Notting Hill Carnival at Night…
I have long enjoyed the good fortune to live in the area showered upon by London’s Notting Hill Gate Carnival every year. Ten years ago, I would dance along with the wildly colourful floats, shaking and shimmying for miles on end, rum punch and excitment fuelling our stamina. I had little time for people complaining about the litter or the crowds, though I sympathise that it can be mightily inconvenient for residents who don’t want to take part over the long weekend. These days, though, I prefer to pop along for a drink on the feathery edges of the Carnival, the turbulence of crowds beginning to suffocate me as my hair starts to turn grey..
Drinking in the Fabulousness of London, we thought.
Last night, I took two girlfriends from Lebanon and Italy for their first Carnival experience. We thought we would head out to find a rum punch around 8pm. One fun drink in the spirit of the street party on my doorstep seemed to me to be a celebration of how wonderful London is, in the run-up to the London-Fest of Fabulousness that will be the 2012 party. How wrong I was, and how sad i was to see the other, darker side of London that prowls over front pages wracked with knife crime and urban violence. The Carnival, it seems, has lost the cheeky innocence it has been cultivating as its image for many years.
Trick or treat?
The atmosphere along even the main brightly-lit streets was menacing and aggressive in a way that I have never felt along Westbourne Grove, Chepstow Rd or even walking towards Notting Hill Gate at any previous Carnival in fifteen years. Men kept sidling up to us three girls, grabbing our arms and then swearing profusely, aggressively and alarmingly when we calmly asked them to give us a little space. The intentions of so many out and about at that time seemed to be overtly to cause trouble. This wasn’t innocent drunken flirting or harmless chatting to strangers. Take this example:
My girlfriend and I are strolling arm in arm off Queensway licking ice cream and chatting. A man sidles up to me, grabs my arm, and when I shake him free in the most non-provocative way I can, he tells me “This is a Free Country, This is England. I can walk where the fucking hell I like you ugly bitch”. I half smile and try to keep walking, not interested in an argument. He follows us, swearing that we are Ugly Motherfuckers and he should “take us down right there and then”. We hurry our pace and walk towards the nearest bright jacketed policemen, who earlier I had considered were unnecessarily present.
This happened about a dozen times in just an hour and half. Each time, these young men approached us so closely and quickly that they could have pulled knives and we would never have had time to react. Their physical aggression, probably loaded on a combination of drink, drugs and macho street credibility, led us to fear at times they were more than capable of doing so. Every time we tried to pull away and keep walking, we were met by a frighteningly toxic level of abuse, brought on by nothing but pulling away from a strange man grabbing hold of us. Eventually, so intimidated and fed up by it, we made our way home, vowing not to return to Carnival again, at least after dark.
Did we need the police?
When I first saw the lines of policemen barricading Chepstow and the floats, I felt their presence was provocative and unnecessary. By the time we got home, I was just relieved to know they had been around, and saddened to hear they had been attacked by the bottles of glass thrown at them which we had probably just missed by a few hundred metres, the menacing atmosphere in the dark wealthy streets urging us to turn back and go home.
That other side of London
My Lebanese friend at first insisted on walking to the bus stop alone so as not to cause us to walk out of our way, telling me she had lived through the war in Beirut. Sadly, grimly, I told her that it would be a cruel irony to have dodged bombs and blackouts only to die on the evening streets of London’s most famous postcode, W11, another knife victim to another young London man, angry and furious and ready to lash out with whatever and however he can. I don’t think that was an exaggeration. The threat in the air hung low, and at our elbows, as though we were living in Crash, or some other film about gang culture and street violence in the USA.
I have no answers and write this piece without expectation that someone can fix this. But last night’s Carnival was a painful reflection that London is fast becoming, or has already become, schizophrenic. Beautiful and ugly, rich and poor, tolerant and hateful, village-like and violent. This city is my heritage, my birthplace and I am proud to belong to its urban tradition. But something is going wrong here: People with answers, please step up fast.
London, 26th August 2008