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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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- David Callam spent 20 years as correspondent and editor, reporting business for a south London regional newspaper group
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