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.