Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Strange Air - A novel by Tom Brown

What is it about ruins that attract and fascinate us? As a child growing up in Hastings, I remember climbing over the garden wall at a friend's house, and pushing beyond the brambles and undergrowth, stumbling across a 'secret' garden. It was the overgrown remnants of a sunken Italianate garden, with terraces, dried up fountains and wisteria covered pergolas. I was immediately captivated, not just by its haunting beauty, but also by its mystery. I wanted to imagine how it would have once looked, and what had caused its decline. Though we usually think of ruins in terms of romantic castles or abbeys in remote rural locations, some extremely well documented remains lie right next to the Triangle. Of course, while the Crystal Palace itself was completely erased on that fateful night in 1936, the terraces with their grand staircases, sphinxes and headless statues, the ornate subway, and the circular bases of the water towers all remain, in varying states of decay. As with my earlier childhood discovery, the park, with its layers of history, has always drawn me. Over the years I've taken countless photographs, and what I've tried to capture, is a sense of strangeness and mystery. It's just not like other parks.

Pedestrian Lane - Taken from the now demolished bridge from the station.

Beneath the now demolished bridge.
Local author, Tom Brown, has also been inspired by the park, and in particular, by a mystery surrounding a piece of Victorian engineering known as the pneumatic railway. In the 1860s, engineer, Thomas Rammell chose the park as a location to test his air powered trains, which were literally sucked and blown through tubes, as a cleaner alternative to steam.  A tunnel was constructed between Sydenham and Penge gates, and the paying public were able to experience the two minute journey aboard a plush railway carriage. The line was for demonstration purposes and closed after a year, and details about it remain hazy. Subsequent attempts by Rammell to build a fully operational line, came to nothing, and the idea was soon forgotten. However, during the twentieth century, more than one story arose of people stumbling across the long buried tunnel and finding a carriage full of skeletons. This scenario forms the basis of Tom Brown's highly enjoyable novel: a gothic, time-travelling thriller. At first I have to confess I was sceptical about featuring a book on this site. After all, how would I illustrate it, it not being a shop, cafe, or even an artist's studio? Then it occurred to me that my old pics of the park, perfectly summon the mood of Tom's book.

Author, Tom Brown
Strange Air is the second novel Tom has written, and like the first, So Long Shakespeare, is self-published. Increasing numbers of writers are opting for this route, in the face of risk averse publishers. It was while walking through Sydenham woods with his fiancĂ© about 5 years ago, that they came across the tunnel mouth of the old Crystal Palace High Level Railway, and his fiancĂ©  happened to mention the legend of the skeletons in the railway carriage. After a bit of research, Tom knew that this had the potential to be the sort of story he'd want to read, and hence had to write. Aside from skeletons, trains powered by air, and time travel, the novel has at its heart, the palace and the park, of the past, present and future. So the timing of the book's publication could hardly be more apt, with the recent announcement by a Chinese billionaire, that he intends to rebuild the palace and restore the park. Tom is quite intrigued by the possibility of the palace rising again, but like many locals is also ambivalent. He remarks, " The park is so evocative perhaps precisely because of its (the palace's) absence."

At the entrance to one of the water towers.

Tom standing at a critical location in the book.
Strange Air is available at Bookseller Crow.
Tom will be giving a talk, and reading from the book, at Upper Norwood Joint Library on December 14th. The book is also available to borrow from the library.

Tom Brown's blog