As I stepped out of Bayswater Tube at 11am a drop of rain fell from the grey London sky. It was the first of many, heralding the start of another soggy Notting Hill Carnival. Once again, it was the kids who got the worst of it.
The dismal weather washed most of the spectators off the streets, left the food vendors gloomily surveying mounds of unsold chicken and played havoc with masqueraders’ costumes. Facepaint ran in streaks, feathers drooped in bedraggled clumps, sequins failed to sparkle.
No one could complain about being too jammed to jam on the road. Without the phone-toting, selfie-seeking hordes, there were just the kids, their accompanying adults and the hardcore of carnivalists whose response to rain, wind or hail is just to party harder.
Officially, this year’s event began at 10.30am, but even in London, Carnival Time lags some way behind British ‘Summer’ Time. The first three groups – Brazilian style bateria Timbao, the always attractive (and early-starting) Kinetica Bloco and London Skaters – reached Chepstow Road by 11.20, followed by Haze Samba who had given up the unequal struggle and wrapped their instruments in bin liners. We were treated to live music about 20 minutes later, though, when London All Stars Steelband sweetened the streets with Love is in the Air.
And that was it for more than half an hour until Hot Wax sailed in to Great Western Road with a small pac-a-macked crew of ‘Pirates of the Caribbean. With the arrival of ‘K@rrnival’ from Sunshine International Arts, the judges had something to sharpen their pencils for. Sunshine’s brightly coloured feathers, large masks on backpacks and strips of coloured cloth made a good splash of colour against the glistening tarmac.
D Riddim Tribe looked pretty in shocking pink and bright blue ‑ colours that Heritage (‘Taíno, the Indigenous Tribe of the Caribbean’) also employed on the wings of its Junior Queen costume. Green and yellow were the predominant colours of this attractive band, which was one of the few to use placards to draw attention to their king and queen. Urban Touch and Invaders (‘La Vie’) suffered from some of the worst of the rain. Invaders clearly took the view that la pluie, c’est la vie and demonstrated you could have as much fun under umbrellas as under the sun.
Flagz’s small children’s contingent (‘We Rock Soca’) had designed their own outfits, we were told, and they performed enthusiastically in distinctive purple and turquoise. Exotic Mas was big enough to boast two sections – one mostly white, the other orange – and a cute front line with white and black wings. Gemz (‘Gulliver’s Travels’) stayed on the Paddington Arts Elimu (‘Fun in Diver City’) truck as it entered Great Western Road. Apart from three stilt-walkers there was little to see – band-members seemed to be outnumbered by security people.
The ‘Beach Vibes’ on Carnival Sunday were more ‘rainy day in Blackpool’ than ‘chilling at Maracas Bay’, but La Trinity made the best of it with a cheery band of adult revellers in bright orange outfits – not to mention chutney queen Drupatee on the truck.
By 2pm, when Dynamic Sounds reached the judging point, it was time for Soca News’s reporter to head to The Tabernacle, if only to warm up. It was while liming with some members of the ABC Band that the bell rang for the 72-second Grenfell silence. Remarkably, the whole bar area became a sort of tableau, with people immobilised by the memory of this terrible – and entirely avoidable – tragedy. It was another powerful moment that demonstrated the enduring close links between Carnival and community.
Afterwards, on the Powis Square stage, Lord Eric performed the libation as Alexander D Great sang his Grenfell tribute to a pitifully small (though appreciative) audience. We hear that on Monday, the square was clogged by a vast contingent of police, who perhaps feared ACUK’s calypsonians were fomenting revolution.
The sky never brightened, but happily steelbands were at hand to lift our spirits. Reading All Steel Percussion Orchestra (RASPO), Panectar and St Michael and All Angels Steel Orchestra (SMASO) kept the musical energy flowing down Westbourne Grove at 4pm. So, too, did the Smokey Joe Roadshow, trailing a small crowd of revellers in its wake as the truck turned into Ladbroke Grove. Mahogany once again gave us a feast for the eyes, offering a beautiful coloured and intricately worked interpretation of ‘Windrush: Building Greatness’, which included clever adaptations of the London Transport symbol.
Sunshine would have been welcome here to bring out the gold in Soca Massive’s ‘The Might of Rome’; in the half-light, it was more ‘The Might Have Been…’ but no doubt they shone the following day. For those following Cocoyea’s ‘D Journey – 70 Years of Windrush’ the conditions aptly reflected the chilly welcome the Caribbean migrants received on their arrival in the UK.
By now it was 5pm and the streets began to look even more deserted as a steady stream of carnival-goers looked for somewhere to warm up and dry off. A final frustration awaited homebound revellers: with the capacious Notting Hill Gate station closed, people had to walk to the much smaller Kingsway station, which was unable to cope with the crowds TfL and the police unwisely forced on it.
And what of the stewards that we heard so much about in the weeks before Carnival? They were to be found, if at all, sitting in bus shelters, hiding under placards stacked against a wall and even crammed into a phonebox. While their ingenuity may be admired, we doubt whether it was worth the £10.20 an hour they were being paid.