Re-Riding History

‘Très curieuses,’ he said. ‘Très amusantes. Mœurs arabes. Pour passer le temps à bord. Soixante francs seulement.’ He saw no answering light of comprehension. ‘Molto artistiche,’ he suggested in Italian. ‘Proprio curiose. Cinquanta franchi.’ He peered in desperation into Philip’s face; it was blank. ‘Huebsch,’ he went on, ‘sehr geschlechtlich. Zehn mark.’ Not a muscle moved. ‘Muy hermosas, muy agraciadas, mucho indecorosas.’ He tried again. ‘Skon bref kort. Liderlig forografi bild. Nakna jungfrun. Verklig smutsig.’ Philip was evidently no Scandinavian. Was he a Slav? ‘Sprosny obraz,’ the man wheedled. It was no good. Perhaps Portuguese would do it. ‘Photographia deshonesta,’ he began.

Philip burst out laughing. ‘Here,’ he said, and gave him half a crown. ‘You deserve it.’

‘Did you discover what you wanted? asked Elinor when he returned.

He nodded. ‘And I also discovered the only possible basis for the League of Nations. The one common interest. Our toothy friend offered me indecent postcards in seventeen languages. He’s wasting himself at Port Said. He ought to be at Geneva.’

Point Counterpoint by Aldous Huxley – Publisher: Vintage Classics; New Ed edition (1 July 2004)

Your correspondents guide today is 24-year-old Márcio Anjinhos, a student from Sao Paulo. He approaches, blaring ‘Despacito’ from a cheap speaker set; his offer (within the carnival of his rickshaw) is insightful tour of Camden Town, “like Amsterdam but more rock’n’roll”. He strokes the cracked screen of his smartphone and the opening clicks of Amy Winehouse’s “Valerie” starts to crackle from the speakers. He offers the tour at £40, it will last an hour and a half, and he will leave me at the site of one of Camden’s last remaining ‘greasy spoon’ spoon café’s, where he assures I get a ‘real’ English breakfast. It would be easy to hesitate in this situation. Márcio’s halt in the road has stopped the traffic in both directions and the rage from the horns of the stalled traffic blend discordantly with the gentle brass of “Valerie”. Clearly accustomed to such ire, Márcio reaches over to a tangle of wires, that are entwined along the fragile chassis of his rickshaw (pedi-cab), and turns on a set of Christmas lights and a disco ball. None of which makes the offer very appealing to your correspondent’s taste but, alas, there is something one wants to investigate.

Rickshaws appeared (or, reappeared, if you are inclined to align them to the old horse-drawn carriage) in London in the mid-to-late 90’s, as more of an alternative ‘experience’ than an alternative mode of transport. Black taxis are ferociously expensive in the capital, Rickshaws, however, are unregulated by TFL and thus, if one is predisposed for bartering, one can maybe pay less to get around the neighbourhood. “Usually,” Márcio explains, “it’s a drunk thing. When people are drunk they like disturbing normal life things. You know, people get drunk and they climb up on war memorials and blablabla … so they know that everything else on the road hates us (Rickshaws), so they get on board and sing along. They enjoy seeing the anger on the faces of the other drivers. You have a drink and you have a flavour for some anarchy.”

Márcio has been living in London for three years now, and has been giving Rickshaw rides for most of that time – the people hiring do not ask many questions, so it’s an easy place to get some work if you have no other avenue. For the last year, though, Márcio has stopped the evening shifts altogether. The drunk revelers can be difficult charge, trying to flee before paying, or jumping out into traffic, or even turning on their driver. Instead, there has been a sharp rise in tourists taking a rickshaw to be guided around the neighbourhood, to be shown the famous sites and buildings, and provided with some local knowledge. Business in Soho used to be good, but with the re-development of Tottenham Court Road underground, a lot of the traditional colour of the area has been demolished. Márcio says the same is happening to Camden but he doesn’t intend on staying in London for much longer (much for the same reason he has given permission for us to use his real name), so enough of old Camden will be standing for his tours to continue.

The first stop is The Good Mixer, a pub on the corner of Inverness Street and Arlington Road. The pub is a landmark of the London music scene, locals at one time or another would have been Shane MacGowan of The Pogues, Jarvis Cocker of Pulp, 90’s house pioneers Baby-D, Graham Coxon of Blur and Amy Winehouse (she used to play pool all day on sundays). My guide pulls a dog-eared photograph of Graham Coxon, collapsed in the street, blind drunk – the shot taken just after he took a roll over a car after leaving the establishment. This pub was the centre of Brit Pop.  Jarvis Cocker, after departing his hometown of Sheffield, got his first job in London at Camden market and he would spend his evenings in the Good Mixer with Pulp Guitarist, Richard McNamara. It was in this pub that Cocker started dating the daughter of Bryan Ferry, a wealthy girl who was, by her own admission, ‘slumming it’ in edgy Camden at the time, thus inspiring Cocker and McNamara to write, what was to become, the huge hit ‘Common People’. As we are parked outside the shabby old pub, we hear the ringing of a bell from inside followed by a guttural cheer of drunk Englishmen.  Márcio leaps from his seat and tells me to come inside to see a rare sight. Inside the bar smells of bleach (smoking has been banned inside all pubs in UK since 2003), there is a small group of men crowded around the pool table.  One man is walking around the table, his head bowed in shame, while the crowd bay and yell.  Upon closer inspection, it becomes clear the man has his jeans and underpants around his ankles. Márcio, meanwhile, is at the bar speaking Portuguese to one of the staff – he takes a quick shot of Jagermeister and directs me back to his carriage and explains: one of the long-standing traditions of The Good Mixer is that, should you lose a game of pool without being able to take a single shot, you must compound the humiliation by taking the ‘walk of shame’, which we had just witnessed. He tells me this happened once with the Gallagher brothers of Oasis; though Márcio admits that he cannot recall which brother took the walk of shame, “either way,” he comments, “they both ended up fighting, with one of them half-naked.”

photo by JasonParis Flickr

As we move on to the next place, it becomes clear that Camden’s history is one of salubrious debauchery.  Beneath the arch of Camden’s picturesque canal lock, Dizzee Rascal sold drugs before he made his seminal debut “Boy from Da Corner”. Though, it’s true that Dizzee never dealt drugs, because he sold only herbs bought from the supermarket. The canal was such an intimidating place that many people could sell anything disguised as drugs, so afraid were the tourists who were scouring Camden for drugs at the time.

As we progress from the Lock to Hawley Arms (Kate Moss a regular visitor) and on to Quinns, where it is rumoured that Pete Doherty of the Libertines first took heroin, Márcio tells me that Camden is not like this anymore. It’s a familiar tale of gentrification, where the chaos of youth draws in the dilettante bohemians, who start paying too much to live the life that was created from genuine poverty. Now Camden is practically a police state, where the police and council collude to change the licensing rules on establishments constantly, in an attempt to extract heavy fines from them. Now every bar hires a team of security that practically assault customers out of the bars at the strike of closing time.  It’s become hostile, sterile and, for those who are still attempting the debauched lifestyle, a bit of a charade.

Finally we come across the most popular landmark, Amy Winehouse’s residence, where she died in Gloucester Crescent.  The house was bought for £2.7 million in 2012, which was the symbolic end of Camden’s cultural significance.  The house Márcio tells me was bought by lesser-known 90’s band Flowered Up for £13,000 in 1991 and was passed on to to many of the hallowed heroes of Camden’s history. The Libertines were arrested here on numerous occasions when playing illegal shows in their living room.  The bougie residents on Gloucester Crescent tried for decades to have the house evicted, but they held on.  Alas, when Amy died, that was the end of Camden.  There was no new generation of musical talent who could afford to rent in Camden. They all relocated to the east and south of London.  Now there are statues of Amy in the market, but the soul had gone.

Finally, we stop for that English Breakfast, which feels lighter than those of your correspondent’s youth.  One slice of toast, on a separate plate, as opposed to sponged on opposing ends of the plate. The sausages appear to be cumberland, a very English sausage indeed but, without a doubt, it is a cultural interloper on this plate. The English breakfast is much like Márcio’s tour, all the right elements but something is amiss.

Let’s begin with the fact that Amy Winehouse lived in Camden Square, and not Gloucester Crescent. Márcio informs that riding up to Camden Square would have taken 15 minutes, and involved crossing a busy road – quite a hairy proposition for a rickshaw. Her house was also her house, the band Flowered Up were originally from Camden, so any property that the band members bought would have been theirs and there is no evidence that they permitted generation after generation to use a house as a stomping ground. Most evidence, in fact, points to most members of Flowered Up in a very poor financial situation, excepting one member who formed the pop group Republica years later. Jarvis Cocker was never in a band with guitarist, Richard McNamara, the latter being the guitarist in the band Embrace. What with Pulp being Sheffield-based and Embrace being from West Yorkshire, there was never a chance for them to cross paths in such a way.  Nor did Jarvis Cocker ever date Bryan Ferry’s daughter, since Bryan Ferry does not have a daughter.

I inquire how Márcio came about all this information. He directs me to his bag, where he unfolds a scrappy map of the local area filled with post-its and biro scrawls. He copied his notes from a former guide called ‘Falco’. When Márcio began giving tours of Camden he struggled to fill forty minutes of the tour. Falco, he claims, was the genius. He knotted together disparate events and created a narrative of what people expect of Camden, and its counter-culture history. He describes the narratives of the 20’s that persist, Guggenheim’s unrequited love for her helpless male creatives, Hemingway’s self-destructive struggles and many other myths that surround them. People come to the tour for gossip, they come to picture themselves in the place where something relevant to them wandered. Márcio, he claims, is part of a community of story-tellers. Falco’s map was the first, but the stories continue to grow and the connections and conspiracies continue to multiply. He admits there is a theory being spread about the nature of the Winehouse death, that he would not tell me as he finds it a little too sordid. “You can’t prove it and it’s just a conspiracy, but the other guys can tell the story good. Not long after her death, we had the invasion of privacy story break out and destroy the News of the World, so this gives the story added power.  That’s why they tell it.  It’s good to show the tourists things like that. A rotten press being brought down.” I agree with his point, but have to mention that the News of the World was closed down two weeks before the death of Amy.  He just laughs and rides away.


M. Fealen 207 Camden


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