My first home in London was in Westbourne Grove, not directly in the area of the carnival proper but close enough to be aware of it. It was a marvellous event, colourful, lively, fun and a pleasure to attend. I went more than once, even taking my mother, and never felt the slightest shiver of fear. I was sensible. I didn’t take a handbag and attended only in the daylight hours, knowing that when the rum began to flow, things could get a bit too lively for a girl on her own, though many of my friends partied on in reasonable safety until well into the night. Local shops stocked up, knowing that this would be the most profitable weekend of the year. Pubs, bars and restaurants brought in extra staff to cope with the demand. The local library ran fliers for the events and played tapes of the steel bands as part of their celebration of the warm Caribbean culture. Everybody looked forward to it with excited anticipation. It was a real event!
On Saturday, August the 27th 2016, we popped across to Portobello Market to buy some fresh vegetables, especially a frisée lettuce so I could make a Salade Foie de Volailles on Sunday evening. As we drew closer to Portobello, I began to wonder if I was in the same city that I had left on the other side of the Park. Shops and houses hid behind hardboard barricades. Crowd control fencing lined not only the procession routes but was wedged firmly across gateways and entrances. Sainsbury’s on Portobello itself reminded me of shopping in Beirut during Lebanon’s war. The entire shop frontage was boarded, the door narrowed to restrict the flow of people into it. Inside the lights were dimmed and the store was closing at 4pm, not to re-open until Tuesday morning. Many businesses had closed on Friday evening and only a fraction of the usual Saturday morning market stalls were in operation. Though nothing had started, Portobello and many of the streets around resembled a conflict zone and I wouldn’t have been surprised to see the occasional tank or gun emplacement.
Seven stabbings on the day of the children’s carnival, I read on the Sunday night news. Seven thousand police drafted in to maintain order, I heard. By Monday night 1000 people had received medical treatment, 450 had been arrested for violence and drug-related offences and a lorry-load of knives, machetes, axes and other vicious weapons had been removed from the hands and pockets of the revellers. The area was awash with crime of every kind
This wasn’t the carnival I had known. The original impetus for the carnival, The Notting Hill Riots, had been designed to provide a focal point to a society alienated by colour prejudice, to introduce a distrustful nation to the delights of the Caribbean culture and to show the world that Notting Hill in all its ethnic variation, wasn’t dangerous. By and large, it succeeded in its aims. Not anymore! Notting Hill, now one of the wealthiest residential areas in London, becomes one of its most dangerous for two days every year. Local residents, businesses, caterers, pubs and restaurants batten down the hatches, hope nothing to bad will happen and mostly leave the area for the weekend. For me, it is a tragic shame, a wasted opportunity to celebrate the diversity of our society, and one which I now believe should perhaps cease to be.