Notting Hill, situated just to north-west of Hyde Park, is a delightful little enclave of London overflowing with comforting cosiness. It even has a happily euphonious name that sounds like something out of a Richard Curtis movie. Oh wait.
The image and feel that Curtis expertly conjured in the movie is so pleasingly familiar that it is hard to know where the film ends and the place begins. Dickens is credited with inventing the modern Christmas and it could be argued that Curtis, at the very least, moulded and polished the idea of Notting Hill into what it is today. He gave it that trademark middle-class makeover of affluence, affectation and people called Mungo.
You can now walk down Portobello road and take your pick of fair trade vegan restaurants or perhaps round the corner, orange juice in hand, and bump into Sienna Miller strolling the other way. And why not pop in for a chai skinny latte from the local barista named something like Jared or, god help us, Orlando?
Notting Hill is now a coffee-table book of whitewashed Regency niceness. This is not a bad thing necessarily and I myself have a deep affection for the place, but there is always a frisson of excitement when the Carnival comes to town and plants a steaming dollop of unwashed fun right in the middle of Westbourne Grove.
As the day of Carnival approaches the residents batten down the hatches as if awaiting the arrival of Hurricane Katrina. If you walk down one of the delightful tree-lined streets the day before you will find the arched windows chipboarded up, the boutique shop fronts nailed shut and the M&S stocks of bulgur decimated. This is the end of the world with Range Rovers and pesto. But underneath all this boarding up and shutting out there is an electric crackle in the air that something out of the ordinary is about to flood these peaceful streets and wash away the moneyed facade, to reveal a bacchanalian spirit underneath.
As you ascend from the depths of Holland Park tube on the Sunday you will immediately sense that something strange has come over everyone. People actually seem to be in a good mood. Surly policemen are transformed into hi-vis Mr. Motivators, eager to encourage everyone to “keep moving.” They even discover a dusty sense of humour tucked away in one of their pouches, right next to the CS canister.
Emerging from the station your nostrils will perhaps flare with the unmistakable aroma of a plant that you are not supposed to set on fire. Your ear drums will vibrate with the off-beat of a distant bass and then you have to stand outside McDonalds for twenty minutes waiting for your friends. Once all are present and correct you need to find a place to go. It happens quite spontaneously but for some reason your group start to move in a coherent direction. No one is ever quite sure who is leading the way but you invariably end up at the place you all wanted to be. A bit like the Israelites out of Egypt, except with a lot less commandments and a lot more Red Stripe.
Once you have your place established, marked by the pile of clothing in the middle of your group, you can get down to the business at hand. Namely a Caribbean flavoured rave-up. The problem you encounter at this jamboree however, is a rather delicate one. The tiresome thing about ingesting quantities of fluid is that at some stage it will try to make a break for freedom. Normally, this is not a problem, but when you are surrounded by a sea of human revelry, finding an obvious path to relief is similar to liking Tom Daley. Utterly impossible.
The way some people try to combat this difficulty is in the time honoured piss-on-someone’s-doorstep technique but this comes with obvious moral concerns. Occasionally, an irate resident will come blazing out of a solid oak front door and valiantly attempt to stem the flow by lobbing lumps of stale focaccia bread.
As the sun sets over tree dappled streets, the writhing mass of sound and flesh start to fade away and we come full circle to apocalyptic emptiness. The emptiness of a Scrumpy Jack bottle, the emptiness of crumpled tins and the emptiness of once bulbous balloons mock your good mood, so it wise to get to an after party asap before the emptiness takes over.
Notting Hill is almost unrecognisable from the place it was when the Carnival started in the sixties. The people have changed, the shops, the restaurants, the bricks and mortar and the atmosphere are all very different. But for a weekend in August something of the 60s returns, when the wonderful anachronism of the Carnival dances its way through the familiar streets: past The Travel Book Shop, past the Pizza Express, past the private gardens and into the embrace of a grateful London. See you there Richard.