Snowman in the Cronx

By - Tuesday 4th December, 2012

Fire forced us into our homes in fear. Snow brought us back into the streets as a community

It snowed in West Croydon in January 2012 and my children ran outside to build a snowman. While grown-ups moan about icy roads and disrupted trains, snowmen are the happy, excited response of all children in all winters to the novelty and fun of the white stuff.  Watching from the front window, I felt myself start to grumble a bit less and enjoy a bit more.

My community is multicultural, which is one of the best things about it. In our block there are seven children – two Tamil, three Chinese and my two English boys who are the oldest and natural ringleaders when the children play. Pretty quickly the Chinese family spotted what was going on and out they came – big sister, little brother and the toddler in tow, wrapped up like a parcel, shy and overwhelmed in the presence of the seniors.  Big son has no problem being leader of the pack in any situation and quickly took charge of his new posse, issuing instructions to roll a snowball head and search for twiggy arms. Next the two Tamil children, speaking very limited English, came out with their mother and asked if they could build too.

Seven children, three ethnicities, but the same garden and the same beguiling snow. Operations went up a gear and the foot-soldiers scuttled backwards and forwards, under orders now to dig out small round stones to be the snowman’s buttons. Passers-by admired the speed of progress.  A lady donated a carrot and an older boy from round the corner brought two longer sticks when the ones in our garden proved too small. I decided my blue scarf was expendable and took it outside. The spaced-out guy with the dreads from over the road – not quite in this world but amiable enough except with a can of Carling in his hand at nine in the morning – watched for a while and admired our creation.

Original photo by MG Shelton

One evening last summer, five months before snow day, gangs of rioters with cloth-wrapped faces came down the road which runs 100 yards from my front garden, carrying petrol and matches. They wrecked shops, destroyed family businesses and livelihoods, and when they’d looted everything they could, there was fire – huge, terrifying flames flashing and crackling in the sky, and a black armband of choking smoke that lay over us until darkness fell and it became a darker smear of night against night.

It’s hard to describe how it feels to watch your own place burn. It’s the hot, physical shock of fear – something not often felt in our orderly world – and the horror of uncontained violence. It’s a glimpse into a world where the forces of law and order don’t hear you, can’t reach you, or maybe just don’t care enough about you. And anger, suffocating as the smoke itself  – base-level rage that for me found release through a four-letter Facebook outburst in which I barely recognise myself .

The riots started far away, not here, where we live together in peace. Our area was targeted because we are poor and someone knew that the cordon of protection which immediately fell around the gleaming business and retail district three-quarters of a mile down the road would not extend to us. We would not be defended, and we were not – our vulnerability was too well understood. Then afterwards, insulting those already injured, newspapers that should have known better pushed out the line that mobs who torch family grocers then run away with plasma TVs are the heirs-in-protest to those who stood in front of tanks in Tiananmen Square. Letters to the Editor: Dear Sir, you are having a laugh.

Snow day restored us. When our snowman was finished, all the mums took pictures. Everyone was proud of the result, and everyone was laughing. Our Cronx snowman seemed a symbol of good things returned to the world – we had come together and his carrot nose and wonky hat had drawn smiles from everyone. West Croydon felt like our community again and we went happily inside to warm up. It’s true – it’s always true, everywhere – that most people are kind, well-intentioned and good.

We wanted passers-by to see him and the smiles that he spread around to travel as far as they could before melting away

We couldn’t really bear to undress Cronky – he looked so magnificent – so we left him there in his hat and scarf through the late winter afternoon. We wanted passers-by to see him and the smiles that he spread around to travel as far as they could before melting away. Night fell quickly and the curtains closed.

After dark, somebody smashed up Cronky. Someone, someone from our street, someone who most likely had walked past and seen the children build, crept across the lawn underneath our window and flattened him. They took his hat, and it was just as well I’d decided my blue scarf was expendable because they stole that too. They threw his arms across the garden, and what became of his carrot we will never know.

Some of those rioters – the people who hated and burned and seemed to have no share in this world, men and women with petrol cans and matches in their hands and no empathy in their hearts, it having been beaten out of them, or petrified in the deep inner cold of their alienation – came from West Croydon after all.

Not all of them, but some of them did.

Liz Sheppard-Jones

Liz Sheppard-Jones

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

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  • Kake

    Hello neighbour! Fellow West Croydonite/Croydonian/Croydoneer here. I love how you bring out the contrasts in this piece: hot and cold; construction and destruction.

    There was a snowman in our street last winter too — happily, though, it wasn’t destroyed, but persisted until it melted on its own. I love seeing these little ephemeral changes people can make to their environments, and wish there were more opportunities for it.