Photo by Chris Bethell
I’m not afraid to say it – I've always hated Notting Hill Carnival. Granted, it’s lucky that I’m black; If I were white, I’d run into a whole world of shit writing this. Lots of people out there share my view but won't say it for fear of appearing racist. I, on the other hand, can say it loud and proud: I hate Notting Hill Carnival.
I may be called a traitor or "choc ice" – to use Rio Ferdinand’s basic terminology – but look, this isn’t the 1970s. It’s 2014 and if anything, I’m a Milky Way bar. Chocolate on the outside with a light, fluffy nougat centre.
My disdain dates back to childhood. Our father would take my brother and I to the kids' parade and not bring us home to our mum until late at night, way past the agreed time. Which annoyed her so much she eventually banned him from taking us.
Reminiscing this week, she told me: “The first time I went to Carnival was with Leabert [my dad]. We ended up running away from bricks being thrown everywhere under the underpass. So, no fond memories for me.”
By the time I reached my teens I was thankful Carnival coincided with Reading Festival so I could get the fuck out of town. Sadly, Reading is now utterly appalling, too.
Photo by Jake Lewis
In the past, my aversion to Carnival was instinctive – a get-me-out-of-here-and-away-from-all-these-people kind of response. But now, having lived in Trinidad for a year, and seen what real Carnival is like – a spectacular show of beauty, music, wild abandon and modernity reinterpreting tradition – I am even more certain of my feelings: Notting Hill is not a Carnival. It’s just loads of people being silly in West London.
The massed bodies, awful clothes, stilted behaviour, slightly ashamed body language, the piss, the arrests, the weather, the traffic, the concrete, the white Rastafarians, fat jolly policemen being twerked on by big black women (fuck off and arrest someone), even the Carnival costumes – however admirable an attempt, it’s all rather embarrassing.
Then there’s the sinister side. The part of Notting Hill Carnival that reflects underlying tensions, mostly ignored in the day-by-day. For two days a year, white, middle-class liberals visit Notting Hill for black tourism. This year the Daily Telegraph even has a guide to it in its travel section. They all have a great time acting "black", dancing "black", eating, drinking and smoking "black".
That’s all very positive, I suppose. The problem arrives the next day, when most of those white fans of black culture will go back to the depressing default position of being nervous around black people – especially in places like rapidly gentrifying Hackney. Notting Hill is itself an example of extreme gentrification, and one of the first areas to have experienced it. No black people live in Notting Hill or Ladbroke Grove now. People from Huntingdonshire do.
Photo by Chris Bethell
Meanwhile, as the poshos on pills revel in the streets, buying warm cans of Red Stripe for £3.50 and pissing in somebody’s garden for a fiver, black men are openly stopped and searched by police for being genuinely, quite unmistakably, black. The crowds of woolly liberals stand and stare, appalled and confused but impotent to act.
This is hugely problematic and I doubt it was what Claudia Jones, the woman who launched Carnival in 1959, intended. Jones – a Trinidadian who migrated to America at the age of nine, to later be deported for being a Marxist – wanted to give a positive spin on Caribbean immigration in the UK by importing the excitement of the tropics into cold, grey London.
Back then, Notting Hill was a deprived area that had received the Windrush generation. Those guys were attacked by Teddy Boys, spat at by random passers by and denied housing. Race riots took place in 1958 when mobs of white men, spurred on by Oswald Mosley, hunted down black men. Kelso Cochrane, an Antiguan law student, was stabbed to death on his way home by a group of white youths the following year; the first recorded racially-motivated murder in Britain.
It was 1966 when Notting Hill saw its first outdoor carnival. Jones had died in 1964, aged just 49, and was buried in Highgate Cemetery next to Karl Marx. Thank god she never had to see the kind of violence that marred the event in later years.
Photo by Jake Lewis
The last time I went, a few years ago, gangs of young boys were roaming around trying to stab or shoot each other. In Ladbroke Grove, the streets were jam-packed and the soundsystems were fantastic. At the top of the stairs leading up to every beautiful townhouse overlooking the street stood policemen wearing high-visibility jackets, hands behind their backs, surveying the scene. A gang of about 25 boys, all wearing Yankees caps, snaked through the crowd intermittently calling out “North London”. A minute later, girls started screaming and boys started running. The huge crowd dispersed in a matter of seconds.
“What happened?” I asked somebody. “One of them must have pulled a gun,” they replied. Later, in front of the soundsystem, the gang found their intended target – “East London” – and the rival gangs stood about ten-feet apart in a tense stand-off waiting for the first knife to be drawn.
It was anthropologically fascinating, and reasonably exciting after a few Wray & Nephews, though I don’t think my then-girlfriend appreciated the fieldwork, cowering behind me as “North London” steamed in.
It was a far cry from Carnival del Pueblo (London’s Latin America festival) where weeks before we’d been happily dancing to samba in the rain. Violence doesn’t mar the real carnivals in Port-of-Spain, Rio de Janeiro and Salvador de Bahia. Trinidad and Brazil are violent societies with high murder rates but, during Carnival, there is a definite sense that criminals put the violence on the back burner as they're far too busy having a good time. In fact, research shows that in Carnival month, the number of murders in Trinidad actually drops. Britain is the complete opposite.
Photo by Jake Lewis
The heavy police presence alone is always a forewarning of trouble. That same year, police had stopped 100 youths from “South London” as they were about to enter the tube network at Elephant and Castle. Had they not been successfully detained, there may have been a murder that year. There have been five murders at Notting Hill Carnival between 1987 and 2004. One of them was a stabbing over some food.
The journalist, Alex Pascall OBE – founder of The Voice and host of the first black radio show on BBC Radio London – was a leading organiser of the early years of Carnival.
He won’t like this article. When I spoke to him about it he told me that “the British press have always portrayed the carnival negatively. It’s always about arrests – nothing tangible about the art, music and entertainment. Carnival has been the greatest medium for race relations.”
But I still think it has damaged race relations by confirming the worst suspicions of racists. During our chat, Pascall went on to reveal more sinister things: “This year the police and others have decided to strategically push out some of the soundsystems by using bylaws,” he told me. “I was once made an offer to assist the government to remove the carnival from the Royal Borough. They wanted me to take it to Brixton. Prior to that, they wanted it in Wormwoods Scrubs."
Photo by Chris Bethell
Cunts, yes, but can you really blame the establishment for wanting to take it somewhere that can be more easily policed? A tip Clive Martin alluded to in his "How to Conquer Notting Hill Carnival" article in 2012 was: "Get the fuck out of there before nightfall." If you don’t, you’ll be trapped in an alcohol-fuelled war zone which is absolutely typical of the way we British like to get on after a skinful. Sorry to keep going on about it, but in Trinidad, people drink 80 percent proof Puncheon rum and somehow manage to avoid headbutting each other.
So, what is the answer? Well, Norman Jay has organised Good Times in the Park for September; a two-day outdoor festival of soul, house, disco and dancehall in Wormwood Scrubs. If that goes down well, could it not act as a pre-cursor to a different, less urban, unrestrained kind of Carnival? The original 1960s idea was splendid. And it’s still politically important that it exists.
But I'm not so sure on what Carnival has become and what it should be in the future. It’s not "on trend" to be anti-Carnival right now – not with Major Lazer and the hipsters on board – and I don’t want to be a contrary killjoy, but it’s long overdue an overhaul. As it stands, Carnival is crying out for reinvention.
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