A poem written in November 2020, prompted by what exactly I can’t remember; there is truth to a degree in the words, and while this matters not to the reader, a need to expand on the actual facts took hold, from which followed a jaunt across the tobacco industry, teachers always being a-holes, a picture of my favourite gate, cheap snacks, Big Foot, how I used to live in the Lord of the Rings, laughing at my mum (sorry, mum), a real size but pretend Canadian Parliament, the world’s first dinosaur statues, and London’s most popular gorilla.
It was so poor
Near the school
I occasionally went to
That along with singles
They sold just puffs
One pence a go
Or three drags for two
In the shop though
Had to take it out
Then bring it back in again
Got lost a lot that way
So they put it on a chain
Never went astray again
Though the ashtray did often
As they couldn’t afford
One for that too
When I was at school the newsagents at the top of the hill next to the bus stop many of the kids used would happily sell them/me single cigarettes. A VICE documentary watched a few years back highlighted how a single smoke strategy is actively used by the tobacco industry in Africa to get kids hooked, countries there unable to do anything about it due to having a significantly smaller GDPs than the companies do profit margins; big business can afford lengthy and in-depth legal proceedings that the small-income countries can’t and it knows it.
The shop was (and very possibly still is) on top of the same hill as the Croydon transmission tower, just across the road from it to be precise; and it might be unfair to only blame the owner of the shop at the time for us kids being able to smoke.
The header and below images were taken by Rocky Biggs and are used under licence. I can tell what side of the tower they are taken from thanks to the church spire on the tower’s right (I lived over and below on the other side).
The school was near the bottom of the hill, and to a degree built into it. It had three gates: main, side and top. My personal favourite was the side, shown below. Hard to spot on the bottom right without knowing it’s there, such is the steepness of the hill a staircase goes down a level (the wall on its left is easier to spot).
The top gate was a strategically fantastic place to smoke as anyone approaching from any direction could easily be seen. But there was also a place defiantly named ‘cancer corner’.
The large gym building had a wide alley running round two sides that went nowhere except to the other side; part of the hill had been cut away to make space for it and the alley was there to put some distance between the building and the rest of the hill above; a four foot or so wall on the other side of the alley from where the hill continued abruptly up.
‘Cancer corner’ was the corner of this alley. Everyone knew the area was used for smoking; teachers need only approach from both ends at the same time and anyone down there really had nowhere to go given how steep the hill. But they rarely if ever did.
It’s not like I want to be banging on like a cliché about how times change, but f-ing hell! Our teachers sat no more than thirty seconds away in the staff room as numerous kids got addicted to one of the worst habits ever thanks to unscrupulous shop owners, while meanwhile today (well, 2019) teachers at a Bristol school took to patrolling the local area in groups after school had finished to stop kids legally entering fast food shops (not on school property, just to emphasise that fact) to legally buy food in them.
The teachers even went so far as to enter the shops and order kids leave despite the fact they were waiting for food they’d already paid for (reported by the BBC here; and the Mirror here, with the added bonus of the police apparently being called by a shop owner).
The tower is 499 ft tall, making it half the size of the Eiffel Tower; 1,063 ft at its tip. Kids literally walked beneath it, the base easily in spitting distance on the other side of a metal fence, especially if taking the shortcut along the side to go through the woods (Beaulieu Heights) running steeply down immediately behind it.
In those woods lived a homeless person. A bearded, shabby figure, present the whole time I went to Sylvan High. Occasional glimpses would be caught much like footage claiming to show Big Foot moving between trees. He was called Ringo, apparently because some kids had once taken to buying packets of Ringos to give him as they were the cheapest crisps available in the shop selling the single cigarettes.
I lived on Holmesdale Road in the flats on the short side of the railway. From one aspect, which included the fourth floor front door, the tower could easily be seen. The screenshot below marks the tower, with an added S for the shop; H for the hill it’s on start; F for the flats; an arrow highlights ‘Harris Academy’, the current name of the once Sylvan High buildings.
After I left home, my mum continued living there. One Sunday, when I was leaving after a visit, mum stepped out the front door and onto the communal balcony with me. Looking at the tower, she said, “Oh, they’ve got that back up quickly.”
“Yes,” she said. “There was a thing in the local paper this week that said the TV signals might be really poor over the weekend, as they were taking the tower down to clean it.”
“To clean it?!” I burst out laughing. I don’t remember the exact date now, but it was only a couple of days into April.
Though the last laugh is on me; looking for images of the tower, the only two I can find with permission to use—and even those I can’t, tbf—make it look like I grew up in a wooded shire, not the mean streets of London as always claimed.
Making things worse, there are actually two towers.
The above pic shows the Croydon transmission tower along with the Crystal Palace tower (719 ft) from a perspective that puts where I lived behind and to the right of the smaller. Even without any Lord of the Rings references, having two small Eiffel towers that combined are taller, does nothing but paint pictures of cosmopolitan beret wearing. Picture: Robert Lamb (used under license).
The below screen shot retains the added F for the flats and has an added arrow/x for the Crystal Place tower; the distance as the crow flies from F to the Croydon tower is 1.14 miles (1.83 km); from the Croydon tower to the Crystal Palace tower 1.09 miles (1.75 km).
In my defence, I never make those claims unless talking about when moving in with my dad at the Elephant and Castle circa aged fourteen; Croydon, at least certainly then, was only ever a bit fruity at worst.
The Crystal Palace tower is on the old Crystal Palace Exhibition ground (after it was moved from Hyde Park). Below it is shown in 1911 during the Festival of Empire, when it had the bonus feature of a life-size replica of the centre block from Canada’s Parliament Building (Parliament Hill) built out front.
In 1936, it burned down.
Though aspects still remain, including the Crystal Palace dinosaurs (many attributes now known as incorrect) first added to park in 1854 to compliment the Palace moving there and today given Grade I listed building status.
It’s had some new additions too. Here’s my cousin Esmeralda and I sitting on the Guy the Gorilla statue erected 1961 in honour of London Zoo’s most famous inhabitant. Guy was named after Guy Fawkes, having arrived at his latest place of captivity on a 5th of November. Guy died in 1978, suffering a heart attack during an operation to fix rotting teeth.
I remember feeling devastated; he looked fierce, but was known for studying any birds that got into his enclosure, even holding them in a hand while watching intently, and consequently was a big hit with kids’ TV shows. His stance, as shown in the statue, made it feel like he was looking out for me, any kids really.
I’m sure the pic was taken pre 1978, but can’t tell how old I look . . . It’s surprising, really, given the history there and what still remains of it, that Crystal Palace park isn’t a more popular tourist attraction. There’s even an amphitheatre (the Crystal Palace Bowl) where circa 83 Hawkwind played for free.
In the above image of the fire’s aftermath, a row of houses can be seen on the top left facing the devastation; the house of the party in Meeting Edgar Broughton is directly behind and below these, it being built as part of the same development.
And talking of Croydon and the Elephant, in post Elephant and Castle, Stick It up Your Arsehole! Croydon’s Whitgift Centre and the shopping centre at the Elephant are compared after I rode a motorbike around one and collected for Remembrance Day at the other.
Thanks for reading 🙂
N. P. Ryan
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