Much of my life has been intertwined with St Pancras and its surrounds, although it might not really seem to have at first glance, being myself anchored for most of my childhood years in West London. It was only something I was contemplating whilst sat across the road from the station in the Euston Flyer enjoying a pint. St Pancras is a vast cathedral like structure, red and white brick and a clock tower, it is gothic and Victorian splendour, an edifice built when times were good and railways made statements about themselves and in London all met and vied for attention like preening Gods. It’s worth googling for images for those not familiar with it. It isn’t just the external fascia of the station but the cast iron and glass canopy that stretches across the platform evokes a bygone era where it was service and comfort that held sway over cost-cutting and ambivalence.
Superlatives of the station have been said before and doubtless will continue to be but where some of London’s termini have an element of nostalgia because of their association with heritage or purely their association with personal times in my life St Pancras is I think the only one that I love for itself and still stand for a few moments when my train arrives just to take it in. The station itself was in fact the last London terminus that I had caught a train from (not until my 30s) though I’ll grant you that is not an especially sparkling item of intelligence.
Some years ago St Pancras had fallen into some disrepair, nationalisation followed by re-privatisation had robbed any thoughts of the financial in the first instance and the aesthetic in the second. Indeed in the late 1960s it was apparently 10 days from demolition until John Betjeman led a campaign to save it. It is strange for me to hear just how hated it once was when soulless brutalist monstrosities were thriving and in many places continue to. Most of the main railway stations in London are but shadows of what they once commanded, eclipsed by buildings that are higher and more eye-catching (frequently for the wrong reasons) and then with added modern bits built purely for their functionality paying no heed to the original architecture or its possible significance. In this regard the rebuild of the glass canopy at St Pancras is an absolute masterpiece, intricately planned to fulfil both function and beauty, you really do just have to be there. There is no doubt in my mind that the great Betjeman would have sat and enjoyed it as he had the original.
Since I did not use the station until my 30s it was the area around it that had more influence on me. Here was the place where aged 4 and in the flat of my Mother’s then boyfriend, whilst they practised music, I got bored watching the trains go in and out of St. Pancras station and decided to walk home to Chelsea (as the crow flies around 4.5 miles). I knew the number 45 bus went past the station and also over Battersea Bridge which was near home, at that age the route and salubrity of the passing districts was of no consequence to me, I had no concept of it. Walking what I perceived to be long distances at the time did not phase me either, I did it frequently, usually when I was bored. (I had awoken my best friend’s mother one morning at 6am having walked the mile from my house because I had woken up and wanted to play). My excursion through the notorious King’s Cross and district in pursuit of the 45 was stopped by a pair of traffic wardens on the Grays Inn Road, much to my annoyance. They took me back to their base and bribed me with a packet of Refreshers. At which point I divulged our home telephone number and they rang my mother who had been in a state of high panic having been informed by her distraught boyfriend of my absence. These were the days without mobile phones so the search party was not able to be called off until some time later when a by then catatonic boyfriend rang to tell my mother that there had been no luck locating me. This was one of those times of more relief than anger and I escaped unscathed. I found out later when a parent myself why this was.
Euston the next London Terminus 500 yards down the road too has been linked to these early years, trains to Liverpool to visit family when I was young before my stepmother could drive coupled with frequent visits to the still favourite family restaurant since its opening 30 years ago. Such a post would not be complete with a plug for the Great Nepalese Restaurant, Eversholt st, a jewel in an otherwise very grubby crown of an area! Almost right next door to St Pancras is Kings Cross station where throughout the late 70s and early 80s we caught trains to St Neots to visit the two closest people I had to sisters, the younger of the girls being the goddaughter to my mother the older born 2 weeks before me someone I had known literally all of my life.
During these years there were regular trips to the Scala cinema, regarded now as something of a cult place when in its heyday, it had begun its life just up from Goodge Street in 1979 and moved to Kings Cross 2 years later. Looking back on it the Scala must have been a surreal experience for most children, they showed a lot of lesser seen films and childrens comic-like films. I no longer recall what I watched there but I remember the programs that promised eclectic all-night festivals back-to-back film marathons and the colours everywhere. The cinema was always quite dark and almost seedy feeling but not in an unpleasant way, more exciting. Had it been in Soho I imagine it would have seemed a fitting venue for a downmarket strip joint but here it wasn’t and I was unaware of the nature of the red light district of King’s Cross just up the road. I had been brought up on the Kings Road, so eclectic was practically something I had been born into, the Scala didn’t seem weird to me at all. I wish now I had kept the programs of the Scala in its pomp they would have made for quite fascinating reading and shown alternative London in its true form when the term alternative meant specifically not the mainstream rather than marginally leftfield versions of the norm as it is so often now. I lament the loss of the Scala, its present incarnation is not one I have visited for I know it cannot live up to any expectations and though hazy I would like the feeling of my memories of the place to remain intact.
The Maiden Lane estate just off York Way, up from Kings Cross was where some friends of my mothers lived whom we visited often. Their flat always interested me as these modern block were squat and stacked together, they had minimal windows on one side and big expansive ones in the sitting room through which you could look out on the whole area. 2000ad was in its early days and these were the flats and estates I imagined that Mega City One would be like. Back then such housing estates seemed innovative, and perhaps in fact were, there was for me no knowledge of crime, now I look at the estate and it is precisely the sort of place I would give a very wide berth. Camden Town has associations with Dingwalls market (now known as Camden Lock) and alternative music, the area that the real bohemians went after being priced out of the Kings Road, as they had been in the 60s from Carnaby St. (Where they have all gone now I couldn’t say, there is barely a part of London affordable these days)
I have been a participant of almost the entire life of a political party here, its fledgling conception in the Euston Friends meeting house, its founding convention in Camden Town Hall, its first congress, its finished constitution and its final capitulation into left-wing sectarianism. It was the dawn of hope and the dusk of despair and it sent me back to being an exiled activist. That set of events almost summed up the periods of time I had been here, as the exuberant youth boundless with enthusiasm, attacking with vigour, passion and no fear. As the adolescent with much of the verve but with more serious things on his mind, things that needed more thought and examination to fulfil dreams that remain lofty and ambitious. Then as the middle-aged man, shaped by so much of no consequence and in realising it and the time which has been spent on it turns inward upon himself looking for something to blame having failed to find someone. Now perhaps it is time for my brickwork to be cleaned, to be returned to the youth I was buoyed by the enjoyment of the fact that whilst so much has changed the majestic station remains as it has been, a beacon, for so many years.
Song Of The Day ~ The Strokes – Is This It