Clive Martin, August 2012
If you’ve never been to Carnival, then the first thing you need to know is to never, ever call it by its full name: “The Notting Hill Carnival” (I’ve only done so in the title for something we call “search engine optimisation”). For if you call it that, you will no doubt be mistaken for an undercover police officer or an Australian, and you won’t get let in to any of the good afterparties.
The second thing you’ll need to know is that it’s actually really fucking great. You may think it’s just a glorified village fête, where the villagers are boisterous old ladies in hats, daggering cops and kids with knives who value their trainers more highly than they do your life, but while those people do turn up en masse, there’s so much more to Carnival than the cliches. I’d go as far as to say it’s pretty much the only reliably good thing on this arthritic city’s agenda now that it’s wallowing in Olympic withdrawal symptoms. It’s two colourful, government-sanctioned days off in your lifelong urban trudge of grey and perpetual misery, so it’s only right for you to go HAM.
And seeing as I’ve spent more time at Carnival than Trevor Nelson himself (apart from the year I went to Reading, which fucking sucked), I thought I’d create a little guide to London’s biggest free party.
There are only two things you should drink at Carnival: Red Stripe from a can and punch from a plastic cup. If you’re that guy who’s spent his summer engaged in a neverending CAMRA ale walk, this ain’t your party. Those massed crews of Putney middle managers you see jamming to The Best Of Toots & The Maytalsoutside pubs named after adjectives about three miles from the action? Yeah, they’re hired by the police as professional vibe-killers.
Thankfully, there are always plenty of enterprising scumbags with ice bins full of Jamaica’s favourite lager, and stalls run by old ladies and small children who sell punch that’s alcohol content ranges from eye-watering to non-existent. If you’re buying your drinks from somebody who has a license to do so, you’re letting the side down.
Unless your face is on a pinboard at Operation Trident HQ, or you manage to stumble upon the Robocop of Ladbroke Grove, Carnival is pretty soft on Class C drugs. The cops tend to turn a blind eye (and nose) to the ‘erb, but there’s always some wanker who thinks he’s shocking society to its core by smoking a joint in the face of a hapless CSPO who’s been imported from the Rhonda Valley especially for the event. The weed hasn’t been legalised, just ignored. Count your blessings and cool it with your Trenchtown delusions. As for the stronger stuff, it’s not really that kind of event. The last thing anyone needs at Carnival is an increased heartbeat and shortened temper.
My best tip is to avoid whatever Levi Roots is trying to sell you. In recent years, the man has become the Richard Branson of Carnival, trying to flog just about anything he can stick a Jamaican flag in and sing a shit song about. Stick to the family-run jerk chicken stalls for your gut lining. The risk of contracting norovirus is half the fun. The more adventurous of you may like to chow down on the mythical curried goat. While the flavours are pretty great, the meat is just as tough as you’d imagine from an animal that was probably chewing weeds in an Albanian reservoir up until a few months ago.
AKA the front line. Located just off All Saints Road, Rampage is inarguably the most notorious stage at Carnival. And like everything else that used to be fun, the police have managed to work out how to control it. They even went as far as preventing it from happening last summer. (As you might remember, things got a little weird back then.) But it’s back this year, which means you’ll see more hi-vis jackets than a lollypop lady fetish party, spotter cameras and a few private security Slavs who look like they’d quite easily take a freight liner in a fist fight.
To be fair, this is probably because there’s always, always trouble at Rampage. It exists as a kind of visceral participant theatre – the fights and threats being just as much a part of the scheduled entertainment as the live Donaeo PA. The time when the DJ played “Pow! Forward” and the crowd managed to snap trees in half still looms large in Carnival folklore. And for this reason, you’ve got to go. Just try to remember whose girlfriend you’re dutty wining with.
The above photo sums up everything that the upper middle class get wrong about Carnival. When William Hague was looking to connect with his “urban” voters, he sadly chose not to hood up and stab Charles Clarke in the arse on Acklam Road, but don a baseball cap (it’d been stolen by this point) and drink something out of a coconut. Pretty much the epitome of street, I’m sure you’ll agree.
Because of its mostly affluent locale, Carnival is always full of one-time Booker Prize winners and Foreign Secretaries trying not to enjoy the homophobic ragga and checking if their house has been broken into. They usually cling to the relative safety of Portobello Road, which is lined with stalls where you can buy overpriced drinks inside the shells of the things they’re made from. And BOY, do these people love that. They treat Carnival like a colonial garden party, making patronising remarks about the “colourful” crowd and enquiring about jerk chicken recipes they’ll never swap for Sunday roast.
AKA Trustafarian Zion. Gaz’s Rockin’ Blues is just about the lamest thing at Carnival. Don’t check for Photoshopping, that really is those icons of jam-rock, Razorlight, playing a “secret dub set”. Gaz’s is a place where West London private school girls in denim shorts and men who think Blake Fielder-Civil is cool can dance on someone who knows Mick Jones’ rooftop in between coke hits.
The music that they play invariably has nothing to do with Carnival, and all to do with white guilt, like a Boots’ advert idea of Caribbean music, “Get Up Stand Up” and “cool 50s stuff”. There’ll probably be a secret show from a celebrity’s sprog who’s signed a major label deal (this year also features a 12-year-old DJ who was discovered at Lily Allen’s wedding) and it’s always a total roadblock of cunts. Sadly, it’s also where all the best-looking people are and your best to chance to pull, unless you’ve got a 12-pack and a street name. Thus, it exists as a necessary evil for people like me.
It’s an unfortunate truth, but there’s invariably some sort of trouble at Carnival. The above photo was taken last year, shortly after a stabbing on Ladbroke Grove, and last year was supposedly the quietest year ever. The horror stories will have you believing that Carnival is an innately violent event, as if it was some cauldron of angry youts hooded up, all ready to bring their postcode wars to a neutral ground. But it really isn’t. Of course, there are bad elements, but it’s easy to forget that somebody got beaten to death at an afterparty for V last week.
Really, it’s no more dangerous than most other festivals (well, maybe a bit more dangerous than WOMAD) and the sheer number of people dictates that something has to go wrong.
Unless you’re accompanying small children or you’re a BBC London reporter, the parade part of Carnival should serve as an indicator of where you don’t want to be. Yes, there are bright colours, steel drums and a parade of bodies that look like they’ve been copied from Sir Mix-a-Lot’s Recent Documents folder, but it’s just for the families, really. If Carnival is a Theme Park, then this is the Tea Cup Ride near the entrance.You’re a grown up and you want to go to Rameses Revenge. Stick to the backstreets, where the drums come with basslines and the daggering is done with a little more conviction.
The man pictured above is called “Tiny Iron” and he’s the holder of some dubious distinctions, including a claim to possess “The World’s Biggest Biceps”. He also apparently had a bit-part in ignored BBC3 “urban comedy” Trexx & Flipside and an appearance in a Danny Dyer film. Why is he featured in this guide, you ask? Because he is always, always at Carnival. Honestly, you can’t move for diminutive white chicks taking photos of themselves next to his hulking frame.
Tiny Iron is typical of a kind of person who you only ever see at Carnival – dudes in wizard hats, guys who match their vests to their cars, people who claim to be kings, etc. Carnival has more weirdos per metre than any hippy festival you can name.
It’s the classic Carnival cliche, but you probably will see a dancing rozzer. At this stage, it’s probably part of their briefing, some City Hall policy about community integration. They’d much rather be having two Budweisers at a FIFA tournament, or whatever it is that cops do. I say, if one of these pervs tries to wine ‘pon you, just look him in the eye and say: “Fuck off pig, this party is not for you.” Then casually start listing incidents of police injustice at him. The Met are on best behaviour right now, and they’ll back off at the first use of the word “brutality”. Sure, Carnival needs good policing, but it doesn’t mean they deserve to have fun. There’s precious little else on this bitter Earth that’s worse than coppers trying to be quirky.
As the night begins to draw in, you’ve one of two choices: Go hard, or go home. Either you know somebody who’s having a party, or you start stockpiling missiles. Because the police do not fuck about after sundown. They’ve got FIFA tournaments to go to.
THIS PIECE FIRST APPEARED ON VICE, AUGUST 2012