Camden Town is often sold to outsiders as young, hip and enlightened. But the days are long gone when bands rehearsed in Rehearsals, Rehearsals; and Compendium was the only bookstore in London stocking Charles Bukowski. The great mindless sprawl of cheap consumerism has swept-away the Greek bakeries and hardware stores of Camden High Street. Its obliterated a watch repair shop on Parkway; and the Plaza Cinema.
The Plaza became a covered market and now it’s an American chain fashion store; that trades on being edgy and an alternative to Preppy – but its just a sad coals to Newcastle situation. The fashion store is selling an expensive and poorly conceived take on what Camden was like in the 80s.
Except Camden in the 80s consisted of individuals, selling fashion and art, they’d constructed in back-rooms, in squats and small Kentish Town factories. Of course the overheads are too large now; and the appetite for cheap imported tat, too great.
But before you accuse me of being some ageing hipster; morphing into a modern-day version of his parents: I’m not actually complaining about the new; I’m complaining that there is nothing new and exciting. Its boring, its become an Estate Agents Dream – a playground for the type of people who destroyed the artistic communities of Shoreditch and East London.
I was sitting in a coffee/tea shop, that used to be Palmers Pet Store. Its still a nice old shop, but its been hollowed out. And instead of Parakeets and snakes, tortoises and cats; you have rustic tables and comfy sofas. Fake boho , with free wifi and achingly self conscious types scrawling, typing, jabbering away.
But they do make a mean cup of coffee, so I forgive them for inhabiting my place of memories. Because of course, memories are not tangible, but good coffee is. And memories may be nice and cosy, but they are not real life. Living in the past, is rather like taking antidepressants or painkillers, or what are termed street drugs: reality is masked for the duration of the hit.
Anyway I’m sitting Palmers Pet Store, that is now a coffee shop. There was an antique/jewellery/lace/card shop, I can’t recall if it was next door or a few doors down. Its one of those disappeared places, run by an independent hippyish lady . I bought those small soft leather children’s shoes, greetings cards and bracelets for my girlfriend there.
A few years into the millennium the antique lace lady told me she was closing down; rents were getting too high, and I suppose business wasn’t great. She told me Palmers were going too. Camden was full of shoe stores by then; some of them had erected huge boots where awnings once hung. Quite a few of the boot stores are gone too; time marches on.
While waiting for my friend to order his tea, I look about. There’s a man with a laptop open; I can see his e-mail client and the mails arranged in neat rows. He’s not really doing anything, just looking at the screen – which is doing nothing. The wide expanse of glass at the front of the store brings in a lot of light. There’s a couple of sofas and coffee tables, arranged like a suburban front room. A blond haired girl, makes notes; she has a pink cycling helmet and green harem pants. She looks like a gap-year traveller, who somehow got stranded in Camden Town.
An middle aged lady, dressed in a cream camel coat and carrying a hideously bright orange bag (a day for clashes of colour methinks) sits at an adjacent seat. She opens her de facto laptop. Fast forward ten minutes, and my friend and I are deep in conversation. Where’re talking about serious stuff, not loudly, but I suppose in earshot of her.
I guess we are in earshot because when she starts braying into a mobile phone, I can see my friends lips moving – but out of them is coming her voice, suffused with vitriol.
She’s been observing people across the road from her. I don’t know if this is a home, or office. But they have annoyed her so much, she wants to tell the world about their crimes and misdemeanours. The people across the road are squatters, isn’t that illegal I hear her say, and she bandies about a figure of five thousand pounds.
She can see everything they are up to, apparently. They’ve erected a tent in the back, and are smoking crack. Her expert knowledge of drug taking has been gleaned from the TV series Breaking Bad, which was about the manufacturing of crystal meth by a chemistry teacher. Not crack smoking.
I would hazard a guess that those poor unfortunates, who have been forced to occupy an abandoned building are simply smoking. They may have been smoking spliff, but that is conjecture. The reality is you cannot use a TV drama, based in New Mexico or wherever its supposed to be; and apply it to homeless people in London.
The fact is that Britain, and most extremely London, is experiencing a housing crisis of monumental proportions. The UN has submitted a report about the abuses the current government are responsible for; and terminal lack of affordable housing available in the UK. This report has been dismissed by the government as Marxist; well if to care about humanity is Marxist then myself, Jesus Christ and the late Harold Macmillan are Marxist.
My mood was tempered by that fact that I’d interviewed three people for the Housing CoOp where I live. I also interviewed three people before Christmas. All of these people were effectively homeless:
A woman who had been made redundant from a managerial job, was scraping a living with freelance work. She had reinvented herself, but her income was not enough to get her a flat. A man who was working twelve hour shifts for a minimum wage, needed affordable housing so he could support his ill parents with the remainder of his income.
A third man had been forced to live in bed and breakfast, far away from his job; because there was no affordable housing available for him locally. He was skilled and middle aged. The type of man who in many parts of the country would be able to own his own home.
I wanted to pull the mobile phone out of the camel coated lady’s hand, and tell her how she disgusted me. But her rant against poor people came to an end, and she left.
The problem with Camden Town is not that it’s changed. The problem is the people who have moved in. I can live with change, but I can’t abide the offensive and abusive tone people adopt when talking about the poor.
There is a mood that’s abroad in most of the UK and it can be described by one word, UGLY.