St Pancras again, this bizarre, uber-Gothic, 19th-century hotel towering above a railway station, and over the ancient London district it is named for. The longer you look at St Pancras, the stranger it is, an architectural form tending to the geological, terraced roof-lines, gargoyles and stalactites rising layer on layer.
Like all the grandest Victorian follies, it was within a farthing’s width of being demolished, for decades. But for decades it was simply too big to pull down; no one would put up the money in the post-WWII years. By the time it was possible, a heritage movement had sprung up, a mix of eccentrics and enthusiasts of the Victorian Society. Sydney’s heritage was saved by the Communist Builders Labourers’ Federation; Britain’s by poet laureate Sir John Betjeman in pinstripes and floppy hat, teddy bear under arm*. It was deliciously dilapidated for years; taking a train from St Pancras was like entering unto a mausoleum. Then the Eurostar was switched there from Waterloo, the hotel above was turned into apartments, and the place was restored to its former grandeur. Well, more than its grandeur.
St Pancras became one of those new stations/terminals/depots, where the actual arrival and departure of transport appears wholly beside the point — a few platforms squeezed in the back of an enormous shopping mall of mid-level luxury items, nothing actually distinctive, lots of bags and scarves and knick-knacks overpriced. You have to trace your way through the maze to find the ticket offices. The place has cost me a hundred quid or more in missed trains, tickets from one company that don’t apply to another, an utter indifference from the staff to this. The useful shops, the newsagents, the chemists, all the stuff you actually want in a station, are shoved at the back, away from the platforms. Nothing of the gemuetlich of a railway station survives.
The row upon row of cupcake shops, elite chocolates, overpriced delis have a glutinous aspect, a total excess. No wonder we’re all sick, all complaining of this or that allergy, gluten, sugar, lactose whatever. We’re all poisoned by the culture, shit shoved into every orifice of the urbs, fighting it off. I loved Kings Cross/St Pancras before they restored it, when there was a ’70s addition shoved onto the front of the Victorian facade, with a WH Smith, a no-name caff, and, god love it, a Wimpy bar, the best-named fast food outlet ever.
Actually, what I loved was Waterloo station, getting on the Eurostar there, a working station. Before Madrid, before 7/7 there was no security barrier, customs was vestigial; you showed your passport, got on, and two hours later you were in Paris. Pints at one end, vin at the other. That was Europe. When they moved the whole shebang to St Pancras, it was on the assumption that this would only increase, as ever-closer union made the English Channel/La Manche (the sleeve) no more than a detail to ever-closer union.
Now? Well, now most likely, this is the last time I’ll be able to get on the train with a Brit passport and be ferried to Paris by right, by EU freedom of movement, no questions asked about why I’m going here, there or anywhere. Whatever arrangements survive, that notion of right will disappear, and the granting of privilege return. And that was always the point of the EU, that of right, and the idea that right would eventually dissolve ancient wrongs against each other, that we would be European in the way that we were English; no one would mistake Shropshire for Yorkshire, still less their culture, but equally there is no sense that they are separate entities entire.
For those two, read Poland and Portugal, and you can see how dumb the whole idea was. Quite aside from those enormous cultural differences, no Pole ever wanted to go to Portugal or vice-versa. There was only one place to be from the moment Maastricht was signed in the early ’90s, and that was Lunnun, the Great Wen, still then, with a million fewer people in its centre than at the start of WWII, streets and streets of cheap housing. Europe hit it like a bomb. I lived in Hackney when Finland came into the EU, and Finland came into Hackney, thousands of shining blondes hitting Mare Street and the Narrows in one fortnight, or so it seemed. They all got black boyfriends immediately, who couldn’t believe their luck. They’d wander down the street wrapped round each other like a walking Aubrey Beardsley print. There were a hundred things like that. “Cool Britannia”, the mid-’90s London explosion was EU Britannia, the sudden rich mash-up of London’s poor white, black, LGBT, etc, culture and Italian ragazzi, German art students, Swedish hairdressers, Spanish bondage queens and on and on. They came, we saw, they concurred.
They came, and they came, and they came. A decade on from Cool Britannia, the taste of the Iraq War sour in the mouth, the Tories on the way, London was bursting at the seams, housing had been under-built for 20 years, and what had been a wide-open city was now a nightmare. A decade ago, you could look in Loot, the daily listings paper — different colour for each day, yellow paper, red paper blue paper — over a full English, and have a room by 11am. Now, it’s Gumtree, an Aussie Earl’s Court start-up, its listings full of roomshares in E19, and accom-for-sex offers, something the government is trying to stop by building affordable rental housing. Oh no sorry, by moralising over the arrangements people make in desperate circumstances, Labour in full cry, Victorian as the gargoyles of St Pancras.
Yes, your correspondent is on his way to France, for the Battle of Europe, the last time he will leave London as a European. Melancholy, contradictory feeling. Eligible to vote, I couldn’t choose between Remain and Brexit, so didn’t vote. People find the idea of a left pro-Brexit position inexplicable, a measure of how wide the gulf between the excluded classes and the knowledge/culture classes has become. For how would a left-wing party in government exercise actual power, without having removed the anti-democratic controls of EU bankers, the ban on more than a 3% deficit, etc, etc?
Had there been a genuine European community, I would have backed it to the hilt. Absent of that, I’m not going to shed tears about Brexit, beyond my own ease of movement. And, of course, should Marine Le Pen and the National Front (FN) triumph, well, that’s it for the EU, the shitty bankers’ machine they erected on top of the European Community (unless it was always that; discuss). Le Pen will have a referendum, and Depart will win on the votes of the nationalist right, the Communists, the Socialists, the regionalists from Brittany, Alsace, L’Occitane, etc, etc. What happens then? No one knows. Brexit was a reversal of history’s supposed logic, Trump another. Le Pen would top them all. It’s Fukuyama I feel sorry for. He must go into his study of a time and just bang his head against the wall until it bleeds. “Idiot idiot idiot. Why did you write that? Everyone’s laughing at you.”
No one’s really laughing. The trays of papers at WH Smith are full of, well they’re full of Prince Harry’s interview over grief over his mother’s death (thank God his father still lives; stay well, ginger dude whose name I forget), and how he went to counselling. Led the news across the nation, Beeb included. The body of the sovereign is the sovereign body, mapped onto us, his pelf ours. But other than that, it was Erdogan, having narrowly won, or stolen, a referendum victory making the President an elected dictator, Turkey now the Sultanate he has long sought. Promising stability, it guarantees the opposite: Kurdish armed struggle, the regrouping of a secular-nationalist opposition, the works.
From Trump through Le Pen — if she makes it — to Erdogan and Putin, the drive to authoritarianism light or heavy is a response to a failed consensus, a failed offer to the masses about what they would trade off for what; actual democracy for shiny objects, binge downloads, Springsteen concerts, gold class cinema, investment flats, etc, etc. When these trumps are revealed as jokers, history will start to happen again. But along the way, the UK will leave the EU, Le Pen may win, the EU may break up, there may be war, there may be nuclear exchanges, the works.
Ten years I lived above a pub near St Pancras, otherwise occupied by sparkies working on the new lines, the massive job of re-engineering the largest London terminus for its new European future. Irish guys, lonely and lost, earning big coin, and faces haunted by homesickness in the evening, just wanting to be back in Sligo and Knock. That should have been a clue, about the hubris of trying to write down Europe in iron and concrete, set what it would be. And now, my train is getting ready to leave, the last train to Europe, and I will see you on the other side. Of everything.
*In fact, Jack Mundey also saved the Victorian Birmingham General Post Office, in the 1970s, organising a pro tem Green Ban, while en route to Germany, where he helped spark the Green Party. Quite the person, our Jack.