“I love it. I used to go to carnival with friends and just walk around. And one of my friends said why don't you join Flagz for carnival? So I did it, and never looked back. Every year I'm with Flagz.”
“90% of my friends are Caribbean. When carnival’s coming up, I can’t even explain it, 5 days, 3 days, 1 day…it’s just so exciting, it’s better than Christmas!”
Leanne was 22 when she first became Gwen’s carer; Gwen had advanced dementia. She continued to care for Gwen for nearly 4 years until she passed away.
“It was just finding what she enjoyed...I always used to catch her singing so I asked Charlie [Gwen's son] what these songs were, who sung them. I learned some of the Vera Lynn war songs, and whenever Gwen was having a bad moment if she started to swear or hit, I'd start singing. And it would completely change her... I think it just made her feel at ease.”
“There was a war song about a soldier being tucked in – ‘Kiss me goodnight sergeant major, tuck me in my little wooden bed’ - so I used to make a joke with Gwen saying that I'd put a soldier in her bed. And she'd sometimes say ‘Make sure there’s two in there!’”
“I've met and made loads of friends. The whole lead-up to it...the excitement...waiting to find out what the costumes will look like...Everything is so enjoyable about it! Flagz are like a family. They look after everyone.”
“I’m just drawn to it. It makes me alive. I love it. I love the vibe, I love the people there – it just makes me happy! Carnival is the one place where I can truly be myself. There’s no limitations, no restrictions. I think it's an addiction!”
She’s done carnivals in Trinidad, Rotterdam, Berlin, and London – about 20-30 carnivals in 10 years.
“That’s not even that much!” she says. And it seems that her desire to be her true self is flowing over into other areas of her life. Louise has just started her own Mac’n’Cheese business.
“In the last few years I've known that it [dentistry] wasn't going to be for me long-term. When you know that that's the case, you look out for things more, you're more conscious of other things you can be doing.”
“It’s amazing seeing people you don't know buying your food. It was an incredible feeling knowing that people liked it. Everyone kept asking ‘Where's your restaurant?’”
Naomi is currently studying for a Masters at Oxford University. She has been part of Flagz Mas Band since 2009 when she moved to London to start her studies at Central St. Martin's.
"It was my first year in London, and my family were going to be in London and I was really happy because I'd be able to spend time with them. I thought it would be a good way to meet people. I'm quite shy, but my cousin said you have to do it! She dragged me into it. I associate it with a good time with family and friends."
"The ethos at Flagz is great. There's a strong sense of community and you really do feel part of an extended family, it's a sense of collectivity that can be hard to find nowadays. I've really enjoyed travelling with the band to participate in carnivals in other countries, they each seem to have something which makes them unique. The general atmosphere at carnival something which is very special, it's a few days which bring people together and transcends barriers. I've made some amazing friends throughout the years."
Sandra has been in mas band for 9 years. She'd been going to Notting Hill Carnival until the age of about 11-13 when she started playing tennis. Sandra was a nationally ranked professional tennis player for much of her teens, and the British National Championships were at the same time of year as carnival.
When she stopped playing tennis, Notting Hill Carnival became something to distract her from that time of the year.
"But I want to get involved!" she thought, "I don't just want to watch."
"Flagz Mas Band feels like an extended family.... I'm not even Caribbean, I'm African, but people there are so real, I can totally be myself, and everyone is celebrated for being themselves. I really believe in what they're doing, and I want people to feel the same way. There's no doubt in my mind that if you were to do it for the first time, you'd get hooked."