Heart of grunge: The King's Road's day is over. Portobello's old hat. Carnaby Street is a bore. Camden's time has come. Peter Popham on Camden: They come for the market. What they get is a fully working model of a civilisation contemplating its own decline

An old derelict painstakingly hangs three overcoats on wire hangers on the outside wall of Camden Town Tube station. Is he offering them for sale? Or is this his wardrobe? It's only ten in the morning, but the Bohemians who cluster round the traffic lights nearby are already deep into their cider. The big fellow with the beard tilts his head back in the drizzle and pours it bravely down.

There's a woman all in mauve, from her rinsed perm to the woolly stockings below her calf-gripping party dress, mincing past them now, and down into the Tube. While up the draughty escalator come the boys and girls with their Rasta ringlets, wash-off tattoos and black leather jackets, furtively consulting and stashing away their guidebooks. The pilgrims, from all over Europe and beyond, are drawing closer to the shrine.

King's Road's day is over: shops for rent, the big chains moving in, bringing their boredom and provinciality in train. Portobello's old hat. Carnaby Street's a bore. All those western reaches, awash in antiques and debs and middle-aged Americans and architect-designed interiors. How very Eighties. Now it's Camden's turn.

Two hundred thousand people swarm through Camden every weekend, and the effect they have is so drastic that for the rest of the week the place makes no kind of sense: a humdrum inner suburban high street with a newsagent, electrical shop, bookies, fishmonger, pub - and 24 shops selling studded Harley-Davidson black leather jackets and high-heeled Brazilian winklepickers.

But Saturday joins up the dots. So you've got the semi-covered market full of clothes and tat on the right and Inverness Street - fruit and veg outdoors - on the left, the walnut beetles and crushed velvet hairbands and caramelised peanuts and tiny ornamental drum kits blocking the pavements, then the bridge over the Grand Union Canal, beyond which is the pretext and point of it all: Camden Lock Market.

A businessman called Eric Reynolds started the market with two friends in 1974 when the whole area was due to be engorged in a motorway box: bought the fag end of the lease on a decaying packing case factory called Dingwall's, gambled on the motorway plan being scrapped, and in the mean time divided up the factory floor and rented out the spaces at modest rents to craftsmen and traders.

The market started quietly. Then in 1976 Reynolds was given permission to open on Sundays and it began to take off. It has become for the Nineties what King's Road was for the Sixties. The ingredients are very similar: rock stars, actual and aspiring, their groupies and drug dealers, well-bred girls at a loose end, squatters, New Agers and freaks and buskers and tens of thousands of hangers-on and tourists.

Camden's market is now one of the top six tourist attractions in the UK, according to the British Tourist Authority. If one counted only those visitors who came under their own steam, as opposed to being dumped without the option by coach, it might emerge as the most popular of the lot.

Yet all along, Camden has remained defiantly typical of north London: dirty, industrial, architecturally undistinguished, ethnically chaotic, socially obscure, with a long history of political radicalism: in a word, Camden is grungy. We live in an era of grunge, and Camden is its undisputed capital.

Camden is not just grungy on the outside: it has grunge in its heart and soul. Two hundred years ago it was a halfway house between London and the villages of Hampstead and Highgate. Life only began to stir when the Grand Union Canal was cut through from Birmingham in 1814.

South of Camden the new waterway turned genteel, became the Regent's Canal and was incorporated by Nash into his scheme for Regent's Park. So north of Camden's flight of locks was where commercial activity had to begin and end. Warehouses and factories sprang up beside it. All at once the place had a reason for existing.

Twenty years later, in the teeth of bitter opposition, they cut the railway from Birmingham through the middle of Camden and down to the new terminus at Euston.

The prospectus issued by the London and Birmingham Railway was consummately reassuring 'The railway will either pass under or over the great roads, never on the same level,' they wrote soothingly, 'will be carefully fenced everywhere and ornamental within sight of gentlemen's residences; the carriages make little noise, the engines produce no smoke.' And the first trains did have a quaint aspect, being small and light and pretty. Speculative builders were sanguine enough in the 1840s to throw up streets of new 'gentlemen's residences' just yards from the track. But the engines became big and fantastically dirty, the trains grew thunderous. Acres of land in the middle of Camden were turned over to shunting yards. Social expectations slumped: the gentlemen's residences were cut up into rooming houses for the Irish and Italian immigrants, the first of an unending stream of arrivals for whom Camden was a humble step on the ladder towards something a bit respectable.

It was the tradesman's entrance to the capital. The best you could say was that it had a certain gritty reality. Many of today's visitors probably take the knots of drunks around the station for standard local colour, the sort of thing, that makes London so interestingly different from Europe's other capitals.

But there is a reason for the almost proprietorial air these Camden bums exude: that reason is Arlington House, just behind the High Street (opened in 1905 by Lord Rowton the philanthropist, whose Rowton Houses around the metropolis provided beds for the homeless, this was his biggest). You can visit Camden over and over again without ever learning of Arlington House's existence. But once you discover it, it follows you around. The institution is so big and central that the town appears to revolve around it. Approached up Jamestown Road off the High Street where the great slab of the side wall is exposed, there are few more awesome structures in London. Arlington House accommodates 389 men today, those in work paying pounds 24 per week for their own cubicle, and there are no vacancies.

The age of steam spluttered to a close, the smuts and the stink receded, and the streets of Camden where 'gentlemen's residences' had been constructed rediscovered their place in the scheme of things.

The gentry came creeping back , buying for a few thousand pounds four- and five-storey villas of immense dignity and poise. Alice Swain, an architect and local political activist, and her husband Henry bought theirs in 1961 for pounds 8,000; at the peak of the boom a few years ago it was worth well over half a million.

Alice's house is opposite Jonathan Miller's; the residents of the Crescent comprise a concise Who's Who of English men and women of letters who had a few thousand to spend on a home in 1960: Alan Bennett, Nicholas Mosley, Michael Frayn and Claire Tomalin among them.

So distinctive became this community of literary blow-ins that in the Sixties it begat a satirical strip cartoon, Life and Times in NWI, starring the Stringalongs, appearing weekly in The Listener, which teased the chicly radical for their excesses of trendy liberalism.

The Stringalongs, however, have no heirs: no budding writer today could hope to do more than rent a room or two in such a street.

Camden is the way it is for a whole series of negative reasons: failure, political stalemate, cussedness, absence of vision. The motorway box plan failed: had it not done, the town would have been consumed. The Labour-dominated council have made a habit of testing the patience of would-be developers to destruction. They are now very good at this. The residents send up howls of anguish every time anyone attempts to touch anything. Everyone in the borough seems pretty well convinced that all is for the best in the best of all possible Camdens.

Old social principles endure: the rich man in his Gloucester Crescent, the poor man in his Arlington House cubicle. Rich and poor are very close here, practically cheek by jowl, they stride and hobble the same streets, use the same shops. There is nothing to suggest that the social distance between them is diminished one jot by this proximity.

But it's nice, isn't it, better than having them penned up in ghettoes, and if you're drunk enough, perhaps the hard edges begin to blur.

Camden's ten million visitors a year may imagine that they are merely visiting a market. But what they get for their money is better than any theme park. It's a fully working model of English civilization - in slightly addled, oddly complaisant contemplation of its own decline.

In an attempt to disguise what is possibly its most embarrassing find, the British Museum is executing a cover-up operation to save a few blushing faces and curb public laughter. A few weeks ago, 70 yards of some of the rarest, most spectacular (and most valuable) Egyptian raiment dating from circa 2000 BC were discovered by a curator, immaculately preserved inside an Egyptian mummy case - which had lain, unnoticed, inside the museum for 80 years or so.

The case, thought to belong to an Egyptian royal or noble, had been collecting dust anonymously on a shelf when the curator decided it needed a clean and peeped inside. Despite the well-recorded Egyptian practice of enclosing clothing and bedding with their dead, it seems no one had thought to open it earlier.

'We're not sure what the cloth is yet, but it is in a very good state - perhaps the best ever found,' explained another curator ecstatically. 'There are reams and reams of it.'

In view of such excitement, I find it hard to account for the museum's official line: 'It's just a few fragments really at the bottom of a box,' said a spokesman.

The concept of rivalry is seldom publicly admitted by London's more genteel sporting establishments. It would not be seemly, after all, for Charles Swallow, managing director of the pounds 1,549-a-year Vanderbilt Racquets Club, to admonish the Princess of Wales never to play tennis at nearby pounds 730-a-year Queen's Club. I am amused, therefore, to see a far more subtle form of attack from Monsieur Swallow in the form of an invitation to celebrate the Vanderbilt's 10th anniversary next month - right in the middle of Queen's Club's most prestigious tournament, London's international precursor to Wimbledon, the Stella Artois. 'There is no reason why we should have chosen that week for the party,' insisted a Vanderbilt's spokeswoman. . .and equally, sceptics might quibble, no reason why not.

Consolation for the red-faced members of the ENO's publicity department, responsible for a recent appeal leaflet which included a reference to that little-known work: 'Verdi's Tosca'. The team at Brighton Festival Opera is not doing too well either. Posters have gone up advertising: 'Rossini's Magic Flute'.

Despite the presence of luminaries such as Anthony Sampson and VS Naipaul at last week's literary award ceremony hosted by the Society of Authors in the Middle Temple Hall, the proceedings took a dramatic tumble, as spontaneously and uninvited, a young man leapt on to the stage, seized the microphone and begged the crowd: 'I need to be discovered.' Astonished editors, authors and poets turned as the man, one James Glasse, continued blithely: 'I'm writing a novel. . . I think its quite good. . .I'm looking for an agent called Bill Hamilton. . .Is he here? I've heard he is quite famous.' Quite where Mr Glasse, 32, developed such marketing tactics, is beyond me. Presumably not in the Civil Service, where he hails from. Personally, I consider his methods refreshing, but on this occasion, it seems his audience lacked humour: 'You won't get discovered like that, young man,' hissed one author. 'You'll never get published now.'

Aggravating, surely, the already-soured relations between the Ulster Unionists and the Tories, caused by the Downing Street Declaration, is the latest Euro-campaign strategy of Tory party chairman Sir Norman Fowler. He is planning to visit Northern Ireland next month to promote the province's sole Tory Euro-candidate, Myrtle Boal.

Ms Boal, 55, is delighted by such high-profile backing. With less than ten per cent support in the polls, she hopes Sir Norman's presence will draw out the closet Tories, including some Ulstermen, whom, she says, Northern Ireland Secretary Sir Patrick Mayhew, is urging to convert.

'They'll soon fall foul of the electorate of Northern Ireland,' said Jim Wilson, secretary-general of the Ulster Unionists, adding: 'Any time they send over bigwigs from Smith Square they leave the kiss of death behind.

Peter Popham on Camden: They come for the market. What they get is a fully working model of a civilisation contemplating its own decline

(Photographs omitted)

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