Crystal Palace Vistas

Roger Hutchings. The Book Guild Ltd 1999. £10.95.

This is the most unhelpfully titled book one could fear to meet. The Crystal Palace is the subject of perhaps six of the hundred pages, and except for some anecdotes about the tower lift man, those few pages add little that is new. The choice of this misleading title, presumably for commercial reasons, is doubly unfortunate, as it will disappoint any Crystal Palace enthusiasts who buy the book, and any students of South Norwood history who overlook it. For this is essentially an account of growing up on the borders of South Norwood and Woodside in the early 1920’s. As such it is full of sociological interest and potentially of some historical value.

Mr Hutchings lived at 32 Dundee Road (off Portland Road) from 1915 until 1925, his first ten years. The upwardly mobile family, originally from the East End, then moved across the railway lines to Pagehurst Road, on the Woodside/Addiscombe borders, where:-

‘Our sitting-room became the lounge, dinner moved from midday to evening, the Daily Mail was superseded by the Daily Telegraph, and my parents gave up whist and took to bridge’.

Mr Hutchings is sharp on geographical snobbery, defining Anerley as ‘an attitude of mind rather than a place: it is where many residents of Penge prefer to claim as their address’. He gives a vivid account of South Norwood in the years between 1918 and 1925, paying particular attention to the strange religious sects that flourished there, and to the larger than life shopkeepers of Portland Road and the High Street. All this would be excellent historical material if one could only rely upon its accuracy. But unfortunately Mr Hutchings has mixed up real and imaginary names in a most perplexing way. There is no harm in a writer fictionalising his life story, as long as it clear that this is what he is doing, but to begin by using real names and then gradually introduce false ones can only lead to misunderstanding and general loss of trust.

As an example, Mr Hutchings describes a walk up South Norwood Hill with his grandfather:

‘The prospect seemed daunting as we crossed the High Street to begin the climb, but he reassured me by saying that we would be paying a call and taking a rest about halfway up … The address we were visiting was called Polygon House. Its occupant was Colonel Saville, retired from the Indian Army with the loss of an arm on a tiger shoot, and a local councillor.

There is no trace of a Polygon House in or around South Norwood Hill, or any Col. Saville on the council, or even as a resident in Norwood.

The most lively and substantial section of the book deals with a mixed private school attended by Mr Hutchings, which he names Lister House. When he began there in 1922 he says that it was run by a Miss Balfour. ‘Miss Smith taught the second term pupils, and her sister, Young Miss Smith, had charge of the little ones.’ After a term Lister House was taken over by the dashing Captain Alastair Cassidy, MC, DSO, MA (Cantab), who made a great impression on the school with his ‘ability to enthuse interest in everything he taught’, before being unmasked as an imposter and fleeing to Brighton. Again, there is no trace of a Lister House, but at 65 Birchanger Road was Chester House School, which was run by Miss Barber until 1922, and by Captain Logan until 1927. Luckily this school was inspected in 1924, when it was found to have 121 pupils, 50 boys and 71 girls. The proprietor was Captain Edward M. Logan, B.A. (Hons. Cantab), B.Sc., and his staff included Miss M Smith and Miss L Smith. The report is enthusiastic about ‘the inspiring guidance of the Principal’.

It seems likely that Lister House is based upon Chester House, and it would be valuable to have such an intimate account of the life and work of Chester House as is provided here. But if the names have been changed, how can the reader feel any confidence that the other details are accurate? There is a circumstantial story of Captain Cassidy’s adopted son running amok among the school girls like the mad king of Spain among the maids of honour. Is it true? Only Mr Hutchings can say. In fact Crystal Palace Vistas can only be rescued from the dubious field of historical fiction if Mr Hutchings is willing to provide a key to the true people and places he has described under false names.

In view of the critical remarks made by the reviewer the publishers were asked for their comments. They replied: ‘Our author really has no comment to make other than the names were changed to avoid possible distress or embarrassment to living survivors or descendants. In some cases he remembered the persons but not their names, but whether they are real names or pseudonyms is irrelevant to their role in the context of social history’.

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