STEVEN DOWNES reviews a novel set in our part of south London that straddles three centuries
You don’t need a Tardis to embark on a bit of time travel if you are out and about in Crystal Palace.
The area oozes a bygone age. There’s the many old Victorian villas along the streets that lead off to Dulwich and Peckham, the inexplicably grand railway station that serves what seems to be such a minor line, there’s the park with its collection of dinosaurs – yes, south London’s very own Jurassic park! – the old motor racing circuit with echoes from another sporting age, and then those ghostly terraces which lead up from the track, abandoned and neglected, unexplained.
It’s easy to embark on a flight of imagination when surrounded with so many redolent prompts.
And there was no stopping novelist Tom Brown when one day his girlfriend asked casually, “I take it you know about the skeletons?”
Brown’s book, Strange Air, is the result, an intriguing journey, backwards and forwards between the present and the past, linked together by railway tracks and the ghosts left atop Sydenham Hill by the great Crystal Palace and the engineering around it.
I remember being told by my own grandfather about the last great fire of London, in 1936 which saw the ultimate demise of the Crystal Palace. The vast palace had been transported piece by piece from Hyde Park after the 1854 Great Exhibition. My grandad was in Camberwell Green and remembers being able to see the fire, like a beacon on top of one of the highest points in the capital, like a premonition of the Blitz that he and his family would soon have to try to live through.
Yet while most of the devastated parts of our city have, in time, being rebuilt, nearly 80 years on, and the Crystal Palace site remains as a ghostly reminder of what was lost.
Brown’s book has two plot lines – one set in the present, around an unemployed Tube driver called Eric, the other beginning with a train journey taken by Thomas Rammell from London Bridge to Croydon in 1847. From the first, the reader knows that these two tracks will meet at some fictional junction. Brown’s achievement is to get both plot strands together on schedule.
The historic part of the narrative works more convincingly than that set in the present; there was something not quite chime, even for a ghost story, about Eric’s guided tour into the tunnels beneath the Crystal Palace site.
But back in the mid-19th century with each alternate chapter, and the pace picks up again, as Brown interweaves his plot with detail of the air-powered trains which once ran on poorly engineered lines through south London.
Unlike those tracks, and the fantasy horror parts of the book, the historical fiction steams along well. Brown’s certainly found something here which, with the current time travel appetite for Doctor Who, and for dark and threatening dramas such as Ripper Street or Whitechapel, might yet transfer to another medium.
Coming to Croydon
- Much Ado About Nothing: Nov 25
- Sex in the Cronx, Nov 26-29
- Future Tech City: Nov 30
- Follow in the footsteps of Pirie: Dec 1
- Comedy in Music show: Dec 1
- Heathfield House Christmas Bazaar: Dec 1
- The Lives of Stanley Halls community entertainment: Dec 4
- Cinema Ruskin: Dec 21
- Steve Knightly at Stanley Halls: Feb 5
- Inside Croydon: Croydon’s only independent news source, based in the heart of the borough – 262,183 page views (Jan-Jun 2013)
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