Eat, drink and be merry, by all means. As long as you leave my nose out of it

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So, bar the two murders, the five stabbings, the 60 assaults and the 276 unspecified crimes against the person or the state, the carnival went off peaceably. I leave out the two policemen scalded by fat from a hot-dog stall. They should learn to eat more slowly.

So, bar the two murders, the five stabbings, the 60 assaults and the 276 unspecified crimes against the person or the state, the carnival went off peaceably. I leave out the two policemen scalded by fat from a hot-dog stall. They should learn to eat more slowly.

I didn't do Notting Hill myself this year, but I've done it in the past. Not to revel, exactly. I wasn't brought up to revel. At school I carried around a note from my mother, requesting I be excused all revels. An eye thing. I don't know whether we revel differently now, but in those days a good time always seemed to threaten your eyesight. Now, it's your skin that's in danger from boiling fat. What's one supposed to do? I wouldn't wear goggles then and I'm not wearing gloves now. And getting a little bit hurt is part of what carnival's all about, is it not?

The last time I did Notting Hill, I went down with some intestinal complication consequent on my having sampled every single curry from every single food stall. I exaggerate. Not every curry, just whatever came with red gravy. So I overdosed on sweet and sour barbecued chicken wings as well. But at least I knew I'd been out.

And it beat taking my shirt off.

It can't be only me who goes to carnival for the food. Much fun, I know, is made of those who proclaim their racial tolerance through their stomachs. "I must love Asians; I spend my life in Thai restaurants." "Some of my best friends are Jews: have you never had a chopped-liver bagel?" As though any of that will stop you smashing alien windows come the next depression. An unfair imputation of superficiality, I think. We may lag behind our stomachs in tolerance, but we are eventually what we eat. Which is why food is everywhere a means of reconciling us to unfamiliarity and making peace.

I still recall our geography teacher's advice on how to behave when invited to dinner in a Bedouin encampment. Bow very low. Refuse no dish that's offered you. Don't praise anybody's wife or daughter, because the laws of Bedouin hospitality demand that you be given what you admire. And use your left hand (or was it your right hand?) to shake with, because Bedouins use their right hand (or was it their left hand?) to wipe their bottoms.

It's a queer but invariable feature of being taught the ways of foreigners, how quickly you get on to the subject of their bottoms. Though that, too, is a proven route to reconciliation. Wasn't it once said in praise of TE Lawrence that "he wiped his arse like an Arab"? Do we not forever hear Australians domiciled in London boasting that they have adopted the ways of the British and abandoned the notion of a clean bottom altogether?

No point being nice about this. Cultural curiosity, like race relations, is a comedy. We do the best we can, but to enjoy difference is to acknowledge it, and to pretend it isn't there is an insult to those who are nothing like us and wouldn't want to be.

The ancient function of carnival is to make merry with these incompatibles. And making merry is never as innocent as party-organisers would like it to be. My mother was right: fun is trouble. Shield your eyes and steer clear of the hot-dog stall.

Carnival existed precisely to give vent to trouble. You could stand aside, like Goethe at the Roman carnival of 1788 - "Nothing is more boring than to watch others go mad when one has not caught the infection oneself" - but to throw yourself into the madness meant mocking those whose nationality, whose colour, whose religion, whose sexual preferences (for extravagance or for restraint) happened to be an affront to yours. Violence inevitable. Murder not at all unheard of. Obscenity obligatory.

We've grown to sentimentalise the carnival. Ah, the world turned upside down, where for a few brief hours even the holiest could indulge in a little impious horseplay. But the other side of carnival was unforgivingness. Get the invert. "Laughter cannot be absolutely just," wrote the French philosopher Bergson. "Its function is to intimidate by humiliating." I like the word "function" there. It reminds us that laughter - and what is carnival but mass laughter? - somehow knows what it's about. Society letting its hair down, expressing the otherwise inexpressible, but also punishing transgression. So far and no further, before the joke's on you. A force for rigid conservatism at the last.

I veer wildly in my attitude to communal mirth. Wandering through the Venice carnival once, musing to myself on how tame it had become, a mere white-faced fashion show lacking the danger of earlier times, I was suddenly subjected to horseplay, in the course of which my nose was pulled. "That real? E vero?" Nothing could have been more carnivalesque. A comic tweak of the very symbol of carnival. But believe me, gentle reader, when I tell you that had I been armed that afternoon, the bodies of revellers would have littered St Mark's Square.

In carnival we temporarily rid ourselves of brutishness, clean out our systems, yet also reaffirm an inviolable sense of communal identity. Not nice, but apparently necessary. A harmonious carnival in which we all offer to love one another and turn the occasional blind eye is a sweet idea. And maybe also necessary. But whether it addresses the turbulence of our natures, whether it's truly a social purgative, I doubt.

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