A nice bit of blue

I haven’t had much time to blog lately. The past few months have been swallowed up by the day job and house-hunting. But I did find time last Saturday to accept the kind invitation of the People for Portland Road/South Norwood Arts Festival, who asked me to unveil a blue plaque commemorating the site of the old Norwood (‘Jolly Sailor’) atmospheric railway pumping station.

Jolly Sailor pumping stationThis was one of three such pumping stations built to operate the air-powered railway line that briefly ran from Forest Hill (later New Cross) to West Croydon from 1845 to 1847. It was a key ancestor to the pneumatic railways later trialled by Thomas Webster Rammell, which form the subject of my novel Strange Air. Having spent so long researching the history of the air-powered railways for that book – and indeed having set some of my opening chapters on the Croydon line – it was a great privilege to reveal the plaque. All being well, it will provide a long-lasting reminder of the inspiring railway that once ran through the heart of what feels like a newly-invigorated South London suburb.

Debate, development and opportunity

Information Project flyerI really enjoyed appearing at the Information Project debate last night. This was the first in a new series of community meetings intended to inspire debate about the proposed redevelopment of Crystal Palace Park by the ZhongRong Group.

What was obvious is how much local appetite there is for this kind of event. There have already been several public meetings relating to the plans, but most have been convened by Arup, who are managing the project in the UK. Positioned as consultation exercises, those meetings don’t seem to have allowed the community to properly explore the broader context of the proposals – be it the historical precedents, the level of consensus, or the focus of potential opposition. Whether or not that’s a deliberate ploy (pro-active engagement carefully managed to stifle proper debate) is a moot point. But either way, the community clearly welcomed an opportunity to share its views at leisure. If the meeting ended with a degree of positivity, I think it was because people recognised that these debates are a chance to start properly coordinating local feeling.

Reflecting on the meeting now, there seem to be two aspects to that challenge: the angle of attack, and the advocacy of alternatives. For the former, a comment from the floor towards the end nailed it for me – that wider public support can best be courted not by invoking the plan itself, but by focusing on the legislative liberties potentially being taken by Bromley Council.

Tell someone from outside the area about the idea of rebuilding the Crystal Palace and they may wonder what you’re objecting to. The idea sounds attractive in principle, and the skids have been put under enough plans in the past for non-locals to start wondering if SE19’s ‘awkward squad’ will never be happy. Perhaps they might even think it’s time the activists got their comeuppance – that this is deserved punishment for having been so closed-minded in the past.

But mention Bromley and ZhongRong’s exclusivity agreement, or the length of lease being proposed for the commercial occupation of public space, and I reckon concern would not only be forthcoming, but potentially very vocal.

As for the issue of alternatives, it was a recurrent theme – especially from the panel. Yes, the community has proposed many different uses for the top site of the park over time, but now it really does feel necessary to settle on a coherent argument for how else the space might be used. The Masterplan is one thing, but it struggles to compete with the regenerative dimension of the ZhongRong development, hence their being able to roll it into their vision.

Instead, the community needs to be clear about what an ‘ideal’ alternative looks like – one which benefits the community while also being financially viable. That way the choice will become a positive one, rather than just ‘something or nothing’.

Personally, I liked the point that emerged about how a lot of really valuable stuff – especially cultural – doesn’t need a brand new building in which to happen. Yes, the park might benefit from (and events be funded by) some kind of modestly-sized commercial hub, but a huge amount of brilliant things could be achieved by working with the open space as it currently is. (Indeed, the team behind the Overground Festival sound like they’re more than ready to devise all kinds of invaluable uses for the park.)

As for the heritage of the park, I spoke last night about how the original Palace is more enthralling in its absence than its presence. Ultimately, I think this is the thing to work with. We should celebrate the heritage of Paxton’s Crystal Palace in precisely the manner which captivates us at present. That means continuing to clean up the ruins, opening up the subway, expanding the museum facilities, and dusting off the top site so we can finally make the most of the space which the Palace originally occupied.

Because that’s the rub. As I walked home last night, I wondered what the ‘problem’ of Crystal Palace Park is. Why does the place always feel so up for grabs? Val Shawcross speculated that in some way the phenomenon is unique to South London; that this would never happen to Hyde Park, to Regent’s Park, or even to Alexandra Palace Park.

But surely, at least in the first instance, the problem is simpler than that. It comes back to that out-of-bounds area at the top; one which currently serves no public purpose (thereby complicating community opposition), while also crying out to developers. For them, it looks only like an opportunity – and I would suggest that the leap of faith required from opponents of the ZhongRong proposal is to enter into the same mindset as the developers: to acknowledge the incompleteness of the park as it stands, and generate ideas to fill the void of the top site with a creativity that does justice to the passion, talent and ingenuity of the local community.

The idea of a building

This is the speech I prepared for ‘Who owns culture?’ – the first in a new series of debates called The Information Project, which took place last night at the Salvation Army in Upper Norwood. The aim is to stimulate local debate around the ZhongRong Group’s proposals for a ‘new’ Crystal Palace. I wrote it out in advance of speaking, so thought I may as well publish it here.

“I want to talk about absence. The power of what’s been lost. Because if we’re discussing notions of ownership and culture in relation to Crystal Palace Park, then absence is a critical factor.

What do I mean by absence? Quite simply, the vacuum left by the original Palace, without which the open space, and so much that’s distinctive about the surrounding district, might not exist.

I feel this absence very intensely. In writing my novel I spent five years imagining what the Palace and the park used to look like, what they used to feel like, at different points in their history. And that level of immersion creates a powerful bond with the space; one which I don’t believe would be as strong were it all still there.

I don’t think the power of absence is limited to me as an artist either. I think it’s something felt by anyone who’s spent time in that beautiful, absorbing but ultimately ghostly park. I might even argue that the Palace’s absence is the fuel that gives our community such life; that the proud sense of ownership we see exhibited by Crystal Palace residents – a cultural phenomenon which is evident again now, just as it is relation to the Church Road cinema, and as it was at the turn of the millennium – is partly due to the power of what no longer exists, and the strong connection which that absence demands you make with the area’s past.

Put simply, the Palace’s absence is why we’re here. And that sense of ownership is why we should be vigilant when a commercial developer deploys the word culture as a basis for restoring presence to the park. Because as well as being a positive force for engagement, absence can too easily become an excuse to take liberties.

The climate is intriguing in this respect. To my mind, culture and commerce are enjoying a warmer relationship than they have for many years. I freely admit to visiting cultural venues – the Southbank Centre, say – with no more high-minded an aim than to enjoy shopping, eating or drinking in slightly more civilised surroundings than the average high street. I understand how those spaces work, and I think a lot of them are to be valued.

The difference is that all the precedents have established cultural assets at their hubs – giving credence to the use of culture as justification for the commercial appropriation of public space. Crystal Palace Park is different. Here, we’re being asked to sacrifice an area of Metropolitan Open Land based on a cultural asset that hasn’t yet been defined beyond the basic idea of a building.

Perhaps that in itself is enough. The scheme has gained momentum by virtue of the idea of the Palace itself – what actually goes in it is self-confessedly an afterthought. Looking back, it feels almost like the developer hoped the Palace itself would be considered enough of a cultural asset to justify the development, and enable them take the necessary liberties with legislation. And I wonder if that hope isn’t at least partly intended to play on our understanding of how successful cultural/commercial spaces work. Because if we’re honest, we can all imagine the kind of thing it will be, right? A bit like all those other commercially cultural spaces that we’ve come to love. A kind of museumy, arty, boutiquey sort of thing.

The question is to what extent do we require more detail about what exactly the place will contain, what exactly its culture will entail, before we are happy to give up bits of our park?

And this is where we must have our historical wits about us. Because the more you learn about the park’s history, the more questions are begged of this audaciously vague use of the word ‘culture’. The Palace – staggering though it was – was ultimately the world’s biggest ever shed. I don’t mean to belittle what was clearly an architectural and engineering masterpiece, but the building was always secondary to what went in it – and what went on outside it, in the grounds. The history of the place reads like an encyclopaedia of all the stuff culture can mean.

And it never stood still. In the Palace, culture never meant one single thing. It was a place that, retrospectively, embodied culture in all its indefinable, evolving and often uncomfortable diversity. And that historical precedent should, frankly, make us all the more wary. Because if ever there was an institution that grappled with what culture means – if ever there was a ‘white elephant ahead’ warning – it wasn’t the Millennium Dome; it was the Sydenham Crystal Palace.

That’s why I worry that this use of the word ‘culture’ feels not so much regressive as reductive – simplifying the heritage of the Palace into a singular, rose-tinted version of something that was fundamentally multi-faceted, and not without consequent problems.

Of course, it’s quite possible that the developers deserve more credit; that they’re waiting for designers to expand their definition of culture because they’re aspiring to the same freeform diversity that, for good and bad, distinguished Paxton’s palace.

But either way, as custodians of the park – as those who have succumbed to the romance of the Palace’s absence – it falls to the local community to fill the void. To make sure history plays a key role in this debate – filling the vacuum left by the original Palace, and spotlighting the ongoing absence of any further information as to what this ‘new’ Crystal Palace is going to contain.”

We want information – information . . .

Just a quick update to report that next week I’m going to be appearing as a panellist at the inaugural debate of The Information Project. This is a new initiative, organised by local Crystal Palace residents – in particular those behind the brilliant Overground Festival – intended to spark debate around the proposed redevelopment of Crystal Palace Park by the Zhongrong Group.

The first debate is entitled ‘Who Owns Culture? Park, Space, Building’, and will take place at 7.30pm next Wednesday (30th April) at The Salvation Army, Upper Norwood. I’m really looking forward to taking part, not least as my own feelings about the redevelopment are very ambivalent, and this gives me a great excuse to try to get my thoughts in order.

In other news, the Kindle editions of both of my novels – So Long, Shakespeare, and the Crystal Palace Park-based railway fantasy Strange Air – have been reduced to 99p on Amazon for a very limited time.

New interview – and update

As ever, I’m not blogging as much as I’d like at present. The day job is exceptionally busy, and I’m spending any spare time preparing the plan for a third novel – while continuing to promote the first and second.

As I explained at my self-publishing talk at Upper Norwood Library on 25th January (thanks again to the amazing library staff for inviting me), my current tactic for the latter involves disciplining myself to blog a little less – instead spending time reaching out to others who have shared interests, and potentially bigger platforms than my WordPress and Twitter audiences.

It’s an approach which I explain in more detail in a chat I recently had with a local Crystal Palace editor called Danielle Wrate – and which has just been published on her excellent website.

On a similar note, and in the spirit of last year’s autumn update  – i.e. as much to aid my own memory as anything promotional – I thought I’d also post a few other recent links regarding Strange Air:

(1) A review on local website Inside Croydon

(2) The podcast of my appearance on Croydon Radio’s Arts Show, with Janet Smith

(3) A little thinkpiece I wrote for Bromley News Shopper about the proposed reconstruction of Crystal Palace Park by the Chinese investor Mr Ni Zhaoxing and his ZhongRong Group.

(4) A post I wrote for the wonderful local blog Dulwich OnView about how the roots of Strange Air – though telling the tale of Crystal Palace Park and Thomas Webster Rammell’s pneumatic railways – in fact lie in the deserted Crescent Wood and Paxton Tunnels, in and around Sydenham Hill

Finally, I’m delighted to say that the book is also now available via the Crystal Palace Foundation – the result of delicate negotiations, which absolutely does not mean that Foundation endorses my novel’s supposition that a bunch of aggrieved Victorian skeletons lurk beneath Crystal Palace Park, trapped in an abandoned Victorian railway carriage . . .

Reflections on self-publishing

Just a fleeting update to say that I’ll be appearing at Upper Norwood Library this coming Saturday, 25th January, to talk about my experiences of self-publishing – covering the publication of both So Long, Shakespeare and Strange Air, and also offering a few reflections/tips on the process for any aspiring authors.

I’ve been preparing the talk this evening, and am really looking forward to delivering it – even if it has proved worryingly difficult to remember some of the ins-and-outs of my decision-making over the last year!

The talk starts at 2.30pm, and is free to attend. Full details are available over on the Upper Norwood Library website.

A river flows through it

I’ve been looking for this for years – and now, perhaps somewhat naughtily but nonetheless delightfully, a fellow fan has taken the trouble of putting it up on YouTube.

This is ‘Listening to the River’ – a 30-minute ‘oral history’ of the River Medway in Kent, recorded and composed by one of my favourite folkies, Chris Wood. It was commissioned for Radio 3’s Late Junction a few years ago. I missed it at the time, but later caught Chris performing an excerpt at King’s Place in London.

The clip alone blew me away. As described here, the aim of the piece is to show how England’s indigenous music is intertwined with the rhythms and melodies of its people’s speech – dialects and all. And in a brilliant musical fusion of form and meaning, that’s exactly what it does.

I remember reading somewhere that Chris is working on a longer/revised version, for possible CD release in the future. If that’s still the case, then I look forward to the results with great anticipation.

Dulwich Books of West Dulwich, 6 Croxted Road, SE21 8SW 020 8670 1920

Winner Best Independent Bookshop UK & Ireland 2014

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