By Fernando Sdrigotti.
It is only by spending time in London’s terminals that one can begin to understand this city. Perhaps one never fully understands London, but in this way it is possible to become more attuned to some of its rhythms, to get closer to its core. The myriad of arrivals and departures at any time of the day in any main station, the thousand faces turning up for a couple of seconds and then disappearing forever, the cryptic and accented tannoy monologues – London is marked and defined by these fleeting journeys, other places, collectively disdained sounds.
Three times a week I take the Reading train from Waterloo station. I don’t go the whole way to this carceral city (ask Oscar Wilde what I mean by this) but I spend a considerable amount of time on board. I am what has lately been called a ‘super commuter’ but I prefer to call a ‘wage-nomad.’ Tiredness aside, each trip to and from the station is significant in its own way. I have come to think of Waterloo almost as a sacred place, a monumental souvenir, maybe a shrine. Whatever it is, it isn’t just a station.
Simply because I didn’t arrive to the UK as much as I arrived to Waterloo – these were the days when the Eurostar landed South of the Thames. I still remember the first time I set my eyes on London on my way from Paris’s Gare du Nord: the perpetual row of identical houses and the tower-blocks, Battersea Power Station, uncountable tracks descending into Waterloo, the greyness of it all. I remember the album that was playing on my discman, a shoe-gazing affair I barely listen to any more. I remember the geographical disorientation, not knowing any longer where east or west was. I also remember thinking to myself ‘this will be your home for six months,’ the feeling of peace that this thought entailed. Six months: enough time to get to know the place, not enough time for any sort of attachment.
That was twelve years ago. I have tried to leave London many times; every now and then I fantasise about doing it; so far I have failed. Perhaps I haven’t tried that hard, for I have learnt to hate and love London uncompromisingly. This city has given to and taken from me sadistically in equal terms; anybody who has lived here long enough will probably tell you the same.
Maybe that is why I need to leave the city three times a week, flirting with a departure that will never materialise. Or maybe I am just tracing – in reverse – the journey that brought me here. Leaving without leaving.
My train, departs from platform 19 at 6:50am. It is a slow and busy affair packed with academics, students, and suited people. It is indefectibly too cold or too hot a journey; but I always manage to get a seat. I recognise the same faces – we have all been taking the same train for quite a while now. So far most of us have been very successfully avoiding any kind of friendly gesture or eye contact. Never greet or stare at anyone in London – this is the territory of the psychotic, the idiot, or the pervert, and nobody wants to pass for any of these. We spend the journey reading our free papers, mesmerised by our mobile phones, distracted by our books, writing petty things like this, or just staring blankly into an imaginary void a couple of feet ahead. In the same way that London’s urban shapes can be recognised many miles into the surrounding countryside, some of our urban attitudes persist on the trains leaving the city. Of course there is no Shangri La Upon Thames hidden somewhere in the British pastures – social awkwardness just takes a different shape elsewhere. Awkwardness is a universal behaviour that no culture would like to claim its own yet would happily attribute to everybody else. Taken in London to its perfection, it might be more the result of the many trajectories coming together – Olympians of awkwardness, those Londoners – than something inherent to the city. I ignore how awkwardness operates in other megalopolises; I haven’t had the pleasure of enduring – over a considerable amount of time – any other big city but London; it takes time for a romance to give way to reality.
Platform 19 is right beside the tracks used by the Eurostar until November 13, 2007, when the operation was moved to Kings’ Cross. The old Eurostar platform, number 20, is still there, visible, derelict, a grey steel ghost. You can still see the old crowd barriers, the unmanned migration desks, the not too sublime vault, the two sets of tracks cut into the ground like trenches. Terminals demand circulation and nomadism, and devoid of these they become sad affairs of stasis and utilitarian architecture. No exotic lands to be found at the end of these tracks (not even Paris), just emptiness covered by advertising hoardings (of disabled soldiers), CCTV blind eyes, the ghosts of those who died waiting for delayed trains on their way to spiteful jobs or who just jumped under a moving train to avoid getting to their destinations.
Many times I wished they had bulldozed Platform 20 to the ground. ‘Anything but regeneration,’ I catch myself thinking frequently. ‘Please don’t let this become yet another boutique hotel, shopping mall, exclusive tower of luxury flats for slaves with golden chains.’ Maybe it is selfish to feel this way about the place, to lay claims to this private memorial. Regardless, it shall be regenerated into something I won’t like; one can’t resist these processes, not with cheap urban sentimentality.
I watch the old Eurostar terminal creep in as I walk to the last carriage of the train. Sometimes, when I arrive a bit late, and jump on the first carriage available, I even get to capture it through a slow tracking shot. When this happens it is as if I am watching an uncanny film, one in which the main haunting is my own arrival twelve years ago. I know it is a matter of time until I even catch myself walking down the abandoned platform, carrying only a small bag, looking scruffy and skinny and a bit happier than lately. It will be eerie and humbling, I know. ‘However long you’ve been here,’ the abandoned platform will say that day, ‘you will always be still arriving.’
[Image: Kevin Mullen]
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Fernando Sdrigotti lives in London.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, March 4th, 2014.