You are here

Notting Hill is not a Carnival

Published: 
Thursday, August 21, 2014
London Calling
Every year, it’s said that more than one million people attend the Notting Hill Carnival. This is a shot of one of the main parade routes at the Carnival. PHOTO: ITV

“Make it carnival,” sang Bunji Garlin on his collaboration with Major Lazer. And his recent Truck On D Road video shows precisely what he means. Labelled by one Web site “the best advert for carnival,” it is thrilling and very different from the “Carnival” I grew up with back home.

Notting Hill Carnival, which takes place this weekend was founded by a Trini—I recently found out. 

Claudia Jones, born in Belmont, moved with her parents to the US at age nine, and, in adult life, became a Marxist, joined the American Communist Party and was frequently jailed. 

America eventually deported her and, after being refused entry to T&T by the British colonial governor, she was taken in by the UK in 1955.

By 1958 she had started the first black British newspaper, The West Indian Gazette. 

By 1959, in response to racial discrimination and violence against the Windrush generation of Caribbean immigrants she had set up an indoor beauty contest in St Pancras, London—a forerunner of the Notting Hill Carnival.

Jones died on Christmas Eve 1964, aged just 49. Too soon to see her dream of a carnival lighting up the grey streets of London. 1966 heralded the first outdoor Notting Hill Carnival, complete with mas bands and steel drums (as we call them in Britain.)

I’ve always had mixed feelings about Notting Hill. It’s a cultural event which is important for black British people and yet it feels completely out of place in Britain. Perhaps that’s because so many black British people feel out of place there (a feeling reflected in the widespread rioting of August 2011). 

Today’s generation are descended from grandparents who were victims of the 1958 Notting Hill Race Riots when white gangs, urged on by fascist leader Oswald Moseley, attacked black people, culminating in the death of Antiguan student Kelso Cochrane in 1959. 

They are descended from parents who were targeted throughout the 1970s by police and skinheads. 

Carnival spent decades as a kind of focal point of black anger which also encompassed working class anger, Irish anger and left wing radical anger.

Traditionally, the Sunday kids parade passes off peacefully and the procession of floats (our word for trucks) also takes place in peace. 

By Monday, however, the heavy police presence and stopping and searching at random means tensions always boil over.

I asked my mom about her experiences of Carnival a few days ago. She told me, “the first time I went we ended up running away from bricks being thrown everywhere under the underpass, so no fond memories for me!”

Though funny, her response automatically makes one think: “Bricks? At a Carnival?!”

Trinis looking at YouTube footage from any given year would say, “this is not a Carnival.” 

It’s a mass of packed bodies, it’s fat policemen trying to dance, it’s middle class white folk indulging in black tourism for two days before reverting to default nervousness around black people. 

Brits can’t do drinking without things turning ugly. At nightfall, once the parade has ended and families are making their way home, the Notting Hill vibe turns sour and riot police with shields, truncheons and horses move in as the predictable hail of bottles start to fly.

In recent years, the streets around the main festival points have also become an attractive venue for rival gangs from north, east and south London to meet up and demonstrate how good they are at concealing, and later revealing, knives.

It’s not a good advert for race relations, though my friend and London neighbour Alex Pascall OBE—a Grenadian journalist, knighted by the Queen—thinks the complete opposite. 

Pascall lives in Stroud Green, north London, home to CLR James during his London years. I live in neighbouring Crouch End. We talk on the bus but on this subject we differ. 

He established The Voice newspaper (aimed at black readers) and Black Londoners, the first black radio show, on BBC Radio London. 

He was a promoter of Carnival through his links with the media and still defends it against what he sees as unjustified attacks by the British press. 

“It’s always about arrests; nothing tangible about the art, music and entertainment,” he told me this week. 

“It attracts people from all parts of the world and has been the greatest medium for race relations.” 

He knows for a fact the Mayor of London does not like it but asks the question, “why do they not interfere with other minority festivals that the Chinese and the Asian communities run? Why are the black youth painted with crime at the carnival?” 

The answer to that though is depressingly obvious.

He goes further, suggesting that at a political level, the Caribbean diaspora feels abandoned, culturally, in Britain.

“Our Caribbean governments have missed out by not understanding what the many of us who came to Britain created,” he told me. 

“Where the West Indies Federation failed, the Notting Hill Carnival succeeded by building an artistic spectacle, which brought Caribbeans together with an understanding of the true meaning of Caribbean unity.”

Perhaps he has a point there, in that many black Brits often feel they’re in a no man’s land—keeping their mouths closed for 363 days a year, then exploding loudly on the streets for two days a year.

However you analyse it, it’s clear something needs to change. 

Maybe, now I’ve seen what a proper Carnival looks and feels like, here in Port-of-Spain, I may get involved with the organising committee back home and help turn Notting Hill into the real thing.