Category Archives: General

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.

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 happy day

The last week has been predictably crazy in the run-up to Christmas – making this a rather belated post to say a great big thank you to all who came along to Upper Norwood Library last Saturday (14th December) to hear me talk about Strange Air.

I was really touched by the size of the turnout, as well as the enthusiasm of all who attended – both those who had read the book already, and those who were looking forward to getting stuck in over Christmas. After so many years of solitude spent researching, planning and writing the book – all based on the hope that others might be interested in Thomas Webster Rammell and the history of Crystal Palace Park – it was immensely gratifying to discover to have my hunch confirmed at last. Biggest thanks of all go to Rita, Carol and the rest of the team at Upper Norwood Library for being so immensely welcoming and setting up the whole event.

All being well, I’ll be appearing again at the library early in the new year to talk in more detail about the process of self-publishing, and exactly what’s involved for a go-it-alone author like me.

A love-hate game

I normally try to refrain from excessive negativity on this blog, but the BBC’s coverage of Wimbledon has been driving me round the bend. I feel the need to rant.

What is it that annoys me? Well, if I may be permitted to serve for the match…

15-0! ‘Today’ at Wimbledon
Why oh why are the highlights scheduled when play is still going on? Every year it baffles me. Not only does it create a headache for those returning home late from work, it inconveniences the BBC itself. Last Wednesday was the most dramatic day of the championships, but because Federer didn’t lose to Stakhovsky until around 8.20pm, the highlights programme got squeezed to little over half an hour. Why the inflexibility? Why not schedule the show from 9.30-10.30pm instead of 8-9pm? For all its boasts about the extent of its coverage, it’s like the BBC fears reprisals if the tennis encroaches too much on primetime.

30-0! Highlights? What highlights?
It’s not just the timing of Today at Wimbledon – it’s the content too. They’ve only got an hour, so why clutter the show with patronising VTs and introductory montages to every bleeding chunk of a match they deign to show? Even in the tournament’s latter stages, there’s more than enough enthralling action to fill the hour, but that doesn’t seem to be the point. Instead of targeting those who’ve been unable to see the tennis live, the highlights show feels more like a cosy summing-up for those who’ve been watching all day.

40-0! Make your mind up!
Why the endless flip-flopping between BBC1 and BBC2? It just feels so… archaic. I know that some people stick to watching one channel all day long, but I guess that’s because they like the usual content – so why irritate everyone (including, presumably, BBC schedulers) by shaking things up? I guess it’s about ratings, but in a world where more people are watching their chosen content on their own terms, the patriarchal sensibility feels outmoded. The BBC should respect the audience’s ability to decide what it wants to watch – and respect its own multi-platform infrastructure enough to know that we have the means to find it.

Game, set and match! Fear of depth.
This is the clincher: the fundamental divide between quantity and quality. And by ‘quality’ I mean ‘depth’. The tone of the TV coverage is resolutely superficial, presumably because the BBC is addressing a broad spectrum of people, many of whom have only a passing interest in the game. To me, however, that’s just an excuse for laziness – particularly when, as its presenters are so fond of telling us, the BBC has red buttons and online streams coming out of every orifice, readily enabling them to be more ambitious in how they engage with the action. But it doesn’t happen. Instead there is a determination to address an unhappy medium – one which feels increasingly anaemic in a world where digital media and dedicated sports channels have created a new orthodoxy for those who want to ‘go deep’ with their passions.

There are, of course, honourable exceptions. McEnroe, Becker, Henman and Davenport are all to be admired for bringing insider insight to the MOR TV coverage. And 5 Live’s Wimbledon output is a model mix of accessibility, depth and adaptability.

But I worry that’s no longer enough – for the BBC’s sake, as much as anyone else’s. I recognise that the corporation faces pressures quite unlike those of its commercial rivals, but that’s no excuse for such a complacent ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach. In the digital age, the mainstream is no longer a comfortable place to be; our tolerance thresholds for content which isn’t quite right for each of us is diminishing with every new gadget and Wi-Fi hotspot that throws itself upon us. And that’s what I’ve experienced with Wimbledon 2013. For all its multiscreen prowess, the BBC’s coverage has felt like a dinosaur – its head in the present, but its heart in a forgotten past, where people’s tastes, behaviours and expectations were very different beasts.

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