A glimpse behind the Notting Hill Carnival

Marianne Stenger
24th August 2020

Celebrated each year over the August bank holiday weekend, the Notting Hill Carnival has evolved from a small community event into one of the largest annual arts events in the world. It now attracts more than one million visitors annually, making it second only to Rio de Janeiro’s carnival in size.

Due to the coronavirus outbreak, 2020 will be the first time in the carnival’s 54-year history that it will not go ahead as planned. Even so, organisers are determined to keep the spirit of the carnival alive and have put together a virtual incarnation of the event. Their aim is to bring Carnival to a wider audience while also providing more of an insight into the history behind the costumes, the steel pan and the artists.

At the heart of it, the Notting Hill Carnival is a celebration of history, culture and diversity, and as a Notting Hill-based business, the Bob Books team feels a strong connection to it. Even though we won’t be able to physically gather together to celebrate this year, we wanted to take this opportunity to reflect on the deeper meaning behind the Carnival and also share some insights from a few of the people who have been a part of it over the years.

A brief history of the Notting Hill Carnival

These days, Notting Hill is known as an affluent and fashionable district of West London, but it wasn’t always this way. In the 1950s, Notting Hill was an impoverished area with housing shortages and high crime rates.

It was home to the white working class, but also to a community of Afro-Caribbean immigrants who arrived after the 1948 British Nationality Act. Racial prejudice and competition over resources led to tensions between the white working class and Afro-Caribbean residents.

In the summer of 1958, these tensions culminated in the Notting Hill race riots. It was a week of civil unrest during which gangs of white youths moved through the neighbourhood targeting the homes of Afro-Caribbean residents with homemade bombs and attacking passers-by. Although the riots ended and over 140 people were arrested, race relations remained strained.

The following year, in an effort to unite the local community and give Afro-Caribbean residents an opportunity to celebrate their culture, a Trinidadian journalist and activist named Claudia Jones organised London’s first indoor “Caribbean Carnival.” The event took place indoors in London’s St Pancras Townhall and was televised by the BBC.

Seven years later in 1966, community activist Rhaune Laslett organised the first outdoor festival in Notting Hill. Much like Claudia Jones, her aim was to celebrate diversity and bring people together. Originally called the ‘Notting Hill Fayre and Pageant,’ the festival featured a parade with a variety of performers to reflect the cultural diversity of the area.

In the 1970s, a Carnival Development Committee was formed and the annual event was gradually expanded. The groups participating in the parade were also diversified with the inclusion of more steel bands, reggae groups, and traditional mas bands, which are central to Caribbean carnival parades.

The Notting Hill Carnival today  

Today, the Notting Hill Carnival is a mainstay of British culture and in 2006 it was officially voted onto a list of British icons. It’s a celebration of summer, music, dance and food, but most importantly, the carnival continues to serve its original purpose of bringing people from different cultures and races together.

Notting Hill Carnival CEO Matthew Phillip spoke about the role Carnival plays in promoting greater tolerance in society in a recent interview with The Red Bulletin.

“Recent events have shown that actually we haven’t come as far as we would hope,” he said. “Racism today is much more subtle; it’s behind closed doors, it’s systemic. Carnival is a reminder that all this diversity can exist in the same space and that we can be at ease with each other; that it is possible for people to be together and unite, no matter the colour of their skin.”

For DJ Martin Jay who has been performing at the Notting Hill Carnival since 1991, carnival is a way of life. “What I love most about the Notting Hill Carnival is the enjoyment that it brings to people of many different cultures and races,” he says. “It’s something that I think about and plan all year round together with the team. The August Bank Holiday weekend is the almighty crescendo, but Carnival to me is a way of life.”

These days, Martin has his own carnival mas band, Funatik Mas Band, and has made a name for himself as the Prince of UK Soca. He says his favourite Carnival memory is from 1995.

“It was the year I was a DJ for the very well-known and respected Cocoyea Mas Band. The day after carnival, the Evening Standard newspaper used to publish photos from the event, and one of the pictures they used shows one of my proudest moments as a Soca DJ. It was captured so beautifully.”

West London resident Michael Keane has been attending the Notting Hill Carnival since he was a teenager and has fond memories of the August bank holiday weekend.

“I grew up in West London in the 70s and 80s. As a kid, my parents never took me to the Carnival, but I was kind of aware of it. I faintly remember watching the crowds walk up and down Westbourne Park Road when we lived on the top floor in a council flat on Brunel Estate,” he says.

“Later as a teenager, Carnival was always so much fun, if a little edgy. I remember sitting on the curb on All Saints Road with my best mate, listening to the tunes, watching the people, sometimes attempting to dance. When it would all get too busy, we’d do our best to escape to Queensway where it was a bit quieter to enjoy a pint. It was always so difficult getting out of the Carnival; caught in immense crowds and one-way systems, police blocking roads, people pushing. That was part of the fun though I think.

In 2001, I went to the Carnival and ended up meeting the girl I would marry. We met at a friend’s party in Sausage & Mash Café on Portobello Road. She was beautiful. Still is. Funny and calm; a great soul. We moved into a flat together above the Fish Pond chip shop on Portobello. It was such a perfect flat for Carnival weekends. We used to have friends come around and watch the crowds go by.

We got married in 2005, and now have two kids. We’ve been taking them to the Carnival since they were in prams. We take a strategic route from Maida Vale, where we now live, to Gaz’s Rockin’ Blues off Powis Square. It's a slightly more conservative version of Carnival, but we still have lots of fun with a few Red Stripes and a box of jerk chicken.” 

Photos © David Kwaw Mensah

Photographing the Notting Hill Carnival

Portrait photographer David Kwaw Mensah has been photographing the Notting Hill Carnival for over ten years and plans to publish and exhibit his best images alongside some poems. “I want people to see that the Notting Hill Carnival is a great place to escape and find joy,” he says.

“I came to photography as someone who had spent his childhood dreaming in the language of cinema. I devoured films as a child. I studied film and later I wrote film reviews for a few publications. Occasionally I also helped some of my filmmaker friends write scripts.

But the more I wrote about the moving image, the more I came to find that there was something magical about freezing moments in time. I always liked the idea that I could write poetry with light instead of words, and I’ve come to see myself as a photo-poet of sorts.

In terms of style, there’s a subtle conflict in my work, because on one hand I’m a photo-realist. I try to capture things as they are without too much editing. On the other hand, I try to perpetuate the idea that the true meaning of life is finding joy and that happiness is the true reality. So my images are full of smiling faces and bright colours. Often there’s the juxtaposition of people and plants. Flowers and faces. Reality can be a romantic phenomenon in itself. I'm not only observing the world but perpetually falling in love with it. That's the idea.” 

David first started photographing the carnival with a smartphone about twelve years ago. For him, it felt like a great convergence of his past and future; a chance to bump into and party with old friends, and an opportunity to make ones.

“My friends and I always had such good times and my photos became a way of archiving these fond memories. Years later when I started taking photos professionally and sharing them on social media, I found it was similar. These were fond memories not just for my own group of friends, but for a whole plethora of people and perhaps for a whole society. I realised how emotionally charged and culturally valuable ten years of carnival might be to Britain as a whole, and what a fantastic document might it be for humans in the far future to observe throughout the world.”

David says his favourite part about photographing carnival is recognising and creating stories through his lens.

Photos © David Kwaw Mensah

“For the first few hours it always seems so chaotic. It's just this mad frenzy of people. But then you start to notice symmetry in all the colours. You see stories unfolding in the events going on around you. Groups of friends and couples. You make up miniature stories about the relationships between people. You start to see that people’s faces tell stories. It is, ultimately, the most intense street photography experience you're likely to have. Thousands of faces. Thousands of stories. It's like a cosmic tapestry unfolding before you.

One of my favourite memories was noticing a couple of girls taking a selfie for the first time ever and capturing that moment. The other is bumping into my mate who was an athlete at the time. She and her friends were treated like celebrities. These were great photo opportunities.”

So has he noticed any changes over the years since he’s been attending and photographing the carnival?

“Yes, I have noticed a few changes; some good, some ill,” he says. “I think carnival is far more inclusive now than it has ever been. The LBTQ community is more involved and far more celebrated.

But it’s policed a lot more now than it used to be. I suppose this ensures that there’s less violence, but it also means draconian measures and more control. There are certain roads you can't walk down without ID. It's dispiriting when you can't get into your friends’ house party because it's a residential road and you need proof that you live there. Of course, I do understand why some residents might want this.”

Photos © David Kwaw Mensah

Photos © David Kwaw Mensah. You can see more of his work by visiting his website or by following him on Instagram @davidkwawmensah.