A Croydon author has a new book out this week, but he could not resist revisiting his old stomping grounds. Here, in an exclusive column for iC, JOHN GRINDROD explains why his hometown has been a lifelong inspiration
Croydon was a mess and so was I. Back when the twentieth century was going to sleep, I had taken a walk with my Polaroid camera around the town’s decaying concrete monoliths. Despite its concrete posturing, I’d woken with a feeling that this post-war landscape was suddenly a fragile and fleeting thing.
The tail end of a 1950s and 60s redevelopment known as “New Croydon”, it would surely not last long into the coming millennium. Looking back, my feelings were clearly inspired by more urgent personal events: the recent death of my mum, and my dad’s terminal cancer.
As I trudged round in the cold December drizzle, I was inevitably projecting a sense of loss on this landscape, not that the darkened windows of the towers and the litter blowing around the underpasses needed much help on that front. The Polaroids turned out a grey, bleak and slightly blurry record of a really bad time in my life.
I was grimly delighted.
I love writing about Croydon.
The above is a short extract from Iconicon, a book I’ve written about the strange places built in Britain since the 1980s. In it, I cover some of the most famous and remarkable construction projects of our age. Docklands. The Dome. The Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly. Millennium landmarks in Gateshead and Manchester. Liverpool Garden Festival. Milton Keynes. The Olympic Park.
But I was also keen on writing about my favourite subject, the transformation of Croydon, from the postwar towers of the town centre I was convinced were on their way out, to the pop-ups and controversial experiments of the last decade.
The extract above makes it sound like I’m being gloomy, but it’s actually a book full of amazing stories, interviews with extraordinary people and behind-the-scenes tales of the construction of some of Britain’s most famous modern landscapes and structures. I went in search of the architectural icons of the age, and in the end decided they were just as likely to be Barratt homes and business parks as they were The Shard or the Eden Project. And the new builds of Croydon, of course.
A few years ago I was luck enough to appear on stage at the Fairfield Halls, before it was expensively – too expensively – refurbished. It was an event called “Croydon Till I Die”, and I was there alongside Andy Miller, writer and host of sensationally popular books podcast “Backlisted”, and Bob Stanley of pop group Saint Etienne, also a respected writer of cultural histories.
We were there talking about each having written about Croydon, and we assumed few people would turn up. In the end I think 300 people came, and it was undoubtedly one of the best nights of my life.
The thing that has stuck with me is how electric it was, to be in a room of so many people all being excited about our home town, a place we were all always being told not to get excited about.
Who even knew that could be a thing? It’s inspired me ever since.
Some of the big Croydon landmarks have gone since the rainy millennium eve walk I wrote about in Iconicon. Goodbye Taberner House. Others, such as Saffron Square – that London 2012 logo of a building – have risen instead. A young planner from the noughties tells me in the book how horrified he was that some of these massive “zombie schemes” from another era, like Saffron Square, would still get built while they were trying to do more subtle things on the ground to connect up the town centre, such as the new entrance to East Croydon Station.
I feel particularly sad about the saga of Brick by Brick, because making money for the council by building new social housing or homes for sale should be a good idea, and the architecture they were encouraging was really interesting. But behind that, as the financial problems show, poor management helped drag down the council as a whole, and everyone in Croydon is now paying for these expensive mistakes.
I’m from New Addington, and there’s a few fellow writers from the estate, including the brilliant sociologist Les Back, but generally it’s the sort of place that I never used to see written about.
Because of that, it still feels exciting to see anything about Croydon in print, and so all of my books return there and explore it from different angles, from the post-war rebuilding I covered in Concretopia, to the Green Belt around the town in Outskirts.
Iconicon tells the story of how the town became home to hipster pop-ups and a whole new wave of giant rebuilding projects, not least the arrival of the trams. It was fascinating to try and tell a local story beside tales of all of those famous icons at Canary Wharf and the recently storm-shredded Dome.
So I hope if you read any of these books you’ll appreciate where I’m coming from.
Most of all, it would be great to see alongside all the fantastic art and music that Croydon continues to generate more writing emerging from my home town.
I had no training or education in architecture and design, these books have stemmed from a purely a geeky interest.
Having grown up in Croydon it’s no wonder I’ve become fascinated with architecture, the town is a huge ongoing experiment in rebuilding that never ends. One of the things I want to leave people with in Iconicon is the feeling that if you connect with the place you live or work, and start to think about it, you become a part of it, and you can help shape the way people think about it.
There are so many Croydon stories to tell, I hope there are new voices out there thinking of original ways to express just how strange everyday life really is here – and, it turns out, everywhere. But the head start that we from Croydon have is that we already know how odd it is, it’s written everywhere, from pavement to skyline.
- Iconicon: A Journey Around the Landmark Buildings of Contemporary Britain by John Grindrod is published by Faber on March 3 (£20 hardback). To order a copy, click here
- To visit John Grindrod’s website to find out more, click here
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