If one subject dominates our consciousness all year round, it's Notting Hill Carnival, in all its frustrating, fascinating, turbulent complexity. Planted almost by chance in the mid-1960s in the then-shabby streets of West London, home to immigrants who could not afford to live anywhere else, it took root and grew at an astonishing rate into Europe's largest street festival.
Despite the efforts of friend and foe alike to claim it, abuse it, uproot it or chop it down, this hardy annual has not just survived but thrived, and thrown off dozens of shoots that have grown into successful Caribbean-style carnivals across Britain and Europe. Notting Hill Carnival is a powerful creative and cultural force that has nurtured the talents and careers of hundreds of artists, designers, musicians, even a few politicians, and has enthralled and inspired millions of ‘ordinary’ people over its 40-something years. For the London economy - though sadly not for carnivalists - carnival has borne highly profitable fruit year after year.
We have heard rumours that other events take place over the last weekend in August, but frankly we don’t believe them. We might campaign for the August Bank Holiday to be renamed the Carnival Holiday, for there is only one place to be on Sunday 26th and Monday 27th August - the streets of Notting Hill.
Sadly, a curfew was imposed three years ago, and no doubt that will remain in place this year. A more benign recent change was a small alteration in the route, where the ‘dog leg’ in the south west corner, which involved three turns, with now only have one - making it a strict right angle. So 70 or so mas bands and a dozen steelbands will be (exceedingly slowly) circulating clockwise along Great Western, Westbourne Park and Chepstow Roads, Westbourne Grove and Ladbroke Grove. The judging-point, VIP seating and press enclosure will be at the bottom of Great Western Road.
As usual, Sunday is Children’s Day, and although many bands appear on both days, several come out only on one. The idea that Sunday is appreciably quieter no longer holds good, although it does tend to wind down earlier. The first band generally crosses the judging-point just after midday, and recently the point has been shut down at 6.30pm, so any band arriving after that time has not been judged. There is no running order for carnival, but you can expect the samba bands and Masquerade 2000 to be among the first to pass the judges.
The best way to see carnival, of course, is not crushed amongst a million sweaty revellers behind a barrier, but enjoying the freedom of the road and the camaraderie of a carnival band. It’s not too late to get a costume or a T-shirt. Just call one of the bands, go round to the mas camp, and very soon you’ll see why making and playing mas is a unique and addictive experience. This includes all those not willing to wear a skimpy costume, and men - you don’t have to be covered in sequins to play mas (though that’s ok, too)!