Like Pride, St Patrick’s Day or Eid, sponsored corporate interests are ruining Notting Hill Carnival.
Back in the sepia-tinted day, Multicultural Man was at an imperfect stage of development, so I manifested instead as Subcultural Man. Like many young people I had antinomian pretensions – but of course, there’s hardly anything more conducive to conformity, than a culture that feels embattled by the larger one within which it’s embedded. “We’re really nonconformist!” cry the punks, as they all put a safety pin in their ear. Apropos, I remember once getting stuck in traffic in the West End of London by a Sadomasochistic Pride march: men (and they were, mostly, men) wearing full-length leather coats, SS officers’ caps, gas masks and PVC nappies stamping along Shaftesbury Avenue. Some of the S&M militants recognised me and came barrelling over to the car to ask for selfies with Self – yes! In their eyes it was me who was the oddity, whereas their rubber knickers and penchant for beating one another silly was merely de rigueur.
Anyway, all of this is by way of noting that while there may have been a million-plus people on the streets of Notting Hill on Monday – I wasn’t one of them. The Carnival may advertise itself as a festival of African-Caribbean culture, but for the most part it’s long since been reduced to the same status as any number of other celebrations of identity: sponsored by corporate interests, and attended by all in a spirit of consumerism and corybantic abandon; it doesn’t really matter if it’s Gay Pride, St Patrick’s Day, or Eid for that matter, so long as attendees get to go on the lash and spread about some… cash.
The last time I went to the Notting Hill wingding was in the early 1980s, and with a man who subsequently become one of the kingmakers of British politics in the 1990s and 2000s. (If my allusion to him was any less vague than this, given what I’m about to write, I think he might have me terminated, with extreme prejudice. Do I feel weird about having known people such as this in my long and rather static life? Yes – yes I do; just as I feel weird about having once been interviewed for the Daily Telegraph by the current incumbent of No.10 Downing Street. Needless to say he was… respectful.)
After each dropping a blotter of what turned out to be rather strong LSD, the future Kingmaker and I wriggled our way through the ram-packed streets, breasting the smoke of a thousand barbecues, our hearts defibrillated by the massive vibrations pulsing out from reggae sound systems, until we reached the adventure playground at Meanwhile Gardens.
Here, coming up rapidly on the acid, we became trapped atop the highest of the climbing frames, looking out over the ant-like columns of humanity, smarming their way along the Victorian terraces. I would’ve unhappily stayed longer – but the Kingmaker, believing a hearty meal would stop the psychotropic horrors, urged me to descend, get in a taxi, and head into to Soho for some late lunch at Wong Kei.
For those not familiar with this establishment – its name means ‘success’ in Cantonese – this was (and remains) a no-nonsense establishment, where working class Chinese fare is served up by some of the most notoriously rude waiters in London.
Ensconced on the top floor, the Kingmaker ordered vast amounts of food – glutinous sweet and sour pork balls, curried snails, yet more glutinous chicken feet; then, as these sweetmeats arrived, writhing on their dishes, he got the horrors and ran from the room – stiffing me with the bill, while also abandoning me to hideous and psychotic visions. (Although, none as hideous or psychotic as his own future career.) All of which is by way of saying: it’s a mistake to mix your multi- and your subcultures together quite so promiscuously. While as to the alleged ‘rudeness’ of the waiters in Wong Kei, I think this is a function – like so much else – of the majority culture’s orientalism. These waiters – and the kitchen staff in the Soho restaurants – are recruited from China, on the basis that no one in the UK is qualified to do the work. They usually have very little English, and are working for low wages – so why would we expect them to have the politesse of some admirable-fucking-Crichton?
Of course, Theresa May in all her wisdom ordained that such working visas should be put a stop to; and now – and now the still more Solon-like Priti Patel has concurred: after all, good British-born servitors can be trained up to plonk down the plates in lieu of these supposedly unreliable types. I don’t know, to my way of thinking a well-mannered English-speaking waiter in Wong Kei would be as out of place as… well, as having the serving prime minister sit down in front of me now, entirely briefed, ready to write the truth, and… yes… respectful.