The following article was published on Boat Wednesday August 29th 2012.
August Bank Holiday in London is synonymous with one event in particular, the Notting Hill Carnival. Europe’s largest street festival has been happening since 1965 and following the Olympics, more eyes than ever were on this year’s event.
Having finally moved to London in May of this year, the 2012 Notting Hill Carnival stood to be the first I had attended. As anyone familiar with my writing will confirm, I’m a big fan of a street procession and as I understood, there is nothing in London bigger or better.
Somewhat surprisingly, the friends I had spoken to about this year’s carnival provided me with mixed reviews of previous incarnations. Some, I think were somewhat overawed by the sheer scale of it all and the inevitable claustrophobic scenarios that result. Others just found that it wasn’t their cup of tea, indeed it came to pass that of the handful of friends due to head down with me, none made good on their promise. As I have come to discover over the years though, I can quite happily spend a day (or far longer) wandering around on my own, camera in hand.
The best part of London (for me) is its multiculturalism, the fact that you can walk down the street and discover a new culture and all the customs and cuisine that go with it is something that I will never get bored of. While it is easy enough to do this day by day in this vast city, the prospect of joining in with a gigantic Caribbean flavoured celebration understandably heightens the experience. Authorities estimated that one million people would join in with this year’s carnival over the two days and having recently spent a long weekend amongst more than 200,000 others at Guča, this figure sounded no less daunting.
Emerging from the Westbourne Park tube at midday on Monday along with a hundred or so other revellers, the carnival atmosphere was instantly apparent. For every person dressed regularly there were two or three in various degrees of ‘carnival’ outfit, varying from a Saint Lucian, Trinidadian or Jamaican flag tied around the shoulders to an ornate yet revealing parade costume. No sooner had the man poking his head over the fence shouting “Three Red Stripe, Eight Pounds” stopped for breath, a fresh onslaught took place. At the entrance, free drinks and more importantly, free maps were handed out by a swarm of enthusiastic young volunteers as mounted police watched over the arriving masses.
The police presence was almost as visible as the food stalls which lined the streets just off the parade route. Fearing somewhat that the rolls of smoke rising from the oil drum barbecues might bring flashbacks of my Serbian dining experience a fortnight ago, I initially shied away from them but the sight and smells of homemade jerk chicken proved irresistible. These cobbled together stalls served as an earlier indicator of the extent to which community is at the heart of the carnival. Many were set up out front of houses and tended to by what appeared to be three generations of the same family. Despite all the warnings about safety and the high arrest count reported yesterday by the BBC, my experience was of a peaceful, fun and inclusive celebration.
Having gluttonously dispatched my delicious food with alarming speed and precision, I made my way to Ladbroke Grove and the parade route. Perching on the corner of a fence at the corner of Basset Road I watched some of the procession go by. It didn’t take long for the DJ atop of the Busspepper truck to set the tone for the afternoon, by thanking the police for their attendance. It may have been a sentiment that only a fraction of attendees noticed but it was nonetheless an important one. I was unsure what the attitude towards police would be from the majority of carnival goers, the younger of whom displayed no signs of disruptive behaviour.
I have always wondered what it must be like to live in an area which hosts an event like this and as I glanced up to the second floor window of the apartments on Basset Road I noticed an elderly woman taking in the sights and sounds from her window, across the road another woman stood alone on her balcony danced along to the music with a cigarette. Some seemed less intrigued; one resident sat reading the paper on her flat roof, suggesting that she was more interested in catching the sun than the spectacle.
For the most part however, the area seemed fully engaged with the day’s ceremonies and this surely contributed to the vibrant atmosphere that spilled into the streets off the parade route. The four hours spent with the parade went by in a flash; the performers were remarkably energetic despite bursts of glorious sunshine that were no doubt sapping. Strength for many, was found yards ahead as the trailers of the HGVs operated as personal bars for the performers. Water was readily available yet it wasn’t the only thing being decanted into the beakers that each parade member carried as they steadily proceeded along the packed streets.
As I made my way North of the masses to Queens Park in the hope of an uncomplicated journey to work I couldn’t help but reflect on what had been a great spectacle and an even better advert for the carnival’s organisers and performers. This had been my first Notting Hill Carnival but it will certainly not be my last.