the carnival: a survivor's guide

THE CRUSH. THE RESTRICTED VIEW. THE WARM CAN OF COKE. THE NOTTING HILL CARNIVAL IS ONE BIG PARTY. ISN'T IT TIME YOU LEARNT TO ENJOY IT?
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Indy Lifestyle Online
every year it's a sorry, wretched sight. The victims of Carnival pile up early. There they are, glassy-eyed with tiredness, slumped up against the chocolate-brown walls of the concrete Brunel estate that lines Westbourne Park Road, feet smoking, utterly bored. Or they retreat into dark pubs such as the British Oak and turn them into Carnival refugee camps. The gust of enthusiasm needed to venture outside again just doesn't show up.

Carnival is knackering. Leave Westbourne Park Tube, and, after a few float-chasing sessions down Portobello , your mind can be a blur, soundtracked by the joyous steel drum rumble of soca, soca everywhere. A dazed sprawl on the bank of the Grand Union Canal can be all your body is fit for. The fun dissipates, bewilderment rises, along with questions such as "What next?", or worse, "Why did I come?"

These are criminal thoughts. This scrap of west London that gives itself over to August bank holiday party fever is about the last word in street thrills. And it's free for goodness sake. Free. Y'know, no money and everyone's invited. The best, most vivacious costume parade outside Brazil's Carnival invites your perusal: booming sound systems thundering reggae, jazz, techno and jungle; live music from top names at stages in Meanwhile Gardens and Ladbroke Grove. All for nought. What more could you want?

It takes a little to enjoy Carnival for the three hours or so you need just to get a feel of it all. Just some common sense, in the guise of practical and psychological preparation. A Carnival Slackers' Highway Code, if you will. People are fooled by Carnival's apparent easy-goingness.

First thing to remember is that up to one million people show up over two days. Now, if a million people suddenly showed up in your home town, say Tunbridge Wells, don't you think it would be frighteningly overcrowded, unfathomably chaotic? So at Carnival expect to spend three-quarters of an hour getting a drink in a pub; enter Meanwhile Gardens in the knowledge that you'll have trouble finding a place to park your bum; don't be surprised at neck-craning difficulty seeing an artist on stage (unless you've secured a good spot ridiculously early); and anticipate that (more than outrageous costumes) what you will witness most of all is crowds of people like yourself. Just aimlessly drifting around like you. So take things slowly.

Here is an outline of the area Carnival covers. The floats ring the district in an anti-clockwise fashion. The top end is the far north of Ladbroke Grove, where it joins with Harrow Road, just brushing the bus station and a large Sainsbury's. Then the route heads down Ladbroke Grove, making its way through the hotch-potch of estates, schools and pubs with quaint names like the Admiral Brake and the Earl Percy (somewhat at odds with the multicultural ethos). Less than 10 minutes' walk further on and you'll hit the Ladbroke Grove end of Westway and the Tube station (closed during Carnival.)

Past the Westway the route carries on down Ladbroke Grove, where the scenery gets leafier and the houses posher. Then the procession turns down Arundel Gardens and the antique shop-littered Westbourne Grove until it hits Chepstow Road. What strikes you most about the trail is that, unlike Gay Pride or the Chinese New Year, Carnival winds its way through real inner-city west London, the streets where ordinary folk live. People of vastly different social backgrounds, disparate races and financial pockets, but communities none the less. A school here, a church there, blocks of Sixties horror flats by the depressing dozen. Chepstow Road leads into the Great Western Road, a favoured Carnival gathering point.

This is probably because the road is particularly wide, Westbourne Park Tube is at the end of the Westway, notable for the massive orange brick bus station, and access is easy to Meanwhile Gardens and the Grand Union Canal. The procession winds down the narrow Elkstone Road, between the Gardens and the Tube track, past community centres, more grimy housing towers until it meets Kensal Road. The top of Kensal Road is Ladbroke Grove, and it all starts over again.

Bearing all this in mind you can choose which way you want to make your way to Carnival. Most revellers seem to favour Notting Hill (which becomes a screamy whistle zone as people enter the spirit), fearing Westbourne Park will be too choked. However, Notting Hill Tube's four exits make life confusing if you're meeting friends. Queen's Park is just as useful, and only adds 10 minutes to your journey.

But another crucial consideration before venturing out is what to carry to Carnival. From the day the spectacular was born, the motto was "Travel light". Handbags, jewellery of monetary/taste/sentimental value and flashy cameras are asking for trouble.

That said, do look your rave-glamour-puss/ street-cool best. First, because the men and women and children you watch will have spent months of evenings and weekends researching themes for their shimmery outfits and creating them. Last year's 60 costume groups ranged from Zulu Warriors to Dances of the Swans to the Mythical City of Atlantis. The least visitors can do is make half an effort.

Second, the high style and fashion reflect how the nature of the Carnival has changed. Dance music and black culture have thoroughly permeated British youth culture. What people wear at Carnival reflects what many a high street boutique will sell in a season to come. Carnival is where new ideas break.

That's also the case with Carnival sound systems. There are just 40 scattered sites across Notting Hill nowadays. In the somewhat more unorganised days of Carnival 10 to 15 years ago, when an "anything goes and probably will" policy ruled, more than a hundred troupes of turntable warriors would take their own sound systems on to the street and compete to blast your ears with booming bass dub reggae and dancehall rampant toasting, half talking, half singing over the music. Although numbers have decreased because of the police, the sound systems' importance in promoting artists has exploded. It was no coincidence last year that General Levy's jungle smash "Incredible" re-entered the singles chart and zoomed into the Top 10 the week after Carnival.

Last year it was jungle everywhere, and 1995 will be the same. There's ragga jungle, which favours trouser-clutching, bragging Jamaican DJ chat over pedestrian, speeded-up hip hop break beats. But jungle's massive rival, as it gets increasingly confident, sophisticated and experimental, is, in fact, a sub-breed of its own form - "ambient" or "futuristic" jungle, also dubbed "intelligent drum 'n' bass''. Venerated artists such as Goldie, A Guy Called Gerald, LIJ Bukem and Roni Size mix up eerie samples, jazz snatches, animal screeches, and build in sci-fi soundscapes. Carnival is dominated by youth culture. More young people go, while many older, erstwhile followers stay away, reluctant to be associated with the trendy youth party it has become. Paradoxically, its influence has never been stronger.

Which is why kudos-conscious 1 FM is going ``big'' on Carnival this year, broadcasting more of it live than ever before, with the rap DJ Tim Westwood at Portobello Green on Sunday and Monday, and Talkin' Loud boss Norman Jay provides an "Essential Mix'' of music. No more the days when Carnival was the preserve of black-orientated local radio shows. The pirates, long champions of jungle, will also make a special effort for this bank holiday.

Now on to practical matters. Toilets. Facilities are generally, um, piss poor to say the least - there were just 26 extra loos last year. And the pubs hate to take the strain, so non-boozers could find themselves cross-legged. Be warned.

If the whole shebang gets too mad for you, and you want to escape, you could do worse than head for Holland Park. Otherwise there are police- cordoned "pedestrian zones", where the procession can't reach. The Ladbroke Grove end of Golborne Road was such a space last year, while the Westbourne Park area of Lancaster Road was another. As for food, there will probably be just as many Chinese, Indian and Japanese delights as Caribbean delights.

Finally, if it's the main stage artists you're keen for, watch out. Don't get your hopes too high, no matter what the hype or promises. Times and appearances are notoriously unpredictable. The Fab soul diva Mary J Blige, who makes Whitney Houston sound like Vera Lynn, is rumoured to be around this year, but her record label will confirm nothing. Alternatively, reggae old school supremo Gregory "Night Nurse" Isaacs is confirmed (he's due to appear on the Kiss stage at 6pm tomorrow), but the "Cool Ruler" was recently a confirmed highlight at another outdoor festival, and didn't show.

It's best to head for the Carnival with a relaxed mind, light pockets, and head empty of too many expectations. And probably, just probably, you'll experience the most hedonistically happy few hours of your year.

BEST COSTUME BANDS

masquerade 2000

300-strong band from Hackney. they have already won 16 prizes in pre- Carnival competitions. Their theme this year is "exotica"

perpetual beauty

Another prize-winning group, this time made up of 30 north Londoners. Their theme is "play ball, play mas"

misty

a local, 100-strong ensemble. "Ahh, village celebration" is their theme.

BEST STEEL BANDS

metronomes steel orchestra

eclipse steel orchestra

ebony steel orchestra

LIVE ON STAGE TODAY

kiss fm stage hornimans pleasance

12noon Troi

12.30pm damage

1pm backbone

2pm mark morrison

3pm mad cobra

4pm shaggy

5pm d-influence

6.30pm soul II soul

phelandaba stage powis square

12 - 1.15pm sugumugu (ghana)

1.45 - 2.45pm manhattans (sa)

4.15 - 5.15pm bhundu boys (zim)

5.15 - 6.30pm abul-tee-jay rokoto (sierra leone)

radio 1 stage

portobello green

acts to be announced

A CARNIVAL MENU

curried goat

jerk chicken: a peice of chicken grilled until completely black

ackee: a rough, potato-like vegetable, boiled

carnival rum punch: overproof rum mixed with fruit juice and strawberry syrup

soca bogle special: a mix of rum, lemon,

sugar, grapefruit crush and ginger beer

BEST SOUND SYSTEMS

gaz's rockin' blue

reggae

site: talbot road

sancho panzo

house/garage

site: bonchurch road

bass by any means necessary

mixed music

site: ledbury road

VANTAGE POINTS

least congested

chepstow road

most congested

ladbroke grove and westbourne grove

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