It’s quite odd what strikes an emotional chord sometimes. I surprised myself last night by being genuinely upset to hear that there has been a large fire at the Stables Market in Camden, north London. It seems the fire broke out at about 8pm yesterday evening in the roof voids at the Chalk Farm Road end of the market, and the flames and smoke were soon visible for miles around – which resulted in hundreds of people being evacuated from the surrounding area. According to the BBC, ten fire engines and more than 70 firefighters were sent in to tackle it (which suggests it was a pretty big fire), eventually getting the blaze under control several hours later. Considering that yesterday was a beautiful, hot early summer day in London, the area around the market must have been very busy even at that late hour. It is quite amazing that no-one, it seems, was hurt in the incident. However, I suspect that many livelihoods and many memories have been destroyed by this blaze.
Camden is a part of this city that I know very well, and the markets there have long been an essential place to visit if you were ever an alternative kid in London – it certainly was an important and formative place for me. When I was growing up, Camden Market was one of only a few places in London where you could actually get such hard-to-find alternative essentials as black nail polish, extreme metal band t-shirts, bootleg albums of highly dubious origin, proper flared trousers, hair dye in colours never to be found in nature, glow-under-UV-light hoodies, stash tins with wonky-looking cannabis leaves painted on them and the kind of pungent Indian incense that sets smoke alarms off in ten seconds flat – amongst a vast plethora of other random things that you never knew existed, let alone that you wanted!
There was always a definite hippy kind of vibe about the place, almost as soon as you walked out of the tube station. Admittedly though, to actually get from the tube station to the Lock Market and the Stables Market you’d have to run the gauntlet of dodgy-looking geezers offering you something herbal that was allegedly weed, ageing punks with dogs on strings drinking Special Brew and shouting at people (the punks, not the dogs!), and, of course, the odd confused tourist standing in the middle of the pavement intently studying an upside down A-Z – but that was all part of the Camden Experience in the early 1990s.
As the 1990s progressed, however, the number of tourists visiting the markets increased (especially as Camden came to be associated with the ‘Britpop’ scene in the middle of the decade), and, as a result, it seems the local authority (spotting investment opportunities no doubt) began to clean the area up. To an extent I can understand why this happened, the area was certainly a bit dodgy in parts – indeed, I know a number of people who were mugged, pickpocketed or assaulted in the Camden High Street area at various times back then – but, in so many ways, this attempt at gentrification robbed this vibrant corner of Camden of its unique character.
Many of the old stallholders that I (and others) remember with such fondness in both the Lock and Stables Markets disappeared (increased rents?), only to be replaced by others selling mostly tacky and always overpriced tat aimed squarely at the tourist market and the kind of saw-them-coming expensive and pointless decorative objects so beloved by that more-money-than-sense trustafarian/hipster type who always moves in on something cool. Then a lot of the interesting little record shops on the High Street also closed, as did a number of the tatty but brilliant little side-street pub venues (like the Camden Falcon on Royal College Street, which I loved and which is where the well-known Barfly club nights began. Sadly, like many such places, it’s now a small block of expensive looking flats).
And it’s not just the markets which went downhill fast. Now, Camden High Street itself is rapidly becoming yet another identikit shopping street, complete with the obligatory overpriced chain stores, coffee shops and fast food joints – plus more cheap and cheerful shoe shops than anyone could ever possibly need in a lifetime, oddly enough. You still run the gauntlet along the High Street, but these days you’re attempting to avoid bored metallers handing out flyers for piercing places and tattoo studios, touts attempting to persuade you that you really, really want to visit their restaurant or join one of their noisy canal trips, and millions upon millions of tourists, all screeching loudly and cluttering up the pavement in gaggles to take photographs. For someone like me, who has known Camden for more than 20 years, all this really is depressing.
There are still a few reasons to visit Camden though (assuming some of them are still in one piece after last night, of course). Mega City Comics is still on Inverness Street (just off the High Street) and is always worth a visit, whatever sort of comics you’re into. Cyberdog still blasts some kind of trance out across the market and still sells t-shirts that glow under UV light, among all sorts of other strange and wonderful things (I own a pair of Cyberdog graphic equaliser-patterned socks!). Black Rose, although a shadow of its former self, still sells goth gear of all kinds, brightly coloured hair dye and accessories, and (sometimes) an excellent selection of button badges with extremely rude slogans on them. And, although its future is still uncertain due to long-running plans to redevelop the area around the tube station, the legendary Electric Ballroom still packs them in for all sorts of gigs.
Don’t get me wrong, I still love Camden and I still enjoy wandering round the markets. But the whole Camden High Street area is not what it once was. And this fire (coming only six years after the highly damaging 2008 blaze at the Canal Market that also wrecked the notorious Hawley Arms) is really not going to help matters any. I sincerely hope that there is not too much damage and that the Stables Market is back up on its feet again very soon, but I also hope the reconstruction is not used as an excuse for further unecessary gentrification. Leave it be.