Michael Williams: Drop-dead fashionable life in NW1

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The Independent Online

I hardly thought this weekend that I'd have to feel embarrassed about the remains of New Year's Day lunch. But there they are in the bin bag in the front garden still – the bones, the bits, the skin and the scrapings. Meanwhile, the police are everywhere in the neighbourhood, poking every bit of black plastic, and the dustmen look as though they haven't had a Christmas box for years.

Even before the discovery in a wheelie bin in a neighbouring street last Monday of the legs of a 29-year-old woman and the upper torso of a teenager (heads and hands are yet to be found), our area of London NW1 had become like one of those Ripper tours for American tourists.

Never mind the murder rate in Johannesburg, ours, over the past nine months, has been worse. The curious can walk down from Camden Lock past the MTV studios and look out for where tourist Pierluigi Campioni was stabbed to death last June and labourer Thomas Breen died in an unprovoked attack.

Head north and you pass the street where refugee Kon Deng Thiep was beaten to death and teenagers Frankie Kyriacou and Jamiah Conquest died in separate knife incidents. Then to the station, where in October antiques dealer Thomas Scott was murdered by a stranger after missing the last train home. And don't forget the railway bridge, where the dismembered body of a rabbi, Andreas Hinz, was found distributed among six separate bin bags.

Of course, it's easy to characterise Camden Town, as some newspapers have, as some Doré-like inner-city twilight zone ruled by an underclass with a world-leading qualification in savagery. "Bleak", "run-down", "depressing" and "drug-ridden" are the words you'll read most often.

It sometimes seems like that as you battle past the Travelcard blaggers and CashPoint shoulder-surfers outside the Tube, past the crusties and crackheads by the post office, finally to negotiate the drug dealers at the end of my road who congregate at nightfall like the starlings used to in simpler times.

But there is another tribe that lives here, too, who like the inhabitants of the local crack dens and single men's hostels have also been having their bin bags felt.

These are the inhabitants of the stuccoed houses, direct descendants of the Stringalongs and Touch-Paceys, immortalised in Marc Boxer's 1960s cartoon strip "Life and Times in NW1". Boxer's characters were drawn libellously close to prototype – anti-bourgeois, sceptical, middle-class liberals with jobs in academia, the media and left-wing politics who subscribed to strenuously advanced views on politics, art, psychology and education.

Though we're now in a different era, the inhabitants of Camden's crescents and squares don't change much. In my street alone live a Top Tony Blair Adviser, a Top Publisher, a Top Modern Architect and the director of a national art collection. At the end of the road live a Cabinet Minister, a Top Fashion Magazine Editor and Oscar-winning costume designer, and a Top Human Rights Lawyer. (She, in particular – given her client list – might have felt at home popping round the corner to borrow a cup of sugar from the flat where more body parts and a hacksaw have now been found, and where more than turkey may have been carved up over Christmas.)

Some of the original Touch-Paceys have bottled out or moved out. Jonathan Miller recently deserted liberal ranks by denouncing the local "feral children", and Claire Tomalin, the prototype for Mrs Stringalong, has just moved to a respectable part of south London with her husband Michael Frayn. But the rest are thriving, bolstered by Camden's not-entirely-deserved reputation for cool and by its soaring house prices.

And from behind the elegant facades, insulated from the poverty and meanness of the housing estates, they're secretly rather enjoying current grim events. "Of course," said a sociologist neighbour at a Christmas bash, "the crime is appalling. But it's always been like it round here. Look what Engels found a century ago ..."

You can just hear it from behind the stripped pine shutters, the Banham alarm systems and the security gates. "Yesssss!" goes the cry. "Awful, isn't it? But, boy, are we still living life on the edge."

Joan Smith is away