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"Use every man after his desert, and who should 'scape whipping?"

Monday, 26 August 2013

Notting Hill, the Carnival, and the weird transitions between London postcodes

Notting Hill Carnival 2013:
I spent most of last two days in London W10 and W11. Yes, am an addict, and my drug is the Notting Hill Carnival. Been there most years since 1977, sometimes just for a few snatched hours, sometimes - as this time - for the duration. Sometimes with friends or children, but more often alone.

This year was again wonderful, the weather was perfect, the crowds were huge but mainly amiable, the masqueraders seemed even more beautiful and talented than ever, the sounds were sharper, the scents sweeter, and the old medicine seemed to be as strong as ever it was.

God knows, I am 60, I could never dance in public and I am worse now than ever I was. I don't even get drunk or stoned, particularly,  but I do get very high on the atmosphere, on the sound and physical experience. Seven hours walking, two tins of Red Stripe and a pack of peanuts and ready for more.

The crowds today were by no means the biggest ever, and yet every so often you'd get into those human funnels where you realised you had no choice, you were no longer a free individual, you had to move according to the crowd, to get through to the next space.

During these progressions you make brief eye contact - and sometimes involuntary contact of large areas of other parts of the body - with dozens of strangers. Some are trying to dance, some are trying to move on, some are trying to sell you something, some are out of their heads with joy, some look frightened, some are threatening and (if you are lucky) elbowing you out of the way.

Typically, if the music's good, at the end of the tunnel I turn round and go back through it again, just for the hellish joy of it.

Try doing this in All Saint's Road at 4pm on the Monday of Carnival. Or on Ledbury Road, or around Gaz's on Talbot Road.

The route takes you back time and again to the Carnival procession, and each time you see to meet the same big Trinidadian floats with the pounding soca, the head-dresses and flour and chocolate-smearing and pigment-hurling and the ropes and the grinding of bodies against bodies and the machine-gunning electronic sounds, the MCs' endless goadings and geeings-up, their stern reproaches to a crowd which isn't responding enough, kicking up the dust.

And already it's 7.30pm and there's still a line of  six or so big floats lined up down Westbourne Grove, things seems to be cranked up beyond maximum for these last precious minutes of Carnival. We all know there's nothing to look forward to from tomorrow except nine months of winter.

Light fades, I'm off on a bike through the orderly streets of Bayswater, prim Moscow Road etc,  and through into the park, down by the Serpentine and suddenly gliding into a world which retrieves memories of Istanbul and Dubai, a Middle Eastern evening, families out wandering, threes of women in full black burka, the children let loose,  cycling, scooting, skating around their parents and big brothers and sisters, the families crowding out the cafĂ© and restaurant, all moving, slowly in the same formations you might see in Beirut or Cairo or Riyadh, I suppose, I imagine.

It works tonight in that magic August twilight. The air still warm enough, and lightly scented from the rose gardens. It is still wonderfully balmy in the dark green dusk.  Next week it may well be gone, it will just be a London autumn evening. Cycling on, down across Knightsbridge, the streets choked with the huge parked Range Rovers and Bentleys and Mercs and so on of these families, often showing Gulf state number plates.

Two minutes later passing the bus queues around Sloane Square, lots of Carnival leavers finding their own routes back south of the river, the strange meetings of these different worlds within  two or three postcodes, from the Carnival heartland of W10 through the mixed ethnic flavours and dead poshness of W2,  W11, SW7,  SW3....then over the bridge into the  homeland horror of SW4.

Stranger still is the way I assume I know which person is the child of super-wealthy Gulf state family, in London for the summer, and which is the teenager trekking back home to some council flat in Streatham after another great Carnival.

On this August Bank Holiday evening, the scented groves of Hyde Park work some magic, and I am completely subject to its spell.

I know nothing but I once again feel like Jah Wobble's last lines on that Invaders of the Heart album, Take Me to God:  ".....I Love Everyone..... L-o-o-o-v-e-a-a-a-h-h-h!!!!"

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