Cultivating culture is year-round project, not just three weeks

CROYDON COMMENTARY: In a previous column, DAVID CALLAM argued for a festival celebrating the borough’s heritage. But next month’s Croydon Heritage Festival misses the target in a number of important respects 

E viva la fiesta!

Time to party in Croydon, although since this celebration is sponsored by the Whitgift Foundation, maybe I should approach it with more decorum. For low-key is the theme running through the whole three-week Croydon Heritage Festival, which starts on June 3.

A rare opportunity for a glimpse inside the Whitgift almshouses

A rare opportunity for a glimpse inside the Whitgift almshouses

There are highlights, but few to resonate beyond the borough boundary.

The outstanding event for me is a transatlantic choral concert at Trinity School, featuring the internationally renowned Shirley boys’ choir and one from Phoenix in the United States. The choirs will sing a mix of classical pieces and Broadway songs.

I’m also looking forward to a chance to tour the Whitgift Almshouses in North End; Davidson Lodge in Freemasons Road; Elis David Almshouses in Duppas Terrace; and for just two hours on a single day of the 21-day festival, an opportunity to see the medieval architecture in Croydon Old Palace.

The rest of the programme, largely a collection of walks and talks, may offer some limited interest but is unlikely to set many pulses racing.

The most curious event is an invitation to join the head teacher of Croydon Old Palace School in the chapel for a Latin lesson – reminding me that Portas is the active, second person singular of the verb Portare, meaning to carry.

Who said Latin was a dead language?

For all its mediocrity, this Croydon Heritage Festival is at least a start: a tentative step on a journey of Argonautical proportions to rescue the town’s dire reputation.

You think I’m exaggerating about our reputation? Let me illustrate my concern with an extract from a recent article in The Independent.

Writing about the South Norwood “Lake District” on April 5, John Walsh described Croydon as the “epitome of urban sprawl and Greater London squalor”.

Addressing a nationwide audience, Walsh and his sub-editor were satisfied that readers all over the country would recognise the reference without need to qualify it.

The article was prompted by a publicity stunt dreamed up by the self-styled South Norwood Tourist Board, which has succeeded in drawing attention to the area in a way that Croydon Council and its well-paid PR department and outside consultants consistently fail to do.

South Norwood Park: not the Lake District, but an effective PR stunt done by locals. And not our council

South Norwood Park: not the Lake District, but an effective PR stunt done by locals. And not our council

Overall, Walsh’s comments are positive and he concludes: “No, you can’t try to eclipse the Lake District – but how clever of you to draw attention to the unexpected beauty spots in the nation’s least promising backyards.” And in those few words, I think Walsh has hit the nail very firmly on the head.

We need a series of events drawing attention to Croydon’s cultural strengths in what the rest of London and the south of England now perceive to be one of the region’s least promising places.

We can begin to change our image most effectively by organising a year-long Festival of Croydon: 12 consecutive month-long events highlighting the multitude of creative talents that this borough possesses.

Let me explain.

A series of eye-catching events could generate interest and hold attention far beyond the borough. It may be a large event running for a few days within the month or a series of smaller events grouped over the period. As an ultimate goal, think of the various festivals run in central London or in Edinburgh.

Lloyd perk: staging eye-catching events in local parks, such as the Mela, ought not be difficult

Lloyd perk: staging eye-catching events in local parks, such as the Mela, ought not be difficult

We should revive the Mela weekend in Lloyd Park and the jazz festival. We should consider including the food festival and the country fair, and look at staging fringe theatre and an art house film festival, all calculated to appeal to a wider audience than before.

We might initiate a stand-up comedy competition, an exhibition of painting or sculpture in our world-class art gallery (Picasso! In Croydon!!); and a photographic competition, maybe on the theme of Croydon’s hidden delights.

We could opt for a month of sport to include a road running race, a rugby sevens week-end, a week’s county cricket (not necessarily at Whitgift School) and a golf tournament.

And we could highlight our prowess in choral and many other forms of music. We might even rename the London Mozart Players to remind national and international audiences of the orchestra’s Croydon links.

Croydon Council may be unable to contribute cash, having spent borough residents’ hard-earned taxes on a grandiose HQ and a £27 million “undisclosed investment” in the Fairfield complex, but it has plenty of venues it could lend.

In the Clocktower, there’s the Braithwaite Hall, which works equally well with raked seating as a fringe theatre, or with tables and chairs as an intimate cabaret venue; the David Lean Cinema, which works better as an art house venue than Fairfield concert hall; and display areas on the ground floor, as well as the art gallery.

At Fairfield, in addition to the concert hall, the theatre, the Arnhem Gallery and the Green Room restaurant, there are six areas – from the Maple Room to the Ashcroft foyer – that would work as informal performance spaces.

Outside, the likes of Addington and Lloyd parks lend themselves to spectacular events and their use would help to dispel the long-held myth that Croydon is just a concrete jungle: the tired old cliché of a mini-Manhattan.

Racing for life: sports events can also play important part in a constant festival of Croydon culture

Racing for life: sports events can also play important part in a constant festival of Croydon culture

Yes, it will cost money to create prestigious events and offer prizes that are coveted at a national or even higher level, and to create a professional website and to buy advertising space on television and radio, and in regional publications.

But the constant positive publicity and the experiences of those who visit Croydon for one or more events will begin to win hearts and minds.

There are plenty of commercial organisations with interests in the town who will want to be associated once they see the local authority taking the lead. Indeed, those who wish to increase their own prestige by association, will find this a cost-effective way to do so.

Surely a council that can spend £3.1 million on furniture for its new offices can find a few bob to prime the pump in a campaign to rejuvenate the public image of the borough it is supposed to govern?

  • David Callam spent 20 years as correspondent and editor, reporting business for a south London regional newspaper group
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8 Responses to Cultivating culture is year-round project, not just three weeks

  1. Speaking as part of the team working to re-establish one of those community events – the Croydon Classic Car Show we are delighted to be part of the Croydon Heritage Festival.
    Let’s stop carping , rebuild our self belief as a community, get stuck in and make a start rather than waiting for others to do it for us.

  2. I agree with Tony’s comment above. I wonder if David considered organising and contributing an event that he felt would excite the public, rather than potentially disheartening those who have via a reference to the “mediocrity” of their efforts? Actions speak louder than words!

    Regarding the Old Palace, it’s open on at least 10 days a year for guided tours. Details can be found on the Friends of the Old Palace website.

  3. Chalk and cheese, chaps.

    You two are talking about community events – and important they are too, as far as they go.

    I’m suggesting that Croydon needs something more spectacular and more long-lasting than an individual local event, or even three weeks of them.

    Given good weather and strong support from the vintage vehicle community, I’m sure your car show in Rotary Field, Purley will draw admiring glances from passers by, but it won’t make much impact in north Croydon, let alone across Greater London.

    And that’s what Croydon needs to do – make a positive, regional impact, month after month – if it is ever to shake off the dreadful reputation it has now.

    I’m disappointed that an organisation as long-established and as highly revered in Croydon as the Whitgift Foundation has apparently failed to see the bigger picture.

  4. David – fair enough, but festivals tend to start in a small way and then become more ambitious if they are encouraged by the response. E.g. the first Purley Festival in 2011 was relatively small but it paved the way for an expanded and highly-impressive event last year. At least it’s better that the Whitgift Foundation have taken the initiative to launch a festival, rather than do nothing. You have plenty of attractive ideas so why not offer to collaborate with them, with a view to moving forward in 2014?

    • So are you suggesting, then, Adrian, that the Whitgift Foundation is unaware that the Mela has been cancelled? Or the Warehouse Theatre has had its grant withdrawn? The Riesco Collection is unpromoted and barely displayed? Or that the David Lean Cinema has been closed?

      Actually, they probably have no idea whatsoever…

      All of these elements, and more, have been apparent for a couple of years or so, and were mentioned in David’s previous column – linked to above – back in March.

      Maybe none of these sort of ideas appeal to the Whitgift Foundation and its PR company, Grey Label.

  5. I’m not suggesting that the Whitgift Foundation is unaware of such factors, but as they are a registered charity orientated towards education and care of the elderly, using substantial funds to take responsibility for reinstating lost cultural facilities/activities would need to be agreed by their trustees, and it might involve formally registering a change of its governing document with the Charity Commission. I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of such a step being considered controversial by some, who might disapprove of a broadening of their objectives. On the other hand, if they could afford to do this without compromising their existing work, good luck to anyone who can persuade them that being a major cultural benefactor would be good PR as well as a boost for Croydon.

    • There’s two flaws in that argument, Adrian.

      The first is how, then, has the Foundation managed to justify under its charitable status the apparent financial involvement with the 2013 Cultural Festival and the hiring of PR agency Grey Label?

      The second is that in truth, “education” is used to cover a host of activities by charities, many of them only tenuously connected with lessons in a school.

      How else do you explain the headmaster’s menagerie, including wallabies and peacocks, at Whitgift School? Anecdotally, so much money was spent in purchasing a flock of flamingos, every boy at the school might instead have been equipped with a personal lap top. Doubtless, the flamingo expenditure has been justified as an “educational resource”.

      Or how about the practice of plucking 13-year-old boys just because they happen to have played for England in age-group rugby, hockey or cricket, and paying their £15,000 annual fees for the next seven or eight years, in order to boost the school team in national competitions (thus putting the school in the shop window and justifying the annual fees)? That practice is allowable as an educational activity under the terms of their charitable status, too.

      If the Foundation had the will to do so, they could justify underwriting the costs of almost anything as an “educational” activity. Say, the “Whitgift-sponsored David Lean Cinema” could re-open and operate permanently, provided a nominal number of viewings were staged there of suitably “educational” films for pupils from Trinity, Old Palace or Whitgift.

      The Mela? An important educational cultural interchange. The Riesco Collection? Vital for educational activities on history and language with China.

      Croydon’s Establishment, the council and the Foundation are so close, they are virtually interchangeable. Between them, they have the capital to undertake, even just seed-funding, many of the activities that David Callam has been suggesting for months now. Their failure so to do suggests the absence of imagination or the absence of the will to do so.

  6. Adrian: if you start with a small event, within a few years, with a bit of luck, you will turn it into a medium-sized event.

    I spent 20 years as a member of a team organising charity fund-raising events in Croydon’s parks. We began in Rotary Field, but soon gave it up because, for all its charm, it’s a blink-and-you-miss-it, drive-by venue.

    In successive years we moved to Ashburton Park, then Addington Park, and in the process we quadrupled our takings. We continued to make good money for the charity over the following years, growing in popularity steadily, but we never succeeded in turning our fun day into a must-attend event for the whole of Croydon, let alone for places further afield.

    My starting point is that Croydon needs a series of events throughout the year – A Festival of Croydon – that will make regionally and nationally significant statements about the place in the way The Derby does for Epsom or The Fringe does for Edinburgh.

    With all due respect to Purley Festival or the three weeks of events being organised by the Whitgift Foundation, neither is ever going to cut it as an image-changing event for Croydon.

    At the moment, Croydon has a stinking reputation outside the borough which, as usual, Croydon Council is doing nothing to counter.

    As a result, Croydon is a less popular place to do business. And that means fewer job opportunities for every young person who lives in the borough as well as possible discrimination against those of our children who apply for jobs elsewhere.

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