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Last weekend marked our 14th annual “shall we go to the Notting Hill Carnival?” conversation.
This ritual has occupied a special place in our household, the dialogue running a reassuring, almost preordained path that always ends with us agreeing to go next year. Suddenly and inexplicably, however, the predictive text of our discussion veered off course and, in the space of five minutes, we were preparing to set off. This was, I think, my fault. My wife, being the enthusiast in the family, has always relied on me to nix the idea, citing the crowds, heat and general inconvenience. But having no better ideas, I agreed. This undoubtedly caught her unawares, but if it was a bluff, it was immediately called.
Nearly two decades have passed since our last visit. In those days no self-respecting, privileged, middle-class, white twentysomething (certainly not one who wished to appear less white, middle-class and privileged) could afford to miss the carnival, which, with its hint of danger, marked you down as cool among your similarly tremulous mates. You would wander the route, talking loudly about catching “some good steel”, before nipping back to someone’s uncle’s nearby flat – uncle having obligingly decamped to Suffolk for the weekend. My abiding carnival memory is of a hand snaking out from a crowd and snatching my sunglasses from my face.
Much has changed since then. For a start, the carnival has lost touch with many of its residents and fails to reflect the area’s true demography. There is nothing, for example, to reflect the enclave of leading conservatives. Where is Michael Gove’s pageant of the poets, with actors reciting the verses of Swinburne and Browning?
We always assumed we’d return one day with the spawn. The risks were minimal, the atmosphere marvellous and this was a quintessential part of the multicultural London we loved. And yet we never went back. We knew we were being a bit feeble, but it just seemed a monumental hassle. This is the same argument always deployed against Glastonbury or central London on New Year’s Eve. It’s pathetic, I know. Who, years later, recalls the petty inconveniences of momentous events they attended? Well, unfortunately, I do. The reincarnation of John Lennon might have headlined at Glastonbury but had I been there, it would be the mud and the queue for the toilets that I’d remember. I’m not proud of this, but there it is.
But this year we would dismiss our staid selves. We would defy the droves and harrumph in the face of hassle. We would eat jerk chicken, groove to the beat and maybe even dance around in a policeman’s helmet. We would not be put off by the crowds and the almost Odyssean challenge of finding a toilet. Cunningly, I had downloaded an app locating conveniences, before remembering that it was best to leave the iPhone at home.
I also drew out enough cash to allow me to go without credit cards. Getting there looked simple enough. We would drive to a Central line station and take the Tube. But one of the oddities of the policing of the carnival is that while getting there is pretty straightforward, leaving is much harder. Roads are closed, stations are exit only – in fact I’ve often wondered if the reason it’s the world’s largest street festival is that many of the attendees are still trapped there from the year before. Yet the risk of ending up like Kurt Russell, trying to escape from New York by sunset, left me undeterred. “We’ll walk to Holland Park,” I said, my voice tapering off as I envisaged ill-tempered, exhausted children trudging uphill with all the pathos of a Bosnian refugee.
I was by then on the Time Out website checking out useful tips, when suddenly I detected a vague and distant tone in my wife’s voice. I can’t be sure but I think it was just after I mentioned the advice about carrying your own toilet paper and hand sanitiser.
A few moments later she had displaced me from the computer. “There’s a thing in Camden that looks quite fun,” she said.
“OK,” I replied. “But let’s go next year.”