We are now well into the third month of Croydon’s year as the Borough of Culture. Waddyamean, you haven’t seen any publicity or signs of anything special being staged? Neither have we, so we sent KEN TOWL off to see what he could find
It is June and Croydon’s year as London’s Borough of Culture 2023 is well underway. About time, I thought, I availed myself of some of the extra culture that Croydon must be steeped in right now. I missed the first event, the Oratorio of Hope, the big dance and music extravaganza at the Fairfield Halls, and I heard it was good. So I anticipate a good time.
I also missed the grand opening ceremony staged at Boxpark, whose biggest cultural offering until now has been to invent the new sport of… checks notes… beer-throwing.
That, and having Barry off of EastEnders on stage during the World Cup singing Sweet Caroline in the style of a club singer.
But then, the Borough of Culture’s biggest backer, Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, failed to turn up, too. Sadiq has donated £1.35million-worth of our money to “showcase local talent through a diverse and inspiring programme of art”. So, yes, I do anticipate a good time.
First step was to check out what is on in June.
To find out, I googled “Croydon borough of culture”, and I get the council’s website boasting that the London Borough of Culture showcases Croydon to the world, and inviting me to “Visit the official This Is Croydon website”.
I’m no expert in search optimisation, but I can’t help feeling someone’s missed a trick here. Undeterred, I do as I am told and click the link and I get to the flashy This Is Croydon website with lots of pictures of events from either the past, the present or the future.
And there’s four choices: “Home”, “News”, “About” and “What’s on”.
I feel like I might be getting somewhere.
I try “Home”, but it turns out I am already Home.
So I click on “News”, which actually takes me to “Latest News”.
So just what is the Borough of Culture’s latest news?
There’s a review, two months old now, dated April 4, of the Oratorio, telling me how “spectacular” and “vibrant” it was. Is this really their latest “Latest News”, I wonder?
There is some later news, that was posted on May 17, that tells me that “Open House Applications are now Open”.
Looking at it, the Open House thing is not really a Croydon event at all, but a London-wide festival that is held most years. “People open up their homes or a building for visitors to explore and learn from. By doing this, together, we make London and its architecture more open, accessible and equitable.
“We think your building would be a really great addition to the programme and would like to invite you to contribute.” All very interesting, but it’s a bit of a stretch to try to pass this off as anything to do with Croydon’s Borough of Culture.
Open House, in any case, doesn’t take place until September. I register anyway, just in case. I wouldn’t want to miss out on anything else that is even remotely connected to “our year-long celebration of Croydon’s unique identity, diverse communities and rich heritage”.
But wait. There’s even more “Latest News”! This was also published on the This Is Croydon Borough of Culture website on May 17. Fascinated, I discover that “Natural Heritage project microgrants are now open”. Apparently, I can apply by filling in a form and submitting it by… oh, May 28.
Ah… Too late. That “window” of opportunity was open for 12 days, but is now firmly shut. All the details are still on the Borough of Culture website, though. It seems that there was Lottery money available for me, up to £2,000 a time, if I had a project with “a particular focus on green spaces”. Oh well, you can’t miss what you never had.
I try the “About” option. Maybe this might be where I can find some information about actual Borough of Culture events, actually taking place in Croydon, actually happening in June?
Hmm… There is a lot of meaningless hyperbole and generalisation: “A big bold, and cross-cultural celebration…world-leading artists, music, dance, spoken word, theatre, street art, fashion shows, interactive installations, workshops, debates, food festivals, carnivals…vibrant, dynamic and varied.”
I can’t wait. So what’s on in June?
I go to the last option, “What’s on”. Surely, here, I will find something that hasn’t already happened?
The page highlights two events, Queer Compass on July 1 at Stanley Arts and the Croydon Food and Music Festival in the “South End Restaurant Quarter” on July 2. Both of these look like events that would be happening anyway, with or without Mayor Khan’s £1.35million injection.
In fact, I seem to recall that the Food Festival is another of the events that White Label is involved in organising. Perhaps it is a coincidence, but White Label is the public relations outfit that was awarded the Borough of Culture marketing gig from the council, a contract worth £132,000, presumably taken from Mayor Khan’s pot of £1.35million.
I scroll down to find later events. Most of them appear to be of the this-happens-every-year variety, such as the Mela and Croydon Pride, back-to-back over a weekend in July in Wandle Park.
So just what are we getting for the Mayor’s – or rather, our – £1.35million?
I notice a “Select month” drop-down option. I select June ’23 and get… the same page, with events starting in July. There are even some events listed which are not part of the Borough of Culture, such as a concert performance by the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine. And that isn’t until October.
Is there really nothing at all in June?
Next, I try an option entitled “Programme highlights”. Maybe so far I’ve just been confined to the lowlights?
Again, I am told that the festival will be big and bold. I am also invited to click again to “Download the programme”. This turns out to be a Powerpoint presentation, which begs me to believe that someone, somewhere, must have presented this list of events and non-events to a roomful of people with power, and that those people thought it was good enough.
I click through to the third page to find “project highlights” by month.
It looks like this:
So, in the whole of June, there are two events happening in Croydon, the Borough of not-very-much-Culture. These are to be the “Music Heritage Trail”, which doesn’t appear to be much of a trail at all, as it is taking place in Queen’s Gardens and online, and something which the Borough of Culture organisers appear to believe is called In Recognition at the Fairfield Halls.
Sounds great. Now to book tickets. Except there is no way to book anything on the Borough of Culture website.
The website, according to some small print in a corner of some pages, is the handiwork of another PR agency, this one called Four Communications. They’re the people who, when the Croydon cabinet member for culture, Oliver Lewis, was at a loose end when he couldn’t get selected to stand for election again last year, offered him a job.
That’s the same Oliver Lewis, when he was a Labour councillor, who signed off on Croydon’s bid to be the Borough of Culture in 2023.
Croydon Council gave Four Communications, with ex-Croydon councillor Lewis on board, a £45,000 contract to be the press and PR agency for the Borough of Culture. Looking at the resulting website, you have to wonder whether anyone is conducting a “best value” check…
Back to Google, then, and I type “Music Heritage Trail”.
I get a Croydon Council page illustrated by the beaming faces of the composer and erstwhile Croydon resident Samual Coleridge-Taylor and the Mayor, “Croydon born-and-bred” Jason Perry. The page purports to be in the words of the Mayor himself, who invites me to visit the Music Heritage page, which turns out to be a page on the Croydon Museum website, inviting stories from local residents to be sent in by the end of March… Which, I realise, is very much in the past.
The webpage promises that the Music Heritage Trail will be open in June. I resolve to check it after work on Monday.
I search for “In Recognition” on the Fairfield Halls website.
It turns out that the play with music is actually called Recognition. And it is actually taking place in June! I am informed that it is by the Talawa Theatre Group, who have hardly ever performed at the Fairfield Halls since they took up residency around four years ago.
But this does seem to be, at last, a real piece of culture courtesy of the Mayor of London. Hoorah!
And there’s even more good news: instead of the standard £19.50 ticket price, those of us with a CR postcode will only be charged £9.50, less than half price (tough luck, though, if you’re in SE19 or SE25…).
Monday was press night for Recognition, and on the way I visit Queen’s Gardens in search of the Music Heritage Trail.
I check out another website, this one run by those well-known cheerleaders for Croydon, Develop Croydon – an organisation which lists as its directors Katharine Glass and Jo Gumb, who also just happen to hold directorships at White Label, the very same PR firm with a six-figure contract to promote the Borough of Culture.
The Develop Croydon website tells me, “Croydon’s plans for London Borough of Culture 2023 just got all the more exciting following an announcement of additional funding to create a music heritage trail to celebrate the borough’s rich musical history.” Huzzah!
It turns out that there’s even more public cash coming Croydon’s way on top of Mayor Khan’s £1.35million – this is another £225,000 from the National Lottery Heritage Fund.
“From bass to blues, Indian to indie, punk, rock and classical, the music trail will showcase Croydon’s role in a wide range of music genres,” Glass and Gumb’s website tells me.
This is exciting. You can get a lot of Heritage Trail for nearly a quarter of a million pounds.
I arrive at the Queen’s Gardens to find, well, disappointment.
The Heritage Trail appears to be made up entirely of a mural, and an unfinished one at that.
The painter appears to have left a stepladder chained to a lamppost, so I assume the plan is to return and complete the work.
So far, I recognise Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Kirsty MacColl, Desmond Dekker and Captain Sensible. Stormzy will join them shortly, I’m sure.
So that’s half of June’s Borough of Culture offer absorbed.
Earlier in the day, on discovering that this was the press night for Recognition, and that no publicity or invitation had been sent to Inside Croydon, the Editor very kindly, on my behalf, asked whether a place could be found for me to see the other 50per cent of Croydon’s Borough of Culture programme for June.
We were told not. “An oversight” was an unapologetic explanation offered by some PR flunky the following morning, even though we had drawn attention to the omission ahead of the performance. Perhaps they don’t need any more publicity?
Desperate for my culture fix, I decided to turn up anyway. Maybe there’d be tickets available on the door. Once inside, I discover an auditorium close to a quarter empty. Mayor Perry was there. He had a row of seats all to himself.
And what I witnessed that evening was indeed worthy of Mayor Khan’s money, as you can discover by clicking here for my review.
But given that we are almost halfway through 2023, I am left hoping that the rest of Croydon’s year as London’s Borough of Culture will be a good deal busier, and original and more straightforward to locate than what has gone so far.
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