walking round you sometimes hear the sunshine beating down in time with the rhythm of your shoes
I am Guy from Camden Town
My hair is curly but I gel it down
My clothes are black but my bread is brown
I’m really into early Motown
In the 1980s
An old man in a three-piece suit sits in the road
He stares across the water, he sees right through the lock
But on and up like outstretched hands
His mumbled words, his fumbled words… mock
Wide-eyed and precocious, we come blinking out of the station, trying not to look at the A-Z and clutching our bags close to us. It’s noisy, grubby, and there are smells that we know we’re too young to recognise. We’ve seen Camden Town in Madness videos: the boys skanking down Kentish Town Road in a tight line before they turn into Holt’s in search of DMs; Chrissy-Boy standing in the middle of the traffic island at what the A-Z seems to call Britannia Junction, wearing nothing but a tan-coloured mac and a cardboard sign. The Clash wouldn’t go on Top of the Pops, but we’ve heard the records – and Joe Strummer on a B-side yelling I should be jumpin’, shoutin’ that I made it all this way, from Camden Town station to 44th and 8th thrills us, even though we have no idea what 44th and 8th is and we obviously don’t ask.
We press into the market looking for records, clothes, bootleg tapes of the kinds of gigs we wouldn’t be allowed into, even if we didn’t have to be on the train by 6.30. Tess, her hair crimped and teased out around a pale face, fancies herself as a goth – at school she wears as much black as she can and wanders around with no shoes on, daring the boys to make fun of her. She loves it here, trying on net gloves and wristbands and buying black nail varnish that her mum won’t let her wear. Me and Janey, more conventional in our big sloganned t-shirts and tight jeans, feel a little nervous and provincial as we rummage through piles of old 7-inch singles. It’s bigger than we thought it would be. Rougher. But we get used to it. Scritti Politti, with their dreams of Marilyn and Jacques Derrida, may have been in love with bop sh-day-o and glad to be out of Camden Town for a day-o, and the Pogues may have thought that it was where the cold north winds blow, but we don’t want to be anywhere else.
In the 1990s
Too much laughing and tumbling down
Upstairs on the night bus from Camden Town
The long hot summer of 1995. We’re a couple of years out of university, living in a flat just off the Caledonian Road. We know who Jacques Derrida is, and some of us have even read him. But we’re still coming to meet fucked-up blokes from Camden Town to get tickets for god knows what, god knows where. Or to speed through sweaty gigs in the Dublin Castle, the Monarch and the Falcon, Converse-clad and tight t-shirted; none of us have ever taken anything stronger than E – no crawling around alleys in Camden Town for us. We glimpse Johnny Dean from Menswe@r (ahem) and giggle at memories of the last time we saw them play; a smitten teen (so unlike us) tugging so hard on the lace of Johnny’s DM as he sits on top of a speaker that it completely unravels and he has to retie it before the next song. Suggs has written an anthem to his manor, in which he serenades the arrival of tourists coming down the street, pleased as punch with brand new Doctor Marten’s on their feet. We’re not tourists, obviously; we regard the bemused horde with benevolent curiosity and superiority as we head to the Good Mixer.
Camden Town on Tuesday lunchtime
Get the papers, maybe this time
Indicators indicate a trend your way
You’re front page news
The guestlist proves that you won’t pay
Graffiti in the ladies says “I’ve done Liam and Noel. Noel was better”. Janey, who likes The Fall, waves her pint and shouts it’s flashy Camden Town, it’s that London lyric again; you haven’t found it yet, in her best Mark E. Smith voice. Tess, who wants to be Courtney Love when she grows up, imagines herself with Kurt’s smile in her locket as she’s walking through the Camden Town rain.
We’re gonna drink Camden Town dry tonight, if I have to spend my last pound – Steve Earle was writing about flashy GIs coming to London in the 1940s, throwing their money around and irritating the locals, but we feel the same way in the 1990s, roaring in from the provinces and making our mark on the city. Or so we think. In reality, Camden Town is splendidly indifferent to us; it takes our money, shows us a good time and spits us out, leaving us sore-headed and sore-hearted.
In the Twenty-First Century
Took a tube to Camden Town, walked down Parkway, and settled down
In the shade of a willow tree, someone hovering over me
Despite the efforts of the council, the scrubbing-up of Parkway a few years ago and the arrival of Virgin Megastore and Office on the High Street, Camden Town remains defiantly scuzzy. We don’t come to Camden Town much. Janey’s a lawyer now, and Tess is working in the City. I’m not working – we decided it was best for the twins to have their mother around. Usually we head the buggy up Parkway – Thomas loves penguins, so we swallow our qualms about animals in captivity and make for Regent’s Park and the Zoo – but this time, driven by nostalgic curiosity, we go up the High Street towards the market, crossing outside the station at what I now know used to be called Penguin Island, after the Irish navvies who’d huddle there in their Sunday Best in the dead hour between church and pub. We’re taken aback by the noise and the crush of tourists and teenage goths. Was it always this way? As we struggle through the crowds I suddenly smell a potent mix of patchouli and cheap incense. But that’s not us any more. These days we’re all about olives and brown bread, not chips and kebabs; Borough, not Camden Lock. Times change. People change.
And still we say come back, come back to Camden
The songs quoted were, in order of appearance: Five Get Over-Excited by The Housemartins, One Better Day by Madness, Gates of the West by The Clash, Jacques Derrida by Scritti Politti, London Girl by The Pogues, London Queen Of My Heart by Cath Carroll, Sorted For Es And Whizz by Pulp, Little Miss Pinpoint Eyes by Menswear, Camden Town by Suggs, London Girls by Stephen Duffy, You Haven’t Found It Yet by The Fall, Camden Town Rain by Mary Lou Lord, Johnny Come Lately by Steve Earle, London Belongs To Me by Saint Etienne and Come Back To Camden by Morrissey. The title of the piece is also from One Better Day.
[This piece originally appeared in Smoke 9.]