Neglected but nice: Kentish Town: cheap and cheerful

Rachel Cusk
Wednesday 22 June 1994 23:02

Before I came to live in Kentish Town, I remember a friend of mine saying that she was thinking of looking for a flat there because it was the one place within spitting distance of Soho where she was unlikely to encounter anyone she knew.

My move, needless to say, precluded hers, and I have spat leisurely at Soho many a time since, from the isolation of a top-floor shoe box off Lady Margaret Road with good enough views of all London's landmarks to ensure that

I never have to leave NW5 to visit them.

There was a time, I am told, when one could cross-country ski in dog excrement down to the Tube station and the strains of Mozart were not to be heard emanating from the now repointed facades of Georgian terraces, but I returned recently from a long holiday to find that every second house in our road was up for sale and I for one don't interpret this as a vote of no confidence.

No, refurbishment is in the air, and with it will soon come a day when one is in danger of meeting any number of one's acquaintances, skulking home with an imitation Chinese vase from the high street tucked under their arm and the tell-tale reek of Snoopy's workers' cafe emanating from their clothes.

It wasn't easy leaving Kentish Town for six weeks to visit South America, but 10 minutes in the odd Third-World supermarket could always make one feel at home and there was little in the upkeep of Peru's urban epicentres to invite unfair comparison.

In a small mining town in Bolivia we were accosted by a vigilant English couple who warned us that our bag was hanging open and was beginning to attract attention.

He was a policeman, from our local station in Holmes Road, of course, on a six- month break touring the continent. He agreed that Kentish Town was an up-and-coming area, particularly for criminals, and told us that Holmes Road was one of the busiest stations in London.

Personally, I never feel in any danger here, except of buying things I don't want on Kentish Town Road, and would, in fact, vaunt this as one of the few areas in London where children play in the street in such numbers that they frighten the residents.

Having said that, we came back from holiday to find that a gang of teenage boys had mysteriously come to roost in our road, but close inspection over several days has revealed them to be as still and silent as waxworks, spending hour after hour draped decoratively over a nearby wall against which the gleaming herd of their steer-handled bicycles leans. I believe they are an aspiring pop group who are maintaining this pose in the hope that someone will come along and think it would look good on an album cover.

Like a maudlin middle child, Kentish Town Road derives much of its character from neglect and unfair comparison.

To the south, Camden Town, with its smug post-modern Sainsbury's and poncy stripped pine furniture shops (not to mention its profusion of 'futon centres', which says it all: at least in Kentish Town one can still buy a bed with the consistency of a warm marshmallow and a quilted nylon headboard); to the north, Hampstead Heath, civilisation's back garden.

Even the Holloway Road, traditionally a refuge on days when one felt too ugly to visit Kentish Town, now looks like mutton dressed up as lamb, with a new Waitrose resembling a landing pad for large alien spacecraft, a Next, and a still reassuringly low-grade Marks & Spencer behind which, however, The Pound Shop (an Iron Curtain-style place where everything costs a pound) lives on. The financial advantages of living in Kentish Town, therefore, are considerable.

It is one of the few high streets in central London where you are in little danger of spending any money, and even the most nihilistic tour of its dubious highlights possessed by the desire pointlessly to dispose of cash will rarely result in more than a modest purchase from a charity shop and the realisation that one could equally well incinerate a few notes in an ashtray at home.

The knowing and idiosyncratic shopper, however, would never tire of its grim, pre-Thatcher-era recesses.

In the absence of those ubiquitous West End windows filled with pseudo-Habitat lifestyle paraphernalia to keep trawling consumers on course, one's taste becomes footloose and anarchic.

One lingers over packets of nicotine-flavoured tea, posters of naked women on motorbikes, dusty bottles of things used to unblock drains or kill rats with skulls and crossbones on the labels, giant pastries resembling prehistoric life forms, the clothes in Poundstretcher and, although one soon begins to discern in these things a certain beauty, the fever of desire is miraculously cooled and one is left free to contemplate higher things.

This could be the reason why so many intellectuals are coming to live in Kentish Town.

The Owl Bookshop's local author promotions know no abatement, and I myself have seen one or two literary luminaries slinking around Iceland and Kwik Save clutching squirting cans of ready-whipped cream or packets of Jurassic Park dinosaur snacks to their chests.

As I say, there are one or two places going in our road.

Saving Agnes, by Rachel Cusk was published by Picador on 10 June

(Photograph omitted)

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