Sometimes you can know a place your whole life without ever having looked at it. It’s something you have to train yourself to do. Sure, you’ll take a Lonely Planet on your European city break and you’ll dutifully see the sights and form an opinion. What about that place that’s been a backdrop to your life for 20+ years as you’ve rushed from one activity to another? My reasons for trying this Nairn project are partly to see the old through new eyes. We tend only to notice changes and so ‘see’ the familiar places without looking, but there’s nothing to stop us from turning any commute into a sightseeing excursion; scrutinising that building you pass every day and thinking “What is this building saying to us, to the space around it?”
Kings X is not London at its most seductive, but it figured large in my formative years and is evocative of green and foolish days. This was our London terminal at university, when a day return with a full Travelcard set you back £10.50 (it must be four times that today). Just as Londoners have always fled to Brighton for the dirty weekend, here I would slip into the shadows when I should have been cooped up with Milton & Chaucer; lured away by music, cinema, nightlife, pursuing relief from the cloisters of an inward-looking institution that fostered inward-looking people.
When Chris Lowe steps off the Newcastle-Kings X train in Pet Shop Boys’ Rent video, I recognise the vocabulary, the great Billy Liar getaway. A lot of the time I would have been running away from one thing and/or running after another. Paltry, cheap experiences which felt terribly important at the time, when being in the world was new and the novelty heightened each sensation.
Enough Marcel Proust bullshit. Of those days I remember a grubby roof, I remember dirt, pigeons, WH Smiths, Burger King, and impatient travellers breaking into a stampede when the 19:45 to Cambridge was allotted a platform. I’m not sure I ever looked at or thought about the building. Nairn notes its functionalism: “Cubitt provided two identical train sheds side by side and scorned any of the deceptions which the C19th would gladly have added to disguise the fact. Nothing but yellow brick and grand proportions.”
Nairn is struck by the “overwhelming honesty” of this approach, particularly in comparison to the “clever fribble” of the St Pancras facade; had Kings X tried to beat St Pancras at its own game, no doubt both would look ridiculous. If Kings X is the gateway to the North East, and St Pancras the gateway to the Continent, each station gives a small advertisement for its destinations. Not that the bluff and vast plainness of Kings X doesn’t remind me of things I’ve seen abroad; the castle in Ferrara where the Estes holed up when they had to raise the taxes, those Papal fortresses looming over most towns in Umbria.
I might not have seen the facade because Burger King and friends were in a sort of conservatory at the front, now eradicated to create a piazza, which in spite of the traffic people are really going for, enjoying the sun whilst waiting for trains or whiling away their lunch break. A fellow Millwall fan spotted my t-shirt and came over to shake my hand. The liveliness has even inspired some wag to turn their bank into a dazzle ship.
You can come in the old entrance and look towards the platforms, which are all behind barriers, neat and empty. Everything is exhorting you to enter via the new extension to the left, sitting in front of Platforms 9a and 9b for Cambridge, and to shop shop shop.
Do I like it? It’s as if an old friend has had plastic surgery. It will take some getting used to. This Close Encounters ceiling comes via the British Museum and every provincial planetarium in the country, probably. It evokes childhood visits to the Armagh Starshow before the projector came on, or perhaps that heaven which David Niven is desperately trying to stay out of in A Matter of Life & Death.
This is most likely handed down from airports; the need to give your station ideas above its station and curved shapes like the SS Enterprise. We’re packing you off to York, but we could have sent you to Alpha Centauri if only you’d asked. It’s better than some Prince Charlesish mimickry of the Victorian parts, and it deserves more than the usual ‘aspirational’ (overpriced) chain takeaways:
Although I’m not sure places with names like Plum & Spilt Milk are the answer either. Speaking of the original features, the truce established here is stilted. The new’s olive branch towards the old is seemingly a fountain of drinking straws.
Post-regen, it’s a surprise to see people milling around enjoying their gourmet coffee, as the clean-up of Kings X was a work in progress in my student days. During my cross-dressing phase, more than once a man would follow me through the streets, their pleas turning to high indignation and anger when it clicked that under the peroxide hair, make-up, fur coat and pencil skirt I was male (served me right). The derelict industrial area behind the station always looked bleak and forbidding, but the new walkway has invited the Regents Canal to the party and it’s quite a different story.
Granary Square has turned Kings X, improbably, into a place to meet your friends and spend leisure time. Just look at the crowds. The fact that everyone is young and attractive feels faintly sinister, and the fennel bellinis called ‘Fellini’ in the café might not appeal to the residents of Somers Town, but it’s hard to stay malcontent when you see a place being well used by people.
Two posts in, the expensive water feature already feels like an old friend:
A stack of shipping containers on Goods Way have been converted into a Viewing Spot for banished Charlton supporters, where those who can set aside connotations of the “pop-up” will see the assets of Kings X from the rear. Nairn rhapsodises about the “incredibly moving” hinterland behind St Pancras, sheds and gasholders which seems to have been flattened for the Eurostar, but there’s still this view.
The path takes us back to the piazza, once the sherry bars have emptied our wallets. A perfect place for the modern adult to come and eat cupcakes, watch Adventure Time, read J.K. Rowling, and sit on swings in giant Tweetie Pie cages.
And allow a man dressed as a banana to appoint himself conductor of the taxi rank.