Oberon Houston: St Pancras represents all that is good about our future, and our past
St Pancras Station opened to the public on Wednesday after an £800m reconstruction project that sees the Victorian masterpiece, after decades of neglect, returned to all its original splendour. Those now arriving in Britain on the Eurostar service will be treated to the view above the platform of the "Barlow Shed". One of the great feats of engineering, the station roof is 689 ft long by 100 ft high and with a 243 ft span it was the largest enclosed space in the entire world. Restoration work has seen the shed completely reglazed with 14,080 glass panels and the paint work taken back to its intended pale sky blue, and the construction is a wonder to behold.
Outside, the station boasts one of the most impressive facades in the world, instantly recognisable to millions of Harry Potter fans. The grandiose gothic design was the most successful project its architect George Gilbert Scott ever completed, and he can rest in peace (in the similar splendour of Westminster Abbey) knowing his station is still standing strong, and beautiful, today. Yet this station was lucky, many irreplaceable landmarks across the Country were not so fortunate and completely destroyed in the 20th Century during a period of terrible destruction. Yet, the Luftwaffe were not to blame for this wave of demolition, local politicians were.
In the 1950’s through to the late 1970’s, countless thousands of historic buildings were demolished in city centres across the country. They were replaced by what the politicians of the day had decided were to rule the skylines as new pillars of progress. These were buildings that would usher in a futuristic, forward looking post-war Britain that broke with the failed legacy of bygone era's and would lead us to a new period of socially progressive improvement. Across the country council after council voted to banish historic landmarks from city centres forever, and replace them with structures that like-minded architects designed around 'modern principles'. The grandly, but deceptively, named 'Royal Fine Art Commission', predecessor to the 'Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment' lead the charge, and in a fit of revealing spite described St Pancras as 'awful'. They hotly agreed however that the modern Barbican complex was the true wonder of our age, a building recently voted as the ugliest in London.
But where had this desire to destroy our past sprung from? The movement for social change in post-war Britain achieved much that it should rightly be proud of, however many of the figures leading it, especially within the Labour Party, also felt the wholly unnecessary need to nurture resentments that are destructive in nature. By trying to improve our future, they also felt the need to project the past as a failure and the reason to enact change. This manifested itself in many ways, but the most visible and indulgent was the destruction of buildings that were wrongly perceived to represent greed and cruelty, instead of the monuments to our Country’s rich heritage they actually were. But by making an enemy of the past, one can often make an enemy of the future too.
Incredibly, and certainly for the first time in our long democratic history, we have a serving Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, who has found himself trapped in just such a dilemma. To the Labour Party, and even as Chancellor, he is comfortable with his true inner feelings, but leading the country is another matter altogether, and poses serious questions of personal morality, which he is clearly struggling to protect. Gordon Brown recently launched a ‘Britishness’ debate in an effort to change the terms by which we consider ourselves. Its quite clear however that he himself, a student of history, cannot reconcile himself to the past, much of which remains an irritation to him and a symbol of hatred. He is rapidly finding himself a prisoner of the contradictions he has sought to promote, and is desperately trying to construct a narrative that makes sense. His behaviour, actions and temperament all signal that he is increasingly tortured by the very post he so longed for, without once reflecting on whether it was right, morally, to assume it.
Yet one does not need to harbour resentment of the past to justify progressive change. One can accept the need to change and feel comfortable with the past. David Cameron, and the Conservative movement he now leads, typifies this in many ways, and the more this becomes evident, and the more Britons find an awakened interest and pride in our past, the more Gordon's fist will shake in anger at his and his party’s predicament.
But let us not linger on the depressing dark ghosts that haunt others. Let us not detract from the hope and optimism the re-opening of St Pancras represents for our new future, by celebrating the achievements of our past. Let us finish with the words of the poet Sir John Betjeman, the man who fought so hard to save the station he loved from destruction in the 1960’s. And as we pass his new statue, unveiled yesterday, where he stands gazing up, at the roof of St Pancras station, let us remember his fine words, not of nostalgia, but crucially, hope for the future:
"What [the Londoner] sees in his mind's eye is that cluster of towers and pinnacles seen from Pentonville Hill and outlined against a foggy sunset, and the great arc of Barlow's train shed gaping to devour incoming engines, and the sudden burst of exuberant Gothic of the hotel seen from gloomy Judd Street."