Sunday, 10 February 2008

Flames in Gothdom's Mecca

Probably like Goths all over the UK this morning I have been looking apprehensively at the awkward BBC shots of the fire at Camden Market, trying to work out the extent of the damage and what remains. In recent reports on prejudice against Goths it is often stated that the kind of proof that they were a Goth was that they had visited the Whitby Goth Weekend. However, in almost all cases you will find that Goths had made an earlier pilgrimage to Camden. In the Muslim religion one of the five pillars of Islam is that you should make a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in your life, and I feel that a similar rite of passage exists in the Gothic world. To some extent, like the Islamic world, the Gothic one is less about geographical boundaries and more about shared attitudes. It does connect with the physical world in locations and Camden is one of them.

Camden Market of course has never been the preserve of just Goths. Many ravers, fetishists, interior designers could all legitimately claim it as its own. Millions of tourists to London have been there and usually heavily outnumber the people from the sub-cultures who visit. Camden, like any London district, is also trendy with its restaurants and wine bars as much as almost any borough in London. Even the Open University has its London headquarters there. However, it is the coming together of retail outlets which provide Gothic clothing and the venues that host performers that Goths like (amongst many others of course) that has made it a focus. Camden is often where someone actually becomes a Goth, they kind of 'come out' to steal a gay phrase, or possibly better termed for Goths, a word a friend of mine uses they are 'turned'. With the age of the internet of course you can pick up Gothic clothing anywhere, but there is nothing like going from shop to shop; stall to stall and getting a coat, boots, trousers, dresses, jewellery, etc. Once you have done that you feel that no-one can now challenge your Goth credentials. I remember going from shop to shop to buy my girlfriend of the time her first pair of New Rocks and feeling a real tingle as if she was on the verge of something exciting and I just loved being part of that. Despite his hectic nature, weirdly, Camden can be a location of many very personal journeys.

I remember the first time I went into the market. It was late afternoon in the Autumn so it was turning dark but not late enough to close. With its food stalls with frying Chinese food and the small lights picking out stalls of memorabilia, large halls of glossy black clothes and seemingly as we wandered among piles of 70s clothes and furniture it seemed to me like a mix between a scene from 'Blade Runner' and something I would expect in the Marrakesh souk. It is labyrinthine and you can see why it would burn so quickly with all its narrow alleys. The assortment of items is just bewildering and you come to learn where you need to pick among the stalls, ushering passed stalls with furniture if you are just seeking out vintage clothing. Many of the stalls would not be out of place in a Home Counties craft market or car boot sale, with huge candles and wooden games, second-hand books and cutlery and postcards and Far Easten puppets and boxes. Then you come across a dark one with rave gear or impossibly long boots. The diversity tempts you into straying into new areas and even a Goth can come away with an old paperback and a sandalwood box. The rambling area has more than one location for stalls, the very grid-like pattern area closest to the underground station, the squeezed in stalls along the edge of the lock and then the main zone mixing buildings, free-standing structures and stalls among the stables. Sewn between all these are the leatherwear shops and the boot shops and the pubs and the venues, even just newsagents and grocery stores. Nowhere I have been has such diversity of products in such a small space. There is the mundane, but crucially there is also the very exotic.

What happens now? Is Camden dead? Well it has always been a commercial place with a spiritual aspect simply laid on top and capitalism and its commerce is robust. Many of the traders are small and you hope they are well insured and can revive. There has already been the encroachment of corporates into the area and the smaller, more individual stallholders, I have long feared, would be muscled out. This fire may accelerate this process. Hopefully the authorities will not simply put a big fence around it and let it mould away as sometimes happens in fire-damaged locations. No doubt though, the density of stalls will be decreased and some traders will never get back in. Hopefully it is not transformed into a kind of Camden theme park simply a shadow of what it once was.

Camden has been ever-changing and will change again, but hopefully it rises from the ashes quickly and without losing its vibrancy and its independence. There are few places in the world that I know where not only can you walk down the street, fully 'Gothed up', not only with pride but feeling you really belong and the back-pack wearing muggles can just look on in awe. That maybe a selfish wish, but it is important for any community to have a place where you feel at home. Okay so we can buy our boots online, but nothing will beat striding out with your bags of new clothes that you have got in Camden. For a new Goth it is almost a test of faith to go and shop alongside members of the community you wish to join. It is the second time you visit that makes the difference, when you step from the underground station in all the newest things you have and now feel you have come home.

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