A festival not quite on my doorstep (part two)

By - Sunday 2nd December, 2012

In this second in a four-part series, the Croydon Citizen’s very own foreign correspondent in Watford gives us an outsider’s perspective on October’s Cherry Orchard’s Arts Festival, and why Croydon is more than a car park

Previously – our correspondent arrives at East Croydon station, ponders the local and future architecture, and encounters a graffiti installation

And so I move on to attraction no. 3, on another of the Menta site’s changing screens – the interactive art installation titled ‘Before I die…’. A significant stretch of this wall space is filled with blank spaces preceded by ‘Before I die I want to…’, and chalk is provided for visitors and passers-by to write down their ideas. There are about 20 spaces per panel, and at least six panels (about the same size as a garden fence panel, but taller) have been sacrificed to this. One or two panels round the corner purport to be ‘poet’s corner’ and request that you write a line to continue a community-made poem. There are about four lines when I arrive, and I think the last total of lines in the poem I saw was six. Much more successful is the main attraction – it’s already over half full when I arrive, and includes highlights such as ‘stroke an elephant’, ‘write on a blackboard and make someone happy’, and, bizarrely, ‘become a tabby’, the last of which also has a cat face drawn next to it. I myself took up three spaces in order to make a Smiths reference: ‘…live’, ‘…love’, and ‘…catch something that I might be ashamed of’.

This is the first really peopled part of the festival that I find – I spend a large amount of time talking to a lovely lady named Fozia, who turns out to be a local magistrate. She tells me that her father gave her her name and that it has a very poetic meaning that I’m now unable to recall or discover, and despite a clearly fairly privileged upbringing she claims that Croydon is her favourite place that she’s lived in because it has no pretensions. This is of course paraphrased – Fozia’s discourse on Croydon is passionate and profane. She apologises for talking at me for so long, although I’m very pleased at how easily I’ve persuaded someone to talk to me as a reporter. Fozia seems to have no misgivings about Menta – ‘they’re here so we might as well deal with it and show them what this community is about’, is just about how I remember her replying when I raised the issue. Also present is Mario, a Conservative campaigner, although today he’s performing the charmingly un-partisan function of taking pictures of people at the makeshift outdoor photobooth on the wall. Here’s his picture of me and Fozia:

Fozia tells me that I need to meet Sue, an American ex-pat who is also apparently an urban beekeeper. This is a pretty exciting prospect for me, so I follow Fozia down to the Ark Oval Primary Academy, where attraction no. 5 is – an exhibition of local artists. When we arrive Sue isn’t around, so Fozia vanishes to hunt her down. Here I get a few confused looks from the information desk, and I start to get the feeling that I’ve been rumbled as an outsider. When Sue arrives she’s told that I want to talk to her, and looks expectantly at me as though I had a clear agenda for seeking her out. Unfortunately my most pressing question – how do you get into urban beekeeping – remains largely unanswered, as she seems to have caught the urban beekeeping-bug from her husband. Despite a choppy start to this impromptu interview (she doesn’t seem too fussed about the Menta ‘controversy’ either) she warms to the role of ‘most able person driving the conversation’ and shows me some of her own works that are being exhibited among the arts on display – she produces under the name Sue-Chan, and her most striking work on display is a series of technicolour pencil drawings of ‘people in icelandic sweaters’. She apparently draws from magazine pictures instead of using live models, which may explain why one of her studies resembles Sean William Scott. The art on display here is uniformly brilliant, although I think my favourites were a set of sketches of people on the tube done in a slightly Monkey Dust -style, by (I think) Hannah Adaora Brewster, and of course Sue’s icelandic sweaters series. If you’re fortunate enough to come across one of these, this is the lovely lady who made it:

My hopes that being an interviewer is a piece of proverbial are buoyed when Sue declares that I have to meet ‘two girls who are really switched on’ in the Glamorgan Pub on the other side of the road, and walks me over. She also chides me for not wearing a coat and trying to be ‘a bigshot’, which American joviality makes me warm to her even more. The Glamorgan is a clearly recently madeover pub, with a trendy sign with the plain initial ‘G’ instead of a peeling painting of a coat of arms, or a stuffy army general. The two switched on girls (one of whom is called Anthea – my memory is atrocious and has a habit of latching on to very tenuous pop culture references instead of actual facts, so in my head the two were called Althea and Donna) represent a community project called Tabula Rasa, basically a creative group for local black youth. Among the wares on display (although not for sale) are a set of painted tiles and pieces on the topic of ‘black history month’, which is of course laudable, edifying, and inspiring, if you don’t dwell too long on the piece depicting Rihanna. I have a good little chat with the girls about the pieces on display and their cute Tabula Rasa hoodies, by which point Sue has followed Fozia’s lead and vanished. The Tabula Rasa girls have been chained to their post all day, so cannot direct me anywhere else, so I now have to navigate myself through attractions 6 – 10.

Taking in the scenery a bit more on my own, it occurs to me that Cherry Orchard Road has about four distinct characters, three of them very different from the industrial estate appearance that I first encountered at the East Croydon end. (In my memory the characters divide pretty neatly into four quartiles – I swear that the map is out of whack) After the characterless building site in the first visible quartile, the street erupts into life when you turn the corner. There’s the primary school currently housing the art exhibition, the trendy Glamorgan pub, a charming little antiques shop (Oscar Dahling Antiques – today home to a featured photographer and seemingly everyone who walks past), and a marquee on the other side of the school where the Apostolic Fellowship Choir is laying down some righteous praise music. Quartile three is more residential – pebbledash terraced houses that are obviously very well placed for the school and (more importantly) the pubs. In this quartile there is something called Al-Khair (tagline: Stability Without Compromise) that takes up three buildings and two sides of the street, one of which is also pebbledash. I guess I must walk past these buildings about ten times over the course of the day, and remain completely clueless as to what Al-Khair is.

The fourth quartile is introduced by the Orchard Pub, and is a more of an old highstreet. The remainder of the road is filled on either side with various ‘world food’ restaurants (i.e. I can’t work out what cuisine they are) and grocers and charity shops. There are shop signs that appear to be printed on a blackboard, and at least one shop sign that is embarrassingly written in comic sans MS. This is the Addiscombe end of the road, which leads into another, even more local-restaurant-y road.

Of real, serious note at this end is Cherries Cafe (not café), which is doing a great trade in teas and fried breakfasts while hosting live music. My programme tells me that the man with a goatee slightly reminiscent of Murray from The Flight of the Conchords who is teasing beautiful sounds from an acoustic guitar is Tim Eveleigh, and I labour under that assumption until I see him performing again at the Ark Oval in the afternoon, and he turns out to be Tom Janssen, who doesn’t seem to be scheduled anywhere and yet playing everywhere. He has a brilliant way of nailing some intricate guitar work, smiling to the quietly applauding audience (quiet because this is a cafe and it feels odd to be clapping), and then saying something like ‘That was a mellophone piece that I adapted’. Here’s Tom being understatedly brilliant at the photo shot:

The first time I see him in Cherries Cafe, his set overruns by about a quarter of an hour at the following band’s request – or at least, the half of the band that’s arrived. The present half is a man with a shaved head, wearing a Brasseye t-shirt and slightly fascistic boots. He’s wearing all black and his instrument is in a mysterious square box (also black) at his feet. He is one quarter of Homebrood, and one half of the half that’ll perform today. His bandmate still hasn’t appeared when Tom decides to stop playing because he can no longer feel his forearm, so I decide that it’s time to take a walk on to the end of the road. As I leave the cafe I pass another bald gentleman, this one with a sharp goatee beard and a fairly dapper tweed jacket.

In part three – Digital art, cafe folk, and an awkward encounter with poetry reading
Rob Mayo

Rob Mayo

The Managing Editor of the Croydon Citizen, and the only co-founder not to have ever lived in Croydon. Rob previously studied at University of Oxford and University of London, and regrets only one of them. Since co-founding the Citizen in 2012 Rob has completed a PhD in English Literature at the University of Bristol, for whatever that's worth... Rob's stereotypically left-leaning views are personal, and not representative of editorial policy.

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  • http://www.earth.li/~kake/ Kake

    Tabula Rasa are doing some great work. Here are some photos of their stuff (I own the first two pictured — got hold of them at a fundraiser).

    Re the desire wall, I liked Before I die I want to live in Croydon.

    Al-Khair is a large Muslim charity — I think the building they have on Cherry Orchard Road is a school. They also have a large building around the corner from my house but don’t seem to be doing much with it.

    (Hm, I didn’t intend this comment to basically be a list of links to my photos, but it has somehow turned out that way.)

  • Rob

    No worries, great pictures! Once again I really regret my terrible memory for names – the Tabula Rasa ladies were some of the loveliest people I met in a day full of them.