(R.68) Crystal Palace Campaign - Address to Dulwich College, south London, September 2001

Speech given by Philip Kolvin, Chairman of the Crystal Palace Campaign, to pupils at Dulwich College on Friday, 14 September 2001

I had my speech all planned for today.

I was going to start with a joke, impress you with the virility of the Crystal Palace Campaign, regale you with an account of its exploits, and bathe in the glow of the first major victory in years for a local environmental campaign.

But, I must confess, the events in the USA robbed me of my desire for all that. It is not a time for bravado, but for introspection and humility. I am not going to try to make you laugh at all. I am going to try to do something much more important. If I fail, please forgive me. It is my attempt to make sense of my place in a not so brave new world.

I am a barrister, and when I heard news of these profound events, I was plying my trade in a court in Nuneaton, working hard on behalf of a national bookmaker to prevent a rival bookmaker obtaining a licence in that town. Suddenly, the cut and thrust of the evidence, who offered the best odds on the 3.20 at Doncaster, whose slot machines paid out more, seemed trivial and irrelevant, and I did not want to go on. But then I realised. We had to go on. Why? Because here I was engaged in the system of justice, albeit in a small way, and at a time such as this, all who believe in the fundamental integrity of our democratic institutions must go on, to show that hatred and terror cannot win. In our tiny way, we were striking a blow for democracy.

What has all this got to do with Crystal Palace? The answer is a huge amount.

When one visits Crystal Palace Park, one cannot escape the feeling that "something important happened here." It is as though we are stumbling through the jungle and come across the remains of a great civilisation.

Look, there are the great stone sphinxes, gazing placidly over the muscular green landscape. There are the life-size dinosaurs, prowling the wetlands at the bottom of the park. Here are the vast terraces, displaying the monumentalism of Victorian architecture and supporting a gigantic ridge.

And you know what Shelley was getting at in his poem, when he described two vast and trunkless legs of stone, whose pedestal reads "look on my works ye mighty and despair. Nothing beside remains.

At Crystal Palace, nothing beside remains. One mounts the steps to the top of the park, expecting to be greeted by some jewel of landscape and architecture, and finds barbed wire, security guards, and scrubland.

What happened? How did a rural outpost of Surrey come to house the most exciting building of the Victorian era, and one of the most important ever built? And how could the site of this glory have faded into dereliction?

In 1851, the great and the good assembled to plan a building for the great exhibition, rather as Michael Heseltine and his colleagues sat to plan the Millennium Dome. Like them, they were singularly lacking in inspiration, and then Joseph Paxton turned up. He offered to build a building which would change the face of architecture for ever. No more stone, no more flying buttresses and mansard roofs. None of the gloomy, imposing shadows of neo-gothic architecture. His building would be the embodiment of technology in glass and iron, modular like a kit, and light as air. What is more he would do it in a matter of weeks.

He was as good as his word. Six million people came to Hyde Park in five months to see this wonder in glass. Consider that. This was a Victorian England with a fraction of today's population and without sophisticated transport networks. It was more than came to the Dome in 12 months. Its profits funded the V&A, the Science Museum, the Natural History Museum and the Albert Hall.

People were amazed by the building, disoriented inside it because one could not even see the sides. It symbolised the confidence of England in the Victorian era and Punch christened the building the Crystal Palace.

The building inspired poetry. Thackeray visited and wrote: a blazing arch of lucid glass leaps like a fountain from the grass to meet the sun.

Queen Victoria opened the building and wept. While we view her as a stern and unemotional woman, she recorded in her diary that the orchestra filled me with devotion, more than any service I have ever heard."

She said that this is a building which unites the industry of all nations of the earth.

The Crystal Palace seemed to reflect our aspirations to brotherhood amongst nations. Tennyson, picked up this theme, when he wrote of the Queen: She brought a vast design to pass when European and the scattered ends of our fierce world did meet as friends and brethren in her halls of glass."

The idea of architecture as technology started with the Crystal Palace. It found its apotheosis in the World Trade Centre. These high-tech buildings did more than accommodate people. They came to symbolise the aspirations of human kind. Neither survives.

The Crystal Palace moved here in 1854, and stood at the head of the greatest Victorian Park. It was the first municipal park to have flowers in it. It benefited from the astonishing water engineering of Brunel, whose water towers fuelled waterfalls, fountains, lakes and streams, with seven million gallons of water pumped through the park every hour, and it threw jets into the air higher than Nelson's Column.

For decades Crystal Palace was at the centre of the cultural life of the nation. The Tsar was a frequent visitor. Pisarro painted it.

Zola, on the run from France after the Drefyus affair lived in this area. When he visited, a special fireworks show was mounted, which included a fire portrait of Zola with the motto "welcome".

30,000 people saw (Handel's) Messiah here. It was the home of ballooning, the Cup Final, motor racing and much else besides. Baird even worked here on his telly.

In the austerity of the great depression its glory faded.

But, its architectural magnificence remained, and one writer described how, when the millions of panes caught the setting sun, it became an object of coruscating brilliance.

But never was the Palace more coruscatingly brilliant than the night in 1936 when it burned to the ground. The fire was watched from as far away as Brighton.

Churchill was passing on his way from the Commons to Chartwell. As Victoria wept when the building opened, so Churchill wept in front of the flames. He said that he was mourning the passing of an era.

The London News Chronicle said that the building had been built for the promotion of universal happiness and brotherhood, to summon all nations to the peaceful field of a noble competition where all might strive who could do most to embellish, improve and elevate their common humanity."

On the very same day, the paper reported that German troops had landed in Spain. It was, indeed, the end of an era.

We wind the clock forward 50 years. It is 1986. The park is in the hands of the Greater London Council, whose leader is a young firebrand called Ken Livingstone.

In 1986, we find Ken fighting for the right of Londoners to cheap, safe tube travel, fares fair, but his policy is challenged in the courts by the London Borough of Bromley, who get his policy quashed. He never forgives them. He enrages the Sun by expressing solidarity for the people of Nicaragua who were trying to carve out a democracy while being attacked by terrorists funded and trained by the CIA. And, fatally, he annoys Margaret Thatcher by putting a huge banner across county hall showing the number of people unemployed, so that Thatcher would need to look at it from across the river at the House of Commons.

So, half a century after the Palace burns down, the GLC is abolished, and the Park, which Ken loves, is passed to his arch-rivals the London Borough of Bromley.

Bromley never consult local people as to what should happen to the Park, but formulate the plan to maximise revenue from it, by building on the site of the great palace the biggest multiplex cinema in the south. The highest tree lined ridge in London will be razed to the ground, and in its place, the largest rooftop car park in the British Isles, a grandiose homage to the motorcar for the 21st century. Somehow, one did not believe that this building reflected the aspirations of humanity as its forebear had. If it was a testament to how far we had come, it was a depressing one.

But Bromley had not reckoned on the passion generated by the Palace. 40,000 people signed petitions against this scheme, and a campaign was formed. Soon after, I was asked to become its chairman, and we started a programme of legal challenges, in the High Court, the Court of Appeal, the House of Lords and further into Europe. We marched, lobbied and picketed. By dint of sheer effort, we elevated this into a national story.

We neglected our families and our private lives to fight for this cause. In my home, there are 70 lever arch files of material, the fruits of our efforts in attacking the scheme.

Sometimes, our efforts seemed absurd, even to us. Here we were devoting years of our lives, unpaid, to protect 12 acres of scrubland. More Amazon rain forest is lost through the effects of globalisation every minute.

But there is a much more important principle at stake.

The Battle of Hastings was not fought over Hastings, any more than the Battle of Bosworth Field was fought over that few acres of land.

No, we were fighting for a principle. That local people have a right to play a full role in the future of their environmental assets. Sure, it is an environmental right. The EC Treaty tells us so. But more than that. It is a fundamental democratic right. In our tiny way, we were striking a blow for democracy.

I hate the desecration being perpetrated in the Amazon. I hate President Bush's proposals to tear up the precious Alaskan habitats in the search for fossil fuels. But I cannot do much about it. But here, in Crystal Palace, I can fight till I drop to preserve the democratic right of Londoners to have a say in the future of their open space. And because I can, I will.

It struck me as odious, offensive, that here was a developer governed by offshore funds in Guernsey, owned by anonymous people. Here was a cinema operator ruled by an American corporation owned by a still bigger French one. Who should decide the future of the park, those vast faceless global conglomerates whose motive is profit, and who owe no allegiance to history, the environment or the local community, or local people who know, love and use this park? I knew which I preferred.

But how far were we prepared to go in defence of our park?

No sooner had the campaign begun than profound issues arose. Eco-warriors occupied the site, and the Council implied that we would be liable for the costs of eviction, running into millions, unless we denounced them. What to do? Suddenly, two of my committee were wrongly sued by Bromley Council. A 78-year-old woman was sued for bringing a bread pudding to the eco-warriors. The Council went on telly to say that anyone who expressed support for them would also be sued.

This was all a howling outrage. Passions ran high. Then, the eco-warriors approached us for money to build their tunnels. And we had to ask ourselves how far would we go to preserve democracy.

It became clear to me that a fight for community, for the right to self-determination, a right to a decent environment, these are all democratic rights. But even if the acts of the opposition are undemocratic or, worse still, unlawful, they must be fought by legal and democratic means. Otherwise, democracy has no future.

So I forbade the use of community money for unlawful ends, and declared that the campaign would use only lawful means in its fight. Although this displeased some of our allies, I felt, and still feel, that it was the right thing to do. Even though we were taking on global conglomerates and a local authority which wished us nothing but harm, democracy is too precious a jewel to lose in the fight.

At every stage of the fight, a small old woman appeared and tugged at my sleeve. She said you will win because God has decreed it.

Well as the whirligig of time brings in its revenges, so God made Ken L the Mayor of London. As well as fighting for the right of Londoners to travel cheaply and safely, he was also tickled at the idea of fighting with his old enemy Bromley over the fate of the park which had been cruelly snatched from his grasp in 1986.

So, he joined with us in opposing the application for licences for 14 pubs and, amazingly, the Bromley Magistrates upheld our opposition. The building was aborted in the womb, and in May we celebrated a victory which the Guardian called staggeringly impressive. Delighted as we were for ourselves and our community, there was a wider significance. It told environmentalists across the country that there is a purpose to all this. You don't win often, but you do win sometimes, and you can make a difference.

Bromley has not learned from its mistakes. It still will not talk to us. But we feel that it is time to drive the debate forward and bring about a genuine consultation as to the future of the Park. So we have distributed 50,000 questionnaires across the five boroughs surrounding the park.

But I am adamant that young persons in our community should have a key role in determining the future of the park. You have more years to enjoy the park than the elderly, and you have needs which you are entitled to express and have respected. I guess most of you are not old enough to vote. But you are citizens, and it seems to me axiomatic that your views should be given as much credence as anyone else's.

The questionnaire calls on you to make some sensitive judgements. Should the site of the Palace be built on at all? If so, what building could do justice to the history of the site, and its topographical prominence on the London skyline? Why should any building not be placed in a town centre such as London, Beckenham or Croydon, rather than in our fast diminishing open space? When the Palace was built, you could ride to it across common land from the centre of London. Now, the site is an oasis of green space in an urban agglomeration. Should there be community facilities or should we try to make something of wider importance? Should we merely explore the archaeology of the site and mark out its perimeter for those who love the history of the building? Should it be a sculpture park, a garden of the senses for the blind, or a huge playground for the young? Should it be horticultural, accommodating greenhouses, palm houses, butterfly houses? Or should it be a museum of technology, or architecture or horticulture? What will it look like on the London skyline? Will we regret our decision in 10 years, or in 50? These are not questions you can answer in five minutes. I want you to take these questionnaires away and give them your serious thought.

When you return them, your views will be read, analysed and published. And then we will set about campaigning to make sure that the park is regenerated in the way the community as a whole wants. You know that Stage 1 of the Campaign has worked. The multiplex has been stopped. Now it is stage 2, to deliver what the community wants. Please, help us to help you to get the park you want.

Your participation in this matters very much. By participating in a democratic process, you help to reaffirm democracy itself.

In our campaign, confronted with the aggressive demands of global capital, we eschewed recourse to illegal acts and worked within the democratic process.

Our complaint was that the tone and texture of our local community, the resonance of our history, was to be obliterated by a U.S. inspired conception of entertainment, which had nothing to do with us, or our park, or our environment. We actually used the words "cultural imperialism".

Of course, our concerns were negligible compared to the grievances which certain nations and people on this earth believe they have against the United States of America. This is something of which the U.S.A. is fully aware. In May, Colin Powell said this to the U.S. Senate: "Terrorism is part of the dark side of globalisation. However sadly, it is part of doing business in the world &endash; business we as Americans are not going to stop doing."

Norman Mailer precisely identified the phenomenon only yesterday. He said "Large parts of the world see us as cultural oppressors and aesthetic oppressors. We come in and insist on establishing enclaves of our food there, like McDonalds. A lot of people resent us profoundly. All they have is their roots, and this is taken away. America is doing that. Until America realises the damage it is doing by insisting that that way of life, the huge profit-making way of life, is not necessarily a good fit for most countries, we are going to be in trouble. We are going to be the most hated nation on earth."

We have seen appalling riots against globalisation in the last year in London, in Seattle, in Genoa. The attack on WTC was a conspicuous assault on the symbol of global capital. Obviously, the perpetrators believed fervently in their cause. They almost certainly believe that globalisation, whose very definition implies that domestic government is transcended, is a threat to democracy. But here is the rub: their actions were an affront to democracy.

How the infernal struggle between globalisation and terrorism will play out is something I cannot tell. But this much I know. Every time you take the trouble to visit the polling booth and place an x against a candidate, you strike a blow for democracy. Every time you do some work in your community, or for it, you strike a blow for democracy. And every time you stand shoulder to shoulder with your colleagues and march for what you believe to be right, you strike a blow for democracy. It is through an accretion of tiny acts that we will defeat hatred and terror.

Through the four years of our campaign, one thought has stuck in my head. It is a prayer by the America protest singer Woody Guthrie. It goes: "O Sacred world. We pledge to keep you free from war, from hate, from selfish cruelty. And here, in our small corner, we plant a tiny seed. And it will grow in beauty, to shame the face of greed."

I cannot stop human beings visiting appalling destruction on their fellow human beings by using a commercial airliner as a weapon of war.

But I can plant a tree. I am doing it now, by asking you to put a tick in a box, so that we can work together to plan the future of our great historic park. If you do so, you reaffirm democracy and repudiate hatred. You are the bright lights of your generation. It is your world now. It's the only one you've got. Use it wisely.

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19/9/01 last updated 19/9/01;8/10/01(typos);22/10/01(heading corrected)