Former London Assembly Member Damian Hockney has family connections in the Caribbean and just returned to the UK from “jumping” in Cropover, the Barbados equivalent of Carnival.
He has long opposed those who try to meddle with the Notting Hill Carnival, and hopes that the new Mayor will avoid the temptations that the former Mayor gave in to. Don’t mess with this event, Boris, and take a lesson from the recent “route change” in Barbados.
You really either get Carnival or you don’t. There’s no cliche supporter or opponent. That probably applies even more in the traditional home of Carnival than in countries like the UK, but it remains a source of wide enjoyment for people here – it defies even the age and race categories and a million people might attend this weekend. But there are plenty of people who want to “improve” public events like this, and they almost always end up killing the spirit and falling foul to the law of unintended consequences.
I have sat on committees and listened to people in public life with reasonable intentions talking about “route change” for the Notting Hill Carnival, or trying to make the event static in a park. I saw the last Mayor make the colossal and expensive mistake of setting up what was effectively a rival event in the park (Caribbean Showcase). And also develop plans for “route change” in his first period of office. And above all, there is the constant nit-picking about aspects of the event which simply need compromise, face to face communication and a light hand rather than endless argument, pursed lips and ill feeling.
The first and most crucial thing that tidy minds cannot grasp is that Carnivals are practically all grassroots led events and not under some powerful over-arching controller who can tell people “do this, do that”. Trinidad is riotously and gloriously so, while the Barbados Kadooment Day in particular is more staged and ordered to a route but still grassroots. And Notting Hill is very similar because the limited companies set up do not actually run and own the whole show.
When you look at all those who try to alter these events, the bottom line is control. At every level of government there is a desire to control and own – to say that “you are doing this because we permit you”. But that’s not how events like Notting Hill Carnival work. Not at all. The last Mayor gave an impression that he was not happy to see a major event running successfully in London which was not branded “Mayor of LondON” all over it. That impression may be incorrect, but the attempts to use the policing excuse to amend routes or use the park more, the establishment of a ‘rival’ park based event, all gave a feeling of ill will between the city authority and Carnival organisers. Officially there was no problem, but speak to anyone involved at ground level and you got no response that would pass the censor. The local authority (it’s mostly in Kensington & Chelsea) is actually very understanding – some good people there try to get to grips with the issues which can profoundly affect individuals who live on the route, even if they might seem small scale, and the borough handles the noise and access issues well but keeps a light touch. There is a good relationship between most aspects of Carnival and K&C.
I was Link Member for the Metropolitan Police Authority and K&C for four years, and there is no doubt in my cynical and not easily impressed mind that the policing of the event is first class, even when officers suddenly have to cope with those last day/last night/end-of-the-fun flashpoints which mark a lot of major events. All such major events will feature issues of public order. The answer of neutering those events simply potentially creates more (and worse) public order issues and the policing response which has developed so outstandingly acknowledges the subtleties of an event like Carnival.
PRINCE CHARLES SUPPORT
One of the reasons for such ill feeling in the 1970s period of Carnival was that officialdom tried to stop, prevent, control and then attempted to shove it into a box with attempts to herd it into a stadium (no doubt with audience politely clapping and all going home at 9pm…”what simply marvellous fun”). Those of us who could see why things were going wrong at that time did receive a lifeline when the Prince of Wales made such a strong statement of support and understanding against an almost universal wall of hostility – God Bless him for his supportive stand on this, it made an enormous difference. It started the process of acceptance and understanding of the nature of Carnival. And allowed it to develop into something which brings money and joy to the area.
If you try to change the route unduly, then there is a huge chance that parts of the Carnival will continue to use old routes informally, even if just for brams, fetes, parties or whatever. Policing is made more, not less, problematic by unpopular and officially-driven changes which do not manage to involve all the competing interests in a big Carnival. A few weeks ago when I was in Barbados for the traditional Kadooment weekend, officialdom changed the planning of the big day with bands taking different routes to ensure they all met at the end a lot earlier. The response of those taking part and watching was one of great dissatisfaction which could have had an impact on next year’s event. However, it is unlikely the experiment will be repeated and the authorities in Barbados have a good grasp of what can and cannot be done. They do not judge that reducing the numbers attending would be a “good thing” and they see that the grassroots nature of the event has to be acknowledged.
HEALTH & SAFETY
The danger here in the UK is that changes, however ill advised, get set in stone very easily…and justified on pursed lip ‘health and safety’ grounds, even when such an argument is patently false. Any hidden agenda to sanitise, control and turn into some grisly state festival will founder with spectacular ill-will. That way lies worse than dissatisfaction…
Establishment and media have never felt quite comfortable about Carnival, similar to the way that they feel about our recently elected Mayor, one suspects. So here’s your chance Mayor. You’ve had a bit of a strange month really. When they pitch you out of your economy seat on the way back from China, and you emerge from the cabin looking like someone who has stumbled up the embankment after a derailment, I hope you have had time to absorb a few Chinese proverbs. Careless rat chewing on a cat’s tail: beware lightning! springs to mind on this….Don’t Stop the Carnival.