The Notting Hill Carnival is a yearly celebration of Caribbean culture marking the end of summer, held every last Sunday and Monday of August. It was started in the 1960s, back when Notting Hill consisted not of its present stately Victorian townhouses, tree-lined streets, and carefully manicured private parks but of a diverse and colourful ethnic enclave, home to a large Caribbean immigrant population. After the unfortunate 1958 London race riots, the area’s residents came together to put together a parade to showcase the goodness and best aspects of Caribbean culture to the people of London. Since then the parade has grown and grown over the years, into what is now said to be Europe’s largest street party, with around one million people participating in the festivities over the two-day period.
Today’s Notting Hill Carnival spills over the streets of the otherwise residential and well-to-do neighbourhood, with stages dispersed around the carnival area and a long parade filled with dancers, floats, and colourful costumes winding along a designated route until the sunset. There are also a multitude of food stands, where one can sample traditional Caribbean dishes such as jerk chicken, plantains, and freshly sliced coconuts. Dance music fills the air, from dancehall to calypso to reggae, blasting from the floats and stages around the neighbourhood.
Sunday at the Carnival is designated as family day, and Monday is adult day. So naturally, on an uncharacteristically late summer sunny afternoon, my friends and I got together on Monday to put together some looks for the Carnival. We then hopped on the Tube and descended at Royal Oak, where we quickly found ourselves entering the belly of the beast. There is one word that springs to mind when I think back to Carnival… people. So many people. The smartest thing you can do when you get to Carnival is take any plans you may have had of finding certain stages or getting to certain areas and throw them to the wind. Instead, just go with the flow, accepting that you will only be able to move at the glacier pace of one block per half hour, occasionally lifted off your feet by a swelling crush of people, effortlessly carried in the direction you (hopefully) intended to move in, occasional lack of oxygen aside.
Ignoring the sheer number of people, day-drinking crowd, lack of toilets, overpriced everything, and general chaos, my only true disappointment at the Carnival was that the crowd left dressing up almost entirely to the dancers. We almost seemed out of place with our masks and make-up, but it was Carnival, damn it, and we were going to go for it 100%. I just wished that the other Carnival-goers had taken more trouble to dress the part as well. But one must always look at the positive side of things, and the lack of competition certainly did make our stars shine that much brighter.
While the crowd, aside from a little half-hearted face painting, may not have been the most visually dazzling, the parade was another story. Many of the costumes on display in the parade were inventive and eye-popping, with colours, feathers, and sequins poking out and glittering from every angle. The enthusiasm of the dancers is contagious, and there is a generally positive atmosphere charging the air. It’s also refreshing to see such a multicultural crowd coming together to celebrate diversity, as the Carnival embraces not just those with Caribbean roots but people from all stripes and colours. In the end, the Notting Hill Carnival is exactly like Las Vegas: it’s something that you just have to experience once.
WHERE: Notting Hill Neighbourhood, West London.
WHEN: The last Sunday and Monday of August, preferably fifteen years ago.
HOT TIP #1: Wear comfortable, crowd-proof, spill-proof (and stylish?) shoes. Dr. Martens Airwair is a good choice.
HOT TIP #2: It may be bank holiday, but don’t bank on finding a restroom.
HOT TIP #3: BYOE (Bring Your Own Everything)
HOT TIP #4: Bring earplugs.
HOT TIP #5: When you tire of the Carnival, retreat to the peaceful canals of Little Venice, just north of Notting Hill, for a pleasant and calm way to end your day.