Rebekah Evans talks about the great impact Notting Hill Carnival has had on London.
If there’s one thing you can take away from a visit to London, it’s a sense of community.
Hard-wired into the Londoner’s DNA, our general dedication to inclusion is palpable throughout the city. Whether it be the steel pan artists on the Golden Jubilee Bridge as the soundtrack to the banker’s commute, the myriad of multicultural literature sold on the Southbank, or, more simply a discussion on the tube about the permanently awful weather, the people of London can always take a reprieve from our often-perceived unfriendliness to draw together, if only just for a moment.
A demonstration of true community spirit is evidenced in a small neighbourhood of West London. Usually home to the city’s bohemian elite, and easily identifiable by the rows of vibrant multi-coloured houses, Notting Hill is every year host to the infamous Notting Hill Carnival – a celebration of the Caribbean culture that has so drastically impacted London over the last seventy years.
Notting Hill Carnival was a part of my life even before I attended myself. For years, I would hear fond memories of the event from my St. Lucian family members who consider carnival to be a staple of their childhood. Through their stories, I could almost feel the blazing August sun beating down on my back, smell the aromatic smoke of Caribbean cuisines, hear the Soca music from the infamous sound systems pounding in my ears. For them, carnival was a rite of passage, yet another introduction into the strong Caribbean culture of their parents, who, in their youth, had left their original home 4,000 miles away for a land of opportunity. Carnival was a chance to celebrate the past, but embrace a rich Caribbean present and future. Despite having travelled halfway across the world, Caribbean immigrants and their descendants could reconnect with their heritage at carnival, in a riotous explosion of colour, sound and smell.
For many years, carnival remained for me as just that – a series of stories. Having been fortunate enough to travel to many destinations around the world, our holidays usually coincided with the August Bank Holiday weekend, meaning carnival was just a distant dream. It didn’t form a part of my fabric like it had done for my aunts and uncles. It was only at the age of 17 that I experienced Notting Hill Carnival for myself.
I was surprised at how much the area managed to change over one weekend. My former trips to Notting Hill had been wandering along underneath cloudy skies, popping in and out of vintage shops to avoid the rain and running my fingers over the dusty pages of second hand books. This was a different story entirely.
The pavements are pounding with the music of the sound systems and you can easily lose yourself in London amongst the throng of people who descend upon Ladbroke Grove. Nonetheless, despite the shoulder-to-shoulder crowds that deter some from attending, I feel this enhances the carnival experience – with the streets literally singing a welcome to the attendee.
On both occasions in which I have been fortunate enough to attend carnival, the British weather has managed to show up and show out, resulting in a deluge of rain which has meant I’ve been soaked to the bone. We cross our fingers and jump over the cracks in the pavement, hoping for just a bit of sun to peek through the clouds. But truth be told, the rain only seems to intensify the encounter – albeit in different ways. Those who dance non-stop behind the sound systems, flicking their feet in the puddles, appear even more drenched than I am, if at all possible; hair stuck down to their skin in a sort of helmet, more often than not covered in paint from the morning’s J’ouvert – ‘opening’ to the layman – and the plastic cups of rum they carry seem to be equal part alcohol to precipitation. It’s clear that the annual carnival is a party not to be missed, truly taking the phrase ‘come rain or shine’ to the next degree.
The urgency of an event like this appears even more pressing in the contemporary. It has become political as much as social. The tragedy of Grenfell Tower, a mere stone’s throw from the main carnival route is commemorated in a poignant silence to remember the victims – residents of Kensington, attendees of carnival, true Londoners. And the ‘Justice for Grenfell’ posters that line the streets are a frequent reminder of those we have lost.
There is a dual focus this year, and the spirit of carnival is strengthened by the memory of the recent Windrush scandal which plagued British politics for the majority of the year. When thinking about the very reason carnival was first established, and the shocking treatment of many British citizens, the determination to continue this event is somehow even stronger. Continuing carnival, even in the depths of sadness and scandal is a testament to the resilient spirit of those who first established the anti-racism event in 1966, and holds true to its core values.
I return from carnival absolutely exhausted, with sore feet and muddy trainers, not able to do anything but flop into bed, that is, after drying out by the radiator. But I’ve managed to make experiences of my own, not dissimilar to those I have heard about for all these years. With the music of carnival still drumming in my ears, and jerk chicken lining my stomach, I go to bed with a huge smile on my face.
Only 365 more days to go.
Carnival is a demonstration of many different facets. Of life as a descendant of Caribbean immigrants. Of life as a party goer. Of life as a Londoner. But mostly, carnival, in the two days that it is, is a demonstration of the human condition; how people from all walks of life: all races, all ages, all backgrounds can come together to make an event to be proud of.
There’s truly nothing better.