In what has unintentionally turned into something of a pre-Christmas promotional
gentle trot marathon, I’m just putting the finishing touches to a talk I’ll be giving at Upper Norwood Joint Library next Saturday (14th Dec) from 2.30pm.
I’ll be discussing the the process of writing Strange Air, and taking questions on any of the subjects that arise – whether the history of Crystal Palace Park, Thomas Webster Rammell and the pneumatic railway experiments of the mid-19th century, or the research and writing process itself. The library is a wonderful (and in many ways unique) hive of local activity, and I’m really touched that they’ve asked me along. Entry is free but spaces are limited, so the library is advising people to arrive promptly for the talk.
Last week I had a great time appearing on Janet Smith’s Arts Show on Croydon Radio, discussing much the same. The podcast is available now.
It’s been a long time since I posted anything here – an inadvertent hiatus caused by having to move house (damn my returning landlord!), an overflow of activity at work and, chiefly, promotional efforts associated with my new book, Strange Air.
The latter have been going terrifically well, and the Kindle edition has been flying off the electronic shelves, with a fair few paperbacks following in its wake. The whole enterprise has been massively helped by the news that Chinese developers ZhongRong Holdings are proposing to re-build the Crystal Palace in its original form and location – an out-of-the-blue endeavour which, as those who’ve read it will know, couldn’t be any more relevant to my novel. The rights and wrongs of their proposals have provoked passionate debate in Crystal Palace, and I have personally reacted with a complex mix of enthusiasm, intrigue and dread.
On the one hand, what could be better than having the Palace back at the heart of the suburb which sprang up around it, and gave the area its unique grandeur? The park needs some kind of regeneration, and with the actual site of the Palace largely unused at present, it’s difficult to mount a convincing argument about loss of green space – especially since the development is intended to bankroll existing plans to redevelop the rest of the park.
But on the other hand, what on earth are the developers (and Boris) thinking? Although superficially appealing, the idea of going back to old glories could easily be considered anathema to the core Palace principle. While admittedly crammed full of replicas of ancient artefacts, the original building was nonetheless a forward-looking enterprise: inspired by imperial exploration, and intent on expanding its visitors’ minds by bringing the fruits of those excursions back home. In short, the place was progressive, so why regress by rebuilding it?
And then there are the knotty practical arguments – how can a space that big not be essentially and intensively commercial? – regarding which we need to ask if the greater economic pay-off is worth the disruption caused to what is currently a proudly independent suburb?
Clearly, the sensible thing to do is wait until the detail of the proposals emerges, whereupon the consultation process can begin in earnest. But therein lies the biggest fear: that with the mayoral and municipal winds in their sails, the developers will be ushered through due process without the right questions being asked at the right time.
Who can say? For now, at least, the best way to experience the Crystal Palace as it was remains – he says with a marketer’s smile – to read my book. Below are a few links to articles and reviews that have appeared over the last couple of months, collected here as much to aid my memory as anything else.
(1) Lovely review from the Londonist, in which the editor Matt Brown remarks: ‘What a peculiar and wonderful novel Strange Air is . . . a true page-turner, whose ultimate outcome is as unpredictable as a blindfolded interchange at Earl’s Court.’
(2) A piece I wrote about the gestation of the novel for Inside Croydon
(4) A beautiful piece from local blogger James Balston about the magic of Crystal Palace Park, containing his fantastically atmospheric photography and a few kind words about the book
(5) A nice mention in Guardian blogger Dave Hill’s ruminations on the Chinese plans to rebuild the Crystal Palace
(6) An enthusiastic review from the website Fictional Cities, a charming site devoted to fiction about London, Florence and Venice
(7) A slightly lukewarm – and spoilertastic! – review from London blogger IanVisits
It’s a funny old world. A month and a half ago, my new novel was published – fusing the histories of the Crystal Palace and the pneumatic railway. A historical fantasy, rooted in detailed research of both subjects, the book revels in the wonders of both the Palace, its park, and the irresistible idea of blowing or (effectively) sucking trains through tunnels. Without giving too much away, part of my authorial intent was to revive those marvels in the minds of modern readers, and spark them into imagining what the world would be like if the two phenomena were part of our everyday lives in the 21st century.
How extraordinary, then, that within six weeks of publication, the two things have come to uncanny prominence in the public eye – from quite unexpected sources.
First, it was revealed that a Chinese billionaire harbours dreams of rebuilding the Crystal Palace in Norwood. And now, an American billionaire, PayPal founder Elon Musk, has unveiled a fantastic vision of a ‘Hyperloop’ transport link between Los Angeles and San Francisco – using magnetism and, you’ve guessed it, pneumatic power to propel pods from one city to the other at supersonic speeds.
Either way, I can’t complain. As the novels find their way in the world, it can only do me good if real life is kind enough to catch up with what they contain. Who knows? Perhaps I should even start thinking about my third novel as an exercise in wish-fulfilment, and pack it full of things I really want to come to pass.
Or perhaps there’s no need. After all, as my first two books have shown, that’s precisely what I’ve already been doing – it is, effectively, the reason why I (and probably most other novelists) write in the first place.
I look back fondly on the 2012 Olympics and Paralympics for all sorts of reasons: the astounding opening ceremony, the infectious joy and enthusiasm of the Olympic Park, the hugely impressive multi-platform BBC and C4 coverage and, of course, the frankly ridiculous number of unforgettable sporting moments.
But reflecting on the whole shebang one year on, there is one sensation that stays with me above all others: the fact that, for those fleeting few weeks, London felt finished.
Obviously, there were the Olympic-specifics – that bewildering infrastructure which took seven years to build, and which reached (mostly temporary) completion for those precious few weeks. But what I’m talking about is a more general phenomenon – perhaps one which only hardened Londoners can properly appreciate.
Because that sense of completion, of fulfilment, extended into every artery of the city. For two magnificent months, the things which are in an otherwise permanent state of flux – road works, construction sites and transport networks – suddenly stabilised. The constant forces of urban evolution were put on hold and, as if by magic, a city which normally exists in a perpetual state of self-improvement felt like it was, well, finished.
Not just finished, either, but functional. In all the years I’ve known London – right up to the day before the opening ceremony, and every day since the Paralympics ended – the place has never quite come together, whether because of line or station closures, road blockages, or just the constant drone and clatter of interminable building works.
But during the Games, all the city’s cogs turned to perfection. The whole Olympics undertaking was a masterclass in the execution of big ideas and fiendishly complex planning, but throughout it all no idea was bigger, no plan more intricate, than the city itself. And the city itself worked.
Now this is a fine way to fire the imagination on a Friday morning. According to today’s Times (quoting Property Week), a billionaire Chinese developer (operating through ZhongRong Holdings) plans to build a full-scale replica of the Crystal Palace in the south London park to which the original Palace gave its name – a park which I know and love so well.
There have been lots of regeneration masterplans in the 77 years since the first (or rather second) Crystal Palace burnt down – some, in truth, more masterful than others. It’s not even the first time people have dreamt of restoring the Palace in something resembling its original form.
But that doesn’t make this latest news any less exciting. Details are scant – apparently they ‘hope’ to submit a planning application later this year; the building would be used for exhibitions – but in a way the story is all the better for its vagueness: one is free to fantasise about how glorious the restored Palace would be.
It’s been a long old few weeks, for all sorts of reasons. Right in the heart of it all, however, were these six minutes of total joy, magnificent escapism, and a not-inconsiderable number of lasers.
The new PSB album is just days away – and I can’t wait.
I’m thrilled to announce the publication of my second novel – the macabre historical thriller Strange Air – in both Kindle and paperback formats.
In the mid-19th century, London is crying out for a cure to the congestion on its streets. Knowing that some kind of underground railway will provide the solution, civil engineer Thomas Webster Rammell fights to realise his dream of trains powered by air – so saving his fellow citizens from the unthinkable horrors of subterranean steam. Meanwhile, in present-day London, ex-tube driver Eric walks amid the ruins of the old Crystal Palace. It’s a sad, ghostly place, and gets stranger still when he is attacked by a vengeful skeleton, lurking in a buried Victorian railway carriage.
Inspired by two true stories, Strange Air interweaves the irresistible tale of one of the Victorians’ most fantastic inventions with the history of the Crystal Palace in Sydenham – that piece de resistance of Victorian endeavour, which graced the airy heights of south London from 1854 until its fiery destruction in 1936. An exhilarating blend of railway history and suburban fairytale, the novel reveals how close one man came to changing the history of London’s public transport – and exposes the truth behind the tragic demise of the once-mighty ‘people’s Palace’.