I live in Crystal Palace in south east London, and it’s gorgeous. Emile Zola and Camille Pissaro lived here; Arthur Conan Doyle presided over a Scientific and Literary Society. Crystal Palace has a museum, and a glorious park, with dinosaurs, a lake and a small zoo housing pigs, rabbits, guinea pigs, ponies and alpaca. And a cat. The remnants of the old palace lend an air of melancholy that suits me.
There are thriving bars, pubs, restaurants and independent shops, as well as a vintage market (for vintage you could read tat – but interesting and funny tat) and a great sense of community.
For the last couple of years a battle has been going on to rescue the site of the old cinema (recently a bingo hall) from the clutches of a church group. We have, of course, nothing against churches but with seven already in the local area we felt a cinema could offer more to the local community: jobs, economic development, a sense of inclusivity. To this end, the Cinema for Crystal Palace Campaign has been gathering steam, with the help of local residents, shop-owners and celebrity endorsement (Paddy Considine: could I love you any more?).
Noreen Meehan, the force of nature behind the Sphinx Dining Club, arranged a fundraiser for the campaign: an evening of Victoriana, with bands, dinner and spoken word entertainment, to take place in the beautiful surroundings of St John’s Church. When I responded to her call for help she asked me if I would write a story for the event: ‘A bit Victorian, a bit Edgar Allen Poe’ was the brief. I also wanted to give it a cinema theme.
But I never thought I would be able to write to order, come up with something from scratch. But I did some research into the area during the period and also fell back on some of my usual interests. The result came surprisingly quickly, and was finessed over a short period. I managed to bring in cinema, local history, the museum and recognisable landmarks. I felt a bit like a proper writer.
Then I had to set about learning it – Noreen wanted me to walk amongst the tables of diners telling them the story with no notes. She had grand plans for a mask and a lantern. I had grand plans for being able to see where I was going, and hang on to a book with the story in it just in case; so we settled on a fantastic long black evening dress loaned from Vien on Church Street, a hairstyle courtesy of Heather and Andrea at 47, and a lace shawl given to me by my work colleague Roberta, and I was to walk amongst the tables recounting my Crystal Palace ghost story.
It was an amazing evening: completely sold out to hundreds of diners, all dressed in period costume. I looked a little like an extra from Upstairs Downstairs (but, unusually for me, from upstairs). My friend Vanessa got one of the last tickets so she could support me, and Laura Dockrill – also on the bill – rehearsed me behind a curtain as the audience took their seats. When things ran behind schedule and it was suggested I tell my story while the diners ate their dessert, Laura had what I can only assume was ‘a word’ with the organisers. Dessert was delayed while I did my bit. Terrifying and exhilarating. One of the best story events I’ve ever done.
The story did the rounds at a couple of other events – Are You Sitting Comfortably? and October 2010’s Storytails, where you can read it for yourself or listen to me reading it. Imagine me with Downton Abbey dowager hair and you’ll get the idea.