This post was first published by The Croydon Citizen on 24/01/2018.
My Croydon – southern powerhouse
When I arrived as an incomer to Croydon twenty-five years ago, the place struck me as eminently fit for human habitation. It offered excellent mobility – both social and physical. You could be in London in the time it took to read a morning paper, or be out in the open countryside even sooner. From this famously derided dormitory suburb, so many had stirred from dreamy back bedrooms to surprise the world: R. F. Delderfield, D. H. Lawrence, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, David Lean, Peggy Ashcroft, Amy Johnson, Kate Moss and C. B. Fry. There were birds in the trees, foxes on the lawns, pheasants in the allotments, the occasional deer in Lloyd Park and engagingly batty dog walkers in the streets, which rang (as they still do) with those lyrical Sarf London refrains: ‘Y’know wha’ I mean? and ‘Vis is doin’ my ‘ead in!’. This was the hardening underbelly of a great capital and a resurgent England, the old market town with greatness thrust upon it by the relocation of much of the insurance industry in the ’60s and ’70s, and the ever-rolling stream of immigrants, the parade of nations passing by to Lunar House, buoyed by the hopes and fears of a British dream so powerful that nothing could check the beacon beam of its momentum.
The environs of the town are no longer the rural idyll which Betjeman’s Uncle Dick left once for all. The menace of change and decay now prompt an urgent urge to action to transform the place into the magnet for new businesses and jobs and modern living, which it must become. Straining after city status, it yet falls short of claiming that crown. Too long the plaything of architects and town planners, Croydon now faces a radical reconstruction. With no more ski jumps set to adorn the roofs of multi-storey car parks nor flutterings of coloured lights to waken early morning commuters, the city centre is about to have its heart ripped out, much like Glasgow’s Sauchiehall Street in the ’70s. The ghosts of Grants and Allders and the old variety theatres linger in the mind’s eye. The dead urban spaces of St George’s Walk and College Green cry out for animation. Fairfield Halls are under threat of extinction if they close for two years for refurbishing. I first visited in the early ’60s for a poetry reading – fifty years later, I find myself reading my own poems there as part of the Chinese New Year celebrations.
This whole initiative – the rebirth of this place where we live – is a colossal gamble, but it seems imperative if Croydon is to accommodate all of those incomers who, like me, come in search of a different and better life. The fate of the borough hangs in the balance, but the scales are tipped by the sheer onward press of incomers – an estimated 35,000 of them over the coming years – all of whom will seek a home and a community of shared recreations and amenities without which isolation and a dull malaise will stalk their lives like an unshakable curse. Will there be provision for a central swimming pool, a larger auditorium for concerts, talks and religious services, a proper theatre, even an indoor running circuit? The Mayor of London may wave his wand, but who will magic all of these things into being, unless we ourselves can get our acts together to define and create conditions for the ‘good life’ that we and others should continue to enjoy?