Notting Hill at 50 - more than just a party

Notting Hill at 50 - more than just a party

By Stephen Spark
Photographer Peter Hogan

United Kingdom | Monday 22 August 2016: 10:10 BST

Fifty years ago, a small festival that was intended to spread a bit of hope and happiness in Notting Hill and North Kensington proved a success beyond the organisers’ wildest dreams. But even those dreams didn’t envisage a massive, iconic annual event attracting up to a million revellers from around the world.

The ‘Notting Hill Fayre’ organised by social activist Rhaune Laslett and the London Free School (LFS) almost fell at the first hurdle when Kensington & Chelsea Council suddenly withdrew the £100 grant it had promised. The inexperienced LFS team had to scrape together every penny they could find to get the show on the road, but they made up the shortfall. On Sunday 18 September, 1966, the opening parade drew most of the local population out of their homes to watch a small steelband, a horse-drawn carriage and children dressed as characters from history and nursery rhymes. They paraded along a three-mile route, which was largely the same as we use today.

Just about everything else has changed. In 1973, carnival chairman Leslie Palmer brought in the static sound systems. It’s a decision that still irks the traditionalists, but it is hard to imagine Notting Hill without them and they have made a massive contribution to London’s status as the cutting-edge music capital of Europe.

Costumes became bigger in the 70s, so masqueraders got off the carts and on to the road. However, as designers’ ambitions took flight, some of their creations were unable to squeeze under the railway bridge. In the following decade, tempers occasionally flared as steelbands found themselves jostling for sound space with huge soca trucks. New associations were formed to represent all these competing, but mutually dependent, interests, and more harmonious relationships were painstakingly forged with police, local authorities and residents too.

And still the carnival evolves. The trend now is for professionally produced bikini-and-beads costumes that come as part of a day or weekend -long ‘package’ of drink, food and fete. Powder and chocolate bands have escaped their early Sunday morning time slot and roam the streets at all hours. Traditional homemade artistic mas (costume) seems to be in decline, and this year several old-established bands will not be coming out on Carnival Monday.

The reduction of ‘real mas’ adds to the list of the carnival’s crises: always money, sometimes stewarding, occasionally politics. Before the bank holiday, dark clouds usually seem to threaten. And sometimes they do produce rain (lots of it on the past two Carnival Mondays). But nothing stops the carnival. Just as in 1966, Notting Hill adapts and survives, against all the odds. From such adversity comes amazing creativity, which is why it continues to fascinate and infuriate, stimulate and innovate – in music, in mas (and fashion), in food, business and culture.

The media call it “Europe’s biggest street party”. It is, of course, nothing of the sort; it’s way more important than that. Notting Hill Carnival has helped to define London’s identity and to reshape its culture. And let’s not forget, it’s still young compared with Trinidad, Rio, New Orleans and many European carnivals. So these are still early years in London’s carnival story.

How should we celebrate Notting Hill Carnival’s 50 years? Just be there. And if you’ve a glass in your hand, raise a toast to our youthful carnival’s Golden Jubilee.

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Soca News
February 2017

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