I’ve seen a lot of amazing things here in England so far, but for the most part, everything I’ve seen has had a parallel back home. I saw 10 Downing Street, for example, and of course that’s similar to our White House. Westminster Abbey is much older than anything in Washington, DC, but I’ve toured old monuments and mausoleums before in the US.
Camden Market, on the other hand, is something I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen before. There are farmer’s markets all over the US, of course — the LA Farmer’s Market is probably the closest parallel I can come up with to describe with Camden Market is like. But even then, I can’t honestly say it comes close. Camden Market was a street market unlike any other I’d ever seen, with just miles and miles of twisty, turn-y passageways full of items for sale, vendors of food and trinkets and clothing and furniture. I’ve been all over America, and I can truly say that America doesn’t have anything like a European market. It was astounding to see.
Not all of the vendors in the many, many (hundreds? thousands, probably) stalls are there all the time — I happened to visit Camden on what Londoners call a “bank holiday weekend,” which is a mythical creature that they all hunt where everyone apparently gets the day off completely. I have heard so many Londoners this week talking about how much they love their bank holidays — more than one reminded me that when the current Queen dies, they’ll get a bank holiday, and they’re more excited about that, I think, than the passing of the monarch. But yes, Camden Market was crowded this weekend, which didn’t bother me at all.
It starts when you get off of the Camden Town tube stop — you see a small gathering of vendors down an alley way, and you walk through that lane to see what they’re selling. It’s mostly junk (well, it’s all junk): London sweatshirts, probably illegal prints of Banksy pieces, used dresses and shirts, plenty of hats and jewelry, and every once in a while, a booth of handmade goods. There’s a small stand selling chicken samosas, four for a pound, so you buy those and eat them while walking around. You reach the end of the lane and decide that Camden market is a charming little place to visit.
Then, you see an entry way to another small store. You figure what the heck, and enter it, only to find that it’s not just one little store, it’s a whole old building, dark and full of vendors, booth after booth of crazy items to purchase. There are shirts that glow in the dark, hash lollipops (that may or may not actually be drugs), knockoff bags and watches by the dozen, leather goods, t-shirts from the obscene to the funny, iPhone cases, knockoff phones, fake DVDs, real DVDs, scarves aplenty, hair clips and hair extensions and wigs, if you have no hair.
After that odyssey, you exit that building and see another, and then another. You make your way down the street — there’s a punk rock shop with a crazy skeleton sculpture above the door, a Chinese restaurant with a life-sized dragon above it, a legendary record store, and stalls everywhere that all lead back into endless dungeons of vendors and their probably illegal wares.
The food! After you cross Camden Lock, you come to another open air market, and you walk through that one for a while, turning corner after corner and finding new tessellations of vendors. There’s huge tubs full of curries of all kinds, sweet and sour and cashew chicken and vegetable noodles, lamb masala, huge pizzas, Persian burgers, pasties, Polish sausages, pad thai, fried noodles, wonton soup, roti bread, huge stalls of homemade doughnuts, dumplings, pies, fruits and vegetables. There’s so much food that vendors are desperate to sell it — they hold out toothpicks of samples yelling at passersby that they’re free, just try one, please. Noodles and dumplings for two pounds fifty, a cup of hot soup three pounds each, pork or veggie bao two pounds or two for three.
You see a hat you might like (given that you didn’t bring one on the trip), and just as instantly as you touch it, a vendor appears with an Indian accent. “You like that hat? I make you special deal,” he says, with the smallest amount of desperation. “Try it on, you’ll like it. Excellent hat,” he says. How much? “Don’t worry about price, I make you special deal,” he promises. “Try it on.” It’s only when you shake your head and start walking away that he quotes numbers. “Good hat!” he yells. “For you, 12 pounds. Special deal for you, sir! What price you want?” He continues until you’ve left the stall, then turns off to the next customer, trying to make a special deal on a hat he got in a crate for one or two pounds.
There are more permanent stores in among the temporary vendor stalls, and they are just as marvelous. Cyberdog is more of a club than a retail store — its walls are lined with clothes and accessories to buy (most of them neon-colored), but the room is dark and a DJ spins club tunes loudly, like something out of The Matrix. On the bottom floor, it turns into a sex shop, with weird corsets and lingerie, and lots of dildos and sex toys. Just off of the food alley above (though honestly, the food is everywhere, anyway), there’s a tiny little room that holds a games shop in a corner, not big enough to spread your arms across fully. It’s packed from floor to ceiling, however, with games of all kinds — board games with the instructions only in German, collectible card games from all over the world, and ancient boxes full of little soldiers and pieces to fight wars with.
The Stables Market is a whole other section, and it’s full of vintage clothing stores and leather shops. Bronze horses stand guard at the entrance, and there is commerce everywhere, commerce that’s been going on for close to a century now.
I attended to my own kind of commerce afterwards — a friend who used to work at Joystiq invited me along to a gathering of UK games writers there at Camden, and we later retired to a pub and bought each other drinks while we talked about what being a journalist was like on either side of the Atlantic. There are shakeups aplenty in our industry these days (not to mention that PAX East is going on right now, and I’m missing it completely), and hearing what they were working on and what things were like over here was fascinating. Unfortunately, I probably didn’t keep up my end of the conversation — my head was still buzzing from all of the markets. But we each bought rounds and shared beers, and it was a nice strong reminder that though I’ve called off of work for these two vacation weeks, the business continues on without me.
Afterwards, I said goodbye and thanks (and promised to get together at E3), and took the train down to a neighborhood called Shoreditch, and the Rosemary Branch Theater. I’d gotten it in my head a few days ago to try and take in a play while in London — the theater here is of course paramount, and London’s West End is widely known for some of the best performances on stage ever. None of those quite matched my price range, though, so instead I thought I’d see a production of Oscar Wilde’s “An Ideal Husband.” The political comedy seemed appropriate for London.
The Rosemary Branch is both a pub and a theater, so I got there a little early and tried a venison burger and chips, along with another beer, while I waited. The play itself was good — I had some issues with the acting, but I had more issues with the seat, unfortunately, which was really uncomfortable for some reason. I’m glad I saw it, though it didn’t really impress me more than anything I’ve seen in Chicago or LA. Maybe I will have to hit the West End for some classic London shows.
And then I walked back to the tube station in Shoreditch, and rode the train back up to my hotel. Tomorrow would be Easter, and I figured that after seven long days in London, I probably deserved a few hours of sleeping in.
Posted on Sunday, April 8th, 2012 at 5:55 am. Filed under general.