Camden! A Jewel in London's Cultural History – But What is Its Future?

Camden! A Jewel in London's Cultural History – But What is Its Future?

We spoke to the last punks in Camden about whether the borough has succumbed to holidaymakers and housing projects, or if its spirit still lives on.
November 10, 2016, 4:13pm

Platoons of tourists cradling cameras and red-haired teens with thick-eyeliner spew out of tube carriages and onto a crowded platform. When I reach the summit of the escalators, a thick barrage of engines, horns, and music hits the air. Outside the station the pavements are congested: there are buskers, European teenagers, and a skinhead holding a sign advertising a shoe shop. It seems I've arrived at the only place in London where trays of Chinese food, Siouxsie and the Banshees 12 inches and sticks of incense exist in peaceful harmony… Camden Town.

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Over the last five or so decades, the north London borough has played host to a vast spread of Britain's cultural history. There's the brick walls of music venue Dingwalls from the Clash's debut record, the bar Amy Winehouse was working behind just ten years ago, the homes of Madness, Graham Coxon, and N Dubz. As a child, Camden was a mythical place and perhaps the only cultural haven within walking distance of Kings Cross Station. But in the years since, it has undergone a facelift.

Now these streets are a tourist and property developer haven. Each weekend, holidaymakers crawl through the town in their ensembles of mismatched colours, shopping at the Urban Outfitters, American Apparel and various Americanised eateries that have popped up in the area for their pleasure. The much visited Camden Lock Village is now in the throes of a multi-million pound urban re-development project. But given that Camden is home to long-established, musical institutions that stretch from KOKO to the Roundhouse, one would assume a semblance of the town's original spirit lingers. What defines the culture of modern day Camden? Do genuine, authentic punks still live here? Or are they simply a mirage, popping up for a few hours each day to pose for photos with earnest couples from Munich and Boston and Auckland?

When I arrive in Camden, it doesn't take long to run into a man who may consider himself part of the town's illustrative musical past, a lock of green hair falling down his face like the soft tail of a unicorn. One could imagine Sid Vicious rolling in his grave to learn of the "Get Punks Drunk! £1 For a Photo" trade he is involved in, but as history tells it, the idea came from the Mohican punks in the early eighties. So says Paul Gorman, author of several books and creator of the Punk London map: "They would ask for money for a photograph, and threaten to beat you up if you didn't go with it."

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Of course the men and women who hang out here these days aren't likely to batter you in the face with an unlaced boot, but many of them continue to congregate, as they always have, on the edges of the town's iconic Lock, the juncture point where the River Fleet cuts into Camden. On one side, a stream of restaurants, bars and a Holiday Inn. On the other, the music venue Dingwalls. And somewhere between these areas: the crust punks, the subculture who have informed the town's image for decades.

Despite their role in Camden's history and the imprint they've made upon the stretch of land that sits underneath the lock, the crust punks are slowly being ushered away from the town and into the past. "Police are more on edge, the rails where we and other locals sit down by the Lock are being moved in, the public places strangled," says Dave, age 19, a crust punk who usually stands in the town holding a placard for boots with all the precision and care of a terminally exhausted lollipop man, but is today taking a day off. "Eventually it just won't be comfortable to have a drink or have a smoke there."

I notice one of Camden's archetypal under-the-lock hash dealers eavesdropping, so I ask what he thinks about the cultural shift? He shrugs, says business is "good", then walks away into the distance. Dave continues: "And I've heard tonnes of things about the Casino, HS2 or the Primark-Meets-McDonalds monstrosity that's going to take over where the Punky Fish building and sheds that burned down were. That will screw us directly. And that" – he points over the horizon at the bulldozers and skyline flooded with cranes – "is the last fucking thing Camden needs."

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And that fucking thing is: The Hawley Wharf development. Just over a year ago, more than half of Camden's Markets shut their gates for the last time and work began on it. The same firm that spearheaded The Shard were awarded the contract and, for the first time in decades, a chunk of Camden's most iconic landscape was torn to shreds. In place of these independent businesses, graffiti-strewn tight streets and tight market stalls, 170 new homes will appear – just 17 of which are affordable.

Mass priced housing paves the way for noise complaints, venue closures and – as we all know too well – the dearth of culture. It is a route into Tescoland, 24 hour gym complexes, and vacant looking windows where the lights remain off, year in and year out. Until recently, Camden has been resilient to the mass redevelopment of London. There are still significant working class communities firmly bedded into the borough's social housing on estates like the Alexandra Estate, but it was the squat and punk scene that provided the area with its real creative vitality – the same community that is now slowly moving further and further north. ​

"It was huge," Gorman tells me, of the squat scene in Camden, "and a very real option for anybody who wanted to leave home. From that, bands like The Derelicts, The Passions, PragVEC, Scritti Politti emerged. All the way up the hill from Camden on the right hand side, up towards Belsize Park, those run of Victorian squats: those are the spots that a lot of the scenes were born from."

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Looking at the houses in these areas now and knocking on the door, I find exactly what you'd expect to in North London: modestly-sized £2,500-a-month Victorian flats filled with people who "don't have time" to focus on discussing music. That's not to say the town is lacking in people who do have the time, though. Alongside the Roundhouse and KOKO, Camden is home to a vast collection of London venues. Whether you want The Barfly for its lager and indie rock, the Enterprise for candlelit folk nights or the Devonshire Arms for hard rock and metal, this imperfect network of small venues living in the shadow of stalwart institutions has created a microcosm with an intense life and fluidity. But even these places fear a changing of the cultural guard.

Kinnu, 32, who works behind the bar at the Underworld, fears for the worst. "It's impossible to resist [the gentrification]. They're fucking everything up. One person apparently owns this whole road now. So its uniqueness is going to die; it will be like fucking Leicester Square around here."

Dave, the crust punk from the lock, reckons, "The punks will always spend time here, but we have our own little punk mass. We have our own behind-closed-doors basement and DIY venues up towards Tottenham. So the scene is very much still alive, but it's moving from Camden."

If the spirit that floods through Camden is drifting away from the town, what is it that draws tourists back time and time again? Certainly, these amorphous masses of people will play a large part in the cultural future of the town. Is it the bang bang chicken? The vegan concoctions whipped up by Cookies and Scream or the branch of Fatburger that recently opened on Jamestown Road? Do they just really love hemp tablets? Or being told what to do and where to visit by an outdated copy of Timeout? Or is there something we're all missing? We, of course, being the collective group of people who dismissed Camden as a cool and interesting place as soon as we put our Rancid albums in the trash and decided tourist destinations were places not worth visiting.

"I'm from Australia and I always thought it would be a cool, accepting place to live. And I love Amy Winehouse," says Daniel, 21. "I've been here a year and turns out it's fucking weird, and really fun." But aside from looking at the same street paintings of Amy Winehouse and buying over-priced wraps of talc, what makes it fun? "Sex shops." He laughs. "Camden a place that I can drink every night of the week and not be made to feel like an alcoholic too like, say, East London." His friend Michael steps in. "I'm out every night of the week. I see a lot of music – Spiritual Bar – but mainly cabaret. A new place has just opened called 'Her Upstairs' that you should definitely check out."

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Further on, Rufus, 20, describes how he moved down from Leeds in search of an alternative scene that's lacking in his hometown. "Since moving here, I've met not just punks, but so many accepting great people from different subcultures. The energy is great. Now I spend all my time here. I love it."

I head along to 'Her Upstairs', Camden's only current queer space, and meet Meth, the Drag Queen, who has a similar story. "I grew up as a cross-dressing, emo teen, and when you live outside of London in rural England, you hear whisperings of this magical place called Camden where everybody is weird, has piercings and you can buy corsets. So I got on a coach and, a few hours later, I was here. It was everything I wanted to be. And it became my home."

Hearing people like Meth, Rufus, Michael and Daniel speak with such enthusiasm helps to shake off the cynicism about Camden. But the question remains: can Camden surpass what it is becoming and change for the better? Or is it a place riddled with a culture that's doomed to have the soul sucked out of it?

"It's going to be difficult," says Meth, "but I'm bizarrely excited to be here and be involved in venues, nightlife and queer spaces at a time where it is so tumultuous. There is a will from the Camden council for us to be here; they love the gays and have been very supportive." She stops applying eyeliner and focuses on me in the mirror. "The freehold of this building is owned by the same people doing Hawley Wharf though, so we've got to be ready for another fight."

Hearing people legitimately invested in the place speak with such enthusiasm helps to shake off the cynicism around Camden and shine a light on its future. The fact that there's a genuine current of young alternatives passionate about moving to the area, going to shows, and engaging in the town's community makes its idealised, counterculture image a self-fulfilling prophecy. Fresh, new faces come through; they make the place their own. But the threat of industrialised renovation continues to loom over the markets and the bridges and the canals like a great spectre of doom. But perhaps this process is one that, like its counter culture, has been instilled in the area since its very first residents moved in. Maybe Camden's cultural future is one that perpetually remains in a state of flux, bettering and comforting the lives of the new subcultures who move in.

Carl Barat, a man who alongside Pete Doherty, once epitomised everything Camden stood for, reckons that may be the case. ""When I first came here, the place was steeped in mythology and legend," he says. "Within this there were Teddy Boys bemoaning the punks for ruining Camden while some punks bemoaned Madness for ruining Camden. That lot then blamed Blur and menswear for ruining Camden, and now those lot blame us [The Libertines]. The fact is: bands have been ruining Camden for years, and long may it continue."

He carries on, summing up his point. "This place has a unique ability to allow its denizens to slip between the constraints of perceived normalcy. With its cyber punks, psychobillys, Swedish girls with too much eyeliner, rude boys, geezers numbering amongst its ever unique fecund army, it will take more than a bunch of land grabbing arseholes to ruin the place". He pauses. "At least I hope so."

You can find Oobah Butler on Twitter​.​​

(All photos by Chris Bethell)