Unless you’re writing an ethnography of noisy teenage tourists, any Kentishtowner knows that Camden tube station on a Sunday afternoon is a no go area. So it’s hard to believe that only forty years ago, Camden was quiet at the weekends. Caitlin Davies’ fantastic new history of Camden Lock and the Market expertly tells the story of how a derelict dockyard sprang to life and went on to attract five million visitors a year.
In contrast to Davies’ last book, Taking the Waters – A Swim Around Hampstead Heath, where she focussed on a static area that’s altered little in more than a century, her new publication covers a location buzzing with energy. Camden Lock and the Market manages to document the physical, social, economic and changes to a tiny area, which created a highly concentrated culture that has slowly influenced urban lifestyles from LA to Tokyo.
What most people think of as Camden Market is actually a sprawl of different markets that have grown into collectively the largest street market in the UK. But Davies focuses on Camden Lock, the b of the bang. Through its history we get a sense of how “Camden” evolved from a quiet area of Victorian streets around a post-industrial wasteland along the canal to the cultural landmark it is now. The cool kids might now hang out in other areas of the capital, but without the influence of Camden Lock we would have a totally different concept of what cool is.
Although millions of people have visited and thousands have sold there, Davies manages a cast of key characters who she weaves throughout the book to illustrate the changes to the area. From internationally famous names such as Wayne Hemingway to more local legends such as June Carroll, who opened the first food outlet at the market, Davies blends together their own history and anecdotes with a traditional linear explanation of what was happening and when and where. She highlights the music, fashion, crafts and food, and with over 150 archive images, so even if somehow you’ve never been, it’s easy to transport yourself through time to what was a “hippy haven”, “cradle of design talent”, “multi-cultural melting pot” and an urban outlier in terms of how to regenerate an area, providing employment and opportunities for all, long before the current craze for street-food and pop-ups.
One thing that sticks out from the book is how much money some people made, especially in the very early days when there was no competition from other markets. Enterprising, hard-working stall holders could buy items for a pittance and then sell them for eye-watering profits.
But despite the co-operative, easy atmosphere, the history of Camden Lock Market also provides a glimpse of the evolution of retail economics in Britain. Just like anywhere else, Camden has now suffered from cheap global supply chains and the affect of the internet on people’s shopping habits. It’s hard to see whether the market could ever regain the unique personality it had in the 70s, 80s and even 90s, and opinion is split in her book.
One character who sold bootleg cassettes in the 1980s makes a very surprising return to market life at the end of the book – and perhaps represents best of all how the influence of Camden Lock has spread far and wide without losing its distinct essence, so as long the principles of Camden Lock remain, will the community too?
Even Morrissey, the most famous Mancunian miserablist of them all, was moved to sing of a place “under slate grey Victorian sky, Here you’ll find, my heart and I, and still we say come back, Come back to Camden”.