An idiosyncratic and mostly unreliable guide to the Kings Cross region of London – a walking-guide to an urban area as seen through one pair of eyes.
The two small observatories that sprout from the lawns of UCL’s quad are now defunct. One is used as an occasional gallery for the art students at the Slade, the other is a rather grand tool-shed for the gardeners. The copper domes can no longer turn and the slots in the roofing where the telescopes would have emerged to peer at the night sky have long ago corroded shut. The sodium glow of the growing city first forced the observatory to relocate to the outskirts of town at Mill Hill and then away from the city altogether. Time-slots for research are now bought from observatories on the top of volcanoes in Hawaii – 4,000 meters above the sea and clouds. Or from telescopes floating in space – far away from the burning lights that are creeping across the planet below. Now the only straining of the scientist’s eye is watching the packets of data arriving on their screens – beamed back from machines above the sky.
Lacking much space for offices within the art school itself, the lecturers from the Slade gather behind the oak doors of UCL’s Housman Room. Huddled round tables crammed between leather sofas and tatty armchairs, the meetings are conducted in the atmosphere of a faded members club.
From 5.30pm onwards the room begins to fill with groups of off-duty astrophysicists, neuroscientists, linguists or sculptors. Each clan have subtly varying codes of dress and manners but after the black holes have been measured, the cognitive pathways traced or the Kazakhi pronouns declined, they are also just people engaging in the ritual of the after work drink.
Jeremy Bentham’s ‘Auto Icon’ sits behind the glass of his box – slightly embarrassed by his tiny legs. His gloved hands rest on his thighs and his waxy features stare vacantly into space with a resigned and almost contented
expression. The man who proposed the Panopticon as a way for one guard to be able to watch over hundreds of prisoners, is now
daily subjected to the stares of hundreds of pairs of eyes. Groups of half–curious, half–bored prospective students, confused tourists and corporate visitors gaze at the embalmed body of the man whose philosophy led to the founding of the university. Lecturers, BA’s, MA’s, and professors rush by without a glance.
Running from my brother, I trip on an unseen root. My knee lands on the razor edge of a broken flint that pokes out of the earth of an
Oxfordshire woodland path. In the bathroom my blood drips onto the lino. I must be screaming but I am also fascinated by seeing the inside of myself – the white bacon–like stuff beneath the skin that is revealed whenever my mum cleans away the red.
35 years later I am trying to draw a dead body in the anatomy rooms of UCL. The room is filled with draped forms lying on trolleys and I have a moment’s panic at what will happen when she pulls back the drapes. In fact though, I am shocked by the normality. Like snakes that have shed their skins, the people in his room have long since departed – leaving only these broken objects as a trace. I’m attempting to understand how this machine is put together, how this bone connects to this tissue and how the object in front of me relates to the one that is now doing the drawing. I ask the white–coated attendant if I can draw a brain. She fetches a large, plastic tub from a shelf. Sloshing inside is a grey, glibbery mass in a strange–smelling liquid. With two rubber gloves I carefully remove the delicate blamange and set it down on the stainless–steel trolley. The folds and labyrinths of the brain are almost impossible to draw. Tracing the twisting contours I repeatedly lose my way across its surface. Attempting to capture the lines of this object I can feel the folds of my own cerebrum straining to process the data and to correctly instruct my fingers
In the summer the lawns of Gordon Square fill up with groups of chattering pack–lunchers, picnic-ers and sandwich eaters. The students and office–workers fight for territory in the warm London sun like penguins on an ice shelf.
The Euston Rd was built in the fields that lay to the north of London allowing users to avoid the city itself. The road was built to drive sheep and cattle to the markets in Smithfield and for the army to be able to quickly enter or exit the town. Sheep are now seldom seen on the Euston Rd.
Perhaps a portion of the juggernauts clattering through the canyon contain the frozen carcasses of livestock that are still making their way to Smithfields.
My container ship was not coming to Liverpool. I had been there for a week waiting to board the Joni Ritscher but at the last minute the ship was diverted to Antwerp because of repairs in the docks. So I leave Liverpool not by sea but by train through the network of tunnels that were cut into the limestone hills to create the world’s first railway.
Half of the continent fled from Europe through these tunnels travelling by ship towards the promises of America. But I’m travelling in the opposite direction –Virgin train to Euston, a Ramsgate ferry and then train again to Antwerp.
The crows of London are black–suited and shy, whereas the crows of Berlin have grey sooty shoulders and hold your gaze – waiting for their moment. The hooded crows or Nebelkraehe (‘Fog–Crows’ in German) occupy the north and east of Europe and the black Carrion crows the south. A sharp line divides Europe, from Scotland in the north to Italy in the south, and the two tribes never seem to mix. Both clans inhabit our cities like a parallel society – moving about in a ‘flock’ – or in fact a ‘murder’ to be precise. Their social structure, squabbles and rasping calls seem to reflect the habits and manners of the species that built the streets.
At the end of winter, high in the branches of Tavistock Square, unseen by the hurrying Londoners below, the Carrion crows are busy repairing their scruffy bundles of twigs.
A Bloomsbury sofa–bed and a wooden chest allows me the smallest of toe holds in London. The city’s spiralling rents and the pressure on space have slowly led me further and further east – from Maida Vale, to Islington, to Limehouse, to Bow – until I now find myself a resident of Berlin commuting to my former home town.
On the first floor of a Regency crescent near King’s Cross there is a narrow balcony that runs the length of a curving white façade. A row of floor–to–ceiling windows open out onto this balcony and behind one of their elegant sash frames is the cheapest and possibly smallest hotel room in London.
The room takes its dimensions precisely from the edges of this window. For £38 a night you get a tiny sink, a single bed, a ‘desk’ and a ‘cupboard’. Rationing space by using the narrowest of beds, allows just enough room to fit in a desk exactly wide enough to take a sheet of A4 paper and still leave a gap wide enough to reach the window and sink (if you shuffle sideways).
I slept in this room every other week for a year. Becoming a tourist in my former hometown was an uncomfortable metamorphosis – sharing a breakfast table with families of Brazilian, Spanish or Korean visitors who would politely ask me in stumbling English what I was planning to ‘see’ today. Even though the breakfast was included in the price I soon stopped subjecting myself to their confused and kindly faces and took to stealing a bowl of Muesli the night before, to eat in peace on the deserted balcony.
At the other end of the desk from the door is a plastic kettle. I discovered that late into the night on my way ‘home’ it was still possible to buy a decent samosa from the Ethiopian corner shop. If I trapped the plastic wrapper in the closed lid of the kettle (with the pastry dangling inside) I could then boil a small amount of water 3 or 4 times and deliver a delicious and warm midnight snack.
In the 80’s the grand arches of St. Pancras were almost disused. One of the temples to steam power, St Pancras is a product of the train companies vying with each other to erect the most magnificent terminus. Euston, King’s Cross and St. Pancras all lie within 5mins of each other but arguably the cathedral scale and the elegance of its single–arch roof won this arms race for the Midland Railway company.
After dancing into the small hours of the morning, Toby and I had developed a taste for climbing buildings to watch the sun rise over the London. Passing the derelict gothic hotel that forms the entrance to St Pancras we decided on a whim to visit the church. Wandering along the edge of the building where the spars of the roof meet the tracks, we reached the end of the platform. Nothing seemed to ask us to stop. A gentle slope in the brickwork led down into the wasteland that had grown up amongst the rubble and sleepers. We brushed our way through the undergrowth, passed an engine standing silently in a siding and after a few minutes reached the wrought ironwork of the Victorian gasometers – looming above us in the half–light.
Climbing on top of a small shed allowed us to jump down over the fence that encircled the collection of giant gas tanks. We choose the grandest of the bunch and a series of iron ladders led us slowly up one its legs. A few minutes later we reached the top and clambered onto the iron capital. From the street these look a small decorative flourish but 8 stories up the square platform was the size of small living room. We sat and watched as the rows of street lamps slowly winked off across London – from Kentish Town in the north to Elephant and Castle in the south.
Climbing back out of the complex we must have tripped an unseen alarm. The rest of the night we spent in a cell of the Holborn Police Station.
The Fleet rises on the Heath, flows down through Camden, between St Pancras and King’s Cross, along the valley beneath the Holborn viaduct and out into the
Thames at Blackfriars.
The tides turn slowly between the rural, the industrial and the post–industrial. At first rivers were just a resource – to water the cattle, to transport goods, or to drink. The existing waterways were augmented with a ‘New River’ in Islington and later the Regent’s canal. But as the city expanded the waters grew fouler and more pestilent and the modern world fled from its fetid waste. Piece by piece the Fleet was covered until it became just a part of Bazelgate’s utopian solutions – arteries for waste and shit that run beneath the city’s streets.
Leaving the music, we drift across the road with the first light. The street lamps are still oozing their sodium glow but the sky is already a fragile shade of blue. The hazy world seems freshly constructed – soft, sharp and new. Our bodies operate remotely as we move over the tarmac towards where our bicycles should be –
now hidden behind a muscular vehicle. Mine and Melanie’s cycles are locked either side of a lamppost – in our warm confusion Melanie unlocks her chain and a bicycle falls away from the lamppost against the gleaming paintwork of the car. All three of us stand still, looking at the bicycle as if it has acted on its own accord – grumpy at being left for so long.
Out of the corner of my eye I see an enormous man bouncing across the road – his arms so large that they are lifted away from his body by the layers of sinew and muscle. He rounds the car and the world collapses. Suddenly there is no air coming down my throat, flexing ripples of muscle are squeezing into my neck from all sides and everything in the world has shifted through 45º – I can see Melanie’s shocked face sideways against the sky.
What are you going to do about that… eh?… eh?…
– shaking my neck as he says this like a dog with a rabbit. Panicking, I try to speak but only a small hiss squeezes through the pipes in my neck. Like an air-hostess in a crisis I can hear Melanie calmly beginning to reason with the man. The more she speaks the more the muscles slacken. I can feel the warmth of his armpit and smell the maleness of his sweat and aftershave – my head is gradually released and the air flows back into my lungs.
A few years later and the wasteland paradise of clubs, arches and lock–ups have all been cleared away. Amongst the new things stored in these warehouses are the art students of Central Saint Martins. The school where I studied in Holborn was first merged with its neighbour to become Central Saint Martins, then this was amalgamated with a series of others under the banner of the London Institute which then grew further to become The University of the Arts. The beautiful purpose built buildings owned by the colleges in Holborn and Convent Garden have been sold and are now being made into hotels and shops. The students of the Central St Martins swipe cards to access their separate gleaming spaces.
Leaning out of a boat I forget that my mobile phone is in my top pocket. The angle of the phone’s fall changes as it breaks the surface of the canal – its vertical plunge flattening to become a shallow dive away from the boat. As it enters the oily water, the backlit display illuminates and I watch the glowing buttons getting dimmer as they glide deeper into the green.
Later I discover that I can still call my number and imagine the phone ringing amongst the detritus in the nighttime of the mud. I change my message.
You’ve reached my mobile phone, currently sitting at the bottom of the Regent’s Canal – please don’t leave a message here.
Desperately in need of a job, I walk in off the street and I ask the manager if there is any work going. He shakes his head wearily but then remembers something.
There is something but you wont want to do it…
At first the other cinema workers avoid me – it seems I’ve been hired specifically for a job that no one else will do. In the stillness, after the adverts and before the trailers, I walk down the velvet red slope, my neck straining under the load. I stand to the right of the screen as I’ve been told. High above the heads of the audience is a tiny window where the beam of the projector emerges and next to this is another smaller opening. Lit from above by the brighter lights of the projection box I can see a face peering out into the darkness – searching for me. Satisfied that I am in place, the face bobs out of view. A spotlight lovingly fades up from the blackness to illuminate a nervous young man with a heavy tray of ice creams hanging from his neck.
The weeks pass and the only person who warms to me is the tiny face in the window – the pale features gurning and grinning to distract me from my work and my embarrassment. In the quiet times whilst the main feature is playing, Graham comes down into the foyer – a huge bony man with a broken face and a limp. I take to spending the slack-time up the twisting ladder in Greham’s tiny projection box. We watch Coronation Street on his small TV – heard against the clatter of the machinery and the spooling film.
I go on to work at Screen on the Green for roughly 6 years. The job is terribly paid but it offers some attractive benefits. The workers accept me into a supportive circle of actors, artists and writers, I am educated in film with free cinema entry across London and once in a while Graham allows me into an exotic other world. I’m invited to see Victoria perform in the Royal Vauxhall Tavern. The lights dim and a 6ft woman in a red gown steps out into the spot light. Foundation plastered over chest–hair that peeps over her low–cut dress, Graham is the least convincing woman I have ever seen but with the whistling and cheering men, she’s a star.
The Georgian facades of Burgh St are pristine and white but there is one yellow and broken tooth in the gleaming smile. Owned by the council and overdue for major work, we were allowed to live here for six months. Three years later and the tooth is still pleasantly collapsing – to our joy and the neighbours dismay.
Behind the arched window, my beautiful 70’s black and white TV came from a junk shop on the Holloway Rd. One day the picture buzzes and fidgets before settling down permanently into a new orientation. The image is still clear and sharp but instead of horizontal, the picture now runs diagonally across the screen at 30˚ degrees. Nothing I can do will persuade the TV to realign itself but I find that a hard–back book placed beneath one side of the set is just the right height to restore equilibrium. The cream TV set now rests at 30˚ degrees but the image is itself is flat and stable.
Drunk on a bike, I misjudge a corner and the world becomes inexplicable. I am looking at the pavement with a macro lens – a landscape of tiny pieces of gravel and ring pulls. My mouth hurts. Nervously exploring with my tongue, I find a small stone behind my lips. Picking it from my mouth I see the broken end of a moon–white tooth.
The hidden passageway of Angel Mews leads away from the penetrating noise of juggernauts and busses on the Pentonville Rd. In 2003, jammed between the branches of the single incongruous tree, was a large wooden board put there by the artist Adam Chodzko.
This board presented a set of carefully written instructions that told you how to walk out of the North Dakota town of Fargo; to follow a lane, to cross a ditch and eventually how to locate another wooden board that was standing in an open field. The text in the tree goes on to inform you that on this twin board you would find another set of instructions that describe to how to navigate through Islington, into Angel Mews and to the foot of this very tree.
The image of the sign sitting alone in a North Dakota flood plain is clear in my mind. I can imagine a Fargo resident standing in the field and in his head picturing his way to where I am standing – for a moment space and time collapse in a delicious confusion.