Out On The Street (Notting Hill Carnival)

The August Bank Holiday means that it’s Carnival time in London. The rest of the world organise their “carne vale” or Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) around the religious fast of Lent. The Notting Hill Carnival, Europe’s biggest street party, waits until later in the year & gives the unpredictable British weather at least a chance to make a positive contribution to the 2 days of celebration. The first Caribbean carnival cultural cabaret was an indoor event, organized in 1959 as a reaction to race relation problems & riots in West London. In 1966 a children’s street party became a procession when the steel band went walkabout. Such a spontaneous idea was too good a time to remain as a one-off & by 1975 the word was out about the best thing happening in London on a Bank Holiday weekend.

My first time at Carnival was in 1976. We joined a stream of people walking down the Portobello Rd from Notting Hill Gate to Ladbroke Grove & encountered an exhilarating blur of colourful costumes, steel pan music, dancing & people having a good time. Under the Westway flyover dub rhythms ricocheted off the concrete walls. Every street corner sound system was spinning the reggae hit of the summer, Junior Murvin’s seductive, ominous “Police & Thieves”, an instant classic produced by the master Lee Perry. After a great & different day out, in the fading light, we made our way up Ladbroke Grove. The streets were being left to the (predominantly) black youth & an increased police presence. Back then we were regulars at football matches, we knew when things were about to go off. Sure enough the next day’s banner headlines told of riots & attacks on police. 150,000 people enjoying themselves at a street festival is not news. 66 arrests (with 2 eventual convictions for carnival-related offences), that’s enough to cause a moral panic.

My wife shot a bunch of photographs of the day & developed them as colour slides (ask your grandparents). She taught in a Birmingham school with the highest proportion of Anglo-Caribbean pupils in the city & when the kids saw these photos they wanted to know just where they had been taken. After 20 years of residency their own community was still largely invisible in the mainstream media, these young Black Britons were unaccustomed to seeing their own culture celebrated. The racist shibboleth “Send them home !” was meaningless when “home” was a 50p bus ride away. “Inglan is a bitch” wrote Linton Kwesi Johnson, a multicultural one & people had better get used to it. The Notting Hill Carnival was more important than just a good day out.

In the 1980’s I was living in London & Carnival became a fixture of my (ahem !) social calendar. Attendance numbers continued to rise & every year I went with different people & had a fine time. Like “Police & Thieves” there was always a big tune that the sound boys adopted as the event’s anthem & in 1983 Arrow’s “Hot,Hot,Hot”, an irresistible soca hit, reflected Carnival’s wider Caribbean roots. It was that year we, Jackie, Mitchell & myself, made our way through the packed crowds in All Saints Rd to Meanwhile Gardens over Westbourne Park way to see Aswad play. When we arrived at the small community space there was just enough room left for the 3 of us. We were in the right place.

Aswad, Brinsley, Drummie & Gad, were a Notting Hill band. I have seen them play great sets at festivals, a Sunsplash, even the Royal Albert Hall. This was their manor, their crowd & their songs often reflected life in “a concrete situation”. Man, didn’t the hometown boys make good ! Reinforced by a veteran brass section Aswad were confident & assertive & so were the audience. I’ve never known such a connection between performers & their public. Jackie & I danced madly to the fine, fine music  with new friends (Mitchell didn’t…he don’t dance !). We left Meanwhile Gardens on a night lit up by smiling faces. The following year I saw a repeat performance in the same venue but this gig, documented on the “Live & Direct” LP, was just the greatest thing.

Through the 1990’s things had changed. Notting Hill, more than any other area in London, was super-gentrified. The eponymous movie made the place an unlikely tourist attraction. There are not too many black faces hanging out with Hugh Grant (maybe Divine Brown ?) & Julia Roberts. Carnival organisers & police, having to deal with up to a million visitors over the 2 days & concerned with an enduring reputation for disorder, introduced crowd control barriers, invited sponsorship, even considered a move into Hyde Park. The music was changing too. Under the Westway first Rap then House, Garage & Jungle was replacing the Reggae rhythms but, of course, you could still find the sounds you wanted just around the corner.

In 1997 I attended with Sue (we had first shared the experience back in 1984) & the rammed crowds on the parade route seemed more like spectators than “revellers”. We chose to spend the afternoon round & about DJ Norman Jay’s sound system, a fixture at Carnival. Norman (my favourite MBE) had been on the radar since his Shake ‘n’ Fingerpop parties, then a fine show on pirate radio Kiss FM before, in 97, joining Greater London Radio. His sets always included prime grooves, rare or otherwise, spanning all labels & decades of Black dance music. That year’s feelgood hit was the “NuYorican Soul” LP by production team Masters at Work, “Little” Louie Vega & Kenny “Dope” Gonzalez. A mix of revamped classics & new material, “It’s Alright I Feel It” by Jocelyn Brown, a great singer from back in the day, was just one of the stand out tracks. We knew that Norman would play this new anthem & so, it turned out, did half of his crowd. The place was joyous, dancing in the street, waving our hands in the air, waving like we just don’t care. Sue & I had a great day, ate some good food, saw Soul II Soul & had this Carnival moment that we had come for.

While writing this memoir I haven’t ignored the incidents of crime & disorder which prove to be so newsworthy. I lived in South London so I guess I was a tourist in Notting Hill too. I was aware of the problems between Black youth & the police, had friends who were victimised because of their colour. Plenty of times I’ve wanted a riot of my own. In 1984 the event passed off peacefully while the police were otherwise engaged with striking miners…just saying. I only bought weed at Carnival once (going unprepared), it was cool & it did the trick. There were times when I or my companions felt that we were probably in the wrong place but these were a few minutes in the many hours we were there. I would rather remember hundreds of thousands of people getting along, organising themselves & enjoying themselves, celebrating the culture of a community that has contributed so much to London’s & Britain’s life. I now live 150 miles from London & my old bones ache if I dance for too long. When August Bank Holiday comes around I wouldn’t mind getting down there & getting down one more time.