“A people’s art is the genesis of their freedom.” – Claudia Jones, Notting Hill, 1959
My first experience of Notting Hill Carnival, the biggest street festival in Europe, was the summer of 1975. I travelled with my mother and sisters from Manchester via British Rail, my young Jamaican mother single-handedly navigating the warrens of underground connections to take us to our overnight destination – Auntie Millie’s – for the 2-day event. Until August 1995, August 1975 was the hottest on record in Britain. I met my cousins for the first time, and entering the vast metropolis of London, my young mind was awakened to a new world.
Earlier that year I had severed an artery in my left wrist in an accident, and if it wasn’t for the actions of my uncle’s girlfriend, a nurse, I would not be here today. After three months in hospital the carnival was a long-awaited treat. The day after our arrival, we set off with our cousins to Notting Hill with sandwiches, drinks and cooked food.
It was a culture shock. I had never seen so many black people in my life, and every speckle of space was utilised by waving bodies. I remember seeing the smile on my mother’s face. I knew what it represented to her: a piece of home, sunshine, music, food, happiness, liberation. Since then I have been making the journey to the Carnival every two years, enjoying its swelling crowds and vibrancy.