On the wrong tack

Camden, once a hangout for the hip and happening, is now where tourists go for a fix of non-conformity. Jamie Grafton speaks out
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The Independent Culture
"So you live in Camden Town?" said the taxi driver. "Lively place. Better to avoid it at weekends, though," he frowned. I nodded in grim agreement, oblivious to the worrying fact that I now shared a sentiment with a man who moments before had tried to convince me that Virginia Bottomley was "a dish".

The cabbie had described an irksome paradox. If Camden Town is such a knees-up, roll-out-the-barrel kind of place, weekends must surely be the time to indulge in its chipper atmosphere: there's the market with its kaleidoscopic stalls, the pavement cafs dripping with beatniks, the comfortable shabbiness of the High Street... in short, a picture of bohemianism. Except this sort of stereotyped vision comes from the same draw as John Major's England of warm beer and cricket on the village green: it's not like that now, and if intellect overcomes sentiment we realise it probably never was.

Undeniably though, Camden Town is unlike other areas of north London. Its inhabitants include misfits and mavericks who would stand out in other communities; in Camden, they're no odder than anybody else. Writers and actors who wouldn't sit easily with the Hampstead set seem to settle here. The wealthy live in the same streets as dosshouses that try to deal with Camden's appalling homelessness problem.

But Camden's eccentric nature is the cause of its problems. Its reputation as an off-the-rails kind of place is part of the reason for it being the epicentre of the London indie scene, causing rafts of impressionable youths to mope around hoping for a glimpse of Damon or Liam.

At weekends, thousands of people clamber onto the Northern Line for a journey that will take them to the Camden Experience. Middle-class suburbs and London overspills are emptied of Doc Marten's-shod teenagers, eager to rub shoulders with hippies and goths and to pick up a few garments that will make Mum and Dad grimace. Home counties indie kids with carefully cultivated lank hair shuffle back and forth with studied sullenness. MTV Europe viewers trot around, grinning inanely and chirpily pointing out how cool London is.

The presence of these types has changed the character of the market. Camden's reputation as a limitless supplier of bargain clothes is well- deserved: buying a decent, second-hand leather jacket can leave you with change from £20. But over recent months, hard-sell spivs have started sprouting here and there, burning the fingers of those who are conspicuously wide-eyed at this bazaar. A few weeks ago I wandered onto the High Street on a Saturday afternoon; almost immediately I came across a Del-Boy type selling shirts. Astutely noticing my blond hair, he began jabbering:

"Oi, mate! Deutsche? Swedish? All these shirts - only 20 pounds each."

"No thanks," I replied.

"Oh, you're an Englishman! Tenner each to you then, mate. Christ, the sunshine brings the birds out, dunnit?"

Camden Town market has become a sort of virtual reality game which people can plug into for a few hours of decadence and spurning convention; no matter how mundane your daily life may be, Camden can make you outrageous. Watching the masses billowing out of the tube station on a Saturday morning, it's hard not to think of Rik's ironically self-deceptive line from an episode of The Young Ones: "We're absolutely crazy! We just don't care what we do!"

As the market descends into tawdriness, it wouldn't be surprising to switch onto daytime TV and see Anne and Nick on Camden High Street, tossing around words like "wacky" and "carnival atmosphere". God forbid. But Camden is certainly losing its radical aura. Tourists are piling in after they've seen Trafalgar Square and before they go to the Zoo. They bring with them every wideboy in London who's got a box of Big Ben snow shakers to shift.

In Camden, the decline of Carnaby Street is being mirrored on a big scale. As The Jam put it, "The street that wasn't part of the British monarchy" became "a part of the British tradition". Hideous scenarios where the Daily Mail urges its loyal readers to visit the market when they're in London may never be realised, but it's likely that in a few years time people who thought Camden was a shocking rabble will find it mostly inoffensive.

Weekdays in Camden are only vaguely tarnished by the weekend's props. There is still a sense of timeless lethargy and comforting aimlessness. Afternoons spent in pubs drift by, soundtracked by the yelps of bawling drunks and the sirens of police vans. Of course, it has the same problems as other dirty towns, like tired shoppers crawling around supermarkets, and fast-food chains staffed by genetic throwbacks. But from Monday to Friday there is a happy lack of purpose hanging over the place that sets Camden apart, adding another dimension to this bizarre melting pot. It only finds a use at weekends, when it's an outlet for the tourist industry and a place where unremarkable people can get a quick fix of non-conformity.

Camden Town market has as many defenders as detractors. Wander over there at the weekend and you'll find thousands who are having a high old time. Don't expect to find many locals supporting the cause, though. If they're not in a secluded pub, then you'll probably find them doing a bit of shopping over in Portobello Road. Now that must mean something.