- Words by Mollie Farley, main photo by Caro Swan.
“Our family home was in North Norfolk but I was never going to stay there. Never. I had this amazing, inspirational Aunt - Auntie Peggy - who always lived in London and we would come every year and stay with Auntie Peggy and go to shows and museums and I decided that that’s where I’d be living. I love crowds, busyness - I love being around people. We came here thirty-seven years ago, and I’m going nowhere. Every time I go on the train over the Thames I look and think ‘I live in the best place in the world’.”
Meet Jane Martin: Crofton Park’s local legend; Mother; Patron of independent business; Deputy Director of Brockley Max; blogger; passionate Remainer and the woman behind @JaneCanDoSE4. This August will mark her thirtieth year living in Crofton Park and she’s easy to spot when I arrive for our meeting at Parlez in Brockley. She’s the one chatting to just about everyone in the café. It’s a beautiful sunny day and we take a seat outside, it really is Jane in her natural habitat: a bright and breezy Southeast London parade, waxing lyrical about her love of all things local.
I ask her what she thinks when people say that London can be quite an isolating place, in spite of how busy and full of people it is. What’s her secret?
“I think I’m someone that does make quite an effort with businesses, people, I have two children and schools are great places to build connections. But I do think that this part of London, and a lot of people that move here agree that it is quite unique, the sense of community. Local businesses are very much a part of our community and we passionately support our local independent businesses, we go and use them, well I certainly do, eat, drink, shop as much as I can. There’s so much going on, festivals, events that bring us together to see people again and build connections. Lewisham I think has one of the highest number of street parties, certainly as a London borough, it actively promotes street parties. This year will be our street’s ninth street party, and it’s quite a busy road so when they close it all down for the party with all the kids, everyone’s got to know each other really well. I mean I know all my neighbours probably up to sixty houses. So I would say that our pocket of Southeast London absolutely is like a kind of village, and I kind of think that sums it up.”
Lewisham Street Parties: then (1953) and now.
Determined to follow in her Auntie Peggy’s footsteps, young Jane set herself up in London - taking a job in a bar in Euston to pay off her overdraft of a mere £200 (!). “I worked in a bar by Euston Station, I’ve done quite a lot of bar work, it really suits my personality being behind a bar...I really wanted to go into housing, because I did a degree in social administration so I wanted to work in a housing association but without experience I went and did some voluntary work at St. Mungo’s which is a single, homeless men’s hostel and I took some qualifications in housing law and suddenly I began to get interviews, so really my first and only career was working for London and Quadrant housing trust which is a housing association in Lee Green and really that was where I worked for ten years.”
Originally formed in 1963 when 37 people invested £2 each to create a housing association, L&Q is now the largest landlord in Greater London, managing over 70,000 homes. Once her son was born, Jane didn’t go back into full time employment, and started to have more time to get involved with projects in the local community. He’s twenty-one now, and studying Physics, while her daughter, twenty-eight, has moved to South Norwood.
So where does her passion for local businesses come from?
“I’ve had time to go in and get to know them, I’ve become fascinated by businesses surviving - why some do and some don’t. It really is quite tough out there. I think I’ve worked out that the secret to a good local business is them being really friendly, passionate about the business and what they sell or what they do, flexible - they change and do different things - and that they sell a good product at a reasonable price.”
Jane is an avid user of her South London Club card, her favourite business to use it with is The Proud Sow, her local butcher in Crofton Park, though she says “most of the businesses I use do have a discount so it’s great!”
She describes the changes to the area since she first moved here as ‘huge’. When we moved to Crofton Park there was nothing that I can remember that was significant on the high street, there was nowhere we could drink or eat. There’s been a lot of changes. Significantly the first place that really opened up on Crofton Park was Mr. Lawrence's Wine Bar just over 25 years ago,” her voices pitches upwards with regret, “and it sadly closed on Saturday. That’s kind of the end of an era because that changed our high street. Suddenly we had somewhere to go with decent wine, they did amazing food. When it first opened and for the first five years it was absolutely heaving every single night, there was no choice - but it was a good choice! It was heaving and smoke filled. Then we began to have choices because the Brockley Jack pub was refurbished, you wouldn’t have gone in there before, but it has probably been around as a good option for about fifteen years, with the Brockley Jack theatre attached to it, which is one of my absolute favourite places. Now on that high street we have four very decent chouces and some lovely cafés - we have Arlo and Moe, Fred’s, Longhorn, the Malaysian Deli. I think every pocket of the immediate postcodes to me have begun to have businesses that are good. And I think now a lot of people now don’t necessarily stay up town, they come home to actually drink and eat, whereas previously they would have stayed up town because there was no choice where they lived.”
What would she like to see in the area?
“I think we haven’t become totally saturated but we’re nearly there. We’re never going to be East Dulwich, which I’m happy about because I can get overwhelmed by the choice there, we’ve enough good choice. The one area that I would say is a bit sad and needs a boost is what I call ‘midtown Brockley’, they’ve got Brockley Rock which is fantastic, Brickfield’s Bar which has opened up but there’s quite a lot of empty units. So I think we could have two or three businesses along there for a nighttime economy. I think there might be something happening because we’ve got the Brockley Mess which was a great café that shut down a couple of months ago and I’m hoping someone exciting’s going to move in - watch this space!”
Jane is, as anyone who follows her will tell you, extremely active on Twitter and it has clearly helped her establish her voice in the local area. She tells me a little about her Twitter career:
“I started Twitter about five years ago because I was writing blogs (you can read them here) and I realised no one really knew I had posted a blog because I was posting them on a community website so someone suggested I try Twitter. The first few years I built up followers gradually and I think particularly the last few years as I’ve posted more I’ve built up more followers. I think I’ve learned how to tweet quite successfully, which has amused and amazed my two children, I have physics graduates from my son’s university follow me! It’s become a friend to me, Twitter, I mean I think there’s a danger of being addicted to social media, and I’ve got to admit to a certain level of addiction to Twitter - I don’t use anything else - but I’ve made some amazing friends over Twitter that I’ve met in real life. I go on every morning between 7am and 9am and have read through, re-tweet and write my own stuff, and I do think I’ve built up a following of people that know I know a lot about local businesses, that I use the businesses so they take note of what I say. I try to be really positive because I certainly feel that I have no right whatsoever for a small business to ever be really negative on Twitter because I have got a following. I haven’t felt happy I will message the person directly, I won’t post something that might have a negative impact on that business.”
Sadly, she says, Twitter seems to have slightly lost its appeal - with many of her followers now basically inactive. Businesses, she says, seem to get on better with Instagram. But there is one saving grace: “I don’t know if you know about this generation of ‘digital mums’ they’re called, that have sort of come onto Twitter and do campaigns and actually that’s really helped, having them - they’re really good and they’ve helped to regenerate Twitter for us locally. There’s a lot of local businesses that do rely on it and I just think you can’t beat it for passing on information and dates for the diary.”
And as a local business champion, what advice does she have for those that are just starting out, particularly in their use of social media?
“The one thing I would say for businesses is that you can’t just isolate yourself, you’ve got to show that you can connect with the community, so share information from other local businesses, local festivals and events - it’s not all about you! Someone like Bottle Bar in Catford has done exactly that, they’ve become part of this amazing Catford community, there’s a great group that do really support each other and they’ve got a business that is exactly what I said - flexible, has really unique products, they’re passionate and some of the friendliest people you could meet.”
At the moment, most of Jane’s time is consumed with organising Brockley Max; she’s responsible for securing advertising and sponsorship. She says that her rapport with local businesses and her reputation as well as that of Brockley Max makes the task considerably easier, as businesses know it will get them lots more publicity to be featured. She started working with the festival five years ago, as a volunteer, and is deeply encouraging of others to do the same: “There are opportunities like this across lots of areas in the borough really. I know not everyone has the confidence to go on their own, they may need to go with a mate, but hopefully if you’re going along as a volunteer I would hope that you’re made to feel very welcome and valued.”
And what can we expect from Brockley Max this year?
I’m really excited to see the programme but I know that there are 75+ quality events that last over nine days and there’s everything from poetry to lots of music, art, photography, comedy. There’s a lot of different things in lots of venues. There’s opening night that’s just round the corner, the street gets closed for live music from 4:30 to 10:30. Then we have a big film night where local film makers can submit a short film that are always of really high standard. Most events are free, that’s a really important ethos of the festival that it’s accessible and then we have an amazing finale called family day up at Hilly Fields called ‘Art in the Park’. It’s really exciting and I just block out the whole time and go madly every night to at least two or three things and tweet about it!”
Some scenes from previous years at Brockley Max
Jane’s main source of income at the moment is Airbnb, “I really enjoy it because you meet lots of people from around the world, I have a great loft space where my daughter was living. I mean they’re not all tourists by any means, a lot of them are here for work or are visiting their children at Goldsmith’s College.”
So what’s next for this local powerhouse? A well earned break perhaps? She grins at me - nothing of the sort:
“I’m going to be sixty in the next year and I’ve never looked forward to something as much as I’m looking forward to the free transport so I can race around. I’m writing a blog as we speak that will probably get posted next week which I always do about the summer events, so I look forward to being part of them. I do a stained glass course every friday morning, I play tennis every Tuesday down at Catford. I will come nearly every day, without fail two or three times a week I am having coffee or lunch - on my own often - I don’t have a problem at all being alone, catching up on paperwork. I read, I’m not the best reader but I’m in a book group so I try and read a book once a month. I have a lovely life!"
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