It’s the last Sunday of August, which means a sizeable amount of London’s population (and a not insignificant amount of people from other places) are waking up in a jubilant mood befitting of Christmas morning. Except it isn’t the birth of Jesus that is being celebrated today but instead something much more fun: the first day back at Notting Hill Carnival after three years of COVID-induced separation.
As Carnival was obviously cancelled in 2020, and then again in 2021 despite some hope that the pandemic would have been over, this year’s event was a highly-anticipated affair, a return to the roads of West London for two days of unapologetic fun in the company of two million other people looking to have a good time and celebrate British-Caribbean culture.Notting Hill Carnival is the second biggest street party in the world, bested only by Rio’s carnival. Because Britain is racist, the event is disproportionately policed and scrutinised for bad behaviour, both on the ground and in the reportage afterwards. Although for an event of such scale it is remarkably drama-free and good vibes-oriented. This year, the police presence seemed bigger than ever, as if prepared for the cost of living riots to begin at this very moment. I headed down around noon, and although everything seemed to be in working order – people walking around eating jerk chicken with rice and peas, teenage girls in two-pieces doing laughing gas on the stairs of multi-million pound homes, groups of boys dancing draped in the flags of various Caribbean countries, police trying to dance in an attempt at positive race relations while they spend the rest of the year and also today being racist – the energy seemed different to usual.
The atmosphere was excited but tentative, perhaps with people unsure of how we used to do this before. I personally had the knees of someone in their 20s the last time I was here, and now… do not. Did I even know how to dance any more after three years spent ageing inside and watching true crime on Netflix?
While sound systems played to nobody, I found myself aware of the fact that this was the first Carnival in the age of TikTok (yeah it was about in 2019, but not on this level). This meant blonde girls making #GRWM (get ready with me) Carnival content that showed them suggesting attendees wear outfits involving long skirts and heeled knee-high boots (bad idea) and creating a new barrier to walking through crowds as people stood in the middle of the road filming themselves. Nonetheless, everyone I spoke to was nothing but happy to be back. MC Paz and Alfie, a couple wearing a blue wig and a straw fedora respectively, had come here from Spain and were looking forward to dancing to some reggae, ska and jungle. “Being back is amazing,” they tell me, smiling from ear to ear. “The first time we came here was 2002 and we’ve been back nearly every single year. We love it here.”A man in a hairnet walks past carrying a plastic bag filled with marinating chicken ready to be cooked at one of the many stands billowing out clouds of enticing smoke.
I get talking to some girls in their early 20s from Ladbroke Grove sitting on some steps drinking summer citrus Ciroc. I ask them what it’s like to be back after three years. “I’m fucking buzzing. I feel like it’s definitely gonna go well today, we’re definitely gonna see some familiar faces. Everyone’s gonna be on good vibes, period,” one of them tells me, as her friend films the interaction on her phone and shouts “yessir!” in agreement. By Powis Square, I meet Abes and his cousin Boka, who is experiencing his first ever Carnival. “It’s very nice,” is all he manages, his eyes wide as we look out over the crowd at the legendary Rampage sound system that takes over the whole of Colville Gardens.
Things started to get more lively throughout the day, but the strangely subdued vibe continued. As I walked through another busy sound system, a DJ dropped Movado’s “Weh Dem A Do”, a true crowd pleaser with a sing-along-chorus, the crowd was relatively quiet, leading the MC to wonder if some people hadn’t woken up properly that morning. “Crocodile Teeth” by young dancehall sensation Skillibeng went down better, leading me to wonder if we had a new generation of crowd this time around. Perhaps people were easing themselves in slowly, saving most of their mischief for the traditionally more raucous Adult’s Day tomorrow.
Other stages faced overcrowding and being forced to stop the music. Heavy-handed road closures enforced by huge numbers of police made navigating between sound systems difficult and turned crowds into thoroughfares where no one could dance comfortably without being pushed around.
At times it felt like the wealthy, white residents of the historically West Indian area and the police had spent the past three years working together in an attempt to sap the joy from one of the only truly great, uncontrollable, unruly things left about London. Many of these people would like nothing more than to see the event stopped altogether, but there’s nothing that can stop people coming here from all over the world to experience its chaotic joy and mammoth celebration of the impact of West Indian immigration and Caribbean culture in London.
By Monday night, the piles of debris – coconuts, bottles of tonic wine, chicken bones, empty laughing gas canisters, hoop earrings and takeaway containers – will have been swept away, the roads hosed down, the stages dismantled.Aside from the communal hangover that is about to descend, it will soon seem like none of this ever happened. But we’ll know that whatever else occurs on this horrid little island between now and next year, come August a truck will be playing soca while people in colourful feathered costumes and girls in see-through dresses dance, and someone will ask you for rizla while their friend pees in a rich person’s doorstep plant pot in defiance of the eternally awful toilet facilities.