Camden Town- My Secret History

Camden Lock

Camden Lock when it catered for the many.

Camden Lock now it caters for the few

Camden Lock now it caters for the few                      

     CAMDEN  TOWN- My Secret History

Ian Parson

I first went to Camden in 1981.

As a child of the 70s I remember Sundays being excruciatingly boring. Something we were forced to endure before returning to school on Monday morning. All shops were closed and the 3 television channels offered nothing.

Coming to Camden market for the first time with its extended opening hours felt like coming home.

As Charles Dickens wisely opined,

The London of your youth is the one you always love the most ’ or words to that effect.

I wasn’t the only one who took to the new Sunday trading laws like a duck to water. They were a huge hit the length and breadth of the land. They transformed British life forever. 

Camden was a bit rough around the edges back then, but I knew there was genuine musical history. The Doors, Pink Floyd, Bowie, The Rolling Stones had all played the Roundhouse. I’d seen iconic photos of the Sex Pistols outside the market.

But when I arrived the Roundhouse was closed down and Sid Vicious was dead. If we wanted a musical legacy we would have to start again.

By the early 80s Anti-Fascist Action had chased the Far Right off Camden market permanently. In this little patch of North London diversity ruled.

The Soul to Soul boys came across the river from Brixton and set up shop amongst the Goths, Punks and Hippies.

Black and white kids were mixing, musical genres were mutating. It was exciting. But we acted cool, as though it was no big deal, just the way things should be.

The multicultural ideal, the philosophy of live and let live was deeply rooted by the time we moved towards the heady days of 94/95, when Brit-Pop exploded.

In 1997 Torquil Norman invested £200 million of the money he’d made from Polly Pockets, a girl’s toy, into revamping the run-down Roundhouse. In 2006 it reopened as a music and Arts venue once again.

The Camden landscape of the late 80s and 90s was still largely industrial and neglected. The pubs still full of smoke and Irish navvies, still a little bit old school.

But the market was buzzing with new ideas, was practically the centre of the musical universe.

Then in 1994 Prince turned up to open his shop ‘Sign O’ the times’. I stood on the pavement with the rest of them and caught a glimpse of the great man on his balcony. I wasn’t overly impressed that he’d travelled so far, who wouldn’t travel far to come here? I thought.

Besides the place was already full of rock stars.

The Good Mixer in Inverness Street was a second home to the Oasis and Blur boys, The Dublin Castle on Parkway was where Coldplay could be found. The Hawley Arms was attracting an alternative musical crowd that included Amy Winehouse and Pete Doherty. Whilst The Electric Ballroom and The Fiddler’s Elbow were churning out a steady stream of memorable gigs.

It wasn’t all about the music though, in The Enterprise Pub opposite The Roundhouse, poker games went on well into the night. Usually the Irish won.

All the pubs were rocking day and night, a bed in the area was reasonably priced and the market offered casual employment to finance the lifestyle.

Tourists flocked to Camden from far and wide, particularly the young and the beautiful.

This was exactly how the world was supposed to be.

Then one night Banksy came to join the party. He brightened up a few walls and local artists accepted the challenge. They still do. 

Musicians, Writers, Artists, Tattooists all came and all had their say.

Camden had taken us on such a meteoric rise surely it would last forever? Possibly we were going to stay young indefinitely.

We had no idea these were the days of our lives, that things change, that sooner or later everything comes to an end.

In the summer of ’96 whilst the whole country was affected by football fever the party raged on.

Then in 2007 Amy Winehouse released ‘Back to Black’ and the Camden scene went truly global.

It was devastating for all in 2008 when the market behind The Hawley Arms burnt down.

Long term stallholders were suddenly out of business. They suffered a double whammy, fire damage followed by huge rent hikes.

The next ten years saw the slow gentrification of the area which in 2019 is almost complete.

In the Stables market there is now a huge Sports Direct and chainstores cleverly disguised as funky street food stalls dominate.

The new Camden Lock market is due to open in March 2020. Everybody anticipates more chainstores.

It’s not the same as it was, everything seems cleaner, more sterile.

However the kids of today are also cleaner, so I suppose Camden is just doing what its always done, adapting for the next generation.

This part of London remained fundamentally unchanged for decades because the World did likewise. But when the internet came along change everywhere speeded up, Camden was no exception.

The race in London to take advantage of anything that can be monetised is reaching its climax.

When the party ends and the music stops, as soon it must, big companies intend to have all the prime locations sewn-up. Not just in London but everywhere. Fortunately the kids keep coming to Camden to party.

When the dust settles this will no longer be the Camden of my youth. It will however always occupy a place in my heart. There will always be enough misfits to make the place worth visiting.

Banksy in Camden

Banksy’s 1st work in Camden that I was aware off was the ‘Chalk Farm Maid’ on Chalk Farm Road.

Ian Parson,  Autumn 2019

Ian Parson’s new novel ‘The Grind’ is now available from Amazon and all good book shops.

Camden Market constantly evolves. Each new generation claims it for themselves. This is precisely the way things should be!
Camden Market, where they are always trying new ideas

Ian Parson has 3 books set in London.

A Secret Step‘ A 50 year tale of a slum family between 1888 & 1941. From Jack the Ripper to the Blitz of London.

The East End Beckons‘ An epic story travelling from Cornwall to London as the world danced to a dangerous tune.

The Grind‘ The story of two young girl’s growing up in Dorset Street, the worst slum in Victorian London. Murder, crime and intrigue are all they know. 

All books by Ian Parson are available on Kindle and Audible @ Amazon and all good retailers

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