Sunday, 29 April 2012

King’s Cross and E M Forster

Among the many books I once owned, but do no longer, I would like to be able to open Sad Ires (1975), a slim volume of poems by D.J. Enright. Who now remembers Enright? In his own lifetime he was condescendingly written off as a poet in the following terms:

"Enright’s is a distinctive minor talent exercised by a humane intelligence that makes verse jottings on what life throws up here and there about the world to stimulate wry, rueful or deprecatory reflection."
(Harry Blamires, A Guide to Twentieth Century Literature in English, 1983)

Enright was better than that. Sad Ires contained a sequence of poems called ‘The Stations of King’s Cross’ that I admired and about which I thought last week when I found myself unexpectedly standing in the newly opened concourse of King’s Cross.

King’s Cross is not the first London terminus I ever visited. I must have arrived at Euston from Birmingham with my father when I was about four, and he took me to see the Changing of the Guard. I also have a dim memory of being shown the Golden Arrow boat train at Victoria. But King’s Cross is the station about which I have the most vivid memories. I first travelled from there to Peterborough, and thence to Tydd – a journey from the sublime to the miniscule - on 31st August 1956. A few years afterwards I saw my grandmother for the last time when she waved goodbye to us on Platform 6. Later, I used to catch the 11 o’clock to Durham at the start of each university term; and once I arrived back at King’s Cross in the very early hours of a Saturday morning, 13th  June 1970. I sat on a hard bench on Platform 8 for two hours until I could sit no longer, so set out on foot across London to Waterloo and caught a slow train to Leatherhead for the funeral of my best friend.

It’s all change at Platform 8 now. The old station gives way to the new. Long gone the hard bench, the beery old Bar and the Stygian gents’ loos. The new entrance fills the space between the Great Northern Hotel and the western flank of the station, curving round under a spectacular new honeycomb roof towards St Pancras– as if determined not to be outdone by its international next-door neighbour.

There’s an intriguing passage in Howards End, where E M Forster describes the feelings of his heroine, Margaret Schlegel, towards the two stations, as she conducts her aunt, Mrs Munt, to King’s Cross for her ill-fated mission to rescue Helen Schlegel from her precipitate engagement to Paul Wilcox:

To Margaret – I hope that it will not set the reader against her – the station of King’s Cross had always suggested infinity. Its very situation – withdrawn a little behind the facile splendours of St Pancras – implied a comment on the materialism of life. Those great arches, colourless, indifferent, shouldering between them an unlovely clock, were fit portals for some eternal adventure, whose issue might be prosperous, but would certainly not be expressed in the ordinary language of prosperity. If you think this ridiculous, remember that it is not Margaret who is telling you about it; and let me hasten to add that they were in plenty of time for the train; that Mrs Munt secured a comfortable seat, facing the engine, but not too near it; and that Margaret, on her return to Wickham Place, was confronted with the following telegram:

All over. Wish I had never written. Tell no one. - Helen

But Aunt Juley was gone – gone irrevocably, and no power on earth could stop her. (Ch. II)

This is a masterly piece of indirection: under the guise first of telling us what Margaret thinks about the two stations (“But don’t tell her I told you she thinks this,” gossips the narrator, tugging gently at the reader’s sleeve) and then of  explaining how Mrs Munt gets herself safely settled for her journey, Forster withholds the key information, until it is too late for Mrs Munt and too late for us, that the journey will be not only needless but disastrous. In a move that is typical of Forster, the disaster has happened before we have been allowed to notice it. The consequences of an act, rather than the act itself, always matter more in Forster’s fiction.

And yet, in terms of the novel as a whole, Margaret is quite right about King’s Cross: it is the gateway to Howards End, and thus to the infinite and as yet unimaginable possibilities that Howards End will offer her and her sister. It will be, for them both, an ‘eternal adventure’. It’s characteristic of Forster, too, to have preferred the ‘colourless, indifferent’ arches of King’s Cross to the ‘facile splendours’ of Gilbert Scott’s St. Pancras.

How do the two stations compare today, emerging from their recent make-overs? Both have been transformed - St Pancras more, of course, than its neighbour. I like the imaginative creation of space in both places. I enjoy the upper and lower levels of St Pancras, and the cafés with their seats outside help to make the atmosphere feel relaxed: not everyone is rushing all the time, and if you are waiting for your Eurostar train to be called there is space and to spare. At King’s Cross, the new concourse under its great glass lattice ceiling (echoing the Norman Foster roof of the British Museum’s Great Court), feels - at least for the moment - wonderfully spacious. Each station, it now seems, adds a sense of occasion to arrival or departure.

But there is one big difference. At King’s Cross I have the feeling of being in a space enclosed, almost submerged: this is partly because a large section of the glass roof is actually darkened. By contrast, St Pancras is a space opened up: the new concourse is located in the old cellars below the original platforms, but with the roof removed: you look up and up, to and through the great glass span of the train shed’s magnificent roof – in its day, the widest single-span vault ever built. And everywhere the cast iron pillars and the great girders of the roof are painted in their original light-sky hue, named now, I’m proud to say, after the eminent Victorian engineer responsible for the roof, English Heritage Barlow Blue.

Adrian Barlow

[photo: King’s Cross station, new concourse

My new book, Extramural: Literature and Lifelong Learning, has now been published by Lutterworth Press. For details and first reviews, click here.

1 comment:

  1. Adrian - I hope that once the arrivals area of the new KX concourse opens up, it will feel less submerged, but of course it won't have the fantastic vaulted upper deck that St Prancras benefits from.

    I am a little surprised that you didn't squeeze in a reference to the John Soane tomb at the St Pancras cemetry behind the station! It is of course the inspiration for Giles Gilbert Scott's PO phone box. I wonder who originally told me about that....

    Incidentally, I was in Mumbai last week and went past the extraordinary Victoria Terminus. This is India's busiest railway station. It was designed by Frederick William Stevens and undoubtedly draws some inspiration both from St Pancras and it is widely thought George Gilbert Scott's plans for the Berlin parliament building.