Croydon, of all places: celebrating the culture of CR0

By - Wednesday 21st May, 2014

It is a truth universally acknowledged that Croydonians live in a cultural desert. New Citizen Culture and Heritage Editor Liz Sheppard-Jones disagrees

The ‘Saved David Lean’. Image author’s own.

In December 2013, Jeremy Paxman’s BBC Newsnight programme reported on the World Memory Championships. Newly-crowned champion Jonas Essen waited in the studio to be put through his paces. Lights, camera… “and the championships”, said Paxo with a sneer, “were held in Croydon, of all places”.

I know that sneer. It is a truth universally acknowledged that Croydonians are a bunch of heavily-armed, fried-chicken-eating pramfaces living in a cultural desert.

Forget Kate Moss – Croydon is a place of history and culture

Croydon has been defined by its problems to a remarkable degree. But times they are a-changin’, and nowadays we’re Get Rich Quick Land, CR0. Local first-time buyers, be afraid. As the swanky high-rises go up and the ritzy stores move in, we’re at risk of transmogrifying in public perception from riot-torn wasteland to flashy temple of kitsch.

Both are unfair, of course. Croydon is a place of history and culture. Forget Kate Moss (and let’s face it – that’s a compliment she’s more than returned) – this is a Domesday village, King Henry VIII’s summer retreat, burial place of six Archbishops of Canterbury, home of composer Samuel Coleridge Taylor, artist Cicily Mary Barker, punk rock, and the Croydon Bach Choir. D. H. Lawrence taught in a school here and sculptor Bridget Riley attended Croydon College.

I won’t sneer at Westfield, either – I don’t see how anyone can sensibly argue that modern Croydon doesn’t need this injection of money and good word. Westfield has the power, the brand, the glitz, the deep, deep pockets – build it and the shoppers will come. Don’t fancy that? Take a look at Croydon town centre and ask yourself what will happen if they don’t.

Wealth is culturally transformative – just look at Shoreditch and Hoxton

A significant number of us will therefore grow wealthier in the years ahead and it will interesting to see how this impacts on cultural life. Wealth can be transformative – just look Shoreditch and Hoxton, these days so edgy they risk cutting themselves. Affluent areas support a richer cultural life because cultural expression is associated with riches. So – is the solid bourgeoisie of Croydon ready? And does cultural flowering really come down to money?

Perhaps it’s not quite that simple, but to follow pursuits that are not instantly rewarding – long stretches of study, for example, or application to difficult books – it certainly helps to live stress-lite, in the comfort and stability that foster concentration and creativity. You don’t steam purple sprouting broccoli for your dinner on the minimum wage and you’re unlikely to spend the evening at a piano recital if you’re scared about paying the rent. Poverty – grinding, boring, profoundly limiting – turns living into survival for too many marginalised Croydonians. This will remain.

Croydon’s state schools enrich children for whom austerity has real meaning

So what of culture for those excluded – the poor, the tenants who suffer as house prices rise rather than count their unearned loot? The children of families for whom austerity has real meaning enjoy a wonderful range of culturally-related activities in Croydon’s state infant and junior schools, their lives larger as a consequence. But to a disturbing degree in secondary education, the arts become ever more the preserve of those who can purchase them. So naturally, Croydon has a cultural elite – and we hear them roar. My only sadness at the recent success of the formidable David Lean campaigners was seeing who succeeds in defending what’s important to them, and who fails.

I’m immensely proud, though, of how so many in Croydon have fought back against closures and cuts. Volunteers and enthusiasts have stepped up – at the ClickClock Gallery, in crowd-funding projects, Turf, the theatres at the Spreadeagle pub and at Matthew’s Yard, Save the David Lean, the Croydon Arts Network, the Croydon Creative Business Hub and the Citizen itself. There’s a wonderful energy here.

If it’s happening in Croydon, I want our citizen journalists on the case

Low self-esteem means (among other things) accepting the bad things people say about you and internalising them. That’s been Croydon’s problem for too long, and feeling ourselves deserving of little goes right along with it. It’s something I understand – having experienced a posh education without a posh background and watched friends receive cars for their seventeenth birthdays while my dad didn’t have a car, I struggled at my predictably posh university through lack of a sense of entitlement, that gift of class no schooling can give. For all my slew of schoolgirl writing prizes, how could I possess the bloody-minded confidence to say that I wanted to write?

My lack wasn’t a once-forever thing. That’s the good news – a sense of entitlement can grow. And so I hope that it will grow in Croydon, and we will stop trashing ourselves and clearly see the good stuff – along with the bad and sometimes ugly – that goes on here.

I’m delighted to have been appointed Culture and Heritage Editor of the Croydon Citizen. If it’s happening here, I want our citizen journalists on the case. I’m as interested in Dickens as in dubstep, in streetdance as in Stravinsky. Croydon’s actors, dancers, singers, musicians, writers, poets, painters, photographers, film directors, and fashion designers challenge and excite me. This is our culture. We will celebrate it.

Liz Sheppard-Jones

Liz Sheppard-Jones

Writer and editor. Views personal, not representative of editorial policy.

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  • Anne Giles

    Wonderful piece, Liz.

  • Terry Coleman

    I can remember as a lad at Elmwood Rd Junior Boys School being taught by the wonderful English and Music teacher Miss Baker. She got us to sing ‘ Saw a youth a morning rose’ and took us through line by line, explaining subject and predicate terms the words by Goethe, transcribed by Wordsworth and music by Schubert which Miss Baker played beautifully at the piano.
    It was c1949/50. Would lads like me today from the deprived parts of town receive quality like that in their education.

    • Anne Giles

      It all depends on how one views quality. I would have hated to have had classical music forced on me, because it was forced on me at home. I see all types of music as being equally valid. My preference is for folk music. I believe that should be taught in schools, as well as Morris dancing.

      • Terry Coleman

        Elmwood Rd junior school stands today pretty much as it did 60 odd years ago when I was there, on Lodge Rd Croydon. Imagine a warm summers day and the grass playing field that fronts the school, filled with happy children in tradtional costumes dancing around the Maypole to the folk and musical sets as handed down by the Cecil Sharpe Institute.

        Elmwood Rd school has always had a fine musical tradition.

        There was nothing forced in my music lessons, us rough bang’ ole kids embraced our music readily as did the better off kids from the other end of town.

        To best describe my view on quality I can do no better than quote from Roger Scruton’s Aesthetic Understanding ‘ The importance of the idea of tradition is that it denotes ideally, at least, the class of relevant comparison.’

    • Liz Sheppard-Jones

      Hi Terry – that’s such an interesting and crucial question. I think my kids are receiving an education superior to mine and it’s certainly very different from mine – there’s far more emphasis on tech, for a start. There are also things like PSHE, which is personal, social, health and economic education – I really rate that. Their experience has real breadth and they are so well-informed (whereas I was intensely coached for high, narrowly-focussed achievement to the greater glory of the school and the greater charging of its fees), they mix with children from socially and economically diverse backgrounds – which is so important – and it’s a non-academically selective, co-educational, highly-aspirational state school which we consider the best possible educational environment.

      Is this a typical Croydon comp? I know it isn’t – and my children’s privilege is to have parents who planned this for them. The answer to your question is far too often ‘No’ and for many kids the situation is deterioriating. I believe there are many remedies for this, but no government has had the guts to enact them. Impoverished education is a massive injustice suffered by so many children.

  • Sean Creighton

    ‘Poverty – grinding, boring, profoundly limiting – turns living into survival for too many marginalised Croydonians. This will remain.’ Too right. Which is why an economy that is too dependent on the Westfield/Hammerson redevelopment and the greed of property developers and is not diverse, is a recipe for disaster as the poor get driven out with increased property prices. Redevelopment and alleged regeneration has always done this.

  • Trev

    Just pointing out, Bridget Riley is a painter. Not a sculptor.