David Thomson – In Camden Town (1983)

May 4, 2011

I first came across David Thomson’s In Camden Town  a couple of years ago as bite-sized entries in a London anthology book. Thomson’s tightly wrought street reportage stood out like a beacon amidst the other more florid and familiar entries, so I kept an eye out for the book whenever I popped into a second-hand book shop. After a fruitless year of searching, I turned to Abebooks, where I picked up a battered second-hand copy for a couple of quid.

Put simply, it’s an enthralling work about London by a largely forgotten, hugely talented writer.

Born in 1914, Thomson worked as a writer, researcher and BBC radio producer, writing three novels, a book about animal folklore, and a number of children’s books for Puffin, such as Danny Fox, Danny Fox Meets A Stranger and Danny Fox At The Palace. In 1955, he and his wife moved to Regents Park Terrace in Camden to bring their three sons up.

In 1980, at the age of 66, he was attempting to complete a vast, sprawling history of Camden Town. Struck with writer’s block at the sheer immensity of the project, he started to keep a diary.

He thought that forcing himself to write short entries each day would help break the deadlock, as well as “bypass for a time my dread of opening the manuscript at the page where I left off.”  About halfway through his diary, he attempted to restart the book, but found himself in tears after just six lines. Returning to his new manuscript later in the day, he found the page he had been working on had been torn out – only he couldn’t remember having done so, nor could he remember what he’d written.

The book he ended up publishing instead was the diary – a wide-ranging vivid often beautiful, often bad-tempered account of life in Camden Town, as he writes, drinks and struggles with work.

He spends days roaming through Camden, describing the horrors and the dirt that he passes – “Canal black, with plastic cups floating on it, potato-crisp bags, Kentucky chicken and, I think, a dead cat” – popping into the pubs along the way, and passing hours chatting to the tramps, drunks and chancers who he runs into on a regular basis.

Thomson frequently writes about a Scottish alcoholic named Davy and his on-off partner Mary. He’d known them both for twenty years,

but only been on speaking terms with him since Christmas Eve in 1975…Davy came up to me and said that the off-licence was shut and would I go into the pub and get some cider. He had some little coins in his hand to encourage me. They are not allowed in anywhere and only into one cafe that I know of. I got the cider and some Guinness for myself and we went to drink it on a bench near the Buck’s Head where in those days they liked to sit in the sun facing the end of Inverness Street market. No market that day. Beautiful sun, but weak. Mary and Davy were surprised that I felt cold. They spend their lives in such places.

Elsewhere, Thomson talks with passion on the conditions that navvies worked under on the railways into Euston (a topic that he would have covered in his never-completed history) – in the course of his research, he discovered a record of a woman who’s lost twenty-nine of her partners in six years, and only one of them to natural causes.

Thomson starts to despise the fact he’s getting old, tells how he once smelled what he thinks were “ghost horses” at some traffic lights at Henley’s Corner, talks about how the smell of bonfires rouse old memories, and decides that the Punk fashion (this being 1980) he sees outside The Music Machine venue is akin to Puritanism – “it is startling to see such a look of severity, especially on the girl’s faces in the evening outside a pleasure dome, but this I guess is fashion too.”

He attends a sparse funeral in East Finchley for a pauper (“I felt I was in a desolate housing estate among minature houses for the dead”) and relates how even as an elderly man, he still always sat near attractive women on buses.

If it’s a girl with long hair down her back…I clasp the hand rail on the back of her seat. That’s what it’s meant for I suppose, but I’ve never seen anyone else clasp it. And as she moves her head her hair touches my hands….I just haven’t changed since I was fifteen. I learn from autobiographies that people do change.

Published by Hutchinson, and later in paperback by Penguin, the book was reviewed favourably at the time by The Guardian and The TLS, so it seems quite surprising that David Thomson is almost totally obscure today. His memoir Woodbrook (concerning a period in the 1930s where he tutored two girls in a rural Irish country house and ended up staying for ten years) is better known, but Thomson’s work has largely fallen out of the public eye.

Seamus Heaney wrote an introduction for a reissue of Thomson’s collection of seal folktales The People Of The Sea in 2001, and much of what he says about that ‘luminous’ book could equally apply to In Camden Town .

He refers to “the sweetness and intimacy of David Thomson’s imagination,” saying the book follows “his own creative, truth-telling bent with characteristic unpredictability and sprightliness.” Oddly, it sounds all very high-falutin’ until you’ve read In Camden Town, and the spikiness, the strangeness and the vividness that Heaney talks of can be spotted immediately.

The fact Heany’s comment applies equally to a book about living in a run-down North London district, as it does to a book about ancient Celtic seal fables, is purely down to the sheer brilliance of Thomson’s writing.

It’s a shame that this book has been totally forgotten, and it’s a shame that David Thomson seems to have been totally forgotten too. It’s something neither of them deserve.

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3 Responses to “David Thomson – In Camden Town (1983)”

  1. Chris said

    Nice piece on David Thomson. The People of the Sea has long been a favorite and I’m enjoying Nairn in Darkness and Light now. I’ll keep an eye out for Camden.

  2. Sue Condon said

    I went into my favourite second-hand book shop at Camden Lock and this book sort of chose me – it was the first book I noticed and I had never heard of it, but I was staying in Camden for the night and it was called “In Camden Town”, so I bought it for £2. As soon as I started reading it I could not put it down, it went everywhere with me, even when I knew I had no chance of reading it I just wanted to know it was there, I loved it so much. His writing is wonderful, I feel as though I met every one of the characters, and there is stunning history, humour, empathy and sadness in his work too. This book has the most vivid and emotional last paragraph of any book I have ever read, with a genius descriptive image that will haunt me forever. This book deserves to have so much more acclaim and I am so glad to have found this review.

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