From a strictly mundane point of view, the Notting Hill carnival should not go ahead. Huge street festival; spread across a large area; crowds gathering with impunity; inaccessible side streets; all-day drinking … There are also concerns that the massive police presence will leave everywhere else woefully underprotected, making it a bit like Christmas for any self-respecting, social networking looter at a loose end over the long weekend.
Genuine as such concerns might be, there is also an issue of perception at stake that could do enormous long-term damage to London’s racial status quo. The carnival is correctly perceived as a black event; however, much of the media has subtly and speciously presented the riots as being black too. To prevent the former going ahead because of the latter would promote the idea they are intrinsically connected, giving the erroneous impression that “black culture” were to blame for two days of violent looting up and down the country. If somebody as obviously educated as David Starkey CBE, can be so bamboozled as to draw such a conclusion, what chance have the rest of us got?
Promoting such a thoughtless premise displays an astonishing lack of interest in or observation of how things really are in London in the 21st century. First, it advances the idea that we are, essentially, all the same negro – “the black community” – and as well as being unable to make individual decisions, that negro is somehow lumpen: underprivileged, frustrated, marginalised, criminally inclined, badly educated and violent. The secondary implication follows that, as black culture exists as an expression of that homogenous group, it must demonstrate one or more of these qualities. Thus any celebration of a black West Indian tradition has no option but to end in the primal fury of the hopelessly disaffected, probably levelled at mobile phone shops and sportswear outlets.
This isn’t to make light of very real social concerns across the capital. In fact it’s because of what came to light during the riots that it is vital not to ramp up a still easily held perception of London’s black population as a dangerous mob continually and culturally on a hair trigger. Indeed to do so establishes the sort of scapegoat that obscures pretty much all of what actually needs fixing.
Under these circumstances, the Notting Hill carnival becomes even more important, as over the years it has honestly reflected the city’s relationship with, first, Caribbean arrivals, then second-generation immigrants and now it represents the racial and cultural melange it has become. To do that on the carnival’s scale, from a non-traditionally English point of view, is too uniquely London to be sacrificed.
At its beginning in 1959, when Trinidadian expat Claudia Jones organised a steel pan event in St Pancras town hall, it was an understandably closed-off affair, a Caribbean pride response to the increasing racist attacks taking place in London. A few years later, the Russell Henderson Steel Band took a Portobello Road children’s street party on an impromptu road march around Ladbroke Grove with local West Indians and a few white people joining the parade. It became a regular event, with Jones’s party joining up to produce a Caribbean-led neighbourhood carnival, establishing the Notting Hill vibe. Although the crowds grew to tens of thousands, the long arm of the law seldom reached past the over-refreshed, and that photo of the nervous-looking policeman dancing with a black woman wasn’t far away.
That all changed in the late-1970s. The carnival had transformed from a steel band parade into a huge sound system-based affair, and against a background of roots reggae and routine police harassment, the event tipped over into a series of violent confrontations between black youths and the police. As a result, the police presence increased year on year. Remarkably, this appeared to do little to prevent the seemingly regulation stand-offs. As darkness fell on the Sundays and Mondays, and the vast proportion of carnival revellers had gone home, bottle throwing and baton charges would bring the event to a close.
While this showed up the racial and generational schisms within London society and issues within the pre-Scarman Metropolitan police, it almost killed the carnival. And once again, this was largely a matter of perception as, regardless of how much fun so many enjoyed during the afternoons, images of post-dusk disorder became the common visualisation as the event’s annual repute was measured in arrest figures and crime reports. They came to define the carnival and, unsurprisingly, people of all races stayed away in droves.
However, true to the spirit of what London was becoming in the 1980s, it rebuilt itself with greater organisation and cultural diversity along the lines of such sound systems as Norman Jay's Good Times or the multi-racial Nostalgia Steel Orchestra, a band that connects back to the original Russell Henderson Steel Band through pan master Stirling Betancourt.
Such outfits – both culturally black, yet deliberately wide open to anybody – epitomise what carnival is today, how it re-established itself to become the spectacular attraction that showcases a vibrant art form and dedicated planning and organisation. But more importantly, by allowing originally foreign expressions – playing mas and the sound system – to showcase themselves and the city on this scale, it sends a powerful message far beyond London’s population.
Of course attendees and participants are duty bound to behave themselves – why wouldn’t they be? – just as the police have the responsibility to apply the same public order controls as they would, say, at a football match. Such controls as an early evening shutdown and visibly vast numbers of uniforms on the street shouldn’t – in theory – detract from anybody’s enjoyment, providing both sides of the equation realise they have an important role to play. If this week’s pre-emptive raids mean the police will be less on edge, there shouldn’t be a problem. Perhaps they can even get back to the serious business of dancing.