The Notting Hill carnival has grown from a local festival to an occasion that attracts crowds from all over Britain and abroad. But as it has grown so has the level of violence that so often seems to taint the occasion. This weekend the carnival tries again to celebrate without trouble. But hundreds of extra police will be on the streets just in case.
HUNDREDS of extra police will he drafted on to the streets in West London this weekend in an attempt to prevent trouble developing at the Notting Hill carnival. They will join an army of stewards laid on by the carnival organisers in the hope of avoiding the sort of "race riot" label that has been pinned on it by some of the media.
It all makes a strange sort of backdrop to something whose roots lie in the celebration of a Christian festival.
Over the past two or three years the churches have been making a growing effort to contribute to the joy or the carnival and to add to it a dimension of prayer. This is reflected in the programme of special events drawn up for the weekend by the churches of St Mary of the Angels in Bayswater and All Saints in Notting Hill: they will include a street party with a steel band and West Indian food and a "fiesta of praise" with singing, music and dance.
Er Michael Hollings, parish priest of St Mary's, stressed that this was certainly not an attempt by the Church to "take over" the Carnival: "The importance of our taking part is that if the churches are involved here some of the ordinary people in Notting Hill can feel there's some kind of support: we can give an element of peace which can help the general atmosphere," he said.
Nor is the involvement of local churches a trendy attempt to jump on the carnival bandwagon. It is a particular expression of their general concern for the life of their community and a demonstration of their commitment to building good community relations.
The celebrations this weekend will be predominantly secular, but the participation of Fr Hollings' parish and other Christian groups will not be a radical departure from tradition.
There is a strong Christian element in the whole carnival tradition. In medieval times wild celebrations were a regular feature of Church life throughout Europe, including Britain. France and Spain had Mardi Gras. Germany the Karneval, Such festivals have continued albeit in a somewhat muted farm, in countries like Spain, Italy and Erance, although little remained in Britain after the Puritans stepped in to put a stop to them.
It was the French who took the custom to the West Indies, and narticularly to Trinidad where it became a frantic burst of bacchanalia held immediately before the extreme Christian discipline of Lent. The Trinidadians then gave it their own distinctive flavour with the introduction of the steel band.
The Trinidad carnival still occurs just before Lent: similar events take place elsewhere in some parts of the West Indies at different time of the year.
'But it is Trinidad which still provides the main impetus behind the Notting Hill carnival: the structure and the organisation are based almost entirely on the Trinidadian model.
!low:ever, what takes place this weekend will not just be a reminder of the Christian past nor a nostalgic celebration or Caribbean tradition, nor an imitation of tile in Trinidad.
Over the years it has taken on the character of a more general expression of black community life in Britain. At the same time it has become a Mecca for thousands of white people who want to affirm that the Britain to which they belong is now a fully multi-racial society.
That multi-racial character is something which has been stressed over and over again in official statements by all the churches. In mixed racial areas that is generally accepted, despite some problems which will probably always remain. Elsewhere., however, that is not the case and it is on those areas that reports of "the carnival riot" have the most damaging effect.
Fr Hollings is bitter about such reports. Asked what effect the carnival had on community relations he said: "It entirely depends on how it is presented. 1.ast year we had vast crowds and a lot of noise for two days but there was very little trouble until the last two hours. But what every oumnepteleinvesshoopTis bashed.
glass everwhere, a number of policemen hurt and so on." afterwards s broken i It would help if more people understood how the carnival had developed and what it represents.
About 500 people — mainly Londoners — went to the first one in Notting Ilill in 1965: the aim was to give the city's West Indian community a chance to celebrate their culture in their own way — in music. For it is music that is primarily responsible for keeping West Indians together.
From that fairly humble beginning it has grown to the vast gathering of last year, when 500,000 people converged on the area from all over Britain and beyond. A local party had turned into in international event.
Little attention was given to the carnival before 1976, when the number of police rose from the 1975 figure of 60 to 6,000 following attempts by the local council to get the carnival taken off the streets. According to the carnival organisers it was this massive police presence which was responsible for the violence which exploded on the final day: they say it intimidated the black youngsters, Whatever the reasons, carnival could never be the same again. There is little doubt that over the next three days some young blacks will use it as an opportunity Ii) challenge the police, and vice versa.
That is regrettable but it is not surprising, and it should not obscure the real significance of the carnival. In the words of Selwyn Baptiste, the black teacher who has helped to organise the event from the beginning: "Nowhere else in Britain can you see street theatre like this. It is a unique form of human expression which has added to the richness of British culture."
To understand the Carnival is to grasp something of' the culture of West Indians in Britain and'thus to come to grips with part of what is now British culture.
The need for such understanding is particularly urgent when the question of "what is British'?" is currently being discussed in the context of a new law on nationality. Enoch Powell in his speech last week to Young Conservatives in Surrey again made it clear that his definition was basically racial.
The history of the Notting Hill carnival conflicts with Powell's position: it demonstrates instead that "Britishness" is a much wider concept.
As the Herald said in an editorial two years ago: "Britain's black community has brought carnival back to this country after a long absence. It may have lost touch with Lent but in its creativity, its art and its costume, its music and spontaneous freedom, it is a profound cultural and religious expression of faith and hope. It is wonderful to see the Church becoming involved in it."