MEMORY LANE: Kensington Market

I was thinking the other day about a friend of mine, my age, also a mother (which is so often a shorthand for “responsible adult” and all the frequently erroneous ideas that go along with that) who still dyes – or more accurately, rediscovered dyeing – her hair vivid colours, and looks fabulous on it. That was trigger enough to fall into a reverie about the days when Saturdays were for hopping on the train to London, and taking a tube to Kensington Market.

Labyrinthine, dark, twisting place full of head shops, piercing parlours, alt fashion boutiques and band t-shirt stalls. In my memory it’s a pokey and poorly lit warren; all long, winding corridors with illogical bends; paths with curves and weird slopes in unexpected places. The very few photos I can find online don’t contradict this.

It rather echoed the bazaars in Arabic countries; it’s an architecture more readily associated with its counterparts in Cairo and Istanbul. It had both the grime and the crowding, but also that feeling of stepping into a treasure trove of possibility and diversity.

I look back and several things strike me. The lack of logic to the mall’s design is one; how this bastion of alt culture survived for so long in Kensington, of all places, is another (it’s worth noting, though, that this is only at odds with the sleek, moneyed Kensington of today; when the market opened it slotted right into what, along with Carnaby Street, was the fashion centre of the swinging Sixties).

But most of all I’m struck by how I never felt the slightest unease there. Although my memory is of a gloomy, slightly ominous place, it felt like home; a haven for the freaks and the sideliners.

I try to remember the brand of hair dye I used to buy there. I can smell it, feel it on my fingers; light to the touch and gentle on the nose. A magical, otherworldly substance; a little bit of sorcery in a pot. I can see it in my mind’s eye: small round tub, gold writing. I remember the word Stargazer, but was that the makeup…?

I google “hair dye pot”, and there it is, nestled between the red herrings: La Riché Directions. I remember the name of my favourite colour: Rose Red (a fetching magenta shade); otherwise, anything purple or blue. I once did all-over streaks of all three.

I’m thinking about doing it again. Who gets to define what a woman (a mother, at that) nearing middle age should do with her hair? The woman herself, and no-one else.

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