St Pancras International, or: why capitalism endures

Despite his relish for the modern done well, Nairn seldom gives as much attention to stations as to churches. On the whole, I find stations to have the bigger personalities; thinking about Kings X got me wondering if it’s generational. Everybody used to attend their church with a season ticket; it was where they were baptised, confirmed, married, buried. In our post-Christian age there is less of a connection to the drama of one’s life. A grand terminus is where we enter or leave cities, meet or part with loved ones, with all the attendant theatre this entails. Transport is as much of a necessity, and as heavily used, as a medieval duomo would have been in 1350. The crucifix loses centre stage to the clock-face. Then it was imperative that we got our seat in heaven, now it is imperative that we get a seat on the 08.39 to London Bridge. Are stations our cathedrals?

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St Pancras for me is trips to Nottingham or Sheffield, probably to watch Millwall; a return to London always has relief washing over me as I am once more absorbed by the anonymous megalopolis, like a fox darting back to my hole, and after an awayday the glow is compounded by fellow-travellers breaking into the Monk Chant. Recently, it’s also been trips to Paris, Brussels or Bruges, made all the more scintillating because Eurostar preserves the glamour that endless queues, petty jobsworths and a Ryanair/Easyjet scrum will kill stone dead.

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Let’s look. The front facade is grand, massive, iconic, far too big to digest in one look or fit in one photo. Comparable to one of those Romanesque cathedral facades whose carvings tell a different Bible story on each of a hundred panels. I still find it startling, the whole having been under scaffolding for so many years. The red brick with cream trim, the ziggurat, the cod-gothic spires from the age of Ruskin; the whole puts me in mind of Amsterdam. To Nairn this is “the most continental of London train sheds… one huge all-embracing sweep of the same family as Hamburg or Cologne.”

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Those steps recall Dirk Bogarde’s demonic turn in The Servant, and that scene, addled by discordant jazz, when he unleashes Sarah Miles on London.

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We found ourselves in the hotel bar a few weeks ago. Whisper it, it felt more of a Wetherspoons putting on airs but certainly acted like The Ritz, charging £5 for an orange juice. Nevertheless. I spend most of my day-to-day life dreaming of my next European holiday and the places I’m itching to see, but this facade makes me think that when we put our mind to it, we’re no slouch at the grand buildings game.

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As with Kings X, the hotel dictates that travellers should ingress via the new bit down the side. St Pancras International is, for my money, one of the most exciting places to be in London. You’re surrounded by exquisitely-cut suits, gallic burrs and Englishwomen with wheelie suitcases, stunned by the glamour of it all. Eurostar has been with us a while but it remains an incredible thrill to look at a departure board and see Lille or Brussels next to Corby and Kettering, to realise the width of possibilities.

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Sharing the space with 400,000 Frenchmen and facing north are the trains to the Midlands. I wonder how their passengers feel about it. When I fly back to Belfast I never fail to take a forlorn look at the departure boards and realise I could be going to Seville, Naples or Istanbul. Are they similarly tantalised?

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The station has no buskers, nor does it pipe in Robbie Williams; instead there are jazz pianists every few metres of the shopping concourse. Notably, there is certainly no Boots or Burger King amongst the shops; wouldn’t go. St Pancras International does not do the everyday, the cornflakes or loo roll. People don’t have to bother with such trivialities in the movies.

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The message is clear: you have left England. They’re selling you Other, selling you sophistication, selling you a girl and a gun, selling you bling.

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Like a boy pretending to be Gary Lineker or the Sheriff of Dodge County, a Eurostar ticket allows you to act out your fantasy and be Jean-Paul Belmondo for the day. Should you step out of Gare du Nord or Bruxelles-Midi to find that it’s all rap music, McDonalds and fat people in tracksuit bottoms, don’t blame Eurostar. They kept their end of the promise. It’s the promise of a better life.

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