DJ and Adam.
Camden Town, North-West London.
Of all my Wennington school friends, waiflike Adam, with his faded, wispy blonde hair and huge Buddy Holly spectacles, was the most enchantingly disreputable. Installed in our remote fastness by his local social services, who felt that several degrees of detachment from his mother’s and sister’s bohemian social scene would be morally beneficial, Adam spent hours gazing wistfully out of the dormitory window. Not for him the majesty of the rolling dales that surrounded the school grounds. Viewing the bleak natural splendour with something resembling agoraphobia, he longed for a different kind of bleakness – the North-West London decay of rainy streets and crumbling four-storey Victorian villas honeycombed into bedsits and apartments with one bathroom to a floor and prams and bikes in the hallway.
It was the long summer holiday. I was on furlough from provincial middle class comfort and spending a week (as I had over several previous weekends) sleeping on a mattress on the floor of his mother’s shabby flat in the grey wastes of Camden Town’s backstreets. This time we had in mind seven days of immersion in what Adam’s sister (all knee-length black jumper and Juliet Greco eyes) referred to as les bas fonds.
Camden High Street is now one of the fashionable hubs of London. Theme pubs with bands upstairs, little trattorias, tapas bars, Thai curry houses, a sprawling archipelago of market stalls selling mass-produced Buddhas, ‘70s clothing and packets of skunk alongside soapstone pipes to smoke it in. And, of course, stratospheric property prices in reach only of the architects and designers who, over the past two decades, have been transforming the long rows of terraces and villas back into family houses again.
But when Adam and I skulked in doorways with our fists buried deep in our duffle coat pockets, fags dangling from corners of mouths, pretending to be Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty, Camden Town was another country. As a sort of faint pre-echo of the hippy exotica that seemed to spring fully formed from between the paving stones only a year or two later, there might be found the odd rebel bookshop selling communist and anarchist literature, staffed by starving poets and Spanish Civil War veterans And, as darkness fell, a few beatniks might cross one’s path, shambling between subterranean jazz club and hipster pub.
Additionally the region had long been the province of choice of the continuing waves of Irish and West Indian immigrants. In Canute-like resistance to their settlement, glass-covered noticeboards outside tiny corner tobacconists and sweet shops were full of scribbled small ads offering single rooms to tenants, but making it clear that ‘no Irish or coloureds need apply’. One, I remember, stated with a frankness then commonplace, now horrific, ‘Sorry, no niggers or dogs’. However, their battle against the imagined horrors of miscegenation was already lost and, on Friday nights and during the weekend, the High Street boomed to the sounds of the Trinidadian steel band and early bluebeat and reeled to the skirl of the Donegal fiddle.
However, for all the incursion of new Londoners, in the early-to-mid ’60s Camden Town was still predominantly a district locked into the patterns and procedures of the pre-war years and Adam and I loved its furtive, monochrome seediness. Our evening itinerary had us wandering through a network of back streets, projecting our feverish imaginings onto scenes glimpsed through curtainless sash windows or at the edges of the wartime bombed sites that still lay open to the sky at that time – and indeed for quite a while after until the developers moved in. From shop doorways or alleyway mouths, we watched the traders in dodgy watches, bootlaces and horror comics, devising for them lightning biographies, the speculations trailing their rapid fading into the shadows with the appearance of a roving pairs of coppers.
Most of all we loved the overheated, smoky, single room caffs. All of our favourites were named after their proprietors – Ed’s, Norm’s, Wilf’s – and each had a small blackboard headed ‘Eats’ nailed to the outside wall or on a trestle on the pavement, announcing ‘Pie, Mash & Liquor, 2/-, Full Lunch for 2/6d’, or simply, ‘Tea & a bun for a bob‘.*
As on earlier boho rambles, Adam and I sat at a corner table in Ernie’s, half way down Camden High Street, hands folded round two thick china pint mugs of orange tea, smoking Old Holborn tobacco in licorice paper rollups, watching the unvarying spectacle through half-closed poet’s eyes. Around the yellowing walls were pictures of long-forgotten boxers with patent-leather hair and raised fists, some bearing faded autographs. The lighting was always dim – three or four 40-watt bulbs under green enamel shades. A Sporting Life calendar featuring a lissom greyhound for each month of the year hung above the doorway that led into Ernie’s quarters. When hunger struck – and poets have to eat occasionally – we would order a bacon roll each. The rolls were hard, spherical items, the white cobwebby centres contained within shell-like exteriors, which, if bitten carelessly, would send shrapnel crumbs flying. They would only pass successfully from mouth to oesophagus if lubricated generously with brown sauce. Something called Marloe’s Speciality, clearly brown but with the consistency of marine engine oil, was supplied to each table in sticky rectangular bottles. Ernie always had a Capstan Full Strength wedged into the corner of his mouth. Its trunk of ash would wilt cumulatively over the bread and toast he was forever buttering on the bar. But Ernie was a lifetime smoker and he knew the precise moment at which to turn his head to one side and with a brief double spasm of the bottom lip, drop it into the sawdust on the floor. When our money ran out we would push our chairs back and head for the door, always murmuring an unrequited “G’night, Ernie”, as if we were fully accredited members of his murky, taciturn club.
Leaving Ernie’s Adam and I would turn left and make for the bridge over the Regents Canal. As dusk fell we might be lucky enough to see a narrowboat laden with timber or coke sidling into the bank for the night. Or, if we hung around for long enough, a tart in a pencil skirt arm-in-arm with a client, scurrying along the towpath towards the shadows of the warehouses beyond Hampstead Road Lock. Hungrier more for the notion of decadence than its actuality, we watched them disappear and drafted the invisible brief encounter in our fevered imaginations.
As the street life was decanted into the pubs and the pavement traffic dwindled to mere transit between them, Adam and I saddled up into our by now well-crafted Wild West fantasy. Gripping imaginary reins in one bunched fist and slapping an invisible equine rump behind, we shuffled , sidled and scuttled along the pavement, mounted US army scouts on a vast back-lot of scrubby gradients, narrow trails and teeming rivers.
“We’ll talk as we ride”, I would grate between clenched American teeth.
“If we take the Twin Fork trail, we can head them off at the pass”, Adam would reply in kind.
Then we would zig-zag north up Camden High Street, tugging our mounts’ heads back as we forded its tumbling waters, only clambering out of the saddle to draw breath in the narrow arroyos of Miller Street or King’s Terrace before remounting and galloping at full stretch towards the intersection between the High Street and Camden Road.
Few passers-by took any notice of two proto-adolescents in beatnik jumpers running sideways whilst slapping at their buttocks and we would rein in, panting and laughing as we drew alongside the Black Cap pub near the corner of Camden High Street and Parkway. Here we would pause, lingering near the doorway to breathe in the rich fug of tobacco smoke and stout and catch an intoxicating ten or twelve bars of an Irish jig, reel or lament through the flapping door.
On that hot summer evening we sat ourselves down on the kerb in front of the wide-open Black Cap, smoking our our rollies and listening to a storming set from a fiddle player, an accordionist and a guy rattling the bones between deft fingers. Suddenly we were hauled to our feet by our shirt collars and swung around like the newly hanged by our captor. He was a big man in an even bigger trench coat, stained, rumpled and buttoned up to the neck. For all the violence of the introduction, he was beaming out of a massive, battered face under a wild breaking wave of black hair and his two bright blue eyes inspected us closely.
“Sure, you’re not the prettiest, but you’ll do”, he said and depositing us back on the pavement he clasped us to him on either side and, three-wide, we barged into the crowded pub.
I remember little of the rest of the evening, never having drunk Guinness before. There remains in the back of my mind a set of Dionysian tableaux: Adam and I on either side of our host wedged between shouting drinkers on a bench whilst a statuesque redhead in a green dress flung herself sideways across our laps with a wordless cry, white-arms raised and bare legs kicking. A tiny ancient man with a gargoyle’s face dancing on a tabletop with torso as rigid as a guardsman but with feet flying. A man with boiled-beef jowels and a broken nose bellowing over and again into our captor’s face, “The boys at Killiney Castle!” and only retreating when proffered half-a-crown and told to find himself a glass of stout. Our new friend throwing his arms across our shoulders and kissing each of us moistly on the forehead.
But there is one sequential recollection that rises sharp and clear above the tangled skein of visual, aural, tactile and olfactory sense memories. It is of our quixotic host rising up from between us like Moby Dick within that ocean of carousing humanity and the company falling silent as at an invisible signal. Closing his blue, blue eyes he struck a pose and began to sing in a reedy tenor a song of such lyrical and melodic beauty that I have never forgotten it. I know it now to be that Irish ballad of universal valediction The Parting Glass and it remains one of my favourite songs.
Some time later that night we found ourselves on Hawley Road and on the step before Adam’s front door. As sentience began to return to us both, Adam shook his head in disbelief.
“You do realise who that was, don’t you?” he asked as if emerging from a dream.
“Haven’t a clue”.
“Brendan Behan”, Adam whispered hoarsely. “We just got pissed with Brendan Behan”.
Ernie’s is long gone now. He must have been in his 70s when Adam and I stopped off during our evening and nighttime ramblings. Over the following years the premises housed a series of eateries – an Italian restaurant, a Greek Cypriot meze bar, a Turkish Cypriot kebab joint. Four years ago after a long time away from NW1 I was walking down Camden High Street from Chalk Farm having just visited the Camden Lock part of the sprawling market that extends down from the Roundhouse. As I passed the corner on which Ernie’s had stood, I saw with dismay but no great surprise the green and black circle logo of Starbucks, and I caught a glimpse of wholesome Danish pastries, hoi sin duck wraps, girls in uniform black sweatshirts and the glitterati of 21st century Camden Town sipping their lattes. Nowhere in evidence was a chipped white pint mug full of orange tea to be seen. Not a single brown sauce bottle with its pumice-stone deposit around the top on a stained formica table anywhere in sight.
And as I approached Camden Town tube I looked up at the extravagant Alhambra gothic of the Black Cap pub. Smartened up beyond recognition, it had evolved into a gay cabaret and dance bar. Still the Guinness handles pulling pints at that time no doubt and still the frenetic carousing that, on a hot summer’s night, would have the clientele spilling out onto the pavement. Sadly it closed in 2015, but its swan-song would have been the wildly different but appropriately hedonistic Scissor Sisters and Titti La Camp hosting drag contests replacing a homesick fiddler playing the devil out of The Red-Haired Boy or a drunken gay Irish playwright gathering up a pair of boho wannabes and for an hour or two setting their callow dreams alight.
*2/- = two shillings, now 10 pence. A bob = 1/- (one shilling), now 5 pence.
Half-a-crown = a large silver coin to the current value of 12.5 pence.
Pics (where traceable): Hulton Deutsch collection & the Museum of London library.