Dickinson College Humanities Program in Norwich

Carnival Craziness in Notting Hill

August 30, 2010 · 5 Comments


What a difference four days makes! After walking the same streets around Notting Hill Station with relative ease during the first day of our program, I found myself attempting to move among hoards of people making their way to the Notting Hill Carnival. Above this text, you should see a side-by-side of the same street on the two different days, and hopefully you can see the incredible difference in the atmosphere. Not only were the streets much more crowded, but they were populated quite differently. While I found almost exclusively older, upper-class Caucasians on my first trip to the area, today I found a young crowd of great racial and economic diversity. Those that currently live here (and, apparently, have only moved here recently in what has become a gentrification of the area) seemed to not exactly gel with the carnival. One of the first things I noticed walking to the carnival was how many buildings were boarded up, just for the weekend. All of these boards, and I mean all of them, were already covered with graffiti (and they could not have been up for more than 3 days). I wonder if this graffiti was a sign of animosity between the carnival-goers and the new, wealthier, inhabitants of Notting Hill.

The Carnival itself was influenced by Afro-Caribbean culture. From the jerk-chicken stands to the booming reggae music, one could easily see this influence. Having visited a market in a Caribbean neighborhood earlier in the week, I found the differences in the atmosphere between the two quite interesting. The slow, charming pace of the market was completely different from the sensory overload on display at the Carnival. People were yelling, pushing, blowing vuvuzuelas, and partying to their hearts content. There was no discernable pattern to what was going on; it was just 3 square miles of chaos. Trash lined the streets (has anyone else noticed the overall lack of trash bins in London?) while signs of drugs were everywhere. While the music, food, and floats were certainly a sign of Afro-Caribbean culture, I felt, from my vantage point, that many in attendance were simply there to mindlessly, and dangerously, party.  

According to the website for the carnival (http://www.thenottinghillcarnival.com/history.html) , the festivities originated as a celebration of Caribbean culture, and was rooted in Trinidadian celebrations over the abolition of slavery. While this was originally intended as a moment of unity for Caribbean immigrants, what I saw today felt more like a big London block party that happened to feature Caribbean entertainment and food. Many of those involved in the parade likely knew the history and gravity of the Carnival, but those in attendance did not seem to be there for either a cultural experience or for the original unity that the Carnival intended to be about. I am not suggesting one way of looking at the Notting Hill Carnival is necessarily better. One can be there to revel in the history and culture, or one can be there to party (within reason, in my opinion). It is just interesting to me that there appears to be a shift in perspective of the event over the forty years since it began.

Categories: 2010 Andrew
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5 responses so far ↓

  •   Mary Kate // Aug 30th 2010 at 18:20

    I was wondering how other people experienced the Carnival, so I’m glad you posted this. (Also, can you tag the author? Not sure who posted.) I was also definitely surprised by the flavor of the festivities, particularly the drugs and alcohol – I had thought of London as so much of a historical city, a financial center, a hub of art and theater and literature, without considering the wilder side. This is particularly true after this past weekend, when so many pubs closed at 11pm on a Friday night (bars don’t even close that early in York!). I figured the drinking culture here was one of (as Fox would have us believe) moderation, for the most part – except, of course, for mating purposes. It was actually nice to see a little excess on a Monday afternoon. It’s a good reminder that there are important elements to English culture other than, for lack of a better term, the “English.” It seems that Afro-Caribbean culture can bring more to the United Kingdom than just cuisine! Dancing in the street, if only once a year, is good for anybody, right?

  •   hollymb // Aug 30th 2010 at 19:43

    I definitely noticed the block-party atmosphere, as you put it so well, too. I was expecting more of a cultural celebration, I guess, not so many people walking around swinging half-empy wine bottles and Jamaican flags (both in the parade and in general). It was definitely a cultural experience, and the food was fantastic, but I thought there would be more of an educational/community outreach type of thing going on. Unless that’s what all the wine bottles are for?

  •   groverd // Aug 30th 2010 at 20:05

    My feeling about the festival is that though it doesn’t necessarily serve its original purpose of bringing community together in quite the same way it may have once done, it certainly still achieves that goal in other ways. As Fox points out, drinking allows for social bonding which certainly strikes at the original intent of the festival. Also, the atmosphere reminded me of Turner’s concept of “liminal space” which posits that in certain specific conditions, people performing ritualistic acts together can enter a transformative space in which the usual bounds of society are loosened or removed entirely. When Turner first defined this concept, he was mainly speaking in the context of religious pilgrimage. Traveling to the Carnival today certainly felt like a sort of debauched pilgrimage, as thousands crowded onto trains and flooded the streets to eventually arrive at the three square miles of the Carnival. It was certainly a sight to see.

  •   Karl // Aug 31st 2010 at 18:17

    Great post and comments. I like to see that you are bringing Fox into the discussion. We have to understand that her views on English culture are not generally a view of youth culture. When you get to UEA you will likely find that many of her conclusions just don’t hold for young adults. Drinking culture, for one, is quite different. Daniel’s discussion of liminal space is a good one. In essence, it is something like mob mentality. One is often likely to do things in large and rather anonymous crowds that one wouldn’t do under normal conditions.

  •   bowmanc // Sep 2nd 2010 at 18:43

    I thought it was particularly interesting to see the different crowd dynamic in British culture. People are generally much more relaxed in their approach to large crowds, and there was much less cursing/grumbling/shoving. Perhaps this is a result of a more relaxed society, or because everyone is so terrified of speaking to each other?

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