November 17, 2007

The best railway station in the world

I prefer the US version of the TV comedy 'The Office', set in Scranton, PA, a town dubbed "armpit of America". I'm not so sure about "armpit"... these ex-industrial downtowns look and feel pretty copacetic when injected with a little life and love; Asheville, NC, for instance. The original 'The Office' is set in the English town of Slough, which you fly by 5 minutes before landing at Heathrow. Slough is an archetype of the British gift to the world known as "crap towns".
Come friendly bombs and fall on Slough!
It isn't fit for humans now,
There isn't grass to graze a cow.
Swarm over, Death!
Come, bombs and blow to smithereens
Those air -conditioned, bright canteens,
Tinned fruit, tinned meat, tinned milk, tinned beans,
Tinned minds, tinned breath....
'Slough' by John Betjeman (1937)

John Betjeman was a champion of Victorian architecture, when that style was despised as pastiche Gothic, obsolescent, fussy and unmodern, fit only for demolition to make space for '60's and '70's brutalism. Boy, was he ahead of his time.

He campaigned to save St Pancras, a decrepit Victorian railway station. Betjeman is dead. St Pancras is re-born as the London terminus of Eurostar, the 2 hour train service between London and Paris. St Pancras is said by the head of French rail to be possibly the best station in the world. Also 
St Pancras is gorgeous. Some of it is almost lickable.....St Pancras is Betjeman's. His statue stands in pride of place above the undercroft, a few steps away from the old booking office. A pointy bronze overcoat flaps behind him in the non-existent breeze, as he tips his head back to stare in awe and wonder at the magnificent ceiling. A swirl of poetry spins around his feet, with additional lines and verses etched into the paving slabs nearby. He looks both delighted and startled to be here, as do we who follow in his footsteps. We wouldn't be standing here today without him. There'd probably be a ghastly identikit office block on site by now had he not stepped in during the 1960s and raised his voice for posterity. Thank you Sir! 21st century London will be forever in your debt.

Next door, at King's Cross station, Hogwarts Express may depart from Platform 9 3/4 but Harry Potter fans will be fascinated to know that it is the stunning Victorian gothic architecture of St Pancras that is used in the films. St Pancras Station and St Pancras Chambers have also featured in Batman Begins......
in which movie St Pancras is the set for Arkham Asylum for the Criminally Insane.Like Grand Central Station, St Pancras is a grandiose meeting place, a heavenly setting for a champagne bar. Unlike Grand Central, the railway engineering is for glorying in. 

What a happy ending! This:

instead of this:
In labour-saving homes, with care
Their wives frizz out peroxide hair
And dry it in synthetic air
And paint their nails.

Come, friendly bombs and fall on Slough
To get it ready for the plough.
The cabbages are coming now;
The earth exhales.

Footnote: I just realized that 1937 was the year of the German bombing of Guernica in the Spanish Civil War, perceived as the symbol of terror bombing of civilians. Betjeman's sly poem of that year therefore is spiked with extra acid. As contrast note Picasso's painting of the bombing of Guernica, his most famous if emotionally fraudulent work: