Madrinha of the London School of Samba
Diane Miller, a member of the LSS since 1987 has died aged 65. Originally from Liverpool, she became one of the most influential and important people in the history of the school. A tireless worker for the LSS, she served for 17 years on the Management Committee (1988–2006) where she held many key posts, notably as Administrator and Secretary of the London School of Samba – a position she held five times until her retirement in 2005.
For most of her time as a performer with the school, she played in the bateria – either on tamborim (when she first joined) or surdo. She took part in a record 21 carnival parades with the LSS – playing every one the school did between 1988 and 2007, and then coming back after retirement in 2009 for our 25th anniversary parade, and then again in 2011 for her final one as Madrinha of the LSS. In at least six carnival parades she performed as a baiana.
As part of my work documenting the schools history, l interviewed her in March 2006. She said this about how she first heard of the LSS and got involved:
“I moved to London with my then husband (Clive Foden) in 1987 and as we had lived in a restrictive small town and been bored and uncomfortable, we swore that we would do something different each month e.g. go to the theatre, eat in a different type of restaurant etc. It was important to us that we enjoyed our lives to the full – I don’t believe in settling for the humdrum and enjoy experiencing new things.
There was a Festival of comedy being held in a marquee on the South Bank – I think it was actually in Jubilee Gardens. We arrived early, intending to have a drink at the Festival Hall and we heard the most amazing noise. Of course, it was the Samba School complete with dancers and they were performing on the Terrace. I remember Clive Wales being there and there was a stunning male dancer wearing very little more than what appeared to me to be a satin nappy. Of course, for me it was love at first sound and I remember saying to my husband that I had to do that. I sort of knew it was Samba – I think I may have picked up information about it from TV or somewhere. But it felt like coming home.
Then came the struggle to track them down. This was not easy in the days before the internet. We finally did it, strangely enough, because I did the 1987 Carnival with the Maxilla Workshops float and we were behind the samba school. My ex saw someone he knew performing with them and the rest is history.”
Thus, in the autumn of 1987 Di joined the LSS. Helen Bradford, now a member of the schools Velha Guarda Ala remembers that they both joined the same week. In 1988, she did her first parade in Carnival with the LSS, playing tamborim in a bateria led by Pato. Her daughter, Kerry Dougan also joined the bateria not long afterwards, and remained an active member (also on the committee for a couple of years).
By the time of the 1988 AGM she was on the committee for the first time– taking over the post of Secretary & Administrator for two years from Pru Lundberg. This was when the job was volunteer post, and unlike today, had to be done from home as the LSS had no premises. After her death, Pru said:
“I have always been so happy to have passed over the general secretary’s role to Di because she put her heart and soul into it for so long, and I am happy that it gave her so much pleasure for such a big chunk of her life”.
Di soon became one of the most prominent people in the LSS, and for many the main person that new people would meet when they turned up at workshops for the first time. For almost two decades, she was often the main contact not only for members – but anyone else seeking to contact the school from outside. She probably did more than any other person to help establish friendly relations with the numerous bodies involved in running the Notting Hill Carnival.
A warm and friendly person, she always made newcomers feel welcome at workshops or at the gate of our barracão in Notting Hill. When l first joined the bateria l noticed almost straight away that she was part of that very small and dedicated group of people who would be at every gig, no matter if it was meeting in Willesden High Street at 9am on a freezing cold morning to walk up and down the main road in t-shirts playing to no-one – or some top gig in the Hurlingham Club or Wembley Stadium.
As I was always interested in the history of the school from an early point, l soon realised that she had been an important witness to many of the key moments in the history of the LSS. Joining in 1987, she had seen the last two years of the period when Pato Fuentes was the Mestre de Bateria. She became part of the samba school at a turbulent time when many of the original members were beginning to leave. Added to this, 1987 was of course just one year after the abolition of the Greater London Council (GLC) by the Thatcher government. The GLC had provided the LSS with considerable assistance when it was first formed in 1984, but from 1987 onwards a new harsher period for community groups in London began as GLC-funded events (and other forms of practical support) dried up. It’s only now that l can see how significant Di was when she became closely involved in running the LSS from 1988: she undoubtedly helped steer the school through this very difficult period.
An example of this was what Di herself called the “reestablishment of the samba school” in 1989. Between 1984 and 1986, the GLC had provided valuable assistance – but no money. During this period there were no grants either; the schools activities were entirely financed by its gig income (40+ per year) and the income from some 560 paid-up members in its first three years. In other words: although the LSS was completely self-financing by 1987/88, this model could not continue. Pru Lundberg was the first administrator to succeed in getting a grant for the school, and this was around 1987 – but this money only came through when Di was secretary of the school. This so was another unique contribution that Di made the LSS – she took over the running of the school at a critical time financially and helped make sure that the LSS kept its head above water. Looking back, l wonder if -without Di – the school would have survived this period at all.
In the 1989 AGM, Di gave an explanation on the background of this:
“A grant application, made by Pru Lundberg, the previous secretary, bore fruit, and we were able to institute dance classes thanks to the Greater London Arts Association. Although the money has now run out, the dance classes are proving so popular and helping to promote firmer links between bateria and dancers, that we are attempting to keep them going. A further grant application is in the process of being decided upon by the London Boroughs Grants Association, and this grant will enable us to offer our more experienced musicians some further tuition in the form of masterclasses given by professionals. We may, however, have to wait a little while for these, as grant organisations are very thorough and slow in their deliberations about worthy causes. We are also further slowed up by the fact that in the early days of the samba school, insufficient accounts were kept, and to satisfy grant organisations one often has to present a full set of accounts. We are attempting to deal with this anomaly as part of another undertaking in which we are presently involved.
This is the re-establishment of the samba school as a charity, instead of the limited company status which it presently enjoys. This would mean that we would no longer have to put by a large chunk of our earnings in case of demands by the Inland Revenue, which is the case at present. I know a lot of the members wonder what happens to the money – well, now you know! Unfortunately, the very act of extricating ourselves from the awkward position in which we find ourselves may well cost us a lot of money.”
Also as the Administrator of the LSS she had been closely involved in helping with the organisation of the 3rd European Samba Encontro on the Southbank in July 1989. Organised by veteran LSS members Alan Hayman & Pat Till, this event was made even more special by the fact that this was when the Madrinha of the LSS, G.R.E.S. Mocidade Independente de Padre Miguel came over performed and blessed the school. This was a moment of great significance for the LSS, as it was also when Mocidade presented Pato with one of their flags (and one which was to be used in carnival parades until 1999). At the 1989 AGM, Di said:
“I will personally treasure the memory of those days on the South Bank as long as I live, as an example of friendship and co-operation between people with only music in common”.
In 1990, the hard work by Di and others started to pay off when the LSS came 3rd in the parade in the Notting Hill Carnival. Writing in the September/October Newsletter, she said:
“Just in case you hadn’t heard, we won three prizes at Carnival, They are: Best Large Costume Band—3rd, King—3rd, Queen—2nd. I think those prizes are a reward not just for this year’s Carnival, but for six year’s worth of struggle to be recognised and accepted by the rest of the (Mas) Bands and the organising committee . . . I know we say it every year, but it was the best ever, wasn’t it?”
After the 1990 AGM, Di stepped down as Secretary & Administrator to become the editor of the LSS Newsletter – a post she would hold until 1992. Thanks to her, many copies of newsletters were passed over to the LSS archive; and through that, l have able to build up a more accurate picture of the history of the school in this period.
In 1991, Di was part of a team on the committee helped achieve one of the most significant things in the schools history: On 1st November 1991 the Charity Commissioners granted LSS charitable status. As Di noted in the November/December Newsletter, much of this was due to the hard work of LSS member Jon Monnickendam, to whom the school is indebted:
“We’re a charity! Thank you Jon Monnickendam. Jon has beavered away behind the scenes for three years to achieve this and also our new user friendly constitution and he deserves a medal”.
However, after the 1991 Carnival, the samba school split and a sizable group of performers left to form Quilombo do Samba. Also by this time, many of the members who had joined in the 1980s had by then left the school, some joining either Quilombo or other new samba groups in London such Afro Bloc or Academicos de Madueira. Thus in 1992, the LSS opted not to do the parade in Notting Hill but to perform at the Edinburgh Festival. In the archive l found a letter to a former LSS member from Di saying:
“We’re not doing Carnival this year. We have a large and fairly inexperienced new membership who need to be consolidated rather than blown apart by the inevitable strain of Carnival. Instead we’ve decided to treat us all to a trip to the Edinburgh Festival, where we are doing workshops with kids, appearing on Fringe Sunday and also having a possible slot at the Fringe Club. It’ll only cost what Carnival would have cost and we’ll have a ball.”
Following the 1992 AGM, Di served her 2nd term as Administrator/Secretary – but this time, just for one year, passing over to Steve Fox who took over just before the 1993 AGM. And it was in 1993, that one of the main lasting legacies of Di happened: as she worked for Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea she was able to secure its workshop space at Maxilla Gardens as the base for the school over the weekend of the Notting Hill Carnival. Almost 20 years on, the LSS is still there.
1994 saw the 10th anniversary of the LSS – I remember we did a special party at the 100 Club, the first event in many years that bought together many of the original members. That year, when playing one of it’s many gigs in Covent Garden Piazza, Paul Marwood – another veteran of the school – saw the LSS perform there; and afterwards was passed a flyer by Di about the school. Like so many others before him who had seen the school play there, he soon joined the LSS. In the Notting Hill Carnival parade, with a theme “Carnival: Passion of the World”, Di was the costume designer, and as far as l am aware, she was unpaid.
She served her 3rd term as Secretary & Administrator between 1995-1996.
One sad moment for the school was in August 1997, when veteran LSS member Steve Kitson died. Along with one of the founder members of the LSS, Alan Hayman, he had been one of the founders of Batucada Mandela, the first samba protest group in the UK. The group was famous for playing outside the South African embassy during the apartheid period, and on the famous march against the Poll Tax in 1990. Di also played at many of these events, and remembered some of her experiences with the group in an obituary on Steve in November 1996:
Many, probably most of you will not have known Steve. He was one of the very early members of the Samba School and played a hugely important part in our history. Steve’s life was a sample of a particular age of world politics and history. He was a South African, whose family had been scattered as a result of their involvement with the struggle against apartheid. In this country Steve’s involvement continued with his contribution to the Constant Picket of the South African Embassy, his membership of the Anti-Apartheid Movement and the forming of choirs to sing African Freedom songs. At the time we often played on the embassy steps as Batucada Mandela, and this was where we first met.
On a personal level, I can only say that I am grateful to have had not only the chance of meeting him, but having him as my travelling companion on my visit to Brasil. He was the perfect man to travel with—calm, funny, patient and sweet, and I will treasure the memory of him in Brazilian heat dressed in brogues, KD’s, long sleeved shirt and hat.
In 1999, she proposed the theme “Flying Down to Rio” for that year’s carnival parade. It was very successful – the LSS came 5th in the overall results. This marked the start of an unbroken period that the LSS has kept until the present day: the school has always been in the top 10 of the results of the carnival. 1999 also saw one of the most historic nights of the samba school: when we were invited to perform on New Years Eve at the Millennium Dome in Greenwich. As the closing act after midnight, the LSS appeared in front of global audience with 86 fully costumed musicians and dancers. They performed to an audience that included the Queen, Prime Minister Tony Blair and some 10,000 people. Di played in the bateria at this gig, and later remembered it as one of the highlights of all the performances she had done with the LSS.
In 2000, Di returned to serve a 4th term as Administrator & Secretary, taking over from Jo Fell. Her period in this office (until early 2002) coincided with me taking over from Dave Willetts as the Mestre de Bateria in May 2000, and throughout this period, I am indebted to Di for all the support she gave me. She became a life member of the school in 2002, and from April 2003 until December 2005, Di served her 5th and final term as Administrator and Secretary.
2005 also saw her play for the last time in the bateria in Carnival. Throughout this last year, she played most of the LSS gigs; her last one was at the London School of Economics in December 2005. Following her retirement, the LSS held a special party at The Horse in January 2006. After that she and Norry moved to Majorca. She and Norry returned to join the LSS for the 2006 and 2007 parades in the Notting Hill Carnival – when Di performed as a baiana.
When she retired, she had this to say about her time with the LSS:
“I have always been involved in some way or another with the organisation of the Samba School . . . The LSS has done more for me than I’ve ever done for it and that’s the truth. I’m grateful for the love and friendship I have felt down the years which have helped me through bad times and the fun which goes on through the good. The Samba School has virtually been my life since 1987 and I will be eternally grateful for the love and support I have had from all the people who I have known since that time . . . I hope to live in Majorca for my retirement – the heating bills are less and they like old gits – but Norman and I are already planning to return each August and say “Where’s my costume?”
I’ll never really retire – I don’t think it’s in the rules, is it? I’ll just be a bit more long distance.
In June 2006, Di and Norry moved to Soller in Majorca, Spain. In 2008 she didn’t parade at Carnival, however, in 2009 she attended the 25th anniversary party of the school that was held at the Conway Hall in Holborn. Diagnosed with cancer shortly afterwards, she came back to Britain in 2011, and in July 2011, married Norry in Canterbury. Their wedding party was held at Kerry’s house in Whitstable, where a small bateria was invited to play – with Di joining us on surdo one last time. It was one of the most memorable days in my time in the LSS.
She died in Harwich in November, and was cremated wearing her Madrinha costume. The bateria played at the end of the service and for me that was one of the most emotional performances I have ever had the honour of leading the bateria on.
Moving words and a testimony to her life were spoken by her son Sean, Steve Fox and Norry. Her son Sean said afterwards:
On behalf of the whole family I’d like to thank everyone so much for what was the most incredible send off I’ve ever witnessed. Doors marked ‘private’ were opening all over the building to reveal the astonished and beaming faces of the crematorium staff and Nigel, our lovely funeral director shook my hand vigorously at the end and said that he’d never seen anything like it in 26 years. All this before we even got to the party. You did her proud. The usual sign-off cliche is ‘she would have loved to be there’. But really… and I mean really, she would have loved it.
In her time, she was easily one of the most significant members of the school. Few have made anything near the contribution she has made.
She helped shape the school in more ways than any other member in the last 28 years; and helped guide the LSS through some of the most difficult times in its history. Di always fought for the school to remain inclusive, democratic and one that would find a space for any member of the public that just walked in off the street and wanted to either drum, dance, make costumes or help out in any other way. She helped keep the LSS true to the vision of its founders – a school of samba. Without doubt, the LSS would not be the Brazilian community organisation that it is today had it not been for Di’s efforts, and we will forever be indebted to her for her contribution to our school.
There are many tributes to Di from LSS members past & present on her Facebook page. A large number were also sent to me for inclusion in our newsletter.
Mestre Mags, 11th January 2012