Reggae without a Causeby Matthew Christensen / Images by Craig Bernard / 02.09.2011
Everyone has a friend who – every now and then – ends up pounding the drinks before stumbling around, hitting on strangers, dribbling on the table and eventually vomiting on herself before you shove her in a cab and send her home. During Notting Hill Carnival, London is a bit like that friend.
Mentioning the words “Notting Hill Carnival” generally elicits mixed reactions. For the posh West Londoners who live there, it’s a good excuse to get out of town and try to forget about the fact that rowdy groups of drunk men are pissing all over their front doors and leaving their chicken bones on the windowsill. For shop-owners, it’s time to board the windows up. And for revellers, it’s a chance to let loose, dress up, get drunk and throw down for the party of the year.
Pictures from Sunday’s “Children’s Day” depicted a Notting Hill that seemed to be expecting an imminent natural disaster, with windows of coffee-houses, boutiques and beauty stores thoroughly covered with plywood. One couldn’t help but notice how hastily the plywood had been tagged. The rebellious element of London is more industrious than I thought, and wasted no time in branding the town to their liking, if only for a weekend.
Carnival evidently spells extensive preparation for shop-owners – as it does for countless dancers in elaborate costume, and for thousands of uniformed policemen, eager not to be caught unawares after the London riots. As Brand London restores order to its tarnished image ahead of next year’s Summer Olympics, is it fair to assume that those reaping the greatest economic benefit are the local timber merchants? Perhaps not entirely – there are countless hostels, bars, catering companies and other small businesses that clearly do very well out of the carnival.
I met two dancers on the way to the Carnival on Monday morning who wore their elaborately decorated costumes beneath more tame, everyday garments. Both called Natasha and both from Trinidad, they’d come to London on vacation to dance at the carnival. They were polite but not unhappy to depart my company once the train arrived carrying several other dancers – many of whom, somehow, achieved the feat of seeming more elaborately decorated while simultaneously wearing substantially less actual clothing.
More dancers, along with security guards and others involved in the organisation of the event, joined the procession as we rumbled from King’s Cross to Westbourne Park – surely the strangest collection of people to ride the tubes west on the morning commute in some time. As the doors slid open at our final stop, we were greeted by several uniformed officers on the platform. “Morning boys” grinned the security guards. As they ambled off to the exit, chatting loudly about the previous night’s fight, I hung back and asked one policeman a few questions. He was friendly, but made it clear that there would be a heavy police presence on the ground that day. “We aren’t takin’ any chances after the riots,” he said. He wasn’t kidding. I’m not sure who was better prepared this year – the performers or the police. Certainly their numbers were similar.
Some attendees and residents were sceptical that this year’s event would proceed peacefully. In an effort to eliminate any criminal aspirations, thousands of police officers were dispatched; far more than I’ve ever seen at a festival of any kind. Depending on who I spoke to, the exact number of police officers varied between 6000 and 16 000. Some of them were friendly, but towards the end of the day most were just pissed off at having to shepherd hundreds of thousands of heavily intoxicated people around.
Whatever the exact numbers of policemen, they were unavoidable. Groups of 20 or 30 officers in uniform marched past constantly, and not just along the main carnival routes. Threading their way stubbornly through the side streets and past the sound systems, they couldn’t be ignored. But sucking on a thick spliff, rolling one for your mates or openly selling weed clearly wouldn’t raise an eyebrow, even in a spot as obvious as the Aba Shanti Sound System, where a menagerie of seasoned carnival-goers and young white twenty-something wannabes swayed to roots and reggae in a slow, co-ordinated mass nod-out. Trying to stop people smoking weed at Notting Hill Carnival is like trying to herd cats, and the Old Bill isn’t about to try.
Janet, a silver-haired local resident who has lived on Great Western Road for 15 years, is irritable. She stands outside her home behind one of the wire mesh fences erected by the authorities. I ask her how she’s enjoying her carnival, and she grumbles about it taking too long, adding: “Why can’t they do it somewhere else for once?” In fairness, she lives right next to the Judging Point, probably one of the busiest, loudest stretches of the whole carnival. Monday is the culmination of a three day event. That’s three days of noise, rubbish, smoke, road closures and drunks. I’m glad to live in East London – even if we do have riots, at least they don’t happen every year. I thank her for her time and keep following the crowd.
People seem to want to express something through Carnival, and would (perhaps rightly) be incensed at the prospect of not having the opportunity, but it’s not immediately clear what it is that needs to be expressed. There didn’t seem to be an articulated, coherent message to read or listen to: it was all being blasted into oblivion by unbelievably loud – though very good – ska, hip-hop, dub, reggae, drum ‘n bass and house music. The same lack of direction that pervaded in the London riots is visible here, albeit channelled into drinking as much lager as possible rather than smashing up the local Foot Locker. There doesn’t seem to be any particular figure to rally around, no obvious point to the whole exercise. People relish the fact that they can walk around smoking pot and not be harassed by anyone, and sit outside a posh West London home and listen to mind-numbingly loud ragga. Maybe that’s enough. A weathered-looking man with sunken eyes hands me a leaflet for an upcoming Socialist Party protest, one of many far-left groups with a presence this year. Maybe this is what Carnival is about – a hodge-podge of protests (some for worthy causes) that have been momentarily distracted by cheap street food, loud music, bare flesh and a large supply of soft drugs.
Watching the dancers parade by, looking at the streets awash in fresh urine, listening to the violent throb of the bass, the whistling, smelling the barbequed chicken mingling with cheap perfume, sweat and the ever-present ganja, looking at the thoroughly barricaded shops and homes, I have to wonder – is this a façade; an elaborate Carnival mask? Or is this what London really looks like when left to its own devices? Is this the one weekend when Notting Hill lets loose and gets her kit off? And is it attractive? Maybe I need another drink.
Maybe the whole thing doesn’t even need to be decoded. Perhaps it’s enough to just let go and lose one’s mind for an afternoon outside the homes of London’s more affluent classes while most of them escape to the country. Sure, Carnival passed this year with only one stabbing and relatively few reported crimes. But does that mean it was good?
*All images © Craig Bernard.