After Grenfell Tower, this year’s Notting Hill Carnival will be an unusually poignant event. Matilda Egere-Cooper hears from the locals about what the area means to them.
Think of west London around this time of year and three words probably spring to mind: Notting Hill Carnival. A weekend of jaw-dropping costumes, smoking barbecues, huge tunes and endless rum punch. A portrait of London multiculturalism in all its glory. And, of course, a fantastic community effort.
But this year, Europe’s biggest street party will take on a new meaning. Its route runs near Grenfell Tower, whose charred shell continues to serve as a reminder of the tragic June 14 fire. Despite some calls to move or cancel Carnival, organisers are going ahead; this year’s event will honour the 80 people who died with a one-minute silence on bank holiday Monday at 3pm. Ahead of the big weekend, we talked to locals who told us what they love about the area, how’s it’s been affected by recent events and why it will continue to stand strong. Everyone we spoke to highlighted the area’s powerful sense of identity and how people came together to help in the aftermath of Grenfell. Carnival aside, Notting Hill’s residents are proving that this bit of west London is an extraordinary community all year round.
Matthew Phillip, director of The Tabernacle W11
‘I was kind of raised in Ladbroke Grove. I was born in Paddington and I’ve always been in the area. My dad used to live on All Saints Road and he founded – along with Frank Crichlow and others – the Mangrove Steel Band in 1980. They always rehearsed in The Tabernacle on and off, but now it’s the band’s permanent home. It’s also a central community hub. Some people use it as a second living room if they’re meeting friends and family and they don’t have enough space in their flat. It exists because of the community coming together and saying we want to do something for the area.
‘Back in the ’70s, this was a church and the council had plans to rip it down and turn it into a car park. There was a meeting of locals at the old All Saints Hall, which used to be next door to the church: it’s now flats. They insisted that the area needed somewhere for the community to meet and to be able to do activities. That’s one of many things that’s happened in the area in terms of activism for the community – and what’s happened after Grenfell highlights that community bond of people coming together.’
‘People use the Tabernacle as a second living room if they don’t have enough space in their flat’ Matthew Phillip
Sly Augustin, owner of the Trailer Happiness bar
‘I was born in west London and I went to school at Cardinal Manning RC for Boys, in St Charles Square, about five minutes away from my bar on Portobello Road. I’ve got friends and family here and even though it’s quite touristy, it still feels like a community and not just a shiny high street. It has a village vibe. You have relationships with other business owners in the area – I think that’s important for you to survive. If you get into difficulties, you’ve got people who can assist you.
‘Following Grenfell, the community banded together to fill the void left by the council and the people who were supposed to take care of business. I don’t think anyone expected it to be such a unanimous joining of people. Everyone in the community, regardless of their political or economic standing, got together to do everything they could to help the people of Grenfell. It reaffirmed what we already knew: everybody’s ready to help everybody else.’
Claudia Vispi, owner of vintage shop 282
‘I have a little vintage boutique. That’s my connection with the area. I love the people and the colours that diversity brings. You never know who’s going to walk through the door. There’s something so vibrant and unique about the area - and what a community we have around here. My customers who’ve come in donated lots [for Grenfell] and their time, so much. A lot of my customers were also involved directly in therapies and alternative ways to rebuild [the lives of the survivors]. I just see that, even with a huge tragedy, the locals pulled together and did what they could in the most beautiful and elegant way, helping people.’
Gloria Cummins, Carnival band leader
‘I’ve lived in this part of London since 1964. From 1971 to 1988, I was a community relations officer with Westminster Council, which is when I became involved with getting a Carnival organisation together. My Mas Camp, as it’s called, has been based in Paddington Basin since 1987, the second year of bringing together a Carnival band. Carnival is like a giant heartbeat. It’s an amazing spectacle and people come from all over the place to be a part of it. My costume theme this year is “From the Sea to the Sky and Everything in Between”. It does not necessarily mean feathers, sequins and bikinis. We try to keep the creativity, the culture and the heritage of Carnival alive.’
‘Carnival is like a giant heartbeat’ Gloria Cummins
Fiona Hawthorne, visual artist and carnivalist
‘I came to London when I was 19 to go to art college. I ended up living in a basement flat in Colville Square. I moved in just before Carnival and got the bug straight away. I met my husband [Colin Salmon] in the area. He was a busker playing the trumpet and now he’s an actor.
‘I’ve had a lot of involvement in the area as a local artist. I was one of a bunch of parents at a local school who already loved Carnival, but we realised very few schools were involved. We started something that led to one of the biggest masquerade bands at Notting Hill Carnival. It was based on children’s art. It became a really big and quite cool Carnival band. We did that for about 17 years.
‘My daughter lives very near Grenfell Tower. We were very involved with volunteering, like most people in the area. I now hope there can be focus on keeping and improving social housing, and rethinking the building of more and more private developments. I also want to keep our public buildings such as libraries and state schools, nurseries and early years provision in the area, making sure the gap does not become so wide that only the wealthy can afford to live in North Kensington and Notting Hill. Also, what makes this community so special is its unique heritage and culture of diversity that has Carnival at the core. That should be valued and cherished.’
Alexia Coley, singer and co-owner of Ripe Tomato
‘I was born locally at St Mary’s Hospital on Harrow Road and grew up on Ledbury Road in Notting Hill. My mother was an original cast member of the musical “Hair” and my dad owned a successful pet shop in Kentish Town. I started singing professionally with Laurie Johnson’s London Big Band when my father decided he wanted a change and suggested we look for a restaurant site. We found a shop on All Saints Road and opened Ripe Tomato in 1996. We’ve had many people through our door in the past 22 years – from celebrities to politicians.
‘The area is very important to me: it’s my home and I’m lucky to live here. It’s changed so much. When we first opened Ripe Tomato we had a buzzer lock on the door. All Saints Road was known as the “front line” – and it was tame by 1996! It wasn’t until the movie “Notting Hill” came out that the area really started changing. Almost overnight it became a very cool place for everybody else to live. Many people sold their houses and moved out as property prices started soaring. The people who lived here already knew it was special. It was our secret. The movie just opened everybody else’s eyes.’
‘It’s my home and I’m lucky to live here’ Alexia Coley
Greg Weir, business owner and community DJ at Portobello Radio
‘I’ve been living in the area for over 25 years. When I was a lad, I made my mark on Notting Hill by putting on soundsystems in pubs with famous DJs. I’ve been involved with Portobello Radio for the last two years. It’s community radio: we don’t make any money out of it, we do it for love. There’s an amazing energy in west London. It’s a real hub of creativity, which I don’t think I can find anywhere else. East London has taken the lead over the last decade, I suppose, but it’s not people who were born and brought up in east London who have made it the creative hub that it is now. Everybody who comes on the radio station always mentions the community – and this is long before Grenfell. The hope is to get beyond where we are at the moment. We’ve got to learn to love each other no matter whether we’re rich or we’re poor. I hope Grenfell has opened politicians’ eyes.’
Cheryl Devlin, fruit and veg stall owner
‘I am the fourth generation of stallholders in Portobello Road. I was born nearby in Blenheim Crescent. My dad has always been a stallholder. So was his dad and his grandad. It’s in our blood. My stall is opposite the Electric Cinema. Upstairs is a private members’ club where a lot of rich people go. We see a lot of famous people. Singers. Film stars. They’re really down-to-earth; they wave to us and we wave to them. I’ll take over an apple and say “You’ve never eaten an apple like this before!”
‘All nationalities come to visit the famous Portobello Road. There’s a lot of Spanish, German and Portuguese tourists on Saturdays. On weekdays we have our regulars, you know, the locals. They keep my business thriving. Sometimes it’s not the community it used to be. But Grenfell has made a difference. For a lot of people today, it shows how strong our community is. The rich as well as the poor have really pulled together. I just hope it will bring down a few barriers.’
Micky P, promoter and founder of the Portobello Live! festival
‘I live right in the heart of North Kensington, at the end of Portobello Road. I’ve lived here nearly all my life. Anything can happen in Portobello Road. With all different cultures and different ages, there isn’t anywhere quite like it.
‘Over the last few years, obviously, the area’s been redeveloped. I thought we needed to bring the community back to what it’s famous for. It’s got such a legacy of music and art: with punk rock, like The Clash; and Bob Marley made “Exodus” around here. That’s why I set up Portobello Live! to showcase what’s happening in the area.
‘With Grenfell, the community has come together so incredibly. The morning it was happening, I was down there at the tower watching. People from all over the world were walking on the street with trolleys full of food and clothes, and everybody came together. I think local government, the council, took a long time to act, but the community took over and came together. It was incredible. And that’s what I love about this area.’
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