Watching my home town burn

Croydon-boy David Bowden reflects on a week in which his old stomping ground was back on the box once more.

David Bowden

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Irish playwright Brendan Behan once compared critics to ‘eunuchs at a harem: they know how it’s done, they’ve seen it done every day, but they’re unable to do it themselves’. Christ knows what the author of Borstal Boy would have made of being a TV critic during a period of national crisis. Sure, the nation was inside all week at the height of summer, crouched around the screens while nervously clutching that freshly bought baseball bat, but you weren’t watching BBC4’s series of programmes on contemporary British sculpture, were you? A TV reviewer in a week such as this feels as impotent as, well, a truncheon-wielding policeman at a riot.

In fact, this week I have mostly been watching Croydon on TV. It’s been nearly a year since I mourned the end of The Bill and, with it, one of the few opportunities to see my hometown on the box. But watching images of Croydon burn on Monday evening accompanied by images of women jumping from burning buildings with audio commentary provided by a barman from an old drinking haunt, I found myself for the first time in many years wishing I was watching The Bill. Most of the rioters probably don’t even remember The Bill. If they brought it back, they’d probably have to call it The Feds in honour of the new street slang.

Oh Croydon, Croydon, Croydon. You’re like the shy, awkward kid at the back of the class, the one other kids wouldn’t want to poke with a stick: we only hear your name when there is trouble involved. Only the other week you disrupted London’s Gatwick-bound commuters with a burst water main and landslide near East Croydon train station; we can still remember the scenes of upturned trams after the Euro 2004 riots. Mocked by edgy London and spurned by stockbrocker Surrey, in a punk sorta fashion, it longs for city status of its own. It was pipped to the posts as the Millennium city by Brighton, the gayest city in the UK. Up yours, Brighton!

What a city it could be, too. It used to house London’s main airport: Amy Johnson has the claim to fame of being the first woman to fly from Croydon to Australia. When it started developing as a modern urban centre it was meant to be the UK’s answer to New York which, if NYC’s health authorities continue their mission to suck all of the fun and freedom out of the city, could still yet come to pass. Kate Moss was born here; Raymond Chandler was schooled here; DH Lawrence taught here; Desmond Dekker died here. ‘I’ll always love Croydon, even though it’s a dump’, wrote Angela Carter in her novel Wise Children. ‘Croydon? I’m not going to live in Croydon’, insists Joe Orton in Alan Bennett’s biopic Prick Up Your Ears, shortly before getting his skull caved in in Islington.

It would happen in Croydon, wouldn’t it? It’s a schizophrenic place. It says everything about it that they filmed one of the UK’s longest-running cop shows there; now it is the setting of Peep Show, the brilliantly dark comedy of brooding angst, social awkwardness and barely suppressed rage. It houses the BRIT performing arts school, which taught Amy Winehouse how to become the best soul singer of her generation, and Katie Melua how to be the blandest. Only Croydon could name a major public building ‘Lunar House’ in honour of mankind’s most inspirational horizons and then choose it to house the UK Border Agency, in honour of some of its lowest. It is, concludes architecture critic Owen Hatherly, ‘one of London’s more surreal urban experiences… an intriguing but miserable place’.

Maybe it is this tortured psychogeography which provoked the anger of the mob… okay, okay, I’ll stop. I can’t do it. Not even if you paid me by the word. You can’t go around writing paeans and panegyrics to Croydon: there will be no Iain Sinclair of the Lombard Roundabout or Peter Ackroyd of the Purley Way emerging from the tumult of this week. Yet after a week immersed in the hyperbolic news coverage – what Jonathan Jones rather astutely noted as a very old-fashioned vision of sci-fi dystopia – and witnessing the eerie quiet befalling the London streets, as one of the greatest cities in the world was reduced to panicked lockdown, you feel you may as well start blaming Croydon’s freewheeling urban planning.

It’s already started cropping up, too, as journalists steeped in the contemporary arts of emotionalism and attachment start chasing what David Simon in The Wire witheringly dismissed as ‘the Dickensian aspect’, but with the sentimental portraits of consumptive urchins being replaced with over-consuming looters. Features pages will no doubt be filled with posh hacks’ personal journeys into the estates and stairwells of the troubled areas, strewn with needles and reeking of urine. Such pornographic reporting of social deprivation and poverty always brings to mind Orwell’s comment in Coming Up For Air about wartime propaganda claiming German soldiers were ‘raping nuns on tables… as though that made it worse’. That the BBC’s news coverage was left floundering – with the broadcaster issuing an apology to veteran campaigner Darcus Howe for an inept interview and Newsnight’s eyebrow-raising choice of reggae to soundtrack its riot montages – seemed a particularly apt metaphor for an establishment in utter disarray and confusion.

Hopefully, if nothing else will incite ordinary citizens back outside to reclaim the streets and remain ‘More Open Than Usual’, it is the turgidity of the summer TV schedules. The main event of next week is the return of Celebrity Big Brother on Five with a line-up including Kerry Katona’s mum, Whitney Houston’s ex, annoying Irish duo Jedward and, er, Sally Bercow. If we are in need of a short, sharp shock to restore a bit of sanity and order to our cities, then the thought of being cooped up all summer with that shower for company might just be it. To be honest, if it keeps Croydon off the news for the foreseeable future, I’ll happily be watching it all for you.

David Bowden is spiked’s TV columnist.

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