Until 1855, if we wanted a bit of public disorder in London at this time of year, we had Bartholomew Fair. You could go to the ward of St Bartholomew the Great, dress up as The Archbishop of Canterbury, and shag people dressed as goats while shouting “Look at me! I’m the archbishop. I’m shagging goats.” Then you and your goat-dressed friends could go back to your jobs as candlebiters, feeling like you’d done something naughty. You’d bite candles until Christmas without question, buoyed up by the feeling you’d expressed your dissatisfaction with that damned corrupt archbishop. If someone suggested you seize the means of production you’d look at them like they were mad. “I’ve done my sedition for the year thanks.”
Bartholomew Fair was shut down in 1855 for “encouraging debauchery’. Clearly it went too far. Maybe the candlebiter found some real goats. Who knows. It’s gone. Now the biggest excuse for civil disobedience in the London calendar is Notting Hill Carnival. It started in 1966. I’ve gone every year for ages. It involves thousands of people kettling themselves in one of the richest parts of London. It’s a huge weird funny Street party, in an area not very well equipped to handle such an event. Improvised sound systems cause traffic jams on Street corners. Empty cans and smashed bottles line the streets. There’s a constant vague smell of wee. Grown men are pissing everywhere, and no surprise where huge signs happily proclaim “£3 toilets, this way!” Many of the gardens have futile signs exhorting people “please don’t wee in my garden.” As often as not, someone has weed on the sign.
I walked through the carnage, heading to meet a friend at Ladbroke Grove. Received wisdom is “Don’t go to carnival on Monday evening”, but somehow that’s always when I end up there. People were jumpy. There’s always a few incidents. Police were EVERYWHERE. Today would have been an excellent day to rob a bank in North East London.
Twice as I walked through the centre, near Grenfell, there were spontaneous crowd panics. Suddenly everyone around you starts screaming and running in both directions. It’s pointless running as there is no identifiable thing to flee so running could as easily take you towards whatever it is as away. Both times i shifted to the side of the road and looked, saw no clear reason for the panic, and watched as it died down. The second time, a police officer clocked me shrugging with exasperation: “Any idea what that was caused by?” I had none. “Expectation?” I hazarded.
I eventually got to meet my friend Mel. She was glad of male company. She’d had a constant stream of men asking her why she was alone, telling her she was beautiful, telling her how they were only recently single and their girlfriend cheated etc etc. It was something I hadn’t thought about but became aware thereafter as I witnessed men attach like burrs to people who were just trying to enjoy themselves; “Hey. Hey, beautiful. Hey. Hey. Hey. Hey, beautiful. Beautiful. Hey beautiful. Hey, yeah hey, you yeah… you’re beautiful.” It’s pitifully uncomfortable to watch. God it must be tedious to receive. One guy kept kissing a girl on the shoulder in the supermarket queue. She kept hollowly smiling. I don’t know how she didn’t lamp him.
People were grabbing and holding Mel’s ass, before I came, she told me. Because she was on her own. I show up and she’s left alone. As soon as I’m there, no more crap. I partly see what they meant by banning Bartholomew Fair. A festival has to be permissive or it’s pointless. But none of them were dressed as an Archbishop. Perhaps that’s the trick they were missing.
Having found Mel, we went to get some food. It was a bit late though, so the concessions were no longer licensed. They were paranoid. But they had a load of chicken cooked that they couldn’t legally sell, that was going to go to waste. We appealed to their greed to sate ours. “Not here. Round the corner,” he hissed through his teeth. “They’re watching. Plain clothes police. Give me the money. Careful. Ok. Meet me over there by that van.”
Buying it gave me a rush of transgression, quelling that pressing desire to find a crozier and a goat. He sold us jerk chicken like it was something dreadful. I’m not sure if it’s enough to send me back to candlebiting happy, but I’m glad I went to the carnival. Just as I’m glad I didn’t get shanked or have acid thrown in my face, or get buggered by some lunatic in a cassock. And just as I’m glad that whatever got shot over Japan while I was pratting around at a street party landed in the sea. Although now there’s God knows what sort of unstable crap lying on the Pacific sea bed.