Society, Politics & Law

Negotiating Notting Hill

Updated Friday 18th September 2009

Melissa Butcher reflects on her experience at the Notting Hill Carnival, and looks at crowd behaviour

Each year after Notting Hill Carnival there is debate in media columns and talkback radio about whether the Carnival has outgrown its current site. ‘The streets of gentrifying Notting Hill can no longer accommodate Europe’s largest street party’, is one argument. ‘The Caribbean community has moved on and so should the carnival’ is another. On reflection, there are two deep-seated fears being presented here: first, fear of the crowd, its sheer size and unpredictability; and second, the fear of the stranger and his/her ambiguity.

Notting Hill crowd Creative commons image Icon scottroberts under CC-BY-NC-ND licence under Creative-Commons license
Notting Hill carnival crowd

The popular belief is that crowds are volatile and can equal trouble. Such impressions have ultimately led to crowd control tactics such as ‘kettling’. However, psychologists at St Andrews University, researching how people behave at demonstrations, large sporting or music events, have found that there is wisdom embedded in crowds which nearly always act in highly rational ways, and are more likely to cooperate than panic in an emergency. The findings pointed to an ‘identity shift’ which drives people in a crowd to act in the best interests of themselves and those around them. Decades earlier, Elias Canetti wrote of similar sensations when he described the individual’s transcendence when subsumed into a crowd, now free of the burden of distance from others.

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Trying to make my way up Ladbroke Grove during Carnival it is hard to feel this transcendence. At first there is a sense only of discomfort; then a feeling of suffocation as my 5’ 2” frame is squeezed on all sides, pulled back, loses sight of my partner, and becomes surrounded by strangers.

According to Canetti: "there is nothing that man (sic) fears more than the touch of the unknown … It is only in a crowd that man can become free of this fear of being touched."

Not just any crowd though. A crowd in which we lose our fear of being touched by the unknown is a crowd that is already dense with familiarity. This is a closed crowd; a crowd that sets its boundaries and desires permanence at the expense of disorderly growth.

The open crowd, a Notting Hill crowd, is another experience altogether. It is potentially limitless and exists so long as it grows, pulling people, barbeque smoke and sequins into its wake as it roils its way through the neighbourhood, disintegrating as quickly as it began when it reaches sunset.

Perhaps then the tensions that infiltrate Notting Hill Carnival are not generated in the diversity of people per se, but in the dynamics of closed and open crowds, order and spontaneity. Their meeting can be fraught as incursion into each other’s territory is unwittingly made. The closed crowd may not even appear on the streets. Its adherents appear silent, invisible in cultural frameworks dominated by established social hierarchies (for example, men, capital, Englishness).

Its boundaries are of course always contested (for example, by women, youth, or other cultural frames of reference) and sometimes breached by the open crowd. But the open crowd’s impermanent nature may not provide any lasting infrastructure on which to build equality and can block a thoroughfare as easily as any gated community.

On a daily basis then we must negotiate with either crowd, sometimes going with the flow, sometimes stepping to the side to avoid collision; watching, always watching. These negotiations are inflected by personal dispositions of, as Bauman puts it, mixophilia and mixophobia: the love of the city and all its crowds, and its inverse proposition, the fear of the city with all its strangers.

Adding to our repertoire of skills that as individuals we deploy to navigate the city, we find a means to move. Holding hands, forming a human chain, and like water, sliding between the cracks of space that mysteriously open up once some unseen pressure of presence is applied to the crowd, we make our way up Ladbroke Grove.

Notting Hill Carnival on iTunes U

Notting Hill on iTunes

Carnival and the performance of heritage, a series of Open University podcasts on iTunes U


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