Last weekend I went to carnival. No, not Mardi Gras – here in London, that’s the day we go round to each other’s houses and see just how many pancakes we can eat at one sitting. And that’s thin plate-sized ones that we fold into triangles and eat with lemon and sugar – you won’t see many American-style stacks drizzled with maple syrup on Pancake Day, though we love those too, just at other times of year.
Which brings me back to carnival in London. Here the last weekend fully in August is the one for dancing in the street – and it’s a long one for most people as the Monday is always a public holiday. On this weekend, Notting Hill Carnival happens. It’s impossible to sum up in a few words, but we’re talking narrow streets full to bursting, steel bands on lorries and sound systems on street corners, beautiful people in feathered outfits of every colour, jerk chicken and curried goat (not really goat, by the way), Red Stripe beer and bottles of rum, whistles and garlands, and hundreds of thousands of people enjoying themselves in the sunshine, which always seems to magically appear over London just in time.
This festival, now the biggest street party in Europe, grew out of various events organised in the late 1950s and early 1960s. One of the main intentions of the early organisers of these events was to find a way for London’s African-Caribbean community to showcase their culture and history as a response to some race-related tensions of the time. Its evolution over the following five decades is closely interwoven with that of race relations in London – the festival has seen clashes between revellers and police and some violence on occasion, but these days the overwhelmingly dominant flavour of the event is celebration of London’s African-Caribbean communities and heritage, and of London’s diversity in general.
But that’s not to say that the festival doesn’t still highlight social tensions, such as those caused by the fact that Notting Hill has changed hugely since the 1960s. Back then, many of the area’s rows of big Victorian terraced houses, usually split up into many small flats, were home to working class tenants, many black, enduring some of the worst housing conditions in the country. Now they’re the homes of millionaires – in recent decades the area’s undergone a gentrification process something like that of the Marigny district in New Orleans. And, judging from the locked gates and boarded-up windows I see every year, many of these millionaires leave the area when carnivals’s on. In 2011, the year of the most recent major London riots, I even saw security guards patrolling outside some of them.
And it’s not just some of the residents of Notting Hill who have an ambivalent attitude towards the festival. I know plenty of Londoners who love it just as much as I do, but also some who see it as a stayaway event, if only because they’re afraid they won’t be able to find a toilet when they need one, admittedly always a bit of a problem (solution: do some advance scouting, get over paying £3 to use a bucket behind a curtain in someone’s garage, and drink rum not beer if you can).
This somewhat anxious attitude towards carnival is mirrored to a certain extent by authorities in London In the years I’ve being going, I’ve certainly noticed that police presence and crowd control has become heavier. And in 2004, then mayor of London Ken Livingstone’s Carnival Review Group suggested that the festival should be moved in part to Hyde Park as a way of avoiding overcrowding issues.
But for me, the way in which the Notting Hill Carnival occupies and flows around a tight grid of west London streets – including everything from council estates to rows of pastel-coloured palaces to strips of boutiques to corner shops – is a key part of its meaning and its appeal, and I wouldn’t have this, or pretty much any other aspect of it, any other way. I’ve had many different experiences of carnival over the years I’ve been going, all of them wonderful.
Moving from sound system to sound system down a tree-lined road, drinking Red Stripe, and ending up at my friend’s cousin’s Brazilian restaurant, which meant a bonus queue-free toilet stop. Sitting in a pub, watching and hearing the floats go past and eating red velvet cupcakes. Wandering by myself in 2011, noticing the extra police around and trying to decide if things had changed. Dancing outside, watching tens of people try to climb onto a garden wall which had become an impromptu podium. And this year, taking photos of parades and swigging run from the bottle. Carnival is different every year, and you have to go with your instincts – to quote what brass band Rebirth say of Mardi Gras in New Orleans in the title of their classic carnival song: you’ve got to “do watcha wanna”.
This year, we went in from the west rather than from the east, meaning we saw a different side to the event. We went past fewer big white houses with columns outside and more social housing, including the listed but much-maligned 1970s Brutalist block Trellick Tower. There seemed to be more parades here, and we followed them in earnest for the first time, picking up goodies left in their wake, like a flag and a vuvuzula, and ending up at the square around Trellick Tower, which seemed to be a popular point for the floats and dancers to pause for a while and crank things up a notch.
Watching the parades closely helped me pick up on some of the links between Notting Hill Carnival and the African-Caribbean community in Hackney in east London, where I live. I noticed a carnival troupe based out of Visions Video Bar in Dalston. And I later discoverd that black political activist Claudia Jones, who I know of mainly because of the community organisation named after her based on Hackney’s Stoke Newington Road, was involved in the founding of the festivals, organising a music and dance celebration in 1958 for London’s black community in response to the race riots of that year in the streets where the carnival now takes place.
There was also a bit of New Orleans in evidence. One of the biggest and loudest carnival floats I spotted, followed by plenty of costumed dancers and other revellers, was called “Lagniappe Mas”, after the Louisiana term for “a little bit extra”. And of course, there was plenty of New Orleans below the surface – carnival in New Orleans, just like in London, stems to a significant extent from the traditions of a large Caribbean diaspora population.
So I feel justified in ending with a New Orleans phrase: “Laissez les bon temps rouler” for Notting Hill Carnival. I’ll also add a final word from Trinidadian and Londoner Claudia Jones: here is the motto used for the events she organised that arguably got carnival started in London, but which could stand in defence of street festivals everywhere: “A people’s art is the genesis of their freedom.”