Don't mention the `C' word

Culture has come to Croydon. Adrian Turpin celebrates

prepare to examine your prejudices. In London today, an exhibition of 80 works by Pablo Picasso opens to the public. Picasso is one of the undisputed masters of 20th-century art. Despite this, you probably won't have read about it in the papers, seen it on The Late Show or heard it on the radio; and if you've seen one of the ads on the Tube, you're likely to have been surprised. Picasso in CROYDON? Croydon, the drab commuter town with the highest home repossession rate in Britain. The "gateway to the South", whose biggest crowd-puller to date has been its B&Q superstore. The Saxons' "valley where wild saffron grows", now host to some of the most carbuncular architecture in the country. (It is rumoured that Betjeman originally wrote: "Come friendly bombs and fall on Croydon", but found that Slough was an easier rhyme.) Even the title of the exhibition, "Cock and Bull Stories", suggests a touch of self-referential humour. Picasso's Croydon period? It's a fantasy worthy of Alexei Sayle.

Except, that is, it happens to be true. The "Picasso Bestiary", a themed exhibition detailing the artist's many depictions of animals, launches the final stage of the Croydon Clocktower Development - an ambitious project to put some soul (and cash) into Croydon. The building itself, a Riba award-winning adaptation of the Grade II listed Victorian town hall (all white steel supports, curved surfaces and glass walls), looks a million dollars (£30m, actually). It contains one of the most hi-tech libraries in Britain, a first-rate gallery space, a shop, caf, cinema and a museum of local history. As a human-scale response to the draughty voids of the Fairfield Halls down the road, it promises much. That said, there's no getting away from the image problem.

"When we did the market research we found that the words `history', `museum' and `Croydon' were all turn-offs," says Sally MacDonald, who set up the museum. The market researchers themselves (registering the public's distaste from the comfort of Mortlake) wrote "Croydon is a hollow place" and "Croydon does not motivate".

It's understandable, then, that the museum is not called a museum (it's called "Lifetimes"); that it employs touchscreen, multimedia CD-i terminals; that its collection of objects, borrowed from local people, throws together traditional history with a more idiosyncratic view of the past.

Which is to say, you can discover that: "At the beginning of the century, the Croydon film industry was well-known in Britain, long before the studios existed in Hollywood." (Stick that in your pipe and smoke it, Steven Spielberg.) But also that Ray Burns, of South Norwood (aka Captain Sensible), "joined The Damned after he met the drummer in the Fairfield Hall, where he worked as a toilet cleaner".

A strange kind of history, the Lifetimes approach cunningly uses the town's perceived lack of heritage to its advantage. The Captain provides the voices for the cartoon crow that narrates the guide (is this what's meant by the punk revival?), and exhibits include John Salako's football boots, McDonald's packaging and a condom demonstrator. Croydon's essential Croydonness has never been better celebrated.

For the Picasso show's organisers, the `C' word has, however, been more of a problem. One man questioned by market researchers assumed that, this being Croydon, the art works could only be photocopies; and while Europeans were happy to lend works ("No one in Europe knows the Croydon situation," says the exhibition organiser, Karen Mann), some British collectors were more reluctant to consign their treasures to south London. So what if the borough has fostered talent as diverse as Malcolm Muggeridge, Kate Moss and Ronnie Corbett. In the public imagination, Croydon and culture do not mix.

One more obstacle stands in the way of the Clocktower. If the town's image is not cause enough for concern, there's the problem of getting people to traipse out to this "mini-Manhattan" (as the Sixties hype called it). "I don't know how many people from Islington will come and see it," MacDonald says, and this may well determine the project's success. Can the Clocktower prosper without visitors from central London? It deserves to. The building's mixture of highbrow and lowbrow, educational and commercial appeal is as judiciously balanced as its blend of old and new architecture. But everything depends on Croydon re-inventing itself in the public's minds. Can such a thing be done? If not, Croydonians may find a white elephant grazing in "the valley where wild saffron grows".

`Cock and Bull Stories: A Picasso Bestiary' opens today at Croydon Clocktower, Katharine St, Croydon CR9 1ET. Admission £4.50 (concs £2.50). To 14 May

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