Category Archives: London

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.

Library talk

Upper Norwood Joint LibraryIn 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.

Blow me down

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.

Perhaps it’s something to do with the kind of fiction I write – fantastical extrapolations of real-life obsessions – but similar sorts of things happened with my first book, So Long, Shakespeare.

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.

London 2012, and the city that worked

My day at the Olympics ParkI 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.

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