This post was first published by The Croydon Citizen on 08/03/2018.
London Borough of Culture 2019: why Croydon didn’t win
We’re disappointed – the London Evening Standard had us as second favourites to win – but we rallied quickly. The creative community of Croydon is positive and resilient. On the day that the result of the competition to be London’s first Borough of Culture was announced, council leader Tony Newman tweeted: “congrats to the winners and I guess we remain ‘The Alternative Borough of Culture’. Thanks to everyone”.
Good on us.
But if we want to have a chance of winning in the future, we have to ask why it didn’t happen this time. It’s not a simple question, and this is an initial response, with the hope that we can get the conversation started. When I looked more closely at the boroughs which did win, one difference jumped out straight away. It was connection with their citizens, and the confidence that this gave.
Brent plans a street party for 200,000 people
Waltham Forest’s 2019 bid set a target of 85% of households participating in cultural activities – that means half a million visits. More than 12,000 Waltham Foresters had backed their borough’s submission. Brent, winners for 2020, went for numbers too, using Euro 2020 and the profile of sport in the area – which houses Wembley Stadium – as an opportunity to present itself as a popular destination for creativity and culture. It plans a street party for 200,000 people and and a major new music festival, ‘No Bass Like Home’, for 82,000.
Croydon’s bid certainly had eye-catching features including five outdoor festivals. One of these was the return of the London Mela to Lloyd Park, which was also set to be the location of a new music festival, Metropolis. The re-opened Fairfield Halls was the intended location for a range of events including the EFG London Jazz Festival. There was an innovative proposal for BRIT school residencies to take the performing arts into health care settings across the borough. Many of the featured providers, however, though excellent, have so far reached only small audiences, while the winning boroughs went large, aiming for tens of thousands. The UpRISEing festival of street art, set to include street parties and ‘block jams’ focused around new art installations, was the nearest thing that Croydon had to something on this scale.
Croydon’s celebrities have tended to shun us and move on
The winning bids also had a generous sprinkling of stardust. The glitzy names who got behind Waltham Forest included musicians Damon Albarn and Fleur East and photographer David Bailey, along with more than fifty people from the world of arts who signed a letter to the competition’s organisers, according to the national Guardian. Brent, the 2020 winner, was supported by author Zadie Smith, actor Riz Ahmed and footballer Raheem Sterling. Camden, one of the runners-up, had backing from Emma Thompson, David Walliams, Barbara Windsor, Alastair Campbell, Michael Palin, Jon Snow and Suggs from Madness. Their willingness to sign on speaks of self-belief and must have swayed the judges.
Meanwhile, friendless Croydon struggled: our celebrities either shun us when they make it big because they feel we’ll tarnish their image (Kate Moss, I’m looking at you) or the nature of their work is problematic. Stormzy backed us, but some of his lyrics are an issue for many. It’s hard to rally behind Stormzy.
I don’t want us to go back into beating ourselves up – we’ve had enough of all that long ago. But I disagree with Lauren Furey’s argument in the Citizen recently that the culture of Croydon has been transformed by a new generation which has done what was never done before. I think that the problem here is more complicated than ‘there used to be nothing and now there is something, so at least we’re on the up’.
The lie of the ‘cultural desert’ still lives
In 2008, I was part of the team which opened Croydon Visitor Centre. I’d moved to Croydon by accident, a dormitory dweller who worked up town and went there for entertainment too. I’d never really had a proper sense of the place. The new team wanted to make sure that our centre reflected what was going on locally, but we all thought ‘well, that won’t be much. This is Croydon, right? It’s a cultural desert’. We started to gather information, and I was amazed. A few phone calls later, we had a wall – a whole wall, fifteen feet long and five shelves high – full of information about cultural life in our town.
It wasn’t well-funded and it wasn’t being publicly encouraged. There was no street art, no RISE Gallery, no Matthews Yard. But there was drama, dance, live music, environmental campaigning, walking groups, charity events, local history and heritage, choirs of all abilities, volunteering, cookery classes, children’s activities, community groups, the Warehouse, the Fairfield. There was loads of it. New people came in every day with brochures, asking us if their event or activity could be displayed. I realised that our ‘cultural desert’ was a lie.
But the force of this attack, from within and without, along with the invisibility of the good things that have always happened here, harms us still. It reduces the number of people who engage with cultural activity. People don’t even look for it – they think that there’s nothing here. A fantastic programme like that of the Croydonites Festival (which took part in the bid) is a truly depressing example. Its shows would be packed if they were anywhere else in London. Attendance in its first two years has been tiny.
People who think that they’re from Surrey don’t like to use the C-word
Since 2008, we have faced the crisis of the riots. Now there is support for Croydon’s creatives – not before time – and a drive to draw in new people and new energy. It brings positives but also re-inforces existing problems, for as Croydon grows wealthier it’s also more socially divided every day. Far too many people are entirely cut off from all that’s exciting and positive here. The winning boroughs could go to their people for support more confidently than Croydon could.
Our town is also doubly divided. There’s a second group of ‘outsiders’, comfortably off but resident – in their own minds at least – not in Croydon but in Surrey. They mostly live to the south. They used to come to Fairfield and I hope that they do again, but the C-word doesn’t resonate with them. They’d rather not live here, so events in the busy, thriving centre – Matthews Yard, Project B, Boxpark – don’t draw them in. They can certainly afford to buy tickets, but how do we reach them when they just don’t want to know?
It gives me no pleasure to go a terrific cultural event or festival in Croydon and recognise half the audience. Or to count the empty seats. But those seats are undoubtedly empty, and until they are filled, how can we claim to be London’s Borough of Culture?