Carnival's crush does not hold back the dancing in the streets

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The Independent Online

Three hours before the procession started, Christine Lyons' wheelchair was already in position at a perfect vantage point along the route.

Her voice may have been slurred by multiple sclerosis, but the middle-aged housewife from Wiltshire spoke only of the excitement of attending her first Notting Hill Carnival.

Anyone who needed a reminder of the inspiration behind the carnival ­ the slaves' celebration of triumph over painful adversity ­ needed to look no further than Mrs Lyons yesterday.

After a soggy and disappointing first day, the sun shone for bank holiday Monday and vast rivers of humanity flooded into the small section of west London. More than 1.2 million people turned out ­ one of the largest crowds on record.

Fuelled by the jubilant atmosphere ­ and no doubt a few Red Stripes ­ they danced in the streets, the piercing shrill of their whistles competing with sound systems so powerful you could feel the air vibrating around you.

Clare Woods, a 48-year-old teacher, was a vision in white and gold chiffon, representing the land of milk and honey for her part in the parade. "It is a celebration of life. Whatever life throws at you, you can come and dance in the streets and have fun," she said.

Near by, an array of brightly coloured and sequinned butterfly and peacock costumes ­ evidence of the 15,000 feathers and 30 litres of body paint used at the carnival for decoration ­ danced alongside giant lobsters and spacemen. A Royal Navy replica of HMS Invincible competed for space with the Greenpeace float.

In the surrounding streets, the scent of marijuana mingled with the aroma of barbecued jerk chicken around the food stalls. Thirsty people could choose anything from guava juice to cannabis vodka. Pavement entrepreneurs pushed supermarket shopping trolleys loaded with ice buckets full of beer.

Few seemed bothered by the overwhelming police presence, though the hum of their helicopter was a constant backdrop. After last year's trouble, when two people were murdered, the police had stepped up the number of officers on the streets to 10,000 ­ the biggest security operation London has seen.

Yesterday afternoon, however, the only knives in sight were the ones being used by men cutting up fresh sugarcane for sale.

On Saturday night there had been 27 arrests for minor offences. By early evening yesterday there had been seven arrests, for offences ranging from causing grievous bodily harm to altering a Tube ticket.

Steph Harwood, the spokeswoman for the Notting Hill Carnival Trust, said: "We welcome the police presence because at the end of the day we want to make sure that everyone feels safe. This year the atmosphere has been really great, lovely and relaxed."

Yesterday most felt safe enough to bring babies and toddlers into the crowds. A group of middle-aged Spanish tourists, proudly wearing the obligatory whistles, mixed happily with bandanna-clad reggae fans. All the fears of trouble and the recent controversy over the carnival's venue seemed a million miles away. But for some, the crush of the crowds was proof that it has outgrown its roots and perhaps even its location.

Barbara, a 60-year-old local who did not want to give her surname, remembered the first carnival 35 years ago, when no more than 100 people came to enjoy three bands ­ and Henry VIII had only one wife because they couldn't afford all the costumes.

"I don't like it now. There are too many people and it has lost its spirit," she said. "It was a community event for local people and their friends and relatives. In the past 10 years it has grown and become too commercial."

Like many locals ­ these days a far more affluent crowd than those living in the area in the Sixties ­ she had put up wire mesh to prevent carnival-goers using her front garden as a lavatory. "These days you are trapped in your house and you can't go anywhere," she said.

David Livingstone, who has sold curried goat from his stall for six years, agreed. "It is so much busier now. It is too squashed and there are too many people confined into this small place."

But like most others he agreed that it would be ludicrous to put Europe's largest street carnival into a park. A woman working at Juicy Lucy's, a stall selling fruit juice said: "You can't put it in a park. It just wouldn't work. It came from the streets and that is its history."

For some residents, the very thought of moving the carnival is a travesty.

Enid Nichols, who has lived and worked as an antiques dealer in Portobello Road for 50 years, was being pushed in her wheelchair to the procession by her niece.

"I have seen every carnival," she said. "I will be 90 next year and I have never missed one. It hasn't really changed. I think it's lovely, especially for the children. Even the noise is lovely."

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