I was born in Thornton Heath, Croydon, England, in 1949 and spent the first seven years of my life there, moving to a large estate on the edge of Croydon (New Addington) just before my eighth birthday. The estate (what the British call a “council estate”) is near Addington Village and also Addington Palace. In those days, the former archbishops’ summer palace was the headquarters of the Royal School of Church Music, and I became a chorister there. Living in public housing as I did was more than a mark of poverty for me. As a child I felt a stigma attached to it – the poverty was, somehow, shameful.
It is May 21st and I have returned to Croydon – the first time in many years (I have not lived in Croydon since 1970). Today was the centenary of my father’s birth and I came to visit his grave and pay my respects. He is buried in Bandon Hill cemetery, a short bus ride from West Croydon Station. The grave is on a hillside and all the headstones are arranged in neat lines, except that my father’s grave has no headstone. I was visiting Croydon, partly, in order to make arrangements for that. I learned that there is room for another family member to be buried in the same plot. It was daunting going back, I had been dreading it. In the event, things proved easier then I feared. I had not been to the area since 1977 (for the funeral) and I had no idea where it was.
I sat for a little while and tried to speak to my father. But in the end all I could bring myself to say was “I didn’t treat you very well”. He left hundreds of diaries in which he detailed the mental suffering he had to endure. There was no lasting way out for him. None of this is happy, not then and not now.
I did not consult a map and I do not know in which direction the hillside faces, but I had the idea that all the corpses were lined up facing Croydon, as if to contemplate a life that had been lived. (My father only ever once moved from Croydon – to Mullingar in County Westmeath situated in the Irish Midlands. His mother was from an Irish family and for one year during WWI he was evacuated there). So virtually his whole life was lived in Croydon. It is where his dreams gradually turned into a nightmare.
As I left the cemetery I paused and thought I should turn back. I had said and done almost nothing it seemed. But I didn’t return. Instead I found a very humble café just down the road and sat there thinking about things. I ordered a mug of tea and ate some cake with a strange yellow icing, tasting of marzipan. It was served by a middle aged man with dyed blond hair and several rings on his fingers – gay, so I thought. I looked at him, or rather, probed him, feeling both sorry for him and repulsed. I sat in a sort of cozy daze. After a time I realized the irony of eating cake on my dad’s birthday and dedicated the meal to him. Then I realized I was sitting too long and the owner was waiting to close the place, and I left.
I traveled back to London feeling as if I’d just had that stock fictional experience – an astronaut returns home to earth to find a hundred years have gone by. Everyone he knew is dead and everything has changed…………………………… Croydon was recognizably the same, yet also completely changed.