This, terribly wet, bank holiday weekend played host to Europe’s biggest street party… Notting Hill Carnival. This year would be my first visit. Before going, I was handed various different words of advice; don’t wear nice jewellery it might get ripped from your neck; don’t stay there after the sun goes down (do Vampires pop out?); make sure you catch the parade dancers; don’t wear open shoes, there’s glass everywhere; beware of ‘the crush’ (er, pardon?); have jerk chicken; don’t take a big bag.
So, OK, a lot of that advice was more like a warning. I mean, the crush? I’m fairly small so I started to imagine that a crush might mean the end of my no-broken-bones streak. Another friend had said to me, not a chance in hell am I going to the Carnival. Again, she was a small, delicate framed friend. But I went, and it was quite an experience, but would I really go again?
It was an amazing sight seeing thousands of people cramming the streets of Notting Hill on a Sunday afternoon. The rest of London must have felt drained of its younger residents, families went together and enjoyed hot sticks of buttery, barbecued sweetcorn, some new parents were brave enough to bring a buggy, others strapped their infant tightly to their chest with mini noise cancelling ear defenders.
That’s the thing, it was wonderfully loud. The parade trucks ran through the main streets and pumped out furiously basey music. Some of the sound systems set up in the streets threatened to change your heart beat over to their own rhythm. Your entire body reverberated. It was brilliant to dance along with the masses, whooping to the cry of the DJ. We stumbled upon a wonderful band whose saxophone players had everyone feeling the jazz vibe and other sound systems looked to get us in the mood for salsa. Next to them stood a sadomasochistic inspired cage which contained three Gothic dancers, a whip being cracked by the man in the back wearing the most impressive pair of high heels.
Drinks were being sold everywhere; beer cans out of a cooler on the side of the street; a newsagents serving out of windows; pina coladas sold from a street stall; anything you fancy from an open house. I suppose it’s only fair that some of the residents make a few bob from thirsty carnival-goers… some rented out their toilets too! The food was great, and I did try the jerk chicken and had two hefty corn-on-the-cobs. However, a friend who has roots in Barbados said it wasn’t really comparable to the real thing, but hey, it was a step towards it!
However, those things that I was advised to be wary of were in full evidence. Having a dance in the most crowded areas was still great if you were a 6ft strong guy, not so great if you’re a 5ft 3″ girl… or a child. You had always to be aware of where you were going for fear of losing your friends. In crowds you are bashed and rocked by enthusiastic dancers, out of crowds (which really you are never out of) you are buffeted by people hurrying to see the parade or to reach their buddies. Men prey and stare and are free with their hands, scooping you up like casino chips. You experience the crush along the slimmer streets where roaring sound systems are set up. You battle towards it to join in the fun and dancing but find yourself crushed in a stream of people pushing towards the system as well as struggling away from it. A high proportion of people are drunk, or on their way there, and some are on drugs, tripping out after buying something from the guy who surreptitiously holds his hand out in crowds whispering what he’s selling as you pass. Rubbish and sentimental confetti piles up on the streets and glass bottles lay broken in the gutter, their shards being kicked by blind feet. The parade dancers, whose costumes and extravagant headdresses are reminiscent of Rio festivals, were a surprising rarity, perhaps you had to be there when the parade started to see them, if so, I missed them entirely by arriving at 2pm. You were fighting through crowds to get to nowhere in particular, the invasion of personal space being miles worse than rush hour on London’s central tubes. One pavement became a public toilet, its entire surface dark and glistening all over as if it had been raining. The police did what they could to manage the crowds, but it was more a matter of damage control and a point of safety than actual control. It was like an enormous demonstration; the right to party. People balanced atop Boris Bikes to search out their friends, did chin ups from traffic lights and danced on top of bus shelters.
Though it was an overwhelming mass of people, there was a general respect that you did not take it as an opportunity to destroy the surroundings and the happy atmosphere meant that I didn’t see any fights break out. (Though, perhaps that’s testament to it being safer and less antagonising during the daylight hours… at night they all turn into Vampires, right?) I would go again, but I could only go for an hour or two, early afternoon, for a boogie, a pina colada and a corn-on-the-cob, then I’d head home or go to the pub, far far away from Notting Hill! It’s an experience, and an amazing, hypnotising one, but remember, wear good shoes!