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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.”

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.

‘Peculiar and wonderful’: an Autumn update

Photo by David Cook for the Croydon Advertiser

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

(3) A couple of local newspaper articles about the book, from the Croydon Guardian and the Croydon Advertiser

(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

Coming full circle

I’m just putting the finishing touches to my new novel Strange Air – a historical ghost story set in Upper Norwood, which will be published in the coming weeks. The novel tells the true story of the Victorian Civil Engineer Thomas Webster Rammell, who was a tireless advocate of air-powered city railways as a safer, cleaner and more reliable alternative to those – like the Metropolitan – that were propelled by steam. For reasons that will become clear, Rammell’s story is intimately interwoven with the history and fate of the Crystal Palace in Sydenham, making it impossible to tell one tale without also recounting the other.

One of my remaining tasks is to touch up and double-check some of the book’s historical detail, particularly regarding the interior of the Crystal Palace as it was in its heyday. This in turn has led me back onto the internet – and into Upper Norwood library – rummaging through illustrations and photographs of the second (Sydenham) Crystal Palace.

And my goodness: what a joyful way to while away the hours / procrastinate as I contemplate a pile of editorial changes. I mean, just look at this:

Or indeed this:

Beautiful and intriguing all by themselves, the pictures are even more absorbing when you consider what the park is now – an eerie patchwork of half-forgotten schemes and dreams. Admittedly, I’m no great adventurer, but I can imagine few places where the immense contrast between past and present is so great and so tantalisingly documented; where the longing to go back in time, to see it all as it was, is so acute.

As you can tell, this latest bout of research has re-kindled in me the intense, melancholy buzz that fired me to write Strange Air in the first place. I am, in the best possible sense, ending where I began. And that’s not only satisfying, but also inspiring – so much so, that I’d quite happily go round and write the whole thing again, if only my editor thought it necessary. Alas, no such drastic overhaul is required, meaning I’ll just have to crack on and write a whole new ‘Crystal Palace’ novel instead.

In the meantime, click here to be kept up-to-date about Strange Air.

Lost and pound shops

A belated happy new year to all readers, and especially those followers who came on board after Bard to the Future was Freshly Pressed in mid-December.

I thought I’d begin 2013 with a little postscript to one of my most-viewed posts in 2012: namely, my paean to the much-missed Blockbuster on Westow Hill, Crystal Palace.

Several people got in touch after I lamented the closure of our local, impossibly large and unusually peaceful video rental haven, asking what was to become of this prime Upper Norwood retail unit. For several weeks, rumours grew that it was to become a Poundland, or some other variety of 99p/£1 store, and so finally, over the weekend, it transpired.

I was passing on Saturday afternoon, and managed to grab this picture of some tasteful signage being – well, not so much erected as plastered all over the window to the detriment of any daylight whatsoever.


I’m no expert on the different denominations of pound shops, so I defer to Hermit’s superior knowledge on Virtual Norwood, where he confidently asserts that this is to be a Poundmart, not a Poundland.

But in truth, of course, as both his and my photo illustrate, it is neither. It is, in point of fact, a Foundmart, since that what the sign is poised to say. (I confess to quite liking the stance of the poor chap in my picture, captured in the first throes of his perplexity over the unfortunate positioning of the frame.) I wonder what a Moundfart – sorry, Foundmart – would sell? Presumably piles of ‘lost and found’ junk. Bits and bobs of unrelated goods, thrown together for no good reason other than their being too cheap for people to bother re-claiming.

What’s that, you say? Pretty much like a Poundmart? Alright, then. Poundmart it is.

Frivolity aside for a second, though, I’m conscious that not everyone is particularly enamoured by the ever-increasing ubiquity of pound shops and their ilk. Personally, I see them as serving a purpose, and am not averse to nipping in to pick up supplies (e.g. batteries) which are either shamelessly overpriced elsewhere, or tricky to find. The latter, in particular, is where they fill a crucial void – a void, very specifically, left by the late-lamented Woolworths.

Like Top of the Pops, I always think it’s one of the great mysteries of the past decade that Woolworths was allowed to fail. As the ensuing influx of pound shops demonstrated, there remains a huge market for odds-and-sods shops, filling the gaps left by bigger, brighter stores, and selling everyday stuff that is either needed urgently or best bought in person – and therefore not suited to purchase online. I’m no retail expert, but I do think Woolworths might have survived if only it had made it deeper into the recession – while also giving up on entertainment sales, where the web was clearly so much better.

After all, Crystal Palace-wise, there’s not a huge world of difference between what the Woolworths on Westow Hill had become and the Poundstretcher that took its place. It’s just that one, like Blockbuster, had fond sentimental associations (at least for me), while the other – in its unambiguous functionality – feels lifeless and unromantic.

As the poor guy in my photo would surely appreciate, it’s just a matter of perception.

It blew, it sucked – but in a good (and not at all rude) way

London's Lost Pneumatic Railways (Ian Mansfield)Over the past few days I’ve been enjoying a new Kindle ebook by London blogger Ian Mansfield. London’s Lost Pneumatic Railways – which Mansfield has also been serialising for free on his blog – is primarily an account of the Waterloo and Whitehall Railway: an ultimately doomed attempt to build an air-powered railway beneath the Thames in the mid-1860s. In telling his story, Mansfield touches on the surrounding history of these ‘atmospheric’ and ‘pneumatic’ schemes, which at least two generations of civil engineers believed offered a genuine alternative to steam-powered railways – safer, cleaner and more reliable.

This is a subject very close to my heart. A few years ago, when living in West Dulwich, my girlfriend and I wandered up to Crystal Palace, where she regaled me with the district’s most pervasive urban myth: namely, that somewhere beneath Crystal Palace Park is a buried railway carriage, full of skeletons dressed in full Victorian dress – victims, it is claimed, of a forgotten 19th century railway accident.

I was already infatuated with the sad, sleepy atmosphere of Crystal Palace Park, and this story only made me love it more. Immediately, I began researching the origins of the myth, finding that it was most closely attached to the pneumatic railway trial that occurred in the Palace grounds in 1864. This in turn led me to look into the history of the pneumatic railway project, and in particular the story of its unflinching advocate, Thomas Webster Rammell.

Crystal Palace Pneumatic Railway (1864)Bit by bit, the various threads entwined themselves into a story, and I began work on my second novel: the tale of both Rammell and his pneumatic railway, and also of those poor neglected skeletons, who to this day lurk somewhere below the surface of South London’s premier post-Palatial wilderness.

I finished the novel earlier this year, and it should be published within the next couple of months. In the meantime, for anyone interested in the subject, I highly recommend Ian’s new ebook. Compared to my novel, it’s a very straightforward account of the pneumatic railway story – he omits the undead skeletons and haunted park – but it’s no less fascinating for that. I know from experience how difficult it is to research this largely overlooked area of railway history, and some of the obscurities which Ian has uncovered are impressive indeed.

I’ll post more on the novel soon, when I’ll also supplement it with excerpts from my own research – much of which didn’t make it in to the final manuscript, and which will hopefully provide a useful complement to London’s Lost Pneumatic Railways.

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