J’ouvert, from jour ouvert, the day’s opening, pronounced jouvé, as in youth. Six in the morning on Sunday, the very beginning of children’s day, a hundred or so people are loitering at the top of Ladbroke Grove, a small stall is doing a slow but steady business in coffees and roti, and a couple of floats are getting ready. Almost everyone but us is wearing paper boiler suits and cradling containers of liquid and bags of flour.
The floats trundle off down Ladbroke Grove at a carnival pace. One float has a full steel band, one little kid doing the simple rhythms, full of that musical concentration that borders on nerdiness. The second float is just drums: drums made out of bins and gas canisters. The players loop complex rhythms which comeback round to a unified triplet: doof – doof – doof, before flying off against each other again.
The crowd follow, coalesce and start covering each other in flour, talcum powder, washing up liquid and mud squirted from squeezy ketchup bottles. A few have eggs, some have (I hope water-based) paint. It’s all good-natured, childish fun, at least partly because it’s first thing in the morning, and no-one’s had enough to drink yet to turn nasty. Occasionally someone darts off out of the crowd in hot pursuit of another. Two kids slip and fall over in exactly the same place as one chases the other. This is the time to get caught in the crossfire. A kid in a pristine white muscle T and gold chain is laughing till he gets mud on his shirt and trainers. A bloke, clearly woken by the noise, emerges from his basement flat, looking with bleary eyes at the procession.
The Caribbean tradition of j’ouvert, the opening of the carnival with a messy, smeary food fight is the kind of phenomenon with multiple origins: a spiritual ceremony warding off the bad ones; a tradition borne of an identity-concealing rebellion in Port of Spain; or even an imported Indian ritual. This j’ouvert is a relatively recent addition to the Notting Hill Carnival, organised by CD Jam, a small collective of Carnival performers. Like all traditions, Carnival reinvents itself continually, adding new aspects as others are taken away. The procession itself used to go past the end of our street: alas no more, as it all gets corralled below the Harrow Road.
The CD Jam crew have a little truck laden with mud, water and flower, to replenish the revellers. Little clouds of flour smoke up explosively from around the steel pans. We leave them as they go under the Westway. Later, someone tells me that on the TV news they saw a policeman, with his uniform all covered in mud and flour. That’s gotta beat borrowing his helmet for a dance.