The fire that engulfed the 24 storeys of Grenfell Tower on 14 June has left an estimated 79 people dead and hundreds more traumatised, mourning and homeless.
In the aftermath, we have seen two types of response to the tragedy. On the one hand, there has been an outpouring of open-hearted, practical support from the local community and other people from around the UK. Their generosity, love and unity in the face of disaster have been humbling and inspiring.
On the other hand, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea has shown a grotesque lack of empathy and has repeatedly failed to act, failed to organise and failed to take responsibility for its failures. Columnist Simon Jenkins, writing in The Evening Standard, aptly described RBKC as functioning more like a residents’ association than a proper borough administration. It’s an association, moreover, that represents only one type of resident – the kind who lives in a multi-million-pound white-pillared mausoleum in the south of the borough.
But how should Carnival – organisers, mas bands, steelbands, DJs, sound systems, individual carnivalists – respond to the disaster? The blackened tower rises like a monstrous tombstone over the western side of the Carnival Zone, so it can hardly be ignored.
Dotun Adebayo addressed the issue on his BBC Radio London show on Sunday evening. Taking part were former NHC Trust CEO Claire Holder, calypsonian Alexander D Great, pannist Debra Romain, and youth worker Dianne Larrington.
Adebayo asked: “Should Notting Hill Carnival go ahead at all or should it be cancelled out of respect?” Holder was quick off the mark: “No way Carnival should be cancelled.” NHC is a “festival of joy and a festival of unity” – it’s precisely what the community needs at this time and symbolises that cohesion we saw at Grenfell Tower.
Perhaps cancellation would send a powerful message to those in authority, Adebayo suggested. Larrington felt this would play into RBKC’s hands: “Cancelling it would give the council the excuse to never let it be reinstated again.” Holder agreed: “If you don’t have Carnival this year they’re going to find some reason not hold it next year, and the year after…” She pointed out that near where Grenfell Tower now stands the Notting Hill Race Riots took place in September 1958 – an event that prompted Claudia Jones to hold the first of the indoor carnivals four months later.
Alexander – who has performed a sensitive and moving calypso about the tragedy – said that the Muslim community would hardly cancel Eid because of the fire. The Americans did not cancel Thanksgiving after the 11 September terrorist attacks. And in New Orleans, people parade with music at a funeral – just as they did in Ladbroke Grove for the recent funeral of Darcus Howe, Holder pointed out.
Debra Romain reminded listeners that many local people, including children, have been preparing all year for the celebrations on August bank holiday. It would be unfair to punish the community for something that was not its fault, said Larrington. All the participants agreed that they, as carnivalists, felt very much part of that community. Hilary, a caller from Ewell, in Surrey, commended them: “They’ve shown what a great spirit they’ve got. They would come out stronger by holding Carnival.”
There was a feeling that the media painted an inaccurate picture of Carnival as two days of debauchery. The media prefer to report crimes not the positives, Romain protested, while Larrington said: “They don’t report on the people working together with all cultures, working on the costumes, the children, the fantastic unity.” Adebayo seemed to agree, saying he wanted to “make sure the narrative is controlled by Carnival, and not twisted”, but warned that press photographers would all be taking pictures of carnivalists parading with Grenfell Tower in the background.
All agreed that Carnival this year needs to be very aware of, and sensitive to, the feelings of local people. People who attend should be encouraged to show more respect, while active participants such as mas bands could do more outreach work at schools, so youngsters understand the real meaning of Carnival.
Various suggestions were made for showing support and solidarity, such as encouraging masqueraders to wear a black armband or a black feather; collecting money for the firefighters; or extending the event to include a tribute to the victims of the fire.
The final suggestion, from Romain, was the boldest: “If everyone switched off all the sounds at the same time it would be powerful.” Holder summed up the general feeling: “It’s impractical… but if it can be done, let’s do it.”
In the meantime, Romain revealed, there is to be a meeting between the Carnival arenas and local residents on 11 July. The venue has not been announced, but the focus is respect and understanding. The message she relayed ended: “We will show our love and unity in true Carnival style.”
- The full broadcast, which is well worth listening to, is available until 25 July at www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p05591mh#play.