Although our summers can be abysmal, one thing worth celebrating in August is the London Notting Hill Carnival. Suddenly, whether sunshine or rain, Londoners turn to the streets to celebrate the spirit of the Caribbean, in a frenzy of themed floats, rainbow costumes and thumping sound systems.
Born as a creative way for the early Caribbean immigrants to reconnect to their islands of origin, London’s first carnival started in 1964. The notion of a street parade was fused with that of the steel bands’ tradition, creating a visual, musical feast. For three days, the community could forget everyday problems of racism, unemployment, poor housing… and dance in the streets of Notting Hill.
Today, carnival has lost some of its original spirit. Tight police security has made it safer than in the 1980s, when stabbings and mini riots gave it a bad name, and the gentrification of Notting Hill means that onlookers are often bemused local “trustafarians”.
But carnival still holds a strong role in the London black community as a way of expressing creativity and talent. For many carnival clubs, the three-day event is the climax of a year’s work. Costume designers, choreographers and dancers all work frantically to produce the best theme. Each category: the 5-8 age group; the 9-13 years old; and the adults strut their stuff to win the King’s or Queen’s crown. It is still a family event, and one that celebrates black identity.
To catch a preview glimpse of the carnival, I trekked down to the unlikely Greenwich Dome location, where it was hosted. In front of the jury and an overexcited crowd, the gala featured the costumes that will parade Notting Hill’s streets this weekend. However, since many costumes are elaborate and heavy constructions, they often don’t get carried through all the route, so this was a chance to view them in their full glory.
Humour and a millennium feel prevailed. Alongside traditional icons such as Fertility or The Rising Sun, Wobbly Bridge, a Millennium Coin and, wait for this, a 4m-high version of the Dome with millennium replica jewels attached, all offered a satirical take of the noughties.
Even more interestingly, costumes such as Palm Sunday, Lady of the West and Queen Icarus’ journey to the Sun displayed a medley of symbols, from Christian mythology to African icons, that seem to cohabit and hold equal weight in the formation of a Caribbean identity.
Unfortunately, as the costumes were displayed on stage, there was no communal, synchronised dancing behind them like during the street parade. The few groups which cheered their carnival club were diminished by the size and theme park atmosphere of the venue. Still, if you want the real vibe, carnival is only a few days away. Just one word of advice, don’t go if you can’t suffer crowds, last year carnival’s visitors topped two million.
The Western Union Notting Hill Carnival starts with the Children’s Carnival on Sunday, 27 August, followed by the Adults’ Carnival on Monday 28 August. Both days start at 12 noon and end when the last band leaves the carnival route