Orlaith Delaney takes her leave of Oxford with a stroll among the brightly coloured gowns on the east side of town.
By midday, people had started staking out a spot for themselves on the pavements, setting up their deckchairs with their coolers of drink within easy reach. The sound systems were cranking up, thumping the dust out of the bricks and the memories of winter from peoples’ brains. The signals were clear: there will be a party here today.
This was the first year for some time that the Cowley Road Carnival would take place on the street itself. The event had largely taken place in South Park the past few years, but this year Cowley Road would take centre stage again. Cowley Road is a carnival on a normal day, with its smorgasbord of global cuisine, trendy bars, graffiti-covered walls and the versatile East Oxford Community Centre. So it was a pleasure to see that most of the businesses on the street were getting involved; the bars hosting music events while many restaurants set up food stalls to showcase their culinary talents.
A procession was scheduled to take place from the Community Centre to the SS Mary and John Church. The theme of the procession was Wheels of Change and would feature school children, community groups, dance groups and no doubt, the odd swept-up spectator.
By 1:45pm, Cowley Road was thronged. Parade participants were trying to make their way down to the Community Centre without damaging their outfits; revelers were trying to decide where to stand so they could get a good view. The sun was exploding down out of a clear, blue, sky – the first truly hot day of what nobody expected would become a three-week tropical heatwave for the country.
The mixture of people in attendance was an anthropologist’s wet dream. There were families with young children, groups of teenagers, students, white haired OAPs, all vying for a good standing spot. The intelligent people stood on the shady side of the street; the sun was so hot that day it was able to penetrate 50 factor sunscreen. People saw the potential in the weather for displaying every tattoo on their bodies; men went topless, women went backless. Though it was a relief to see that, for one day at least, buttcheeks were generally kept under fabric
A horn was blown to signal the beginning of the procession and a cheer rose from the crowd. Drums pounded, whistles blew, streamers fluttered, dancers shimmied, saxes wailed, flags waved, confetti rained, and Cowley Road turned into a river of blue, pink, silver, black, yellow, red, green, purple and white shiny bright costumes.
The parade itself seemed quite short, and you would really have needed to have either been right at the front of the crowd and risk getting danced over or to have secured a high vantage point to fully appreciate the intended effects of the various groups’ outfits and floats. But the atmosphere in the crowd was good, and the sensory overload of a passing carnival is an experience in itself.
Once the parade has passed, the crowd began to split up. Most people instantly sought out some cold beverages or went looking for food. It was again possible to walk up the street half an hour after the procession. Stragglers were still following the smoke signals to the barbeques, or snatching hands from the ice-cream sellers along with their popsicles. But it was mostly the dedicated party-makers that now remained, enjoying the chance to show off their moves in the middle of the street or settling down to a major drinking session.
Unfortunately, the day did not end well for the carnival as fights broke out late that evening and one person ended up being stabbed. But the early part of the day was a truly enjoyable experience, especially for people that frequent the businesses on the street regularly. The Carnival is now an established feature on the Oxford calendar, and if some people can’t hold their drink, it should not be allowed to tarnish the reputation of the event. Next year, get there early, find a high spot, slather on the sunscreen and for an hour or two, join in the carnival fun.
Words and pictures by Orlaith Delaney