Notting HIll Carnival

How Notting Hill Carnival Will Be Responding to Grenfell

How do you balance solemn tribute and an ongoing quest for truth with Europe's biggest street party?

by Juliet Rix; photos by Orlando Gili
24 August 2017, 11:31am

The Maxilla Social Club is sheltered by a huge concrete flyover. Above, cars speed down the Westway, the central artery of London's road network. The landscape they can see through their windscreens is scarred by the carcass of Grenfell Tower, a tower block transformed, overnight, into a mausoleum. Underneath is a mural, commemorating those who lost their lives and inviting comment on why it happened.

"THE TRUTH WILL NOT BE HIDDEN," it reads, above a huge space where anyone can leave their account of the tragedy.

The club has been the site of many a Grenfell residents' meeting, and was a key refuge on the night of the fire. This evening there is a friendly hive of noise and activity inside its walls. The Nostalgia Steel Band is practising for the Notting Hill Carnival, while a separate team makes sparkling costumes for Saturday night's pre-Carnival Panorama and club-owner Joe Walsh pulls the occasional pint and keeps everyone going.

The 51st London Notting Hill Carnival – Europe's biggest street festival – falls just ten weeks after the Grenfell fire. The tragic events of the 14th of June horrified the nation. For the Notting Hill area they were more visceral and remain shockingly present, the charred skeleton of the tower looming around every second corner. This is something Carnival cannot and will not ignore, this year dedicated the event to the victims of the Grenfell fire.

"They are our neighbours," says Debra Alleyne De Gazon, Creative Director of the Carnival. "We will celebrate [Carnival] but also remember and respect." Carnival organisers consulted Grenfell residents' groups (of which there are now quite a few) before deciding what to do, and hope at least one survivor will be present at the official opening and a few will join individual bands and floats.

Carnival will begin, Debra says, with a multi-faith prayer in the presence of several local religious leaders, the release of 50 doves for Grenfell and a song about the tragedy by veteran Calypsonian, Alexander D Great. Alexander will sing to his guitar, he tells me, with a recorded backing track of a few strings, voices and a single steel pan, while Caroline Muraldo performs an "understated dance".

Alexander D Great, the writer of "Forever You'll Be Blessed"

Alexander's gentle, ballad-like song, "Forever You'll Be Blessed", was written on the day of the fire, he explains: "I was up late watching TV and I flipped over to the news. It was horrendous. By lunchtime I needed to express myself about it, so I wrote the song. It's one of my shortest and it came out very quickly. It is quite simple and apolitical. It is for the victims, not the agitators."

The Lancaster West Estate, of which Grenfell Tower is a part, will be blocked off for the duration of Carnival so as not to intrude, and a quiet zone "for reflection" will be marked in yellow on the Carnival route along Ladbroke Grove between Ladbroke Crescent and Cambridge Gardens.

At 3PM on both Sunday and Monday, a minute's silence is to be held across the Carnival footprint. There was initial concern that with 37 sound systems, tens of floats, some 50,000 performers and hundreds of thousands of people on the streets, a coordinated silence wouldn't be possible. But a directive has now gone out to everyone involved and it is hoped that the silences will work.

DJ D'Nyce, "First Lady of Rampage", which runs the largest static stage at Carnival, was initially sceptical, but she says they will definitely be observing the silence and hope everyone else will too. The rest of the time, she adds, "We will be making noise for Grenfell so the world can hear."

DJ D'Nyce, "First Lady of Rampage"

Rampage are also in the process of pulling together green costumes. Just a week before the start of Carnival it was announced that, this year, Notting Hill will "go green for Grenfell". The idea began in local schools shortly after the fire, and now performers and Carnival-goers are being asked to wear green – "green clothes, hair, hats, shoes, scarves, jewellery". And there will be green street dressing all over the route.

Under a striped gazebo on a patch of lawn in the middle of the Edward Woods Estate, within view of Grenfell Tower, local youth worker Zoe LeVack and teacher Georgia Tarrant stand amid a mass of green tissue-paper hearts. The idea for hearts came from Sophie Lodge's #24Hearts (one for each floor of Grenfell Tower), which began at after-school workshops the day after the fire. One-hundred-and-sixty of these colourful hearts will be carried by the children of the Kensington and Chelsea Schools Carnival Band.

The green hearts are being made by the children of Kids On The Green, a makeshift therapeutic play centre (with a mental health professional in attendance) set up by Zoe straight after the fire. The project has been given a float by Brazilian band, Paradisio Samba. Sixteen children, dressed as angels in tribute to Grenfell, will ride on the float, and some 30 children and families will walk behind, each carrying a green heart, some inscribed with words of peace, poetry or the name of a missing friend.

"Most of the children who come to us have lost at least one friend," says Georgia. She glances up at the tower blocks of the estate around us. "There is a lot of fear… Grenfell has affected everyone here." Zoe tells me about one of their most active volunteers, who has been helping prepare for Carnival and is now away on a brief holiday before the big weekend: "Cassie lives in a tower block opposite Grenfell. She has five lovely children who, between them, lost 11 friends in the fire."

Zoe and Georgia have little time for the idea that Carnival should have been cancelled or moved "out of respect". Carnival is important to show life goes on and to bring people together, they say. "Carnival was born out of struggle [after the 1958 race riots]," Zoe points out, "and it's symbolic of the multiculturalism of the area. Initially, there was a lot of anxiety about Carnival this year, but I think it is more poignant than ever and will be like a collective community memorial to the [Grenfell] victims."

Children prepare costumes for the Mahogany carnival float, including a green dragon
Clary, lead organiser of the Mahogany float

Not everyone thinks Carnival is an appropriate context in which to commemorate Grenfell. "It's a very difficult one," says Mike Long, minister at the Notting Hill Methodist Church, which stands very close to the tower and has been at the heart of the relief effort. The railings outside are still decked in memorial flowers, teddy bears and messages of support as we stand and talk.

"I am hearing – not least from Muslims [many Grenfell residents were Muslim] – that they are grieving, and having a carnival feels like rubbing salt in the wound. They probably don't like Carnival anyway: the drinking, over-sexualisation and scanty clothing. I also hear the community voices saying Carnival is part of local identity and that the authorities have been trying to get rid of it for a long time, and this is a gold-plated opportunity for them to stop it or move it [that must be resisted]… It's hard to find a middle ground."

He is glad the estate is to be closed off, but worried about "tourists" trying to take photos. He hopes respect will be shown. Carnival organisers have the right intentions, he believes, but different faith and cultural groups handle death and disaster in different ways; there is the potential for "a clash of cultures".

Sirwa, a Kurdish refugee who has lived in Ladbroke Grove for 11 years, is involved with Kids On the Green. Her teenage son lost five classmates in the fire, and her six-year-old daughter's friend was injured. Sirwa understands why some Muslims are against Carnival: "It is not the Muslim way to celebrate while grieving." But she has attended Carnival every year since she arrived here and her children love it. She thinks it is right for it to go ahead, "to give the kids some happiness". Her daughter will be one of the angels on the Kids On the Green / Parisio Samba float, and Sirwa regards this as "an honour".

"You can do Carnival in many different ways," says Debra De Gazon; it is not all Caribbean any more. "When I started in Carnival," adds Lionel McCalman, his dreadlocks emerging from a green leather cap with a pink breast cancer ribbon pinned to the front, "it was a black movement. Today we are white, brown, black, beige, all the colours of the rainbow – everybody is here, and that's great!" Lionel leads the Nostalgia Steel Band, and it's clear, as they play in the Maxilla Club, their home for 25 years, that they are indeed a melting pot of many ages and ethnicities.

Lionel McCalman

Maxilla's owner, Joe Walsh, is nonetheless concerned. He fears that politics may intervene and spill over into anger and violence. Local for over half a century, he lives on the 14th floor of a neighbouring block (thankfully unclad), and had friends in the fire. It has clearly upset him profoundly and he has spent the last ten weeks doing everything he can to help. He opened the club at 2AM on the night and had 100 volunteers a day here dealing with an overwhelming 4,700 boxes of donations. Now, he is here supporting the Carnival groups long based at Maxilla.

Carnival could not have been cancelled or moved, he says – "people would have come here anyway, and there would have been trouble" – but he remains concerned enough to have sent his elderly parents away with his wife for Carnival weekend. If there is violence, he says, "it won't be locals… it will be outsiders using it as an excuse". He hopes his concern is misplaced, agreeing with Debora De Gazon when she says, "The Grenfell people need no violence in their name. We hope everyone will be respectful, we hope for a peaceful Carnival."

Zoe LeVack remains optimistic and believes Carnival is, if anything, even more important this year than in others: "I think it will be a release," she says, "It's going to be great and it's going to be very sad. There'll be a lot of tears and a lot of laughter. I think it's going to be very powerful".

@julietrix1 / @orlandogili

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