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What You Should Know About Carnival Before You Go

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Photo: LEON NEAL/AFP/Getty Images.
Revellers dance in the streets on the second day of the Notting Hill Carnival in west London on August 31, 2015.
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed as soon as you step in. You sense opportunity but very little guidance on how to grab it.

For two days across the August bank holiday, crowds eleven times the size of Glastonbury gather in west London to watch bright floats and parades of dancers – that take months to craft and choreograph – glide through cramped streets, while standing under the pimento-scented smoke rising from countless grills. Ska, reggae and dancehall blare out from massive sound systems and makeshift stages on every corner as over one million people dance through the streets, carrying the flags of their home nations, and queueing for the pleasure of paying £2 to use the toilet in a local’s house.

Though this year marks the 50th anniversary of the carnival, many of its revellers still don’t know the extent of its history and just how significant a part this street party has played in providing support to troubled communities. Here we explore the story behind the Notting Hill Carnival and why, after 50 years, its central message is as vital as ever...


I first set foot in the thrilling chaos when I was nine years old. My aim was to explore as far as my legs could carry me, but precious energy was wasted trying to uncouple my hand from my mother’s grasp and, before I knew it, I was fast asleep with only the residual tones and evidence of a conquered saltfish dumpling for company. By 18, the freedom I longed for was mine, but, again, precious energy was wasted failing in vain to couple my hand with another. Though it was confirmed that getting two large groups of friends to successfully meet at one place was a myth, by 25, all was relatively well. By that age, this sliver of west London had fully revealed itself to me in the best traditions of cities suspended from deeply diverse roots and nourished by acceptance.

50 years ago the Notting Hill Carnival began amid a basic battle for survival. London’s West Indian communities of the late ‘50s and ‘60s were suffering the brand of racial injustices that new immigrant communities are often forced to endure, and, in 1958 at the end of August and beginning of September, violent gangs of white men, desperate to defend their mono-racial vision of Britain, targeted the homes of West Indians in a series of race riots that lasted for over a week. Racist chants rang out as destruction fell upon the already dilapidated homes.
Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images.
Performers wait their turn to join the procession parade through the streets during the Notting Hill Carnival on August 24, 2014.
The following year, West Indians began publicly seeking solace within the confines of the profoundly rich culture they refused to relinquish. Claudia Jones — activist and founder of Britain’s first major black newspaper, the West Indian Gazette — proposed the idea of a ‘Caribbean Carnival,’ as a way to showcase the community’s heritage and build unity within an ostracised social group. The event was held inside St Pancras Town Hall in January – and the winter chill made the outdoor celebration less than desirable.

Though the exact date is disputed, by 1966, Rhaune Laslett, a social worker, with help from the London Free School, organised the Notting Hill Fair, an outdoor parade that encompassed many of the essential elements we associate with today’s carnival. Processions of steel drums echoed over the swaying hips of thousands whose basic right to exist and thrive was still unwelcome. The fair never intended to gloss over the pain suffered; instead, it faced up to the reality and identified the need for sustained solidarity and reminders of the values of a past that tightly bound them together.

Across Brixton and Notting Hill, areas that contained the highest concentration of West Indians, institutional inequality remained rampant as the ‘70s and ‘80s rolled through. With that, carnival imbued its spirit within new generations seeking a way to express their identity and demand their presence be felt.

It’s somewhat fitting, considering its origins, that the 50th anniversary of the Notting Hill Carnival will punctuate a summer when Britain was asked to look inward and self-identify. For many, the bottom line of the EU referendum was immigration. And the result split the country. In London, the depressed reaction to the final result to leave, was a measure of how deeply we cherish living in a place that’s home to more nationalities, races, religions and street-food themed pop-ups than you can possibly fit per inch of ground.

Brexit should remind us that our openness isn’t something to take for granted. Our openness must be protected. And carnival is a glaring example of that.
A recent poll commissioned by local MP Victoria Borwick, found that 9 out of 10 Notting Hill residents feel they are forced to leave their homes during the event due to fears they will be victims of “anti-social behaviour”.

Unsurprisingly, many young people have reacted negatively to the findings and suggestion for change, such as moving parts of the event to Hyde Park. Already frustrated by gentrification and the changing demographics in areas that once acted as havens for immigrant communities, some sense veiled racial undertones to the residents’ claims that they find the festivities to be “frightening and intimidating.”

Carnival is not perfect. The Metropolitan Police reportedly arrested 400 people at last year’s event. Unlike the Red Bull Stage, locals can’t just pack up and leave when the last sugar cane is sold, so we should respect their concern. However, as those of us who have fallen in love with the annual pilgrimage, who delight in seeing west London uploaded with a green and yellow filter know, the Notting Hill Carnival represents a much higher purpose.

Against a backdrop stained with violence and contempt for their existence, with courage, West Indian culture fought for a platform that, for the past 50 years, grew from a coping mechanism, into a lasting influence on the rhythms we all dance to, the clothes we wear, and the art we admire. Carnival is a reminder that immigration has blessed our shared experiences with a richness that we should never forget to value.
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