London’s Notting Hill Carnival: Race, Class, and Dancing in the Rain

It’s easy to forget, with the noise and the hash cakes, that Notting Hill Carnival was created as an attempt to promote racial unity in an atmosphere of deep-seated intolerance and hatred.


The girl sitting next to you on the tube is taking pulls from a giant bottle of coca cola which, judging from the sharp smell, has been generously spiked with rum. Gripping the rail in front of you, three girls in hot pants share a can of Strong Bow, jiggle their gold-sequinned arses two inches from your face, and beat out a tinny version of some Basement Jaxx song on a pink iPhone.

Notting Hill Carnival 2014 goes down the same as it always does: rain and Red Stripe beer mix in London’s polluted black puddles; revellers with stringy wet hair pull you in to dance and grab at your camera; jerk goat is chomped and washed down with coconut water, and a man in a polythene poncho brandishes a little bag of weed (“£10, sister! You in?).

It hasn’t escaped your notice that almost every police officer is a white male, despite the fact that London is a majority (55%) ethnic minority city.

You watch one of the yellow-vested officers tell a guy in low-slung trousers to tuck his phone deeper into his pocket. Across the street, two paramedics tend to a vomit-spewing teenager, and the firefighters at North Kensington Fire Station have come out to say hello.

But it’s not all dance and laughter: men are peeing into the front gardens of multimillion pound Georgian stucco houses, rain-filled trays of half-eaten chicken wings are piled up on the kerbside, and several hundred revellers will leave without their wallet and mobile phone. Dozens will leave a few bruises richer and someone will probably get stabbed again. All the tube stations within a one mile radius have been closed to reduce stampeding, the police are using kettling to keep the crowds under control, and the loos have gone beyond the realm of disgusting.

It’s easy to forget, with the noise and the hash cakes, that the carnival was created as an attempt to promote racial unity in an atmosphere of deep-seated intolerance and hatred.

The Second World War had killed hundreds of thousands of British workers, and the government had encouraged immigration from the Commonwealth to fill the gap. Swathes of Afro-Carribean people settled in the UK, only to find that the “indigenous” people were hostile to their presence. Blacks were denied housing and access to some pubs and churches, trade unions refused to help them, and they were frequently the focus of racially-motivated violence. The police were institutionally racist and black victims would rarely get justice (with the Met admitting this in 1998 in the fallout from the botched Stephen Lawrence Murder Case).

How much have things changed since the first carnival in 1959?

A disproportionate number of ethnic minority people are killed in police custody (since 1990, 1,433 people have been killed in custody, with 0 convictions for the officers involved). Black people are up to 29x more likely to be stopped and searched  than a white person, despite arrest rates being the same for both. Black students are the most likely to be excluded from school and leave unable to read or write, and least likely to attend the top universities– and the catalogue of inequalities just goes on.

The 2011 London Riot was more than a  knee-jerk response to a (probably) racially motivated police killing, and it is also unhelpful to pin it on ASBOs succumbing to herd mentality. When we jettison our poor, doom their children to failure in our state schools and label them as benefits-scrounging chavs, why should we expect any less than an uprising?

The ravine between the rich and the poor in the UK is as large as it was a century ago. Our inequality is now worse than it is in India and Ethiopia to put that into context- and our cabinet of millionaires is using the demonisation of the Muslim community (Trojan Horse? Jihadi John? Ban the Burka?) as a distraction for our social and economic troubles. At Nottinghill Carnival’s inception, it was the black immigrant community who were being attacked and villified. Now it is the Asian and EU immigrant communities who are being hoisted as folk devils.

It is no surprise that the affluent inhabitants of Kensington and Chelsea have made several energetic attempts to move the carnival to the significantly poorer racial-powder keg of South London (the epicentre of the London Riots, as well as the 1981, 1985 and 1995 Brixton Race Riots).

How many of those inhabitants are ethnic minority? How many black or asian people do you see sampling wagyu beef tatare and Dom Perignon champagne in one of the artistically sparse restaurants on Westbourne Grove? Why is Social Mobility a delusion, and why are we content to ignore the glaring inequality in our society?

The music is so loud that your ear drums are tickling. The rain is falling steadily, but everyone is having a good time nonetheless. If you decide to pop-in next year, don’t take more than £20 and keep your phone in a secure pocket.

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12 comments

  1. From what I saw on twitter it just gets crazier, a fatal stabbing, a girl getting brutally assaulted for not wanting to dance, young girls wearing next to nothing and everyone doing those stupid balloons… And also being Irish i identify with the Caribbeans and Africans being excluded as many posters would say No Blacks No Dogs No Irish.. I would have loved to go to carnival this year but it’s just too much. The real meaning is gone.

    • Ah, balloons full of laughing gas. I assumed (innocently) that it was helium until someone took a huge huff and giggled for five minutes straight.

      If you take Notting Hill Carnival as nothing more than a big fat street party, and steel yourself for the mess and claustrophobia, then I think it can be quite fun (especially with friends- I went on my own and it wasn’t quite the same).

      Oh and, it’s probably best to clear out once it gets dark.

  2. Are these your photos? You got some really great pics here. I haven’t been to Carnival for years, and i certainly wouldn’t be keen enough that I’d deal with that weather.
    This morning there was a pic in Independent of a woman who got bashed in the face after she told a man to stop groping her.

    • Thanks, these are indeed my photos!
      Most people were absolutely soaked and it was hardly warm either- I was wearing a (dry) jumper and was only just warm enough.

      I saw that photograph too. I think the vast majority of people want to have fun without hurting anyone, but you always get a few rotten apples.

  3. This is a great, accessible piece about my favourite weekend in London. To be fair, it is pretty incredible that we can rave we that many people, every year, with such little crime. I know there are opportunists there, and people who kick off, but it amazes me that this special celebration of diversity still happens. A dear friend of mine from Brooklyn, now living in England, told me a few Carnivals ago that this kind of party could never happen in the US, due to guns. So yes, it can get a bit intense, but it’s still the best party, the most amazing costumes, great food, and so so much fun!

  4. I’ll be attending the carnival for the first time this year- thanks for giving and insight into the ideas behind it!

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