Where do you go to see London Bobbies dancing, drug dealers dealing, 4 motorcycles in the canal under one bridge, music so loud that it sucks the air out of you, a turtle beside your narrowboat, a million people dancing in the streets and pageantry? Why the Notting Hill Carnival, that’s where. And all this on what was billed as Family/Childrens’ Day.
We left Alperton intending to make our way to Paddington Basin. We weren’t optimistic about finding a mooring there because they are very limited and this is the busiest time of the boating season. We cruised on the aquaduct that passes over the traffic laden North Circular Road. Past Wembley Stadium and factories that once produced the likes of Heinz products and Guiness Beer but now every other establishment puts out Asian food goods.
There are those skeletal structures of huge gas holders at Kensington gasworks to the right (starboard) and the very old Kensal Green cemetery to the left (port) holding the remains of some of the top literary characters from then and now. Anthony Trollope is in there. So is William Thackeray. Lots of other famous people are buried here too. But we just sailed on by.
Soon we come to apartment and office buildings lining both sides of the canal, some old, some new. We are in the heart of Kensal Town and Ladbroke Grove. Not far away are Notting Hill and Bayswater. We were passing Westbourne Park when Miriam rang our boat from theirs. “Wanna spend a couple of hours at Carnival?” she asked. “We can moor along here and get some good photos. Then we’ll move on.”
Well….that didn’t happen. We moored up, side-by-side, just under Bridge 4c on the Canal and opposite The Union Tavern. It was still quite early, but people in various outfits and colourful garb were crossing the bridge above. Lots of police too. In fact, more police than anything else. 10,000 of them at Carnival we were told.
We locked up our boats and headed for the park that was back under the bridge. Stalls were being set up for Jamican and African trinkets and food, face painting and all those things a carnival offers. Events hadn’t started up yet, so it was all quiet so far. Convivial and subdued. Besides that, rain was in the air.
Out on the street, things were beginning to happen. More police showed up and Carnival security people lined the street, closing off a side street because, we were told, the practice parade was about to begin. The next day was the actual parade. But it was the same parade, just, as it turns out, a little more disorganised. Thus the rehearsal.
Before long, huge lorries (trucks) carrying enormous sound systems, enough to suck the air out of you and knock you to the ground, started over the bridge and along the street. Young people from different groups paraded by in Mardi Gras-like costumes or just wearing T-shirts with peace logos and jeans, waving banners or Jamaican flags. Guys on stilts and yet another lorry blasting out Reggae music while chaps with mics called out incomprehensible slogans.
It rained on and off for a short while. No one seemed to care. Groups of young people paraded on by. The noise was deafening, but catchy, and everyone was in a good mood despite the damp. Even the police got involved.
In the middle of the conflagration stood the intrepid Eddie the Photographer. The man knows no bounds, no limits. He just took charge. Anyone would have thought him the official photographer of the event. In fact, the parade officials did. Eddie had just walked out into the middle of the street and started shooting….with his camera of course. One policeman tried to move him on, but he was waved off by other officials and Eddie remained, snapping away as the hordes crashed in on him. The man was unfazed.
Hours passed. My best friend and I had to withdraw at one juncture. My old ears were to the point of bleeding. We grabbed some Jamaican delicacies from one of the stalls in the park and headed back to our refuge….our boat. But the white noise continued. Every lorry that passed blasted out different music blending it into one. Opposite our boats, The Union Tavern had its own outdoor sound system blaring across the canal. Then it happened.
A little white, plastic boat pulled in behind us. Eddie the Kind helped the chap moor his boat. All seemed very convivial. Until the boat owner began passing out party balloons to towpath passersby. They inhaled the contents, sucking in breath after breath and then laughing and reeling along the towpath. Several had bottles of booze. They drank from the bottles and sucked on the balloons.
It was my first experience with the phenomena of nitrous oxide being used to get a high. It’s also known as ‘hippy crack’ or ‘sweet air’. Lovely. To keep us happy, the boat owner brought over some beer and offered us a free balloon. No thanks. The beer is enough. The cops weren’t bothered. We spoke to a couple that came by but they said there was too much of it going on to arrest anyone. Anyway, they were more worried about fights and stabbings that regularly took place at Carnival.
Every so often, someone went into the boat with the dealer or one of his two female molls. They would emerge sniffing white powder or rubbing it from their faces. When the police came by, he hid his gas cannisters and brought out the beer. He told them he was selling alcohol. Land police can’t touch him for that because he’s on the water. A police boat made a couple of passes during the day. They were too busy telling each other jokes to notice any nefarious goings on.
So open were the proceedings that another boat in front of us began selling drugs too. Before long, we had crowds of young people strewn all over the towpath, late into the night. The music stopped at 10pm sharp. At one point, the music and people noise was so intense that I grabbed my best friend, walking her down the towpath toward Little Venice, leaving the madness behind. Just along the way, a man was spray painting a blank white wall with a mural. Nice.
Quite a day. We had decided to stay the night. Poor Eddie and Miriam were tied along the towpath. People were using their boat as a wall to lean on or a roof on which to sit. Eddie kept chasing them away. Miriam was more enterprising. She rented her toilet out to some of the balloon girls for £1 a go.
The next morning, all was quiet. Rubbish everywhere on the towpath and in the canal, but all was tranquil. The white, plastic boat was gone and no one was on the towpath save a few joggers, cyclists and dog walkers. Eddie and I took a walk toward the park. Under the bridge, in the canal, we saw 4 intact motorcycles. You can probably guess. Dumped by thieves. They had been there for a while. No one seemed to care.
As we walked back to the boat, we looked down into the cut and there it was. A turtle swimming along as if the rest of the world didn’t matter. And to the turtle, it didn’t. We marvelled at this creature, unnatural to the canals but there nonetheless. A beautiful sight. The highlight of our day at Carnival.