Sunday, 30 August 2015
Carnival: NW by Zadie Smith
Carnival! Girls from work, boys from the salon, old school friends, Michel’s cousins from south London, all walk the streets with a million others. Seeking out the good sound systems, winding their bodies close to complete strangers and each other, eating jerk, ending up in Meanwhile Gardens, stoned in the grass. Usually. Not this year. This year they finally accept Frank’s annual invitation to a friend of a friend’s with ‘an amazing carnival pad.’ They turn up early on the Sunday morning, as advised, to get there before the street is closed off…
Leah accept a rum and Coke and sits in a corner chair, looking out the window, watching the police lining up along the barricades….
Now the flat fills very quickly. The doorbell rings continuously… People stream into the party like soldiers into triage. It’s hell out there! I thought we weren’t going to make it. Everyone takes turns to stand on the white stucco balconies, dancing, blowing whistles painted in Rastafarian colours at the carnival crowds, far below. Very soon Leah is drunk…. Nat’s coming later. She’s with the kids on one of Marcia’s church floats. Sausage roll?
observations: Today sees the start of this year’s Notting Hill Carnival in London.
The Carnival is a key part of London life in August – a huge street party, one of the largest in the world, with a massive parade with floats, costumes and dancing. Over the two days, culminating in August Bank Holiday Monday, a million people take to the streets in what is usually a rambunctious but peaceful enough event. Every year there are fears and threats, discussions over the police presence, and concerns over public safety. There is plentiful and varied music, food and drugs on offer. Carnival is a terrific celebration of the multi-cultural diversity of modern Britain.
It’s a central part of this book, which is itself a celebration of London life: the Carnival brings together the different strands of the story – see this earlier entry for details of the plot.
The book is very good on the two young women, Nat and Leah, getting older and comparing how they are doing. Just as at school they reached a point where ‘They had only Prince left [in common] and he was wearing thin’ – here Leah doesn’t know Natalie’s friends, while Nat herself is trying to find common ground with her family by going on a float.
Natalie is the high flyer: when she goes to university and meets privileged white young people, she wonders ‘Were these really the people for whom the Blakes had always been on their best behaviour?’ Her strategy for getting on is ‘Do good work. Wait for your good work to be noticed.’ She has a short fascinating encounter with an older black female barrister/judge, who wants to give her good advice.
There is a big variety of voices and styles, most of them very well done. I particularly liked the community activist Phil Barnes, living next door to Felix’s father and talking about the past and his sense of belonging. I liked the rich boy’s parents, who wouldn’t understand ‘downstairs neighbour’ or ‘night bus’ or ‘unpaid internship’.
The top four photos are from Wikimedia Commons, of recent carnivals.
The bottom four photos are ones I took myself at the Notting Hill Carnival back in 1979.