Your only destination to all things CARNIVAL
I’ve been to Notting Hill carnival for 43 of my 47 years. My mother would take me as a child and at 14, I broke free and went without her. What started as a hunt for thrills and girls with my mates turned into a homage to my Caribbean culture and an act of defiance against those who always wanted the sound systems turned off.
Before the hangovers from last weekend’s 50th carnival in the capital had been vanquished, the attacks on the party’s future had already begun. Ken Marsh, chairman of the Metropolitan Police Federation, called for a full-scale review after eight police officers were taken to hospital and 454 people were arrested. Quashing the cliche of coppers doing the dutty wine at carnival, Marsh said officers “dreaded” the yearly event and he questioned whether spending so much taxpayers’ money was “worth it”.
Carnival is one of London’s annual high points, attracting revellers from all over the world. Filling the streets of west London with up to 7,000 police officers costs around £7m, but this is dwarfed by the £93m the event generates for the capital.
And not all of Marsh’s colleagues agree with him. Commander Dave Musker, in charge of policing this year’s event, pointed out that the high number of arrests was partly down to changes in policing and recording incidents and partly to the recent ban on formerly legal highs such as nitrous oxide. Last year these laughing gas balloons fuelled a cottage industry for young party-goers. The government’s botched introduction of the ban may well have left many confused about their legality. And the eight officers taken to hospital? Musker also points out that they were only there to receive anti-viral treatment as a precaution after being spat at.
So why, more so than any other social event, is the success or otherwise of carnival measured by its crime levels? It’s hard not to see this biased media coverage as a result of the festival’s perceived demographics. Anyone who regularly attends the two-day party will tell you that the crowd are made up of all sorts of people from all sorts of places – this is part of carnival’s glory. In the eyes of the po-faced section of the press, though, this is a free party for black youngsters. If their coverage of this group is biased and crime-drenched for the rest of the year, why should August bank holiday weekend be any different?
Take Glastonbury. The music festival was praised last year for its low crime rate as the 135,000 crowd generated just 75 arrests. This is just a tenth of the crowd that goes to carnival, and that’s without the protection of security scanners or an entry fee. If carnival’s crime rate was the same as Glasto’s, we’d expect 750 arrests. Yet, as commentator Antoine Allen says, carnival was likened to the horror film The Purge. The European football championship and the Epsom Derby have experienced much more serious bouts of violence recently but neither are defined just by the crime that goes on at them.
Carnival has always been a celebration of Caribbean culture: the music, the costumes and the general spontaneity. The brazenness of the parade’s originators in 1964, marching proudly through the beleaguered streets that had seen race riots in 1958 and the death of Kelso Cochrane in 1959, shouldn’t be underestimated. Over the years carnival has evolved from a protest against the blatant racism that my mother’s generation experienced to a showcase for the brilliantly diverse city that I know and love.
Unfortunately not everyone agrees. In the intervening half a century, the Notting Hill slums and working-class black and white communities have been replaced by luxury townhouses and well-heeled residents. Carnival’s organizers are left with an annual fight against the party being moved to a sanitized Hyde Park or stopped altogether.
Some complain about the 200 tons of litter the party leaves behind, but much of this is now being recycled, generating enough energy to fuel 80,000 showers.
So if it’s not the litter, the crime or the cost of policing, why does carnival always feel as if it’s drinking at the last chance rum bar? One possible solution: next year, instead of feathers and batty riders, we all wear wellies and gilets. Then let’s see the headlines.