Try Google “Notting Hill Carnival” and you’ll notice how, the closer you get to the event, the more results including words such as “stabbing” “riot” “dangerous” and “violence” you will have.
But still this Carnival attracts more and more people every year, holding the crown of biggest street festival in Europe. A parade of caribbean dances, costumes and music, it’s all about joy, colours and noise. Which is pretty much all I stand against.
In fact I attended my first carnival after three years of living in London, where I almost got robbed and tramped by a group guys with the face covered in blood running from the police. This year I decided to go back, leaving at home any expectation of having fun, ready for the worst to happen, and only armed with a purely journalistic interest.
What is the Notting Hill Carnival about
Technically it’s a parade which has been going on since the early 60s, started by the Caribbean communities joining together on the streets of London to celebrate the Carnival their own way with dances and steel drum bands exhibitions.
All I see now is large groups of very unhappy and bored looking ladies in costumes and bikinis, most of which unhealthily overweight and tired, slowly parading behind lorries. These are the classic heavy duty lorries stripped of any colour and loaded with speakers blasting music made unrecognisable by the insane equalisation: bass frequencies +300%, all other frequencies: n/a. You might see some poor bloke playing steel drums but they might as well be banging on foam as nobody can hear them.
The real show in my opinion is the people living on ground floor flats blaring music in the street and other more or less impromptu parties where people seem genuinely to be having fun.
Other things that you’ll be very likely to see everywhere is people twerking (oh god I can believe I used this word 1 day after it’s been added on the OED), yes I mean shamelessly dry humping pretty much everything, police officers and inanimate objects included. You’ll also see loads of food stalls and people desperately crying. Why they cry? I’ll explain this a little below so you’re forced to keep on reading.
What to eat
Food is my second favourite bit of the Notting Hill Carnival. You’ll be spoilt for choice on anything ranging form Curry Goat to the famous Jerk Chicken. It’s worth a try, a dish with rice and peas comes for £5 to £7, salmonella sauce included. It’s delicious and it’s just a shame you’ll have to eat it standing in a corner negotiating your space with piles of rubbish and people violently arguing.
Drinks are scarily expensive, I’ve seen lukewarm Red Stripe sold at £5 a can. Bring your own drink! Mix dark rum and ginger ale if you want to be in the mood, it also doesn’t get warm and will require less trips to the toilet, which can prove very challenging. If you still want a fresh lager, sharpen your eye as there are many people improvising a bar with a bucket full of ice and cans.
When to go
The Carnival is organised over the August Bank Holiday weekend, on sunday and monday. Check the official website for the exact dates and times. For reasons to me unknown the first day is for families, while the second is the “adult days”. I’ve done both and didn’t notice any difference, probably Monday is better because most of the troublemakers are arrested on Sunday.
How to get there?
Unsurprisingly the TLF during the Carnival weekend is totally f*cked up. Forget about taking the bus, walking is a much quicker alternative, tube and trains are the only option. I would not recommend the most obvious stop: Notting Hill. Being obvious it’s the starting point chosen by most of the people attending and you’ll end up in total chaos, and with no network signal. The best option is to take the Overground, an unknown entity to most of the tourists, and get off at Queen’s Park, Kensal Rise, or Kensal Green. These stations will be relatively empty and it will be easier to leave, it’s a short walk from the Carnival and you’ll approach the area form the Regent’s Canal side, which is pretty nice. More info on London Public Transport here.
Is it safe?
Well, difficult question innit? The safety of this festival has been one of the main concerns recently, since it expanded beyond the capacity of the area, and the capacity of the MET of handling such an event. Oh, and it also has been chosen by some idiots to exercise some of their primitive territorial pissing.
To be honest I’ve only seen some shambles and chasing and police action the first year, so I think it all depends on luck. Of course, as in every event with so many people squashed together, you need to be extra careful.
You’ll also see lots of people crying. Yes, either quietly or desperately, as the afternoon turns into evening you’ll see an increasing number of people weeping and sobbing. But don’t worry, they are not victims of crime, but of panic and claustrophobia. As you’ll find out soon…
How to get the hell out of there?
This is the nastiest part of the Carnival: leaving it. As soon as you decide to call it a day and leave you’ll realise that you just can’t. All the roads around you are packed with people jumping or, more plausibly, standing in the same place drinking and staring at some point waiting for the mass of people to move forward, or sideways, or anywhere else.
If you look at the map you’ll easily recognise the bottlenecks making the escape difficult, and the situation is even worsened by the London Police force, who skilfully turns a quiet crowd into a angry panicked mob. Totally confused they move the fences without a logic, herding people like cattle, so you find yourself lost in a labyrinth as in one of those old arcade videogames.
Once you get out of there is such a relief, you actually realise how much you missed having empty space around you, or how liberating is to walk in the direction you want. This is my favourite part of the Notting Hill Carnival.