Event review: Croydon Till I Die, at Bookseller Crow, Crystal Palace, Thursday May 21st

By - Tuesday 26th May, 2015

Militant Cronx dweller Liz Sheppard-Jones gets to grips with suburban identity

Photo by Bookseller Crow, used with permission.

I woke up on the morning of Friday 8th May with a strong desire to place the British electorate on a giant collective naughty step, there to consider how its behaviour and attitudes could be improved. And, at the end of a fascinating evening at the Bookseller Crow store on Westow Street, Crystal Palace, I wanted the audience to join it.

It was nothing personal. These were nice people – CP without the FC, and you could tell at a glance their babies are breastfed longer than the national average. Whilst there’s much to admire and love in that, they were still a baffling bunch. When each and every assertion of Croydonian identity is met with a well-spoken cheer my irony detectors go off at once, and remained on high alert for the rest of the evening.

‘Croydon Till I Die’ was a talk, a book-reading, a musical entertainment and an exploration of identity. It began with a quick turn from The Effras (who then left for a gig at the Oval Tavern), and the books in question were ‘The Year of Reading Dangerously’ by Andy Miller, ‘Concretopia‘ by John Grindrod and ‘Hopscotch and Handbags’ by Lucy Mangan. The evening set out to explore what it means to come from the suburbs, why suburbs came to exist and what they have become, and to examine the changing nature of suburban experience, specifically in relation to Croydon and South London. In other words – this was all about your life and mine.

What it came down to was dissing Catford

I don’t know what it’s like to grow up in the suburbs because I didn’t – I came to London wide-eyed at eighteen, and to me any place within thirty minutes by public transport of the centre of one of the most exciting conurbations on earth was and remains the edgy, dirty city I love. I never thought about where to live: I moved where I could afford to be, which was once zone two but it changed to five – and there are more and more of us. The defensiveness of suburbanites (a strong theme of the evening) will surely change as the centre of London grows hollow with wealth and everyone who isn’t an oligarch makes for the edges, bringing their cultural adventurousness with them. The suburbs will have the last laugh.

But it seems a suburban childhood makes you apologise for yourself. Suburbanites are ambivalent, uncomfortable about settling here and deciding not to reach for the Shard. Enough is enough for us, and for Catford girl Lucy Mangan, that ability to be content makes for a life of dignity, even of beauty. I very much agree with her, although her remaining contributions disappointed me – and I speak as a long-standing fan. She’s a terrific journalist whose sharp, self-ironic observations have always made me laugh and didn’t fail to do so on Thursday evening, but what she came down to on the night was dissing Catford. Having low self-esteem in a comedic way isn’t something I need lessons in, and neither does Croydon.

Croydon could always dream big

For me, it was Andy Miller and New Addington-born John Grindrod who really delivered – though I’m still not sure how much the audience was listening. I’ve not read ‘Concretopia’ yet, although I’ve been meaning to and my new signed copy will surely be an incentive – but John understands that what suburban sprawl truly represents is hope and renewal. Remember what the suburbs replaced, he told us, and the post-war optimism that created them – the uplifting belief in housing for the masses that isn’t slum-dwelling and a higher standard of living for all in an exciting, futuristic landscape. When ‘Croydon, The Future’, an ideas project in the early 1990s, asked for proposals for future developments, suggestions still included an underground art gallery, a boomerang-shaped bridge over Wellesley Road and travelators in the sky. Croydon could always dream big – and the term ‘concrete monstrosities’ as shorthand for post-war development came later.

Andy Miller, meanwhile, was nothing short of magnetic – a fiercely intelligent man from a lower middle-class background who began by reading us John Betjeman’s ‘Croydon’, possessed of the wit and flair to laugh at class privilege while his eyes remained cold. He was clearly itching to sock it to the ‘metropolitan elite’, whose condescension to the suburbs, historic and current, has done so much to shape our collective low opinion of ourselves. Shades of Mark Thomas’ interview in the Citizen.

A new militant strand of Cronx dwellers

In reality, most of us come from here. And what that means is a big cultural disconnect: the majority of Britons don’t live in the country that’s sold to us. Why do we allow a gang of rich kids that doesn’t play by the same rules, or even on the same playing field, to bully us into feel ashamed of ourselves?

Which brings me to the most inspiring yet frustrating part of the evening: Andy identified ‘a new militant strand of Cronx dwellers’, with a growing sense of pride in our identity. If I hadn’t been scribbling I’d have leapt up and cheered – but this crowd didn’t. They didn’t really get it, because they don’t go to Croydon much. Art galleries in Croydon said one young woman in astonishment – ‘what is going on?’ Matthews Yard? She got a big laugh. A Chap With Views seemed to feel that the horrible murder of Tia Sharp in New Addington in 2012 proves the entire fabric of the place is degraded, rather than that degradation can exist anywhere. I wonder if he said the same about Gloucester when they convicted Fred West.

They’re taking ‘Croydon Till I Die’ on the road, to Rough Trade East in Brick Lane, to the Fairfield Halls on 11th June and and finally somewhere up a Welsh mountain. The views of people to whom ten cars is a traffic jam will be interesting although I’m not sure my blood pressure could take it. This is utterly riveting stuff, and as Andy said to me at the end, because there’s audience participation it will go differently there. It’s all our lives. Go along and join in.

‘Croydon Till I Die’ is on at the Fairfield Halls on Thursday 11th June at 7:00 pm. It’s free and no pre-booking is required. 

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Liz Sheppard-Jones

Liz Sheppard-Jones

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

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  • Bernadette Fallon

    I really wanted to go to this event, so thanks for posting the article – really interesting to hear how it went

    • Serena Alam

      Same. Really looking forward to the event on the 11th June at Fairfield Halls.