wouldn’t he’ Rice-Davies and Dr. Stephen Ward, toppled the government, their assignations fuelled by Larry’s caffeine.
In 1986 Larry joined forces with Gloria Cummings and others to form one of Notting Hill Carnival’s most influential bands, Flamboyan. For many, Carnival is a weekend splash, full of colour and intoxication. But it is much more than that. It is the proposition that we should judge society not by its GDP, but by the space it makes available for play. For Larry, Carnival was a benevolent infection, more virulent than the leukaemia that ended his life.
Larry Ford is an artist, virtually unrecognised by the British art establishment, yet with an influence and impact on our culture will be more long-lasting than virtually anything to be found in sterile contemporary ‘white-cube’ galleries. Ford’s won’t fetch high prices at auction, because each year he ripped-up and recycled his creations for the next street outing.
Larry Ford’s legacy will live on in spontaneous encounters between strangers, who, temporarily intoxicated by carnival rhythms, cross imaginary barriers, and reach out to embrace each other. It will live on in the treasure that he, and his fellow carnivalists, brought from Trinidad to be freely distributed on the streets of Notting Hill each August.
John Phillips, May 2012
Larry passed away on Sunday 13 May due to ill health. His funeral takes place on Thursday 24th May at 2.30pm from Flamboyan, 1 Fernhead Road, or 3pm at the West London Crematorium, Harrow Road.