Sean Bryson
Nine years ago, when I decided to publish a weekly African-Caribbean newspaper, Black Briton, I knew there was only one way to launch it. So on the weekend of the Notting Hill carnival our staff all went down to put up posters, stick balloons on floats and flood the place with leaflets. FREE Advertising Online
Free Advertising Online


The spirit of Notting Hill was lost when it started to be about cross-cultural harmony

Joseph Harker
Saturday August 26, 2000

The Guardian,1166,540909,00.html

Nine years ago, when I decided to publish a weekly African-Caribbean newspaper, Black Briton, I knew there was only one way to launch it. So on the weekend of the Notting Hill carnival our staff all went down to put up posters, stick balloons on floats and flood the place with leaflets.

At the time it was the place to make an instant connection with hundreds of thousands of our target readers. And we weren't the only ones: the Voice newspaper had launched in a similar way nine years previously; and the carnival was synonymous with the Caribbean Times, who gave away thousands of papers, had their name on numerous floats and bedecked the main music stage with huge banners.

Call it commercial if you like, but each of these was consistent with the carnival's original ethos of black people reclaiming the streets, in a demonstration of cultural pride undimmed by racial hatred and discrimination.

During the 90s, though, things changed, and the carnival of today bears little resemblance to the idealistic hopes of its pioneers. Nowadays, the corporate sponsors have moved in: Heinz Salad Cream, Bud Ice and Asda. The official carnival guide is now produced by London's Evening Standard, a paper whose constituency is 25% ethnic minority but whose editor was fiercely criticised in a TV debate two years ago for having next to no black staff.

Is it really possible to attract such sponsors yet keep the carnival spirit alive? Not only that, but what used to be definitively a "black thing" has now become, in adman's language, "a glorious celebration of integration and racial harmony".

Yes, it may be true that they are expecting 2.2m people this weekend; but that means that, even if every single Afro-Caribbean man, woman and child in the country visited for one of the days, they would still be out numbered by more than two to one.

In reality, nowadays only a small proportion of the "revellers" are black, and an event which used to be by and for African Caribbeans, now just has a small core creating the music and the atmosphere, all for the benefit of a separate audience like a music concert, but with a few more black entertainers and where the customers get it all for free.

Just like Notting Hill itself, the carnival has become "gentrified", somewhere young trendies go to show off their "cool". Where once there was the ruthless landlord Rachman exploiting the impoverished residents, today the streets are home to rows and rows of property millionaires. Where once August bank holiday was the high point of the year for the locals, today the wealthy homeowners make sure they get the hell out for the weekend.

When the first steel bands took to the streets of west London in 1964, the problems highlighted by the Notting Hill race riots and the murder of the Antiguan-born Kelso Cochrane during the late 1950s had still not been resolved. Soon Trinidadians added the flavour of their own carnival, which had itself grown since 1833 as a celebration of freedom from slavery and a satirical jibe at their former masters.

The Notting Hill festival grew in popularity, although it never fully took off until 1975 when reggae sound systems, brought in the previous year for the first time, attracted far more younger people and increased the crowds to 500,000. Shocked at these numbers, the local constabulary (pre-Scarman inquiry, pre-Macpherson report, pre any admissions of "institutional racism") swamped the area the following year, sparking riots which have stained the carnival's name ever since.

For the next decade, the event was reported in the media purely as a crime story (number of muggings, number of arrests), although it continued to grow in popularity. It was during this period that I started going, attracted by the huge mass of people, the thumping bass booming through my body, the smells of samosas, ackee-and-saltfish and herb-smoke wafting through the air, and amazed at the utter chaos of it all, with teenage boys charging through the crowds selling Red Stripe lager from their shopping trolleys.

In 1987, however, a mini-riot and the murder of a man following an argument over a Coke can sparked a media furore which threatened the carnival's very existence. In a compromise deal, restrictions were placed on the carnival route, and it was forced to shut down before dusk (when, for many people including me, the fun was only starting).

In 1988, dogged by years of underfunding and mismanagement, the carnival was on the brink of bankruptcy, its organisers forced out shortly afterwards by a new administration which effectively ended the festival's years as a "community" event.

The new group, known today as the Notting Hill CarnivalTrust, sought to maximise revenue through sponsorship. But, just as I discovered in the newspaper business, it was very hard to sell anything "black" to white people, and the event became repositioned using phrases such as "cross-cultural harmony", ","racial tolerance", ","cosmopolitan" - the die was cast.

In a way it worked: slowly, sponsors who a few years ago wouldn't be seen dead giving money to anything black began opening their wallets. This year, the carnival organisers will receive 300,000 in sponsorship, and more will go to the floats. But the donors aren't necessarily targeting black people - their audience is just as likely to be the trendy whites who now dominate the carnival crowds.

The whole thing has become a nauseating display of mutual backslapping between audience and advertisers for being so "cutting edge" - yet another example of what the black academic Tony Sewell described this week as "a commercial culture which doesn't appear to be able to market trainers, CDs or mobile phones without a black image".

All this makes me wonder whether I'd ever go to another carnival, but I would never want to take anything away from the Masqueraders, Calypsonians, steelband players, DJs and stallholders who continue to make the event such an attraction for its visitors. They keep doing what they've loved for decades and won't have their enjoyment spoiled by the New Order.

On the official carnival website there's an interview with Joanne, who's been serving up roasted corn husks for the past 25 years. 1976 was a good year, says Joanne: "There were a few riots, but I've never sold so much as I did that year." That truly is the carnival spirit.



Free Speech & Anti Political Correctness Site Map