Jonathan Reid: Purley, “where deaf people go to die”

Posted on March 1, 2012

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Following a recent news story, I tweeted a joke that some people might see as being in poor taste, but is vital to this article, so bear with me…

“One in three Disabled people live in poverty. And one in three Deaf people live in Purley”.

It was one of those deaf in-jokes. You’d have to live somewhere south of London to get it. An interpreter retweeted me: “So true!” But a hearing resident (one of those community minded types who had ‘Purley’ on search) contacted me directly to ask “What’s the punchline?”.

That is the punchline. A lot of Deaf people do happen to live in Purley, (which sort of rhymes with poverty) and a lot of them are my friends.

Purley is a town in Surrey, south of London. It’s on the Brighton train line, between East Croydon and Gatwick. The A23 cuts through the town. Although it’s a suburban town, it’s got plenty of green space too. To get a feeling for the place, check out this video…

A survey a few years ago found that some of the UK’s wealthiest residents live in Purley (as well as that bloke from Status Quo). That wealth index confirmed Purley’s inherent poshness. Indeed, the local sign for Purley is to flick your index finger against the underside of your nose, as if to say ‘stuck-up’, or posh.

But that’s by the by. Purley is a ‘Deaf town’. I don’t mean a town where Deaf people of all trades work, live and play. That’d be like a surreal version of Trumpton. It’s not a place with a long Deaf tradition like Derby, or a city stronghold (Bristol, Glasgow) but it’s where a lot of Deaf people living in London seem to end up.

If we’re being specific, not all Deaf residents live in Purley. There’s nearby Caterham. Kenley. But they’re close enough to be lumped in together as ‘the Purley lot.’ Or ‘the ‘Purley mob’.

When Christmas comes around, just a small number of the Deaf Purleyites can take over a whole restaurant for their annual meal. I’m invited as a friendly outsider – on condition that I take the awkward corner seat.

The centre of the town is dominated by a large roundabout, on which is sited a large Tesco store. If you shop there for long enough on any given night of the week, it’s guaranteed you’ll bump into a Deaf person. One local girl even works on the tills. Why play the Deaf card when you can use your Clubcard?

Purley is chiefly famous for being the setting for the BBC’s 1970s sitcom Terry and June. Check out the opening credits if you were born too late to remember the show…

This cosy, middle-class set-up extends to its Deaf residents of today. When visiting one time, I asked some of its residents why they chose Purley as their home.

“It’s handy”, one chap responded. There’s houses, ample shopping and good travel options”.
“But you could say the same about Croydon”, I replied in turn.
“Oh no, not Croydon”, his friend injected. “Purley’s… nicer “.

The others nodded in silent agreement. I briefly wondered if there was some sort of Purley code.

These “good travel options” lead some to believe that Purley is a Deaf town because it’s the last stop before you leave London Travelcard Zone 6. And once you’re out of Zone 6, you can’t use your Freedom Pass. It’s like Purley is the last outpost, the Deaf frontier. If you’re a stranger riding into town, hitch your horse at Wetherspoon’s.

“We’re Deaf, we know where everyone else lives, but we do give each other space and privacy”, one long-term resident assured me. And why wouldn’t we all want this?

I’m reminded of a Deaf couple who thought it’d be a hoot to live in a block of flats in Nottingham purposely built for Deaf residents. The novelty quickly wore off. People were forever knocking on their door. Upon moving out they realised that they were missing several items ‘borrowed’ down the years by their neighbours.

I don’t know why Deaf Londoners choose to live in Purley. Maybe it’s just happenstance. Family ties. They found a job in London, dated someone local, got married, then don’t move.

They’re nearly all couples in Purley. Nice couples. Nice middle class couples.

“It’s where Deaf people go to die”, a single friend once remarked, rather cruelly. But guess where he’s considering moving to, now that he’s a family man?

Jonathan Reid is an occasional comedy writer and director who tweets as @DeafComedy. He lives in South London, 12 minutes away from Purley on the train.