Like other firsts in my life that should have been memorable- eating peanut butter, hearing The Who's Baba O'Riley- I can't actually remember the first time I visited Camden. It's as if it's somehow imprinted on my DNA in the way that the ocean is imprinted on that of a newly-hatched turtle; I have just always known it. Known it, and loved it, from my days as a tourist in London (anytime pre-2003) to my current (since 2013) status as a resident in the borough.
The only place you can really compare it to on earth is New Orleans. Not in the way it gets so hot and sticky (not on weekdays, anyway) or that it's full of French colonial architecture, but in the way that the otherworldly sits so comfortably next to the everyday hedonism of each place. Just as NO's heart beats to bourbon and jazz and voodoo, Camden's veins flow with beer, rock n' roll and wizardry. If I give directions to Camden High Street from where I live, I tell people to walk along the blue-lit canal, past the Pirate Castle and ascend onto the road lined with shops selling drug paraphernalia and Druid leisurewear. And I'm not even exaggerating. The town even has its own musical patron saint- St Amy of the Winehouse, whose effigy is seen everywhere from the bronze statue in the Stables Market to the Banksy-esque graffiti scattered across the walls of random pubs and cafes, often sprouting the wings that she in life was so determined wouldn't be clipped.
Camden has a perverse way of making you feel better about yourself. Drug dealers here practise equal opportunities vending; I'm sure that even my bumpkinesque father would be asked if he 'needed anything' were he ever to brave the eternal street scrum around the lock. You can dress as a goth, a forties housewife or Gandalf himself and you'll be as welcome as the next person- who would most likely look like an extra from Fame. You can be an over-indulger (most locals have stuck to the floor of the Electric Ballroom at some point, even if they don't admit it) or a clean-living raw foodist (InSpiral Cafe has a table for you- just get there early to avoid disappointment) and the town will open its sleeve-tattooed arms wide to you, regardless.
Oh, and the best thing about Camden? Everyone here gets to be famous. Play guitar on a Wednesday in the window of Camden Guitars at their open-mic and your attempts at that Ed Sheeran or John Lee Hooker rendition will be amped out to the street outside. They'll even scrawl your name on the window for the whole ten minutes that you play. They say in London you're caught at least 100 times each day on camera- get onto the bridge during the lunch hour and this quadruples as you're caught in 50% of all selfies and group shots of the (almost exclusively French or Italian) tourists trying to get Camden Lock in the background.
Love it or loathe it- and it's the kind of place that demands one or the other extreme- spending time here will leave you slightly changed. Like that 'dangerous' relative that you were warned about as a teenager at family gatherings but you couldn't help sneaking off with for a crafty cigarette anyway, a visit is worth it for all the right reasons. And the wrong ones.