Memories of Carnival are always linked to some kind of smoke – weed fumes, jerk chicken wafts, human steam and sweat, giving off that wet smell. Aside from protests, funeral processions and marking various royal anniversaries, carnival is the biggest crowd you ever get in London. My earliest memories of it are ones of family outings. It felt like an expedition to West London, together with my parents riding my father’s shoulders as one would an elephant through dense jungles. Safe but exploratory. It has always been electrifying to see huge groups of people in one concentrated area. All other major events hold the seal of the establishment and the crowd etiquette that goes with it. Not so with the carnival. The sense of the unexpected being able to explode at any moment, boarded up shop windows, and the occasional sacking of a shop that left a chink in its boarding, lewd acts, stabbings, sensual dances and acrobatic moves. The socially impossible is all suddenly possible at carnival.
I remember the fear of getting lost was really high on my mother’s agenda. The lack of mobile phones in my youth meant that once you were lost, that was the last time you saw each other until you were back home. My dad would even tie rope around his hand and hers. In later years, my aunts and cousins lived just off Golborne Road, which was the perfect base for my exploits. While others would wane in the afternoon heat and melee, I could utilise my aunt’s kitchen and toilet and jump back in with vigour.
The sense of confrontation with the police at carnival was always in the air. The closing of the sound-systems was always tough for them to tackle, as was their fear. The more they pushed their chests out, the heavier the scent of vulnerability. If anything, carnival helped to pacify us Londoners in retrospect. A gathering of the same people who, on any other hot day in August could have been the tinder of a traditional London riot, were moving their collective body in joy rather than anger. For one day, streets that would have cars and buses taking the right of way are cleared for the valve releasing of a city; the releasing of angst and inhibitions in the daylight rising with the wafts of smoke to the sky above.
In my early teens, carnival was a cert if I was in town. If I had wanted to, I could have come back to my aunt’s house drunk and high after grinding on loads of women at 13 years old. Carnival affords you anonymity amongst the crowd. But my obsession was getting free stuff from the floats, like chocolate bars and chewing gum, then following them all the way up to Notting Hill, making my way through cordoned off areas. Residents used to get a pass, meaning I could cut through all streets and areas that were blocked off to the general public.
My cousins would only hold out for half a day; living there, they really didn’t care for, or appreciate carnival. I, however, had a full appreciation for it. I loved the crowds, seeing so many people together emanating good vibes. I loved how the sound-systems could boom. I would stand in front of huge speakers and feel the bass vibrate through my heart (and then feel a bit deaf for the rest of the day). From the morning you could see the waves of people come down the hills of Ladbroke Grove and Portobello Market. In the 80’s and 90’s the commercialisation of carnival hadn't reached the current situation as yet and the competition for food wasn't as fierce, nor were the prices so extortionate. Its authenticity was still intact.
I would stay outside until the floats would drive off, hanging off them at times, with the sun already setting. I would run after them, all the way up Notting Hill, only to have to make the long way back to my aunt’s. We would follow the floats dancing all the way, as if they were individual pied pipers. Carnival was always ramshackle. The trouble finding sponsors, the constant element of crime, countless fights, pick-pocketing, the customary testosterone-filled fronting.
People let loose at carnival in a way that they wouldn’t in a dark club, the unified emotions of the mass running through by osmosis. At carnival you dress how you want, dance how you want. Obviously alcohol does its part, but mainly the music, the dancers and the floats set the tone.
Carnival at its heart is an expression of freedom – from stereotypes, the law, enslavement and the status quo. For two days in the year, the streets are ours and the good times commence. For those two days, disregarding our problems and releasing our inhibitions, we gather and rejoice in the moment, a moment where our city turns into one big house party.