Dreda Say Mitchell: How Carnival reflects our changing community

Click to follow

The Notting Hill Carnival, which takes place this weekend, holds no fears for respectable society these days and, indeed, is now seen as a great London institution. You can expect to find police officers posing with revellers, tourists fitting it in to a busy schedule and Londoners just getting down and having a good time. For hipsters, it's the one after Glastonbury, and for London's schoolchildren the chance to model that butterfly costume.

It's difficult to remember now that only a generation ago, the Notting Hill Carnival aroused the kind of fear and loathing we reserve these days for convicted criminals trying to avoid deportation. The crunch came after rioting in 1976, when certain elements of the media filed their "Blacks Go On The Rampage" stories, mainstream politicians demanded Carnival be banned, and the more reflective right-wing commentators wrote that events in Notting Hill proved, sadly, that "they" weren't really like "us". Enoch was right.

I remember the events of 1976 very well, although I was only 10. It was the year my mum decided to take her kids to the carnival for the very first time. Carnival was an important event in my home. My dad use to joke that when he came to England from Grenada in the 1960s he had a suitcase, a hat and the rhythm of carnival in his soul. For a kid growing up on a housing estate in the East End, it was a revelation. I'd never seen that many people before, heard that much sound, seen that much colour. And, most importantly, I could see this was "our thing". Even in the 70s, Carnival attracted people of all races and classes, but in a world where all the public events were white, for the first time, something was black.

There are many rumours about what sparked the disturbances in 1976. I remember being surrounded by heaving crowds near Ladbroke Grove when we first heard shouting and yelling, then youths running and weaving before finally the crowds began to flee for cover and the streets saw ranks of youngsters pelting the police with every kind of missile, including anger, before they were charged. My mum herded us into someone's front garden where we stood and watched. For hours afterwards we were trapped.

The analysis that followed was predictable. The right blamed "black criminals" while the left pointed the finger at "state oppression". Few people noticed what had really happened. Through my 10-year-old eyes I witnessed a tipping point in British history. After years of resentment, a generation of young black people were asserting their right to be called British.

The riots aren't anything to celebrate. People were badly injured, but it's also the case that the old slogan holds true – where there's no justice, there's no peace. And although I didn't know it at the time, rioting was as traditionally British as strawberries and cream. In the 19th century, the white working class in Britain had its Notting Hills every decade as reform was proposed, rejected and then forced through – so much so that the phrase "reading the riot act" passed into the language.

In 2007, some prefer to airbrush the events of 1976 out of the picture. But remembering this event – and what it tells us about who we are as Londoners – was one of the key factors that propelled me to write my novel, Killer Tune. The protagonist, Lord Tribulation, (rap's latest sensation), and his father act as the link between the Notting Hill Carnival of yesterday and today and ultimately London then and now. If we forget 1976, we forget not just the history of the British-Caribbean community but our collective history as Londoners. This event changed my life. It was one of the reasons I studied African history, one of the reasons I became a teacher in East London, the community I grew up in.

It's true that Carnival has changed over the past 30 years, but then it's always reflected the environment in which it takes place – and the British-Caribbean community has changed dramatically, too. For some black youth in our cities, life is actually grimmer now than it was in 1976, but while the media focuses on gun crime and marginalisation, the steady drift of black London out to the suburbs and into the middle class has gone largely unnoticed. The average black guy these days is more likely to be washing his Volvo and worrying about the mortgage than hanging around in a hoodie.

As for the Carnival itself, you will hear mutterings that it isn't what it was, that it's become part of the Establishment, that its anarchic traditions have been neutered. Well, your whistle may be branded these days and your fried chicken corporate – but whatever you may think, it's still by far the best party Britain has to offer. I'll see you down there...

Dreda Say Mitchell is the author of 'Killer Tune', published this week by Hodder