It’s Carnival time..Notting Hill style
TOMORROW is a public holiday here in the United Kingdom. It is also the weekend of the Notting Hill Carnival. An explosion of colour and festivity, it is one of the largest street festivals in the world. I have attended most years, and I have seen how it has grown. It now attracts over a million people. I have also observed how it has evolved. Notting Hill Carnival stands as a testimony to how much the West Indian community in Britain has achieved, but also how much things are changing.
The first "Caribbean Carnival" was actually an indoor event staged in St Pancras Town Hall in 1959. Amongst other things, it featured: The Mighty Terror singing the calypso Carnival at St Pancras; a Caribbean Carnival Queen beauty contest; the Trinidad All-Stars; hi-fi steel bands dance troupe, and a grand finale jump-up by the West Indians who attended the event.
Originally, Carnival was a distinctly Trinidadian event. My Jamaican parents never attended. But it gradually got taken up by people from all over the Caribbean. Carnival also moved to the streets of Notting Hill, which was then the heart of the black community.
Carnival has stayed on the streets of Notting Hill ever since. This has not been without difficulty. Originally Notting Hill had a big West Indian community. My own family lived in the area in the 50s. Carnival was a very natural expression of the culture of the people who lived in the area, and they would spill out of their homes to watch it go by and they would take part.
As a child, I remember the area being full of ramshackle big houses, with whole families living in one room. The population was overwhelmingly West
Indian, Irish, and defiantly working-class. In fact, West Indians came to live in Notting Hill in the first place because it was a run-down shabby area with plenty of cheap rooms to rent. It was also the first place they came to when they got off the boat at Southampton and took the train into London, because the train terminated at Paddington station.
But, in the intervening 50 years, Notting Hill has become very different. The West Indians have largely moved out. The ramshackle houses in multiple occupation have been renovated and turned into expensive single-family homes for bankers and other super-wealthy types. As Notting Hill has become more middle-class, the residents are increasingly hostile to Carnival. They don't enjoy the music and culturally it means nothing to them. Instead, they complain about the noise, the rubbish, and being unable to park their cars. Nowadays, instead of coming out of their houses to enjoy the atmosphere, many Notting Hill residents leave London for the weekend; complaining about Carnival as they go. It has taken a very determined campaign over many decades to keep Carnival as a street event, more so on the streets of Notting Hill.
Carnival has never been just a cultural event. It has always had political significance. The event was launched the year after the Notting Hill race riots as a response to the depressing state of race relations at the time. The numbers attending rose steadily, reaching about 150,000 in the mid-70s. But the authorities regarded so many black people on the streets of London with suspicion. And, in the 70s, often the only publicity Carnival got was around crimes committed there. This despite the fact that fewer crimes were committed at Carnival per person than at the average big football match of the era.
The sound systems in the street soon became a feature of Notting Hill Carnival. Long after the costume bands had passed by on their floats, people would be seen dancing in the streets to the noise of the sound systems well into the night. They would often be joined by masqueraders still in costume. The heart of Notting Hill became one big street party.
The sound systems attracted young people from all the West Indian islands. And, with so many young people out at carnival and tensions running high between the black community and the police, some years there were skirmishes. The disorder was eventually eliminated, but at a price.
Carnival now closes down before it gets dark and there is a massive police presence. Some argue that the police crush the spontaneity of the event, but the police do their best to get in the spirit. Every year the newspapers carry a picture of an intrepid policeman dancing with a costumed female reveller.
Over the years, although Carnival has become much bigger, the Caribbean flavour has been diluted. People seem to have lost sight of the fact that the essence of Carnival is taking part. Instead, it has become very much a spectator event. Nonetheless, Carnival represents something very important to Britain's Caribbean community. It is the one day of the year when we can defiantly express our cultural identity and (at least partly) control the streets. Because we know "road mek to walk on Carnival day".