Transformation Behind Sam's Taverna

Hello, this is Future Me, writing after finishing this post.  For some reason, a place called Sam's Taverna had been on my mind for the last couple of days and I decided to commemorate it with a quick post.  While writing, I realised why it felt so significant - and as a result, the post has ended up perhaps being more for me than for you.  Still, you might be interested.  You're a good sort, even if you do still owe me a tenner.

Between 1999 and 2004, I lived behind Sam's Taverna Ta Varelia, which was a Cypriot bar and restaurant in London's Camden Town.  As director Rob Reiner says in his intro to This Is Spinal Tap, don't go looking for it - it's not there any more.

From outside on good old exotic Pratt Street, Sam's Taverna looked tiny.  A narrow frontage, framed by a mess of vine leaves - or at night, a steel shutter pulled down over the whole thing.  Inside, it remained narrow but went back a fair way and had a basement level with many more tables.  The atmosphere was very much old-fashioned, down-home Cypriot bonhomie.  Ornate jugs and bottles lined the walls alongside maps of Cyprus.  On ground level, you could sit at the small bar (my favourite - I love sitting at bars) or at one of four dinner tables.  The bar was always busy with a healthy combination of booze-addled regulars and random newcomers.

More than anything, though, this Taverna was about Sam.  He was quite a short man with a rather intimidating face until he grinned and his eyes glinted.  He worked like a dog, opening in the early afternoons and often staying open until 3am at weekends.  He called me "Master", which is always pleasing for a Doctor Who fan, and served mean hummus and charcoal-grilled halloumi, all washed down with lashings of booze.  Every now and again, though, Sam was forced to live up to that intimidating face of his.  One night, a couple of local gangsters sidled into the place and had a hushed conversation with Sam.  I seem to remember him later telling me that they wanted protection money (I know - it's like we were in prohibition era New York or something).  What I very definitely remember is Sam suddenly holding up a large chopping knife, dramatically slashing it through the air in front of one of the men's faces and yelling, "I'll cut your throat and drink the blood!  I don't care!".

They never came back.

Walk out of the Taverna's back door and you'd find a small courtyard with two toilet cubicles on the left.  You'd also see the front of a small ground-floor flat, provided that the steel shutter wasn't pulled down over its entire front.  That was where I lived for half of my Camden Town years.  I had to walk through part of Sam's Taverna to reach the street.

That flat was full of shoddy charm.  A big studio with a spinning ceiling fan and only two windows: a small one by the front door, looking out into that courtyard, and a barred skylight.  If a raging fire had ever started in the kitchen beside that front door, I'd be dead.  Really should have kept a hacksaw for those skylight bars, looking back.  Apparently, the flat used to be a lock-up where various no-doubt shifty characters would come and play cards.  I loved that.  It was a great place to live, even towards the end when it started to fall apart and slugs decided to invade.

By the way, don't worry: Sam's not dead.  Or at least I don't think he is.  Certainly hope not.  He moved away from that Taverna circa 2005, while I was on holiday, and I never got the chance to find out where he went.  The restaurant, and my flat, became an internet cafe because, you know, Camden really needed another one of those.  But that's not really the point of this blog.  The point, I suppose, is that those five years were pretty formative for me, in terms of starting to turn a big ship around and switch from journalism to scriptwriting.

When I moved in, during 1999, I was very much in journalism, being the News Editor of Kerrang!, the weekly rock magazine.  It was fast, furious and mostly fun.  I regularly went the extra mile for that job, sometimes staying in the office until 3am, to ensure that images of Korn's new stage set, or something, would be e-mailed over from America.  After the turn of the millennium, I became Deputy Editor - and also more seduced by the world of fiction.  Writing this, it has only just occurred to me that moving deeper into dry, dusty and coldly corporate affairs almost certainly made me yearn for something far more creative.  God, all those meetings turned me into Homer Simpson.  People would be talking ad spaces and marketing plans, while skeletal cows pranced around my brain, playing fiddles as I firmly nodded and offered ever-so-sensible suggestions.

For many issues, I became Acting Editor and ran the whole ship.  That was fun.  Then in 2002, the Editor's chair became open.  I initially went for the job, but soon after a realisation hit me hard.  Who was I trying to kid?  I no longer had the passion to edit Kerrang!  I wanted to make stuff up, pure and simple.  Stories had long since taken root in my brain and were already splurging out into clumsily tentative screenplays (my very first, World Wide Web, ended up being cannibalised of its central concept for my 2010 audiobook The Sarah Jane Adventures: Deadly Download).  In truth, that process had begun with drawing and writing endless Doctor Who comic strips as a child - I'd just fallen into rock journalism in my teens and stayed there.  So I realised that, not only did I not want to edit the magazine that I still loved, but I wanted - no, needed - to leave it.  That was certainly the most painful career decision that I ever made.  Tears and everything.  Nevertheless, it was so right.  I had 14 great years in rock journalism, but change was afoot.  And not a moment too soon...

Between 1999 and 2002, there had been much drinking afoot in Sam's Taverna and in the surrounding bars of Camden Town.  So much so, that I'm astonished and saddened to see, while scanning hard drives old and new, that I apparently never got it together to take one single picture of Sam or his Taverna.  I think this picture, taken in the (then) Liberties Bar along the road, sums up that period pretty well.  Behold that slack-jawed elegance!  I remember it as a lively, fun time, although I'm not entirely sure how happy I was.  Lively fun and happiness are not always the same thing.  Behind the beer, I was certainly unfulfilled and in need of forward-moving change, even if it didn't realise it for some time.  After the career-switch, everything started to sharpen and I found myself increasingly glued to the home PC, taking steps into a world in which I could build other worlds.

By the time that planned redevelopment forced me to finally move out of the flat in 2004, I was planning my first published novel, which turned out to be 2005's Friday The 13th: Hate Kill Repeat (still love that title).  The transformation was in full effect.  It had been an often difficult time, almost like a second adolescence, but I'm convinced that's mostly why I remember the Cypriot place opposite my weird lock-up flat with such undying affection.

When you're working your way through a tricky stage of evolution, the comforting buzz of a place where the landlord knows your name, and what you want to drink, makes everything just that much smoother.  Everyone should have a Sam's Taverna.

Well?  Do you have one?  Tell us about it in comments.

                                                                         * * *

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1 comment:

Ben Dutton said...

I wrote a response to your post, but it was too many characters for the comments section of your blog, so I've posted it on my blog:

I don't mind if you don't read it, but it was fun to write. A little jaunt down memory lane.