Camden Time Machine


Last week I had cause to spend an evening in Camden Town.  I hadn’t spent an evening in Camden Town since the late 90s. It was therefore surreal to be out in Camden Town, where it is always 1997.

Honestly, kids, it’s like a pre-internet, pre-digital television era around there.  It’s as if the cultural clock in Camden stopped ticking the day the first episode of Sex and The City was aired.  Skinny, Britpop wannabee, middle class boys with hairstyles like ferrets cluster in T-shirted, chilly groups at the door of “The Good Mixer”, nattering in mockney vowels, as if they’re waiting for Damon Albarn to rock up and sing a chorus of Country House.  Camden Town still smells of adolescent sweat and guitar idolatry.  There is a remarkable number of flat caps, worn, no doubt, in a self-conscious, aren’t-I-lampooning-working-class-culture kind of irony, by boys whose parents pay for their education.  The bonus with all this 1990s atmostphere was that I was able to forget we were spiralling towards economic disaster and could pretend we were back in the boom years, with cheap-o mortgages for all and weird uber-super degrees for nothing.  Any longer in NW1 and I would have started voting New Labour.   The world in Camden Town knows nothing of the sardonic, overly made-up eye of Adele, or the bizarre trousers of Mr Simon Cowell, or Facebook, or the fact that Ryan Giggs is a sex pest.  It smacks deliriously of adolescent innocence, for those of my generation; those  of us old enough to remember one pound notes, but not old enough to remember the winter of discontent.  They all stalk around in black jeans,  T shirts with band names on them and are partial to that low-slung, Ben Sherman, 60s retro look for the boys.  It takes all of us of our generation back, but is that a good thing?  What was it like for a woman to live through the “glory years” of Cool Britannia, as this headline above asks?

Anyone who was an adolescent in North London in the late 1990s would have known a rash of Camden boys.  The leader in the crowd nearest to me – the ones I could see from NW6 anyway – was Henry.  Henry spent three or four nights a week smoking cigarettes in Chalk Farm Road hostelries.  He wore one of those leather jackets which were in the shape of a suit jacket and looked very 60s and he lived in a constant cloud of drone and lethargy.    No one was quite sure who he was waiting for, but there he sat, drinking in the Holstein Pils and the atmostphere, nodding his head to the band composed of people from slightly earthier backgrounds from him, dreaming of going home to a warm guitar and a Nuts poster.  It was particularly important, if you were a fan of Oasis, or The Verve to pretend to be as working class as possible.  And if that didn’t work, you had to pretend to be Northern.  Suddenly, somewhere in 1995, lower middle class boys from Hitchin were striding around Firkin pubs announcing that they loved “Ooashish!” in a broad Manchester accent.  “Oashiish!” was their favourite band.  They had no idea that most of Oashiss now lived in Belsize Park.  Instead, they marched about with that odd Liam Gallagher stride – slack kneed like a monkey, knackers thrust forward – upsetting us ladyfolk with their often voiced intention to ” ‘ave it large!” ,  “‘ave a par’y!”  (which was the word “party” said like Shaun Ryder would say it) and any enquiry as to what they were actually doing whilst they were thrusting their knackers out being twats in hostelries was met with something along the lines of “We’re gonna roll wiv it, you knoawhatimeenn?” or some such cretinous tomfoolery.  “Aving it large!” was a general collective term, which featured massive consumption of Hooch and Two Dogs and then a pharmaceutical interlude, during which they aimed to disprove The Verve’s theory that the drugs didn’t work.  They drugs for them, did work, although it was only fairly mild stuff in those days.  The spliff was king, and they used to construct enormous spliffs that tended to promptly fall apart as soon as you started to smoke them, because none of these boys really knew how to roll one.  Occasionally, long monologues would appear – about smoking banana leaves, or that amazing time they once had when their mum was out and they smoked tea leaves.  Yorkshire Tea, obviously – it’s Northern.  None of that Twinings English Breakfast southern crap.  Then they’d put some Supergrass on, play Jenga and pass out.   The North was this glittering centre of mid-1990s cool.  The boys would sit in male-only groups in pubs, pointing their cigarettes in the air whilst singing “Champagne Supernova” and gazing at each other in Converse-trainered man love.   This was Britpop?  This complete non-movement whose only sartorial legacy to the nation was a revival of the Quadrophenia T shirt?  Oh, shove it.

I don’t suppose I have ever forgiven Britpop for totally destroying my sex life.   Camden is to 1995 what Seattle was to 1992, what Manchester was to 1989 and what Mr Blobby was to 1993″ smugly declared the Melody Maker.   Yeah.  Thanks for that, Melody Maker.  I should have realized that any cultural movement compared to Mr Blobby was bound to be a real sexual low patch.   Remember, dear, wet-eyed, nubile teens – these were the days before the return of the high heel as a power symbol, before vibrators were available at every corner pharmacy, and a time when feminine glamour or a make up would identify you as a disco dolly, rather than a Britpop friendly ladette.  If you wanted to hang out with the boys you had to dress like an out of work plumber.     The whole scene was highly unimaginative and very unsexy.  I had the wrong look, the wrong shape, a limited alcohol tolerance, and coming from a family of musicians I had absolutely no desire to sit about in pubs and listen to boys who couldn’t really play anything tell me how a chord was constructed.    I soon realised that if I wanted to sleep with the only 4 straight men in my year at drama school, I would have to dress like Noel Gallagher or, at a pinch, his mother Peggy. No one I knew actually wanted to have sex with a bloke who imitated a monkey in the pub on a nightly basis and wanted to pretend he’d grown up in Stretford, but we didn’t seem to have a choice.    Mainly, these fellows were lower middle class chaps from Northampton or Warwick.  Both of these towns they would, of course, stridently state were in the North.   This place, this disastrous combination of New Lads and Old Ideas, was our dating pool.  And it stank.  

This whole movement felt exclusively male.  Oddly, so did the girls these kind of Camden boys tried to sleep with.   The girls they thought sexy were almost always in possession of an asymmetrical blonde bob,no make up, small breasts, large silver chunky jewellery (why?), black jeans and a T shirt with a logo on it.  Preferably, the whole look would be topped off with some dreary Union Jack bunting stapled on it somewhere (probably on the bit where a cleavage should have been).  Sometimes these girls would wear plimsolls that looked like Green Flash from the 1980s.  It wasn’t a look that worked for short girls.  They would chat about bands.  They looked like boys.  All of these girls really fancied Damon Albarn of course, with his lovely Colchester-blue eyes.  They secretly suspected he had deep artistic depths that would make him dynamite in the sack, but they were unable to admit this to the Oasis-loving simians because Albarn was thought by them to be a soft Southerner and a middle class twat.   These women always had to have an innate talent for “‘aving it large” as well, which meant that sexual attraction was judged on how much Budweiser you could vomit up whilst listening to Suede’s “Animal Nitrate” and whether you knew anyone who had tickets for Knebworth.  Then they would have to go back to someone’s groggy flat and listen to CDs for three hours whilst drinking tea, in the hope that someone might break off from a riff about a guitar solo and actually bother to try to get off with them.  Usually, I’d fall asleep first.  But, hey, I enjoyed the tea.

As the 1990s dragged itself on in one long whining guitar solo, our generation of unusually politically apathetic guitar heroes were absorbed in the mire of Camden Town.  Camden Town was so strongly identified by this scene that it appears incapable of evolving further.  Last Sunday night, the gig I went to (which wasn’t in the least 1990s or 60s retro guitar, or featured anyone from The Verve) I was in a room full of young, 20-something shoegazers.  The women there appear to be also stuck in 1997, devoid of modernity or splendour or glamour and looking thoroughly mundane.  Somewhere in the distance, amongst the pints of cider and the black parka coats, were the older tribe, those of my generation, still hanging in there.  Perhaps Henry was amongst them, somewhere in those hordes of silently nodding, beer-clasping, pale-faced, round eyed white boys.  However, I doubt Henry was, as rumour has it he’s a quantity surveyor in Cirencester.  But perhaps, on a bank holiday weekend, he can sweep up to town on the train, hop on to the Northern Line and return to the scene of the crime, so intent on shoe-gazing that the rest of us can’t recognise him.

Frankly, I’d rather eat a bathmat than be made to live through that codswallop again.  Yes, Oasis were great – for about 18 months.  Yes – it is quite fun for a girl to pretend to be a boy who likes girls who do boys like they’re girls who like girls (or something) but if a girl has to dress like a drummer from Accrington in order to get laid whilst negating her own femininity, something’s gone very wrong in the shady arena of sexual politics.   The thrilling, teenager-y avenue of Parkway.  Lovely for an evening, but you wouldn’t want to spend a decade there.

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every Thursday.

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