I wanted to like it. I really wanted to. It’s been on the go for 45 years, it’s an annual event, attracting upwards of a million people every August bank holiday, it’s free, it’s young, it’s colourful, it’s inclusive, it’s a London institution, it’s full of great ethnic street food and, contrary to many people’s expectations, it’s reasonably safe. It’s a celebration of life – or should be.
The Notting Hill Carnival I mean. It has so much going for it and we were definitely ‘in the mood’. But I can’t see us going again. Granted we didn’t go at the best time, seeing only the tail end of a parade, but the streets were packed and there was plenty going on. There was masses of noise and action, the atmosphere was lively but unthreatening, most people seemed out to have a good time, there was no evidence of ‘attitude’, no obvious drunkenness, the police were visible but happily unoccupied, and we saw nothing amounting to a crime. Residents who weren’t letting out their toilets for a small charge had turned their front doorsteps into pop-up barbecue stalls and though we didn’t need to eat the jerk chicken, curried goat and the rest, it all looked great.
So what was wrong? Well, the streets can’t cope with the crush so getting around is, to put it mildly, tortuous. The chances of becoming detached from whoever you went with are high. The music is pulverisingly loud so you can’t hear yourself, let alone each other. If you get lost there is little chance of a mobile signal as the networks are heavily overloaded. There is no signposting to speak of. By late afternoon – earlier, for all we know – all you can do is wade through the heaps of slimy rubbish that the organisers will, no doubt, clear up when the time comes. The street corner we perched on to watch the parade was perilously overcrowded, with no safety barriers and a constant danger of trampling that at one point had us diving from a stampede. Goodness knows how that woman in a wheelchair managed – we never saw her again.
You can see how – with the best will in the world – stuff happens, and it’s uncomfortable. The heavy blue haze overhanging the whole area has that sweet sickly smell that means only one thing – I can’t get all moral about it but it’s a smell that just turns my stomach. And call me old fashioned but I was just a bit taken aback by finding a whole long street, backed onto by the garages of the good folk of the area (who, from what I hear, prudently flee the city for the weekend), turned into a flowing public latrine – his and hers, no attempt at privacy.
Make your choice. I’ve mentioned the good features and for most, I expect, the good outweighs the bad. On another day it might have been different for us but, for our part, we couldn’t help making the contrast with the annual Brooklyn Carnival in New York, which we went to on Labor Day a couple of years ago. The same fantastic food (the corn on the cob with coconut!), colours (see below), music (tolerable volumes), inclusivity, dance, movement, fun as Notting Hill promises, but carefully organised and policed, well managed and safe, good natured and welcoming. One endless parade on the wide main street, lined with sturdy barriers that keep order without intruding, which are respected by all and which do make you feel safe.
You won’t often find me comparing a New York event favourably with a London one, but this is one we could learn lessons from. We have Rio in our sights but I doubt we’ll get back to the Brooklyn event any time soon, which is a shame. I doubt we’ll be back to Notting Hill either. Which is a shame too.