London - Who says you can't go back to Camden Town?
Over 10 years ago I slung drinks at the Underworld, a below-street-level after-hours club, in London's Camden Town. Pouring frothy pints of Caffrey's, I was privy to the likes of Weezer, Pussy Galore and Silverchair strumming through this gritty venue on their way to relative stardom.
At the Underworld - dressed in a black spandex dress and Doc Marten's - I served members of Blur and Menswear while bouncing my head to DJ Jared on Saturday "Silver" nights. Since that time, when the pendulum suddenly shifted to Britpop and a Rule Britannia decree descended on swinging London, Camden Town's eclectic mix has had a special place in my heart.
Today, with my 30-plus birthday notches, I've been earning my daily bread with a "proper job" (as Camden locals say) in Canada and have decided to precede a visit with European relatives with reliving a few glory days in old Camden.
My travel companion, Renée, suggests that in solidarity with our "doin' it old-school" tour we book two beds in a co-ed six-bed dorm room at the Smart Camden Inn youth hostel on Bayham Street.
After our obscene 4 am Gatwick arrival, we check in early (thankfully, a non-issue) and nap until 10 am, when we're awakened by the creaky tossing of our recent college grad upper bunkmates.
Walking up the bustling Camden High Street in search of breakfast, we notice new Gap and Starbucks storefronts shimmering alongside the more traditional Camden institutions: small pubs and vintage clothing, record and charity shops.
Past the main roundabout outside the tube station, we turn on to Inverness, which is pedestrians-only on market days, and indulge in an English breakfast of bangers, toast, fried tomatoes and mushrooms and eggs. While sipping on steaming tea, we watch open-air vendors in faded newsboy caps peddle fruit and vegetables like characters in a Dickens novel. In fact, Dickens spent his childhood in Camden (his home, like our hostel, was on Bayham).
After breakfast we continue north, gazing at the 8-foot leather-outfitted mannequins and human-sized boots mounted over rainbow-painted shop fronts. From the Lock Market terrace (one of six separate Camden markets), we survey the Regent's Canal system, which offers lovely jogging, cycling and boating trails through an otherwise unseen London. Both inside and outside the refurbished 19th-century warehouse market, Renée and I coo over one-of-a-kind jewellery, designer clothes and aromatherapy candles as well as rare LPs, antique furniture, laced gothic garments, pipe paraphernalia and used books.
We then zip eight minutes south by tube to Trafalgar Square and dip our feet in the fountain under the watchful eye of Admiral Nelson. At the National Portrait Gallery (free admission), we experience a bit of "cultcha" and continue on foot through Leicester Square, Piccadilly Circus and Oxford Circus on the hunt for snazzy but shoestring-budget clothes at my favourite fashion chain, Topshop.
Shopping bags full, Renée and I order tea-time lager shandies on Carnaby Street, then head north through Regent's Park past impromptu soccer games and a pinstripe-suited gentleman rolling an after-work joint under a shady tree.
Walking east from the northern tip of Regent's Park brings us back, in a perfect circuit, to Camden. For dinner we eat spicy Indian red curry, freshly baked samosas and split a bottle of red on Camden's Parkway as a civilized start to the evening's pub crawl. Several snakebites (half lager, half cider) and pubs later (the World's End, Halfway House and Spread Eagle), we arrive at my favourite: the Good Mixer.
This privately owned pub is split down the middle by a rectangular bar, with pool tables and small table seating on either side. G&Ts in hand, we settle into a friendly conversation with two local blokes, Shane and Alex, who are eager to refamiliarize us with the Camden night scene.
At midnight, when the Australian bartender not-so-gently herds us out, we proceed to the Dublin Castle, taking advantage of its slightly later liquor licence. The Castle's front room offers intimate booth seating, Britpop tunes on the jukebox and vintage-clad and cigarette-flicking clientele in a variety of mod, punk and gothic hairstyles. Drawn to the local music scene, we pay a reasonable fare (£5) for access to the self-contained back space and dance to one of the nightly bands.
The next evening, after Rothkos and Hockneys at the Tate, a browse through Harrods and a delicious Vietnamese meal in Camden, Renée and I meet our new friends at the Lock Tavern for London-style rounds, whereby each person takes a turn buying drinks. I then guide my band of very merry men to the Underworld, where I'm surprised to reconnect with Paulie, a former South London boxer and now social worker who still works security to earn extra cash. All class, Paulie slips us in via the side door for a complimentary night at my alma mater club.
The Underworld is freshly painted but has none of the pretentiousness of Soho clubs where attitude, dress code and hoity guest lists predominate. It remains essentially local - where all the hardworking 20- (and a few 30-) something folk congregate to shake their vintage or Ben Sherman booty on the dance floor.
In his 14th year, DJ Jared still spins 80s and 90s favourites on Thursdays and alternative and indie rock on Saturdays. The smiling bartenders serve up pints at a reasonable £2 85 pence, and a wave of happiness flows over me as I feel the still cider-sticky wooden floors vibrate to heavy bass beats. Amidst 200-plus people, we dance to Rage Against the Machine's Killing In The Name and the Stone Roses in a perfect nostalgic music mix.
Before boarding my flight to London, I wondered if it would be smart to revisit the idealized past of my European backpack days. But as I danced on the small Underworld stage surrounded by new mates, I realized that in situations like these it's not your mind, but your body, that overrides all, remembers and jolts to life again.