THE BLOG

This Is The 'Truth' About The Notting Hill Carnival

25/01/2017 12:59
Matthew Lloyd via Getty Images

Last summer, my 18-year-old daughter trudged through the mud with her friends to set up camp at the Leeds Festival to watch The Vaccines, Red Hot Chilli Peppers and Foals among others. It was a toss-up - spend the weekend up north or stay in London and party once again at the Notting Hill Carnival instead. It was a decision she bitterly regretted.

At Leeds, drug-taking was out of control she said, people were urinating on others' tents, the aggression of the crowds dissuaded her and her four friends from moving within 100 metres of the stage, everywhere you looked teenagers were drunk out of their skulls and security teams didn't seem to do much to stem disruptive behaviour. 'I wished I'd gone to Carnival,' she said when I picked her up, muddied and worn out, 'it would have been much more fun.'

The fun of Carnival, however - one of the great weekends in the London calendar - has been largely ignored this week as commentators have joined the rush to decry its undoubted mayhem. In a new report, the London Assembly Police and Crime Committee said that there was an 86 per cent rise in crimes since 2010. No one has died, it added, but it may only be a matter of time.

At Leeds meanwhile, one of Amy's fellow revellers - 17-year-old Lewis Haunch - died after collapsing. There were also 58 arrests. A month before at Scotland's T in the Park, two 17-year-olds died and drug use there was apparently rife. And a 26-year-old man died at Cheshire's Creamfields festival a few days before Leeds. In all cases, drugs were believed to be the root cause.

It's also worth pointing out this uncomfortable fact: most people arrested or who self-implode at music festivals are white; most of those who get arrested at Notting Hill Carnival - where five people have died in the past 30 years - are black. Most people who live in the big houses that have so gentrified that small corner of West London, and who object to their streets being overrun with revellers for two days in the year, are also white. And wealthy.

Most of those who have spent decades supporting, organising and planning Carnival are black. They don't tend to be rich and often use their savings or embark on fund-raising escapades to create evermore outrageous costumes for the Bank Holiday parade.

This is the 'hidden' agenda that lies behind the race to knock Carnival off the streets on which it was born and into some soulless central London park. Another nail in the coffin for the capital city's rich tapestry of working class and immigrant-led heritage. Let them eat plantains, just not on my newly-painted doorstep.

I don't wish to call people who object to Carnival racist but I do believe there is myopic snobbishness in their desire to cleanse the streets for two sunny days in August.

In an article for the Daily Mail this week, Michael Gove's wife Sarah Vine suggested that the police report confirms what most people already know but fear to say in case they are 'branded racist...whatever the noble origins of this event, these days it is little more than an excuse for drug dealers, thugs and other assorted criminals to go on the rampage...Carnival means gang violence, drug-taking and dealing and ugly, demeaning scenes of intoxication.'

The article was headlined 'The Truth About Carnival of Mayhem' and she's right - up to a point. But I suggest she and her husband buy a couple of tickets to some of the less middle-class music festivals dotted around the country during the summer and then write a similarly impassioned dispatch. The only difference between the two will be the colour of those up on stage and in the front row.

Notting Hill has always been polarised along monetary and racial lines. In my first job as a newspaper reporter in the area, I have vivid memories of being treated dismissively by members of the local community. The then-scruffy All Saints Road and Lee Jasper's Mangrove HQ could be intimidating places for naïve middle-class white boys.

But for 48 hours in every year the entire area becomes, for me, the most wonderful symbol of joy that London possesses. Yes, your ear drums will be battered, your elbows bruised, your feet stamped on and quite possibly your front garden pockmarked by the detritus of partying revellers. But nothing comes close to its hypnotic, mesmerising ability to bring millions of people together.

There is no colour, no wealth gap, no barriers beyond the metal ones that are brilliantly policed. Yes, there is crime but then again my phone was stolen in Peter Jones on Sloane Square a few weeks ago. Despite the tens of millions who have thronged the streets since I first went to Carnival, people don't tend to die there. Unlike music festivals. And those that do come close to a stabbing have, one suspects, ties to the criminal fraternity.

West London has changed immeasurably since I nervously carried a notepad 26 years ago. It's cleaner, slicker, faster and wealthier. But that doesn't make it better. Carnival is one of the few reminders we have that the city belongs not to an elite but all of us. That it has an idiosyncratic history built upon successive waves of immigrants.

That London's identity is not defined by what we own but by who we are.

Comments

CONVERSATIONS