Cinema elephant ballroom marathon.
Is it a word game, do you think? Say four nouns that you know with virtual certainty nobody in the history of human speech has ever uttered in that order before. Parsnip crank owl trousers. Finger bassoon withdrawal bingo. Mountain wafer pinball theory.
It could be some fucked up game of Cluedo, but the ballroom makes that a bit obvious so it must be the word game. However, I have said ‘cinema elephant ballroom marathon’ many times before I’m afraid, so it’s a hands-down triumph for me. I like to call it ‘the full boat’. And bugger me if I’m not a jolly sailor.
The full boat represents a life well lived. In the physical it describes a rare night when the stars of scheduling align. It defines how I want and try to steer myself through existence. I’ve lived it often after a walk through the city on an afternoon taken recklessly off work, giving it an even greater air of freedom, rebellion and nonspecific inebriation.
We’re in Camden Town, naturally.
We start in the Odeon cinema at 14 The Parkway, currently closed due to coronavirus. Here I sit at the end of any row, far from any rustling. I watch risible popcorn nonsense (see: Bad Boys For Life), one of those ‘oh Christ, fine, I’ll watch it’ films (Parasite, brilliant), or a cerebral piece I can tell people I’ve seen to make me look erudite, like The Personal History of David Copperfield, which is one minute short of two hours of dreaded whimsy, quite interminable, and still Oscar-worthy in comparison with The K*lling of a S*cred D*er. I absolutely adore the cinema, even when it’s shit. But films are thirsty work, and I need an elephant.
Which is the nickname for a pint in the finest pub in the area, perhaps the city and therefore maybe the world: the Elephant’s Head at 224 Camden High Street, currently closed due to coronavirus. Here I mount a stool at the bar. I might briefly look at the phone to hurl scorn at reviews of the film I’ve just watched but otherwise it stays trousered, for an elephant is my cue to contemplate. One, two, rarely three Strongbows, nursed in solitary, staring ahead or occasionally around or at the bar top. Surly staff who leave me be. Even in 2020 I engender that tiny air of uncertainty in other customers that tells them, on balance, yeah let’s give him a wide berth.
Thoughts turn to the ballroom, which is the Electric Ballroom, one block back at 184 Camden High Street, currently closed due to coronavirus. This is my favourite gig venue in London and therefore I suppose the world. I have rocked the holy hell out of this place too often to recall; I’ve emerged from the pit wearing blood that was not my own. As age mellows the ears and softens the rump, the lubricatorily sound positioning of the bars in this venue is increasingly key. In 2019, the Ballroom gave me Cave In, dEUS, Deafheaven and Touche Amore, Black Flag and Shellac. A soundtrack to a life.
And when the music stops, it’s time to run the marathon. More like shamble, I suppose, a good half a mile to 87 Chalk Farm Road and the magnificent Marathon kebab house. To get there at what is invariably a bit gone 11pm you’ll have to dodge the dandies and waifs of the QC Blox gang or the Agar Grove estate posse, whoever’s bled out first to take up station over the canal from those angry places they spend their days simmering with an understandable sense of injustice before expelling the resulting heat in all the wrong ways at night.
Marathon, you’ll note, is not currently closed due to coronavirus. I have traveled and I have traveled in these weeks of lockdown; for someone in the ‘shielding’ gang I’ve been taking proper liberties. And I’ve seen that kebab shops have stayed open throughout, their meaty turbines rotating proudly from 11am as usual, doors wide open, virus as myth.
I reflect on this while being chauffeured in a tomb of plastic, in the back of a car with a see-through buffer protecting the driver and I from each other’s weapons of mass contagion. Banned as I am from public transport, finally they cry, I get driven to and fro on your tax dollar and sometimes a satnav takes us through Camden. And I relive the full boat, and a life well lived.
I perform and complete the full boat on my own. London rewards those who can look, sit and think, often more than the gobshites who come here to yell and haw among the city’s culture, and milk its economy for 30 years before fleeing to Hertfordshire to build treehouses for people who’ll repeat the process ad nauseam. I loved spending time with people in London, before that was over. But the full boat was mine. Such saucy times beneath her mainbrace.
Things are starting to open up again now. The cinema, the elephant and the ballroom may this time next week be trying to fruitlessly marshall desperate punters into 1 or 2-metre squares of impersonal space, using full face shields and elbow-length safety gloves not designed to ferry food and beverages to baying Mulan fans, drunks and the pierced. The second, third, fourth spikes of the virus may herald the death of high-street commerce as we know it but with our friendly in-charge capitalists’ deaf ears to the fore we can be sure it’ll go out screaming.
Or perhaps things will simply get back to normal, all this will pass. But we may have sailed our last, the mighty full boat and I. There will be no July 4th pubocalypse for me.
If anything survives the Bournemouth Beach Revenge, and I myself survive the neverending onslaught of the beast inside, I may once again visit these places I hold dear. But perhaps the question will become: have I myself changed? Will the full boat have grown a barnacle? Will the lure of grimy Camden streets and shifty hooded fuckers wanting a £99 Motorola off me in the dark have worn off through my seasons of machines and medicine?
Like hell will it. Because if there’s one promise I’ll make to myself, as I’m borne along Camden High Street past a life well lived, it’s that this film is a standalone and nobody’s begging for a sequel. There’ll be no lock-in and the band don’t do encores.
If all this will be the end of me I’ll have many fine memories to dissolve alongside me into the black. If I can’t make more, that doesn’t matter; that’s kind of how death works – not much matters. But what I’ll be damned if I’ll do is decide that I’ve been in the cinema plenty. Tickled my last elephant trunk. Ballroom dances danced. Marathons all run.
I’m not against change, or evolution. In many ways I’m obsessed with the new. But either I’m winding down properly here, or this is a goddamn blip and I’m about to come roaring back in my full boat like that scene in The Perfect Storm where they somehow crest a formidable tsunami against all the odds. The film was shite and I didn’t make it to the end but I presume the bit where they reunited with their families was euphoric.
If humanity can best the virus, and whatever comes after it, if we can plough on past the antagonism, poverty and mental strain of the next decade, if the world will still have us, sail on we must.
And if the world will still have me, sail on I shall, in my full boat.