Friday, 18 September 2009

A Long Piece About a Short Walk: Stephenson Way, London NW1

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Stephenson Way, NW1
Source: MJA Smith

The 6.55 train from Milton Keynes Central arrives into Euston around 7.30 and, in the vast majority of instances, will pull into platform 17. Platform 17 is on the westernmost edge of the station, and it’s one of the platforms without ticket barriers. It also has a neat short-cut exit out from the station onto Melton Street, meaning you can get out of the station without needing to bother yourself with the morning crush of the main concourse and its fairly typical mix of sleepy tourists and business people heading north.

Melton Street, at least the part that I walk along, is nothing much really. One side is taken up with the station’s perimeter wall while the other has a mix of offices, small and very run-down houses and an Ibis Hotel on the corner of Drummond Street, the only interesting aspect of which is the large electronic display detailing the best rate available for that night. This has been as low as £90 on days I’ve walked past, and has gone as high as £125. What determines the rate I’ll never know. I’ve been inside here once, joining a crowd of similarly slack-jawed commuters watching the bombings of 7 July 2005 being confirmed on televisions in the bar.

There are two buildings on Melton Street which are of interest. One is what looks like an abandoned Tube station entrance on the opposite side of the junction with Drummond Street, once upon a time providing access to the Euston Underground Northern Line station, before this was merged with the Piccadilly line station in a single subterranean home beneath the sprawling 1960s Euston redevelopment. It’s well preserved, the brown tiles still retaining some of their original ceramic lustre, but it’s depressingly inaccessible. The other building is a modern, sleek unit appearing to be the showroom for a trendy, and no doubt expensive office furniture firm, Senator. Maybe it’s the time of day, or maybe its an indication of recent economic malaise, but whether it’s morning or evening I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone in there.

Disused Tube station, Melton Street
Source: MJA Smith

I only really touch Melton Street to cross the road onto Euston Street. On the corner of these two roads is the offices shared between TSSA (a transport workers’ union) and Age Concern, a derivative and bland concrete block devoid of anything remotely attractive. It was in the doorway of this building that I sheltered while making frantic calls of reassurance to my family as terrorist activity spread across London‘s transport network in North London. Later that morning I walked the length of Melton Street into Camden, and from there to Kentish Town where I caught one of the few trains actually still running that day.

I’m also only on Euston Street for the briefest amount of time before turning onto Stephenson Way. Before I turn, I invariably glance at the Bree Louise, and think of a story my friend Paul once told me. From the outside it looks reasonably inviting, and if you‘re into real ales it recently won an award from CAMRA. Paul said that he once took a client in there on the way back to Euston, and when he walked in it became a caricature of that scene in Straw Dogs where all the locals turn menacingly toward Dustin Hoffman as he walks in; in short, it‘s a locals’ pub.

I’ll also look up at the high-rise off-centre cruciform structure of the Euston Tower – now part of the sleek Regent‘s Place development – an impressive if lonely skyscraper on the outer edges of the West End that clearly owes a clear debt to Mies van der Rohe‘s or Fazlur Khan’s modernist style. At thirty-six storeys it might be up there among the UK’s tallest structures, but compared to something like Khan’s 100-storey John Hancock Center in Chicago (which was also completed in 1970) it’s diminutive and lacking in attractive adornments to say the least.

Euston Tower - (c) Euston Tower - (c)
Source : - thanks to James for permission

On the corner of Euston Street and Stephenson Way there’s a small hotel, the Cottage Hotel. To call itself a hotel might be a touch aspirational, as it looks from the outside to be a B&B or hostel. I don’t know who the clientele of this place would be, but suffice to say that it gives a whole new dimension to the word shabby, and the signage proclaiming that it‘s open twenty-four hours lends a certain seediness to the premises. As I pass by the half-glass wooden door I can see a grand old lamp like one my maternal grandmother used to have in the lounge of her flat. Today there was an old man looking out menacingly from behind the glass; if it was uninviting before, it was positively threatening today.

Euston Street
Source: MJA Smith

I’m no historian, but I presume that Stephenson Way, given its proximity to the station, is named after Robert Stephenson. If so, you could argue that a more ill-fitting honour could not be bestowed upon the engineering pioneer. Stephenson Way consists of a short section that runs parallel to Melton Street, followed by a 90-degree turn to run along the back of Euston Road. It is a nondescript nothing of a London street, its principal architecture being the backsides of the buildings that line Melton Street and Euston Road, the various service exits and delivery entrances necessary for the smooth operation of daily office life. However, it also happens to be one of my favourite streets in London.

For one, it’s cobbled, which seems so incongruous compared to the dual carriageway clamour of Euston Road less than a hundred metres away. Secondly, its quiet, almost to the point of eeriness. Again, compared to the frantic traffic along its neighbouring streets, Stephenson Way represents something of an oasis of calm in NW1. There are parked cars along the left hand side of the street, but whenever I walk along here at 7.30 in the morning the only vehicle in motion I see is a Camden recycling wagon which collects waste from the back of the old Wellcome Building on Euston Road, and occasionally a fold-up bicycle. Similarly, it’s invariably the same pedestrians walking along Stephenson Way at that time in the morning, all of us seeking a short cut to Euston Square Underground without having to join the crowds traversing the wide and uneven pavements of Euston Road.

So quiet and free of cars is Stephenson Way that I almost always walk along the middle of the road until I get to the junction with North Gower Street. In London this feels rebellious, dangerous even, but it is done – strange though this might sound – out of a desire for security. Sometimes sleeping homeless men can be found in the rear doorways and alcoves of the offices that face out on to Euston Road, and the very quietude of Stephenson Way that attracts them there can quickly feel threatening, especially on winter mornings where daylight is slow to bathe the cobbles.

The threat is of course, utterly remote. It comes from a piece of fiction I wrote at a school on the subject of fear. For that story I imagined a pair of school friends who take a trip into London one Saturday from the suburbs. The lads fall out, and one storms off, leaving the other – the narrator – to find his way back to the station without the aid of his London-savvy friend. He finds himself walking down a darkened street, not dissimilar in my mind’s eye to a more dangerous version of Stephenson Way. In that story, unseen things seem to be moving from under garbage bags and a booze-addled drunk began harassing the boy for change, hence the fear aspect of the story.

If the left hand side of the street is entirely utilitarian and free of ornamentation bar a crest or two next to doorways, the right hand side is more obviously commercial. The ominous Wolfson House, a UCL building, straddles the right angle turn, a nasty 60s or 70s edifice of dirty glass, concrete and brick with a pleasant ‘Hazchem‘ notice affixed to a wall. As you turn the corner the four-storey buildings on the right become more elegant, though anything would appear elegant against Wolfson House or the backs of the buildings opposite.

One of these is the smooth-fronted façade of The Magic Circle, the magic club founded in 1905 by a group of earnest magicians. The only clue to what this building is are the characters arranged in a circular pattern on a bass plaque to the right of the door and the flag between the first and second storeys; that flag, because of a complete absence of breeze along the street, remains bunched and unfurled against the smooth façade. I used to think of this building as mysterious, mystical and vaguely sinister, the lack of obvious identity lending the place a secretive, Masonic quality. That was until I Googled the society and discovered that you can hire the venue for conferences and parties. From their website, the interior looks pretty much the same as any other corporate venue, and I can’t look at the building in the same affectionate – and slightly fearful – way now.

The Magic Circle plaque
Source: flickr

Next to the Magic Circle is the offices of the Royal Asiatic Society, whose large logo with its inchoate elephant adorns the facia of the ground floor. The Society was founded in 1823 and received its Royal Charter from King George IV the same year 'for the investigation of subjects connected with and for the encouragement of science, literature and the arts in relation to Asia'. Engendering a degree of competition with their magical neighbours, apparently you can hire the facilities here too for corporate events. The Society also shares the building with the Japanese Society for the Promotion of Science, a foundation for ‘knowledge-generating‘ researchers with global offices in much more glamorous locales than Stephenson Way.

Royal Asiatic Society logo JSPS logo
Sources: Society websites

The Directory of Social Change has its bookshop and office on Stephenson Way. The Directory provides information and training to voluntary and community sectors worldwide. With the exception of the Directory, the rest of the right side of Stephenson Way is taken up with small office buildings let to various tenants, include an arthritis charity and relationship counsellors.

The buildings become less interesting on the right as you get close to the junction with North Gower Street, while on the left an ancient and peeling hoarding and a black steel frame interlaced with buddleia indicates a construction site that never got close to completion. At the junction you meet fellow commuters who’ve taken another shortcut. Turning the corner toward the direction of Euston Square Underground you catch a glimpse of the BT Tower rising above the vast clinical modernity of University College Hospital. You then pass the Euston Square Hotel and a small café with its nauseating smell of grease and the cigarettes of the hungry punters at the seats spilling onto the pavement, before descending the steps to the Tube.

In all, the journey from Euston to Euston Square takes no more than a couple of minutes, a significantly shorter amount of time than I expect it’s taken you to read this. There’s just something about the walk along Stephenson Way that completely captivates my attention, confirming for me that even the most apparently insignificant little back road in the capital throws up all sorts of compelling sights. My day would certainly be less interesting without this tiny stretch of cobbled street.

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Friday, 11 September 2009

9/11 Recollections

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As another anniversary of September 11 2001 swings into focus, thoughts inevitably turn to the events of that incredibly tragic day. Documentary accounts of the day fill the TV schedules and the familiar topography of New York City catches your attention all over again; both majestically bold and strident before the Towers collapsed and naked and weakened after, never has the image of a city been so etched into the minds of so many people. Thoughts turn, too, to whatever you were doing on that day.

On September 11 2001 my wife and I were enjoying the second week of a holiday in Florida. I say holiday and I say wife, but in fact we'd gone to the States to get married, at DisneyWorld, where we were also staying; we'd been married for precisely six days. On that particular day, we were headed to Busch Gardens in Tampa with my new in-laws for another theme park excursion.

We heard the news coming in on the radio station we were listening to in the car as we traversed the interstates to get to the park. My in-laws had been to New York before, had been inside the World Trade Center. It wasn't until later that day, long after the Towers had collapsed and while we watched the news, that I even realised that the buildings that had been targeted were the Towers so familiar in the background of any number of movies set in New York. The word 'terrorism' was bandied around, a word whose resonances we'd forgotten in the UK after a period of IRA dormancy.

The second plane hit while we were in the queue to get into the park. An elderly American couple in front of us, both wearing headphones, turned to one another as they simultaneously heard the news from the radio station they were listening to and exclaimed 'We're being attacked!' and fled the queue. I'm ashamed to say that we looked at one another and thought they were exaggerating.

Inside the park, we wandered around, none of us wishing to admit that something just didn't feel completely right about being at a place so obviously about fun when things that no-one really wanted to believe were playing out on the south-western tip of Manhattan.

The second tower fell while we were looking at some monkeys in a shady area of the already-baking park. We heard the news coming from a radio in a staff area nearby. At the precise moment in time a bird decided to deposit the contents of its bowels on my new Paul Smith t-shirt. It's strange what you elect to remember.

We were evacuated from the park within a couple of hours. My overriding memory of this, logically, was one of fear, tinged with a sense of the exaggeration we'd felt toward the old couple in the queue. At the exit of the park, British tourists were to be found hammering on the ticket booth windows demanding refunds for not being able to enjoy the rest of the day in the park. Fear turned to shame as we picked up the rumours and stories floating from people pressed against us trying to exit the park as quickly as possible. Shame turned to shock in the car back to a similarly-emptied DisneyWorld as the estimates of deaths and the word terrorism became ever more prevalent in the news reports.

I called my mother from a payphone at a Pizza Hut just outside Disney. She immediately asked me if I was okay. From the way she was talking, way back home in England, I could sense that she was on edge. I tried to reassure her, to which she simply said 'You need to turn the TV on.' Something in the way she said this made the events of the day coalesce in my mind and we duly headed back to our room in the Contemporary Resort where we all sat, glued, to CNN, no-one saying a word at the horrors being displayed there.

Later, my wife and I took a walk to get away from the TV. The Disney resort was eerily empty and there was no-one around at all. We retreated quickly back to our room, whereupon once again - as we would many times over the next few days - we sat silently watching the TV.

Everyone's lives changed that day. We were all affected in some lasting way by those events, even for those of us many hundreds or thousands of miles from the area that became known as Ground Zero. My lasting response has been to develop an incredible deep love for Manhattan and all its many facets. It is the only positive thing I can find in that entire experience.

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