Thursday, 10 November 2011

'C'est jolie, la gare!'

There’s nothing very pretty about King’s Cross and St Pancras. Not if you leave out St Pancras Station itself, a Victorian confection narrowly saved for the nation and now the proud terminal for Eurostar. Yes, there are the caryatids holding up the eaves of St Pancras Parish Church, and there’s the other parish church, way back beyond King’s Cross where Mary Shelley lies buried. Other than that, and before the promised redevelopment which will alter its character forever, this part of London remains seedy and rough around the edges.

If you’re coming by rail from the Midlands or the North it’s the part you come to first and it’s probably the part I know best. I spent three weeks poring over prints in The British Museum during the summer of 1981. I sussed out the greasy-spoons of Bloomsbury, Holborn and Soho, but gravitated towards the leafy suburbs and distant Putney and Richmond to visit friends. I even got in with a charismatic ‘house-church’ and was baptised in the Thames. And I’m still alive to tell the tale.

It was lonely back then. I’m told it still is. Yet I met an old lady in a Methodist church who remembered the Coronation of King Edward VII and the cafe owners were always up for a chat.

That part of London is packed with education. Birkbeck, SOAS, UCL, University of London – they all seem to be jostling each other across the Georgian squares of Bloomsbury and into the surrounding streets. There’s a lot more there besides, umpteen language schools, the headquarters of all kinds of institutes and organisations, UNISON, the BMA, the United Reformed Church ...

I stayed in a hall of residence on Tavistock Square back in ’81 and have been back many times since for meetings at Universities UK, for seminars and presentations, both as a delegate and as a presenter. There are all manner of associations, not least the site of the bus bombing on Upper Woburn Place during the 7/7 attacks.

Where possible, I’ll stay with friends on London trips, out at Richmond or Wimbledon. It’s not always practical nor fair to prevail upon them though. So I’ll seek out ‘budget accommodation’ around King’s Cross. Budget being the operative word. I’m not fussy but it can be grim, grim, grim ...

Even so, I’ll miss it when they’ve gentrified and smartened it all up. St Pancras Station blooms terrifically – despite its ersatz public art – between the two thorns of Euston and King’s Cross. The British Library is a source of wonder. The iconic gas-holders, recently removed (bar one, I believe) always welcomed you back.

Will these architectural delights remain as impressive once they’ve desanitised it all?

‘C’est jolie, la gare!’ the French tourist observed to her boyfriend as she turned to look back at the Eurostar terminal as they crossed the road into the wilderness.

- You can read details about a presentation I gave during my latest visit to London on my business blog.

And don't forget to check out the latest poems on The Leopard.

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