Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Red Bricks and Town Squares

I soon find myself stood in the forecourt of the British Library. This version of the British Library is fairly new; the purpose built building, designed by Colin St. John Wilson, opened in 1997 and is hoped to have a ‘shelf life’ (sorry, sorry) of 250 years before it gets full. Prior to it’s opening, the British Library was scattered around Bloomsbury and Holborn (most notably in the British Museum). For 50 years, the British Library had been in need of new premises and the construction of the new site delayed matters further, being beset by a series of minor disasters - my favourite probably being the extensive damage caused by the chief executive’s shower causing a flood. Even once it opened it hasn’t all been plain sailing. There were blushes all round in 1998 as the proud message “The British Library. For the nation’s heretage” was beamed onto the side of the building in huge letters. The outward appearance of the building has certainly met with a mixed response (Prince Charles branding it in his characteristically idiotic style as an “academy for secret police”) but I’m not too fussed either way.

Receiving 16,000 visitors a day, the British Library holds some 150 million items, and this figure grows at an astounding rate every month. With around 650km of shelves (and growing) to navigate, going at a rate of 5 items a day (no absent minded flicking through please) it would take you 80,000 years to inspect everything contained within. Sigh. Items you might want to dwell upon include the Magna Carta, Leonardo da Vinci’s notebook, Beethoven’s tuning fork and the Bryan Adams career overview collection. Also worth a look is the centrepiece of King George III’s towering 3 storey library. You need a Reader’s Pass (held in high esteem and not available to just anyone. Recent alterations to allow students to easily obtain them were met with howls of protest at the lowering of tone. God forbid that students might wish to employ a place of learning) to use the library properly, but the public galleries will give you a good hours worth of free marvelling at the likes of the beautiful Qur’ans, or the exquisitely decorated Sherborne bibles, or the delightfully inaccurate medieval maps, or the journals of the likes of Captains Cook and Scott. My favourite newly obtained fact of the day was that Hans Christian Andersen, although a keen traveller, was deeply suspicious of foreign health and safety provisions, so always carried a 9-metre length of rope in his bag to use as a make shift fire escape. So there you go.

Next door sits the wonderfully gothic old Midland Grand hotel (or St Pancras Station, or St Pancras Chambers, if you prefer), completed in the 1870s and squatting on the former site of the slum Agar Town, a place so foul it led Dickens to claim “the stench is enough to knock down a bullock”. Perhaps my favourite building in London and made from some 60 million bricks, in it’s day the building was considered one of Britain’s great hotels but found itself a victim of the decline in hotels which affected the whole country, closing in 1935 to become mere offices. Pah! Having somewhat miraculously survived WWII intact, the building seemed doomed to be demolished in the 1960s but was mercifully saved after it was awarded a Grade 1 listed building status. However, due to concerns about its fire safety virtually the whole building has been empty since the 1980s. I still love it though.

Crossing over Euston Road (where Diamond Geezer and my own respective paths cross), I briefly hit Bidborough Street, where I lived for 9 months in my final undergraduate year. It was an interesting experience living on the cusp of quaint Bloomsbury and rough Kings Cross. Kings Cross wasn’t too bad; I got used to the dealers and hookers hassling me, and they seemed to recognise by my purposeful stride that I was a local and left me alone for the best part. However, I’m glad I don’t live there anymore: having to put up with people tugging at your elbow for whatever dubious reason every time you stepped out of the door got too much. I’m told Kings Cross is nothing like it was 10 or 15 years ago, crime wise. The massive operation to put a stop to (or at least reduce. Or, at the very least, hide) prostitution in the area is why there are so many confusing one way streets there now - making it that bit harder to cruise around - and all the boarding up around the station at street level does indeed mask the ugly construction behind, but also serves the dual purpose of preventing people loitering in any nooks or doorways. But my friend Dave, who used to operate the Kings Cross CCTV cameras, can vouch that there is still enough drugs and vice going on in the area for the Met to shake a very big truncheon-like stick at. As indeed can I, on more than one occasion having to sidestep a tart sucking off a punter or a junkie injecting their groin in my doorway.

I now find myself entering deepest Bloomsbury, with its squares and Universities. In Austen’s book, Emma’s sister-in-law enthuses of Bloomsbury; “our part of London is so very superior to most others! You must not confound us with London in general… we are so airy!” And indeed, the latter part of this statement is largely true: quiet streets used mainly as rats runs by cabbies and a lack of any major businesses in the area mean the pavements are never crowded and the only honks you hear generally drift from the Euston Road. Walking through this area you may well notice the absence of many pubs and shops. This is in part due to the landowning Bedford family’s desire in the 1700s to preserve a respectful tone in the area; Bloomsbury was, if you like, a gated community (closed off especially at the time to Somers Town which lies to the North) where taverns were banned and shops strictly limited. Naturally times change, and between the wars Bloomsbury developed and no doubt enjoyed the reputation as a refined but risqué locale; a hotspot for intellectuals who enjoyed a good old drunken orgy. I pass through Cartwright Gardens (named after the political reformer Major John Cartwright who lived at No. 37) which is now symptomatic of the area as a whole: a mish mash of student halls on one side and a nest of cheapish B&Bs for tourists on the other (both still a location of drunken orgies? Alas, I couldn’t say). At this point, I encounter my first set of lost American tourists; the first of many in this area. My directions to Russell Square Tube (or Russell Metro as they would have it) are met with a chorus of awesomes, and awesomely this is where we’re headed next.

Laid out at the start of the 1800s, Russell Square is the largest of the many squares to be found in the city. Extensively landscaped in 2002, it is now said to closely resemble its original layout. On the east side sits Charles Doll’s impressive red terracotta Russell Hotel. It’s awful pretty.

Opposite sits the imposing Senate House, the home to the University of London since its completion in 1936. The initial plan was to built a series of Senate House-esque buildings stretching north to Euston which, it was proposed, would represent the spine of British academia, but these over-the-top plans were shelved which is probably just as well. Senate House was the thinly disguised setting of the Ministry of Truth in Orwell’s 1984 (and indeed was employed as the Ministry of Information for a period during World War II) and unconfirmed rumour has it that Hitler insisted the building was spared during the bombing of London as he rather fancied it as the Nazi Party’s British HQ once the UK was invaded.

Allegedly, early CGI transplanted Senate House to New York to house Sigourney Weaver's haunted apartment in Ghostbusters

On the northwest of Russell Square sits the former head office of the publishers Faber and Faber, where T S Eliot worked for many years. Highlights of his time here perhaps include his decision to turn down Orwell’s Animal Farm (on the grounds that the message behind the political novel was flawed because the pigs, as the most intelligent and ambitious, deserved to be in charge) and having to endure his estranged wife, Vivian, marching up and down outside his office wearing a sandwich board proclaiming “I am the wife T S Eliot abandoned”. The former Faber and Faber offices are now the site of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), probably known most famously amongst Londoners as having a very relaxed attitude to the use of cannabis on its student union premises (which, I’m told, is a half truth). A few drug dealers usually congregate on this corner, but as it is outside of term time and the lucrative student population is elsewhere I see only one obvious entrepreneur. “Psssst! Psssst!” he hisses out as I pass, eager to catch my eye.


deanne said...

"the nation’s heretage": HA! Oh dear!

St Pancras chambers always give me the heebie jeebies -- it always looks a bit spooky and haunted.

I love that bit about TS Eliot - life seems like it was so much more hilarious back then.

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