Tag Archives: carnival

Custom transcribed: Notting Hill Carnival

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What a custom! Vibrant, splendid, colourful, joyful, loud, proud and every superlative you can think of. A custom which is British terms is 50 years young (or so). A custom which draws at least a million visitors, something that many other customs would love to achieve. A custom which despite its firm fixture in London’s event calendar is one which has had a turbulent history and continues to attract problems, although considering nearly a million people attend statistically this is likely.

Notting like it

Arriving just before the 10 o’clock starting point the first observation is that it does not look like it will start on time! Indeed, the large numbers of police I was expecting them to form a procession – a police procession now there’s a thought- soon though one can hear the pounding sounds and a swirl of colour – mainly the bright green of the stewards – a mix a wash of gold.

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Soon the Carnival begins with this first procession, dancers wrapped in gold and holding aloft huge hands with 50. Celebrating 50 years (young) of the carnival, although this was also celebrated in 2014 and 2015. Then there was a big gap – which seemed like 30 mins – the next float. This is the first of 60 floats and countless colourful costumes, it will be a long day if you wait for it all to pass by. Many of course eschew the parade and stick to the 38 static sound systems dotted around this small enclave of west London.

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These floats are not like your usual float crammed full of themed participants, there would not be room, much of it is full of booming bass and tweaking speakers. Surrounding each float are some of the most wonderful costumes to be seen outside of the Rio Carnival. Massive tableaux of faces, feathers, bright vibrant colours. Samba dancers brightly adorned in their feathers and revealing costumes weave in and out dancing to whip up the crowds. Sounds of calypso, soca and reggae boom from the floats and bounce around the street.

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Notting allowed!

Sadly for what should be a great outburst of sounds and sights, its origins have been fraught. Born as a response of racial tension and the need for a unifying social identity. Although its official ‘birth date’ is 1964 this event was a descendent of a rather less impacting event, in was January and indoors, a Caribbean Carnival on the 30th January 1959 in Pancras Town Hall. This fused with a more hippie inspired street party organised in the mid-1960s to encourage cultural unity. This street party consisted of a procession of neighbourhood kids and a steel band. Roll forward to 1970 and it was described as:

the Notting Hill Carnival consisted of 2 music bands, the Russell Henderson Combo and Selwyn Baptiste’s Notting Hill Adventure Playground Steelband and 500 dancing spectators”

By the early 70s greater sponsorship thanks to an enterprising local teacher by the name of Leslie Palmer, resulted in an increase in steel bands, reggae groups and sound systems. The event begun to develop into two strands, a masquerade procession with floats and the establishment of stationary islands with their own sound systems.

From what clearly appears to be a very valid celebration of Caribbean culture was not popular with the authorities to begin with. The riots did not help in 1976 when disaffected youths battled with police and as a result for a long period of time this became the unfortunate media representation of the colourful event. However, such action could have been a result of heavy handed approaches of the police and the constant attempt to ban the event. It would not be until 1987 that the Carnival was officially allowed to take place. This has not prevented trouble (five deaths in the years since) or the need for high levels of police, but it has certainly reduced and fallen away to the fringes. Troubles and occasional serious crimes still arise from time to time – with around a million people swarming the narrow streets it’s not difficult to understand why something could boil over – but the media is much more favourable and is seen by the authorities as a celebration of London’s multicultural society.

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In a way, the Notting Hill Carnival typifies how customs become hybridised. Carnival is of course a Roman Catholic tradition brought over from France and Spanish colonisation. Through in the displaced masses of the African slave and brought back to Europe to be enjoyed by all races. All human life is here, of all ages, sexes and races. Despite the problems which create a sometimes poor reputation I would recommend the sounds and sights (and smells…of diesel and other intoxicants) to anyone. If you want to miss the crowds get there for the start and near the start and you’ll find it a pleasant experience. Go on experience it..

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Custom survived: Hythe Venetian Festival

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Fete worse than….

There can be nothing more pleasant than sitting on the bank of a river and watch a carnival parade especially if it’s on the water! Every two years, the town of Hythe celebrates the fact that it never needed its military canal with a Venetian Fete, made up of a tableaux of 40 decorated floats in various themes, which gently drift pass to one’s amusement.
That’s not cricket!

I believe a local legend associates the original fete back in the early 1800s to not needing their Royal Military canal, a great engineering feat constructed to fight Napoleon. Although there is tradition that a carnival of sorts was enacted in the mid 1800s it was not until 1860s or 1890 according to some accounts, that a parade of illuminated boats was organised by a local worthy Edward Palmer. The name Venetian was what he used to report the event and despite it being quite unlike a real Venetian festival, the name stuck and even more bizarrely being connected with the town’s cricket week! This odd idea was a good one, because although three fetes were held in 1891, local people were reluctant to so after a small interregnum, it was established in 1894 as a way to raise funds for the first Hythe Cricket Week.

Not really a 100 years?

I’ve been a bit cheeky here, because there is not a complete custom from 1890 until today, however as the two main gaps were WW1 and WW2, I think they are respectable times to have had a break. Furthermore, the years over which the custom has been kept up add up to 100 years anyhow!

Nearly met its fete?

Soon after the First World War, the lack of labour and overgrown nature of the canal meant it did not restart until 1927 despite the Cricket week starting in 1919 and then even then its survival was ropey! However, despite being a colourful activity in times of blandness perhaps, local opposition to the fete was great in the late 1920s…the canal being closed for eight hours was not popular with local people! Yet it came back with vigour in 1934 and gained considerable support and continued with a gap in WW2 until today.

The effort made today is considerable especially as it is all done for charity and by volunteers. Local organisations, schools and groups make great efforts to produce a colourful and amusing display. In late 1990s when I visited some of the highlights were a floating castle with knights, two spitfires, a Viking longboat, a submarine, some rock and rollers dancing on the water and a sinking Titanic…remarkably all based around a simple raft at the most and yet all looked different! Recent tableaux have been even more remarkable with a Noah’s ark, street on water and robots. Many of these displays are charming and quaint during the day…but come to life at night dazzling brightly in the balmy summer evening with their flashing and glowing lights, as well as the potential unsafe nature of some of their dancing in the dark on the water. It may not be anything like what they do in Venice and with local charm of the amateur that’s a good thing, Kent does it much better.

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