I first visited Carnival in 1980. It seemed wild and exciting. I came with a black male friend with shared tastes in music and dancing. He was not my boyfriend, but as he took my hand to guide me through the crowd in All Saints Road a group of Rasta elders nodded approval, one saying, ‘now THAT’s the spirit of Carnival’. I will never forget that moment.
The freedom of dancing and drinking in the street was new to me and exhilarating, and the atmosphere of pure joy – and love – was uplifting.
Then suddenly, when it was dark (Carnival ended late those days) my friend panicked and shouted ‘run this way NOW!’. As he grabbed my hand again I peered over the peaceful dancing crowd to see a row of policemen, arms linked, charging at us.
Six years later I moved to North Kensington. I didn’t have to go to Carnival. It came to me. I have always loved those few days (it used to be three), the neighbourhood transformed with no traffic, people sitting and chatting on their front steps, everyone taking time to talk to neighbours and strangers, the fantastic goodwill – and love – of a massive street party. The food, the music, the dancing, the costumes. You can’t beat it.
My children all went to Carnival from tiny babies, and still do. There are obvious places it’s sensible to avoid with a baby in a buggy, otherwise it’s a truly family friendly event.
There have been good years and great years, and years blemished by the criminals who sadly come to steal, sell drugs and cause trouble. This happens at large events, you can only work to control it. It also happens at other times. We had five stabbings in Golborne Ward last Boxing Day. No one said we should ban Boxing Day. There was a 50-strong riot outside Boujis nightclub in South Kensington six months ago. It’s still open. There was a major incident in Hyde Park when an end of term water-fight turned violent. Hyde Park prevails. Epsom Derby this year … the list continues.
And yet, criminality disrupting Carnival is being used as an excuse to ban, move or drastically change it.
But Carnival doesn’t create crime. Criminals attend Carnival.
Sadly, some of these criminals are very young and their lives must be desperate and hopeless indeed for them to engage in such violent behaviour.
Now, those politicians who ruthlessly agreed to cut youth services and destroyed community policing by voting for cuts to police funding, wish to punish those they have failed.
This is leading to a very serious and unpleasant threat to eviscerate our massive and joyful street party. Those with no understanding whatever of the importance and value to local people of the second largest cultural event on earth wish to destroy what they don’t understand. This campaign seeks to ‘civilise’ Carnival.
Last year there were two public surveys on Carnival, which set alarm bells ringing. The Council survey was, despite local fears, a genuine attempt to review arrangements and run things better. The Council – to date – seems to ‘get’ Carnival, as the second largest cultural event on earth, which brings £94m into London every year. For their £500k input into funding, the Council makes their best efforts every year to control those elements they are responsible for – mainly placement of wee, collection of rubbish, closing of roads, local policing, event and stall licensing and noise nuisance abatement. We truly underestimate the time and care they put into this, and their close work with the London Notting Hill Carnival Enterprise Trust, police, residents’ groups and all other services.
Here is the response to the Council’s survey from Carnival Village Trust, the development agency for Carnival Arts, which puts things neatly into perspective:
‘Carnival is both an event that happens in a public space and an art form.
As both an art form and a street festival, Carnival has three main modalities:
1. A ritual of resistance
2. A festival of otherness and
3. Performance Art.
However, for many, the Carnival is also a street party; the annual Bank Holiday festival whose popularity and appeal is participating in a joyous, care free celebration with very few inhibitions.’
The other survey, from the office of our parliamentary representative (not wishing to get personal here), was an ill-judged effort with highly deterministic questions, that resulted in polarising and inflaming opinion.
This is hugely disappointing. We expected better.
|Kelso Cochrane, the first victim |
of racist murder, 1959
It is ironic that an event set up by local people to heal the community - after the appalling Notting Hill race riots, leading to the first racist murder, of Antiguan carpenter and law student Kelso Cochrane, by neo-Nazi Blackshirts in 1959 - is now under threat by an arguably racist and undoubtedly anti-community campaign.
Let's not forget those days of 'No Irish, no blacks, no dogs'.
In 2009 the community put up a plaque where Kelso fell; seven years later some have determined to erase our history.
One suggestion arising from the second survey is to move the sound systems to Little Scrubbs. This is laughable. The sound systems that brought the music of the Caribbean to our shores, and changed the British music scene forever, cannot be disconnected from the event that created them.
Would you go to the opera, with no singing?
Another proposal has been to move Carnival to Hyde Park and charge for tickets. But Carnival is not a show, it’s a participatory event. This may be confusing to those who don’t wish to see people whose costumes and physicality don’t conform to white cultural norms of classical beauty. Hyde Park was the venue for the Great Exhibition, where ‘colonial tribes-people’ were put on show to amaze and amuse the paying public. Is this what they want?
Among many other things, Carnival is a celebration of our wonderful North Ken melting pot, on our doorsteps. You can have a beer at home, go out and have a brilliant time, for nothing, in an area of London that is still shockingly, and inexcusably, poor (despite increasing gentrification) - Golborne and Colville wards where Carnival is focussed are among the poorest wards in London. It is a wide-reaching community relations exercise whose social and community value, at a time of rising hate crime, goes far beyond its financial cost. And frankly, while all our communities in North Ken feel they are being squeezed out – by estate development, rising rents, CPOs, Pay to Stay, Bedroom Tax, property prices – it’s needed more than ever.
It’s a necessary counter to what many see as the attempted ‘bleaching’ of Kensington.
Currently Carnival is classed as a community event so the policing costs aren’t chargeable to the organisers. Ticketing would turn it into a commercial event; the £6m policing costs then payable would destroy the event forever. Job done for the haters.
Let’s put that £6m cost into perspective. Protecting Julian Assange at the Ecuadorian Embassy in Knightsbridge – from extradition to Sweden for alleged rape - has cost £11m. Nobody is threatening to evict him for this unpaid bill.
The cost of unpaid parking fines by embassies in K&C and Westminster is £87m; nobody impounds their cars. The amount owed by the Russian embassy in Notting Hill Gate alone would just about cover the full cost of policing Carnival.
Protecting the Royal family, whether on official business, their endless holidays, or nights out clubbing, costs £103m a year. Nobody sends these billionaires a bill.
So here we are. One rule for the rich, another for the poor, clear as day.
CVT also said in their response to the Council: ‘Carnival is .. a barometer of British society’.
We’ve come a long way since that police charge I saw on All Saints Road in 1980. Let’s not turn back the clock.
As the Black Eyed Peas said it: ‘Where is the love?’.