Notting Hill Carnival in London is believed to be the biggest street festival in Europe and the second largest carnival in the world, behind Rio de Janeiro. This year, I feted my first London Carnival and it was certainly a day of learning for me. I’ll be honest and say I was skeptical about the whole thing: I’ve been to Caribana in Toronto, carnival in Martinique, the Friday Night Jump-Up in St Lucia, and heck, I’ve even seen Byron Lee and the Dragonaires live in Jamaica – how was this going to be any different?
Well, I was humbled and came out with a shiny, new perspective on Carnival. Read my take-home points below and if you’ve been to Notting Hill Carnival, you’ll know what I’m talking about; if you haven’t, you’ll be very well-prepared for next year!
1. It’s one of the coldest Caribbean carnivals you’ll ever go to.
Since I was a kid, I went to Caribana (now known as the Scotiabank Caribbean Carnival) almost every year in Toronto on the first long weekend in August. Even if it rained, it was still really warm. Then, when I went to Carnaval in Martinique you were almost guaranteed good weather. This weekend was chilly and it peaked on Monday when it rained the whole day. Between the wind and rain, we ended up with the coldest August bank holiday ever.
2. That being said, the crowds of people will keep you warm. So will the good vibes.
The hordes of people you were squeezing between and accidentally rubbing against kept me warm. If it had been too hot, they would have been sweaty, too. And that would have been far too much for me. Overall, folks are there to have fun and you can really feel that wherever you go. I’ve been in London almost a year and never have people been so keen to talk to me in public as they were during Carnival.
3. More jerk chicken and patties are consumed throughout these two days in London than the rest of the year.*
Londoners love Indian curry, Italian pizza, Thai noodles, Japanese sushi and Vietnamense bahn-mi…but carnival is the only time that people have Caribbean takeaways. Despite Indian and Jamaican cuisine coming to the UK around the same time, ackee and saltfish with festival just hasn’t caught on like poppadoms and chicken korma has.
During Notting Hill Carnival, millions of revellers crush 1 ton of rice and peas, 1 ton of patties, 1 ton of curry chicken, 16,000 coconuts, 400 goats (the sacrifice!), 15,000 plantains, 70,000 litres of carrot juice, 10,000 litres of Jamaican stout and 25,000 bottles of rum. Apparently, Caribbean food just hasn’t Westernized itself enough yet and British folk aren’t too keen on eating things called mountain chicken, stamp and go, or mannish water. That’s okay – more for me!
And check out this video, I was in stitches:
4. Using a toilet during Carnival is a luxury worth paying for.
Save yourself the indignity of peeing on the street. I took small sips of water and avoided coffee and beer – all so that I didn’t have to pee until I got home. People were peeing in porta-potties, ON porta-potties, urinating on fences, in bushes… Oh, how could I forget the enterprising residents offering their bathrooms to party-goers for a fee? I totally thought this was a joke when friends told me, but NOPE. On every street. These were some of my favourites:
5. The soundsystems are probably the coolest part – and the busiest.
I will admit: of the carnivals and festivals I’ve been to, this is definitely one of the more unique and compelling parts of carnival. There are over 30 to choose from – some have been running for decades – all playing different kinds of music that just make you want to dance and sing. The soundsystems are more than just the Selecta (the guy who chooses the music) and the MC. It’s about the records, how much you can hype up and entertain the crowd. You listen to music you enjoy – some that are unique to the soundsystem or recorded specifically for Notting Hill Carnival – and dance your ass off. Love it.
While trying to get to another soundsystem we got caught in a crowd so thick my flatmate was actually carried down the street without her feet on the ground. People were climbing walls with anti-climb paint to get out of the mob. I was thinking “One wrong move and this is going to be worse than the running of the bulls”. And it was Family Day!
6. No one really agrees on who started Carnival and when the first one was.
People who have been involved in Carnival from the earliest stages still can’t agree whether the first Carnival was in 1964 or 1965. On top of that, some people say that the first London Carnival was in fact held on January 31, 1959, in St. Pancras. Trinidadian singer the Mighty Terror performed alongside steel bands and the whole party was broadcast by the BBC.
For the first incarnation of the Carnival in Notting Hill, some place its history in the hands of Rhaune Laslett and Selwyn Baptiste in 1965.
7. For this weekend, Notting Hill is not Hugh Grant’s Notting Hill.
Red Stripe posters on the walls, reggae and dancehall blasting out of the shops on Portobello road, the Electric Cinema doors and windows boarded up…
Notting Hill Carnival was born out of a desire to bring the Notting Hill community together after the 1958 race riots. In the 50s, white racist Teddy Boys were openly hostile to the growing number of black families moving into the area and it exploded at the end of August when hundreds of white people attacked the homes of the West Indian residents. Prior to this, Notting Hill was considered one of the worst areas in London.
Every year, people from around the world come to celebrate the city’s diversity and history, which reminds people of how much Notting Hill has changed but that these families are still an integral part of the community.
8. It’s a big deal. And you’ll see why.
I mentioned on my Facebook page that I wasn’t convinced about Notting Hill Carnival. Honestly, I was being a carnival snob.
Clearly, Notting Hill Carnival is better than Caribana – and I say this because it reminded me of carnaval in Martinique. The that it’s a time where police look the other way to minor offences and people can really let loose and lose control without guilt. It is a little stricter now after the 2011 riots, but still, Carnival is a true community event and everyone participates: young dub music lovers, old rastas, families, foodies, tourists and everyone in between.
9. At Carnival, Wine isn’t a drink and Chutney isn’t something you eat with your curry.
Embrace it. Now give me big money wine!
Notting Hill Carnival may be cold, crowded, and overwhelming, but it’s an integral part of many Londoners’ identities. I said I wouldn’t go back, but in hindsight I’m sure that I will. The Carnival’s heritage almost make it more interesting than other Caribbean celebrations. So, tell me readers: Have you been to Notting Hill Carnival (or the other British Caribbean carnivals in Leeds or Bristol)? What do you think? If you’ve been to other carnivals around the world, how does it compare? Let me know in the comments!
- I may have invented that statistic.