Notting Hill Carnival (1)
Sunday and Monday of the August Bank Holiday weekend
Over the last weekend in August, the streets of Notting Hill shrug off their chi-chi trendiness to make way for London’s biggest, best and most deliciously anarchic street festival. The splash of coloured costumes, the sound of soca, the smell of jerk chicken and the noise of a million people partying in the occasional sunshine mean it’s carnival time again – and if you like Red Stripe, coma-inducing ganja and ground- shakingly deep bass lines, then this is the place to be. If the weather’s good and the sound crews are on form, the Notting Hill Carnival can serve up one of the best party times you’ll ever experience. Dress in your best, buy yourself a whistle from any street vendor and head into the throbbing crowds in search of that perfect tune.
Notting Hill Carnival’s roots lie in an event held in St Pancras Town Hall, in 1959, when the West Indian Gazette editor, Claudia (ones, organized an event to showcase the musical talents of the local black community. This music festival was both sporadic and nomadic, but finally settled in the Notting Hill area under the stewardship of social worker Rhaune Laslett from 1964 onwards. Carnival has been taking place on the last weekend of August since that time, serving as a focal point for local black immigrants from the Caribbean, particularly Trinidad, as well as bringing together the people of Notting Hill. Believe it or not, this plush neighbourhood was one of the poorest districts in London then, and racism was rife, so the idea of a street carnival at which blacks and whites would celebrate together freely, eating, drinking and dancing to some great tunes, was nothing short of a social revolution.
Carnival bounced along as pretty much a local affair for ten years until Jamaican-style sound systems were introduced in the 1970s, attracting record levels of young people and swelling the weekend crowds to half a million. The increase in numbers quickly led to trouble, and the 1976 event ended in a full-scale riot. Following the Brixton riots in 1981, thirteen thousand officers were deployed at Carnival, and violence dogged the event throughout the 1980s.
Various committees have taken over the organization over the past decade, the most recent being the London Notting Hill Carnival organization, who have run the show since 2003. The procession route has been redefined several times, but despite pressure from the police and local authorities for a more significant change, away from the cramped streets of Notting Hill, ncluding proposals to finish the parade in Hyde Park or relocate the event entirely to somewhere else in North London, no one’s been able to move the main event. However, 2005 saw London Mayor Ken Livingstone stage a parallel “Caribbean Showcase” in Hyde Park on Carnival Monday, a family-oriented event with food stalls, live music and displays on Caribbean arts and culture. Though not a roaring success, it looks like becoming an annual addition to the main festival.
The main criticism of the Carnival nowadays is that it has lost its roots and serves merely as fertile marketing ground for multinationals gunning for a young white audience. Where once Afro-Caribbean locals cheered on their loved ones in the mas bands, now twenty-something investment bankers, gyrating self-consciously on the balconies of their half-million-pound flats, nervously eye their BMW parked outside. But though Carnival, like Notting Hill itself, has succumbed to a level of gentrification, the last few years have also seen it open up into a unique celebration of London’s diversity, with Trinidad-style costume bands sharing the route with Brazilian samba schools and North Indian dance groups, while reggae sound systems run by middle- aged white guys draw in crowds of hardened dancehall fans. And the free and easy Carnival mentality, most usually illustrated by the image of a costumed black woman dancing with a smiling police officer, serves as a welcome excuse for Londoners to suspend their cool reserve for a couple of days and just let the party take over.