If you don’t like noise and crowds, or if you’re ignorant enough to be racist, Notting Hill Carnival is not for you (the same could be said for the rest of London). If however you’re one for observing humanity spilling onto the street, it is. This year, I decided to ditch Mr Thief (not that he was that bothered, he’s more into house than reggae) and my friends, and go it alone. And I have to say I can recommend it. No worrying about losing anyone, no trying to get to the this and that sound system, no coordinating loo waits, just an aimless, wonderful 5 hour wander through streets filled with crazy, colourful people and the smell of jerk chicken cooking. (And by the way I defy you to say “jerk chicken with rice and peas please” if you have an anywhere near vaguely posh accent to an Afro-Caribbean dinner lady type without sounding like a complete idiot / Sam from Foyle’s War.)
The smart boutiques of Westbourne Grove as well as most of the other shops in the area are boarded up, and every doorway, curb and bollard makes for an impromptu picnic spot or vantage point to watch the world go by. Where else but at Notting Hill Carnival could you pull off not feeling awkward wolfing down goat from a styrofoam container, sitting alone on a random curb stone cold sober in the middle of the day?
Inevitably, I suppose, I started comparing Notting Hill Carnival to all the ‘festivals’ that are so popular these days. Granted, Glastonbury’s been going since 1970, but a lot of the others (Wilderness, Latitude, SGP, Bestival, etc) are relatively new. They seem to be so terribly ‘trendy’. Notting Hill Carnival conversely is a long standing institution amongst locals, a whole cross section of the community, and the fact that that it’s free manifests itself clearly. That’s the nice thing about it. You don’t JUST see people of a certain demographic (i.e. those with a spare few hundred quid to spare and who have spent hours preparing to replicate Cressida Bonas one strapped dungaree shorts outfit). The facepaint, the headwear, the shorts and ankle boots, it’s all there too, but you get the feeling that it’s not the whole point. You see ‘normal people’ (i.e. not necessarily over privileged ones) for whom Carnival is and always has been an annual celebration, an unmissable street party, the culmination of creative efforts and hours of practice and build up – not to mention for some, a good means of income. Carnival belongs very much to the communities who started it up, and that much is clear. It’s a street party where everyone is welcome but the roots of it, the hosts of it and the stars of it, are those locals who (or whose forefathers) came over from the West Indies / Caribbean / Trinidad & Tobago.
It’s lovely seeing all the generations brought together – literally babes in arms through to nonagenarians partying with each other in the street. It’s also lovely (one of the plus points about London) seeing groups of friends and neighbours of different races who have grown up side by side and in and out of each others homes. Maybe I’m romanticising things but I somehow felt that the real party was going on in hallways and doorsteps of the homes of local residents. I can’t help thinking that with the gentrification of Notting Hill and surrounding area (a 2 bedroom flat here will cost you the best part of a million), that this Notting Hill is going to disappear and be replaced solely by the affluent.
Favourite moments? Watching the whirling dancing of a beautiful lady in red (first photograph not in the main gallery but here), sitting listening to some random drummers with a small chap (we’re talking maybe 3 years old) next to me tooting away enthusiastically on his whistle, wandering into a street where Pharrell’s ‘Happy’ was blasting out and watching everyone doing the dance (yes, it was cheesy – but it also gave me goosebumps) and getting into the throng close up to the speakers in one of the side streets and dancing amongst the smiles. There is something appealing about the music literally reverberating through you – the reggae, the dub, the soca.
In short, although this is a festival to which thousands flock from all over, it manages to retain its local flavour and original cultural identity. To risk a cliché, it’s a celebration of human nature and everything that’s good about the thriving human mass that is London, and it manages to get us – all of us: rich and poor, young and old – back to how humans have always celebrated, with song, dance and dress up, en masse and within their community.