27 August, 2010

Notting Hill Carnival

It’s Saturday on Bank Holiday weekend, August 28th-30th  – NB the cultural issue: in England we don’t have July 4th, Memorial Day, MLK day holidays; instead, the banks go on holiday as befitting a nation that rose to greatness on the strength of its commercial and financial expertise – and you’re doing a little cleaning in your new Bayswater lodgings when you hear the unmistakable sound of steel bands coming from somewhere in the west. On Sunday, in a taxi on the way from the hotel to your flat, the cabbie complains about the closed roads and disrupted traffic in W11. As you clamber out of the taxi, tripping over an overlarge suitcase, you again hear the sound of music carried on the westerly wind. On Monday en route to class, you note that some of the local tube stations are closed. Your curiosity well and truly raised you ask the underground attendant, “What’s going on?” Answer: “It’s CARNIVAL time.”  And Monday the 30th is the big day.

Urban Britain had a substantial black population from the 17th century.  As a key player and financier in the triangular trade which brought slaves from western Africa to the West Indies and the United States in the ‘middle passage’, Britons became increasingly familiar with Africans in the period before the Industrial Revolution. Some came as slaves, others as ‘freed’ individuals, some no doubt as mariners.  It was not, however, until after World War II, when a victorious yet ravaged and impoverished Britain, short of labour for reconstruction, appealed to people from its West Indian colonies to take up work in the newly founded National Health Service [1948] and the public transport system.  As you might expect, the indigenous population did not extend a warm welcome to the new arrivals.  “Keep Britain White” placards appeared and all of a sudden landlords had no rooms and flats to rent. The more literate of them simply put ‘No coloureds, Irish or Dogs’ signs in their windows. [TIP: Read Andrea Levy’s novel Small Island  for a fictional account of the racial tensions in nearby Earl’s Court in the late 1940s.] Tensions grew throughout the 1950s and riots broke out in 1958, the most important of which occurred in Notting Hill west London in September 1958 when ‘teddy boys’ began attacking West Indian homes, offices and people on the streets.

The police made arrests and the courts imposed stiff sentences on the rioters. The West Indians responded by celebrating their culture, initially in halls and latterly in the open air. The inspiration came from the Trinidadian born, American-raised, communist Claudia Jones, who had been deported by the USA during the McCarthyite witch hunt and been granted asylum in Britain. The model was also Trinidadian, a carnival, held on the streets of Notting Hill over the Bank holiday weekend [the end of summer].

The Notting Hill Carnival is now the largest street festival in Europe and the second largest carnival in the world after Rio. The three words that best describe it are (a) music [VERY LOUD], (b) costume [VERY BRIGHT and OUTRAGEOUS], and (c) food [DELICIOUS].  There might also be a heavy smell of cannabis on certain streets in the Notting hill area. Police don’t mind the smell but they will not tolerate buying and selling of drugs.  Carnival is a wonderful celebration of the vitality of Afro-Caribbean culture. Be smart:  the carnival has attracted trouble in the past, especially near the end on Monday evening, and there is a heavy police presence.  If you go, and you should, leave wallets, bags, jewellery at home. Go as a twosome or threesome. Just bring a few pounds to buy some food and drink.  Cameras are OK – remember that we run a photo competition at the end of the term - but take good care of them.

-Bill (without any help from Elsie or Pete's scooter)

No comments:

Post a Comment