Carnival, the best time of the year

It feels like we're obeying the command of some god who hovers over North Kensington and issues a ba

Back in the 1980s when I started working at Honest Jon's record shop in Ladbroke Grove, we'd have the same discussion every time Carnival came around: "Shall we open this year?" These were the days when the whole vibe was less controlled and more intense than it is now. Bob Brooks, who ran the never-to-be-equalled Reggae Revive emporium in our broom closet, was always for it. Puffing on a Silk Cut, he'd summon up an imaginary cash register: "Kerching!!" Al Capone, our resident guru, like Bob born and bred in the Grove, would scoff, "Foolishness. You lot open and you'll all be dead by lunchtime."

So we never did, and the rhythm of our year has remained nicely symmetrical: we're open seven days a week, with two days off at Christmas and two days off at Carnival. I like it, because it feels like we're obeying the command of some god who hovers over North Kensington and issues a bacchanalian order every August bank holiday. Don't work. Party.

Getting ready to party

Saturday has a buzz like the days in the run-up to Christmas. People are banging in nails to fix the protective hoardings in front of shops and houses, and all day you can feel the tempo rising. French rastas hammer our reggae section. There's a big group of Dutch hippies buying dubstep and an Armenian student down from Manchester spends the day making a pile of jazz LPs. Everyone is here for Carnival. The sun is shining and there's a palpable premonition of sound systems, of fried chicken and goat curry, of a city transforming into revelry.

How it all began

I've been reading Michael X, the new book by an old friend, John Williams. John tells of the real beginning of Carnival as we know it, in September 1965 (earlier incarnations took place at St Pancras Town Hall). A street party organised by the local activist Rhaune Laslett was transformed when the Trinidadian musician Russ Henderson spontaneously led his band on a procession through Ladbroke Grove. There were 2,500 people following by the end, and Rhaune's "Fayre" (there was also Irish music and a bake sale) was transformed into a celebration of West Indian culture. The Caribbean angle was later accentuated by the Black Power activist Michael X (before he ended up on death row in Trinidad).

Russ still comes into the shop from time to time. His wonderful West Indian Drums is a highlight of our second "London Is the Place For Me" collection.

From dub to subs

This is the first carnival in 30 years without Dub Vendor, who closed their shop in Ladbroke Grove in June. For them, Carnival was the peak of the year and the perfect expression of what they were about. Now the combined forces of a lethal rent review and - let's face it - the death of the record shop as we have known and loved it has seen them off. So it's goodbye and nuff respect, Dub Vendor, and hello (as rumour has it), Subway.

The end of summer

Carnival has all the elements of a nightmare - the crowds, the incessant racket, white people who can't dance, queues for the bog that don't move, the endless tramp to a sound system that the cops have sealed off - but when it's good the euphoria is like nothing else.

To counter today's downs of not getting anywhere near Good Times or Aba Shanti or Sancho Panza, there have been the joys of the swishingly elegant dancing at the Latin sound in Portobello; grooving to the Gladdy Wax ska selection; rediscovering classic hip-hop care of the Fun Bunch; and at the day's climax listening to the dubplates at Channel One, dropped with dread panache and a million kilowatts of bass.

I'm in the basement of the shop on Monday night. The sound systems have shut down hours ago but helicopters drone overhead. The funky stench of rancid cooking fat and urine, which in a good year lasts till Friday, settles into W11. There's that melancholy feeling that the end of Carnival means summer's over and there's work to do. Someone pisses down our stairwell. Oh gosh, pray for rain.

Alan Scholefield is co-owner of Honest Jon's Records

This article first appeared in the 01 September 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The truth about GM food