Former Glory

In the Sixties and Seventies the Poet Laureate John Betjeman campaigned vigorously (and eccentrically) to prevent the destruction of Britain’s great 19th-century buildings – most notably Euston Arch, which formed part of Euston Station in London, one of several vast Victorian railway stations built in the capital during the 19th century. Sadly, he failed to preserve the Arch, but he succeeded later in saving St Pancras.

Euston Station, along with the Arch, was entirely demolished, and replaced with a hideous, now shabby and crumbling set of 1960s buildings. It is no joy to depart from or arrive at today’s Euston Station. The low-ceilinged railway shed is a stark contrast to the soaring arches of those at King’s Cross and St Pancras. It is hardly surprising that Euston Station is now also being considered for demolition and redevelopment. No voices are raised in favour of its preservation, as far as I know.


But, of course, tastes change in time, and we sometimes come to appreciate buildings that we initially loathe, and vice versa. For example, I now loathe the childish post-modernist buildings of the 1980s that borrow ideas from everywhere and have none of their own, though they seemed quite fun at the time. But I still loathe the fake-archaic styles of Poundbury that Prince Charles loves so much, and which represents a complete rejection of progress and change, and I suspect that I always will.

Architectural la-la land.


There are some great buildings from the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties, but so much was so badly built, using new and untested materials, that much of it became ugly, stained and unusable in just a year or two. It leaked, or people peed in it. These were times, also, when architects believed that they knew better how people should live than people themselves. Vision is one thing. but prescription is another.

Large Victorian buildings, on the other hand, were generally well built, and though they suffered the usual wear and tear, they stood and continued to stand reliably and safely, and continued to be enjoyed. Fortunately, destruction is no longer the fashion, and many of them have been restored and incorporated cleverly into larger schemes that combine the modern and the old, imaginatively and beautifully. Paddington Station, Marylebone Station, Liverpool Street Station, Fenchurch Street Station, Kings Cross Station and St Pancras Station are still largely intact and will probably stand for many centuries to come.

I was changing railway stations in London a few weeks ago, crossing the road from Kings Cross to St Pancras. It was a sunny evening and London looked splendid. Though building work and restoration in this vast area of railway shunting grounds, gasometers and warehouses isn’t complete, it’s wonderful, especially, to see King’s Cross restored to its former glory. For years the splendidly  plain functionalist façade was obscured by a hideous Sixties pre-fab-style ticket hall.


Now the ticket hall has gone, and a vast modern replacement has been constructed to the side of the station, though it looks as if it has actually grown from the yellow brick.

The entire area between and behind the two stations has been brought to life with restaurants, bars, concert halls, apartment buildings and offices, giving the lie to the notion that areas surrounding railway stations must always be shabby. At the heart of the whole complex stand two great railway stations/hotels of very different styles-  Kings Cross (1852), presciently modern and simple,  and St Pancras (1868) unashamedly flamboyant and gothic.


Would Sir John Betjeman like what’s been done? Probably not entirely. He would decry the modern additions, I believe, but might at least have applauded their daring and the quality of their construction, certainly in preference to the shabby make-do of the Sixties and Seventies.

The Cut of My Jib

Everyone knows that love can be sudden, foolish and catastrophic. On the whole it’s better assembled gradually than experienced at once as a bolt from the blue, like the stigmata. Quite how love happens ‘just like that’ no one knows. It might be an ankle, the toss of a head, an imbecilic smile, or an equine laugh. Read as many romantic novels as you can and you’ll never discover the cause. Barbara Cartland, William Shakespeare, they were sensitive observers, but they weren’t true scientists.

Spontaneous hatred is equally inexplicable but we all experience it from time to time. Flowing from us or coming at us. It might be the licking a finger before the turning of a page. It might be a matter of table manners. It might, from a different perspective, be that imbecilic smile or that equine laugh. Sometimes it’s the tiniest, almost imperceptible thing.

I was the victim of it myself, the other day, a spontaneous burst of hatred coming in my direction on the tube between Ladbroke Grove and King’s Cross St Pancras. A man sitting opposite me glared at me in an alarming way as I took my seat, and he went on glaring, even when I wasn’t looking. I could sense it. He didn’t look like a terrorist bent on the indiscriminate taking of many lives, so I wasn’t inclined to reach for the emergency stop. No, it was my jib he didn’t like the cut of, and mine alone.

As far as I could tell, there was nothing odd about my jib. There never is. I was dragging a suitcase towards Luton Airport and my jib was the usual jeans and polo shirt. I caught his angry eye, and looked away, and then back again as we passed through Paddington, and Edgware Road and Baker Street, to see if he was still looking, and then I decided I wouldn’t look at him at all. The last time I looked, he raised a finger at me like this:


I was frightened, to tell the truth, just a little, but I couldn’t see that he was any danger. The previous evening a young man had run amok in Russell Square leaving an American woman dead and several people injured, so I was alert to the dangers of insane behaviour in a public place and ready to run should he lunge.

At Great Portland Street he tottered to his feet and lurched towards the exit, and it was only then that I realised he was completely drunk. I heard another passenger commenting on the smell of drink as he stumbled from the train. Even so, why did he pick on me?

Drunk or sober, instant dislike is disturbing. My father used to say, ‘I don’t like the cut of his jib’ when he took against someone he didn’t know. He used to say it quite often, and, to give credit where it’s due, he was often right about the people whose jibs he took against, and I often ended up taking against them too. But I never remember him raising a finger to make his point.


I looked up ‘cut of his jib.’ It’s a nautical term, apparently, from the early 19th century, the jib being the forward sail that indicated a ship’s nationality. So a ship with the wrong cut of jib is an enemy one best avoided. Wear your jib carefully.


Music and Dignity

I love to see pianos played in public places, and, of course, other instruments too. Over the last few years I’ve seen more and more pianos, some of dubious quality and provenance, in railway stations and airports.

On Saturday I saw someone play jazz (very well) on a piano at Avignon station, and later a teenager practising a chromatic scale (very badly) at Charles de Gaulle airport. And when I was last in Sofia I admired this lonely, unplayed Steinway and its incongruous ‘piano stool’ at the airport, but sadly, there was nobody to play it, and no one, I think, would want to hear what I can do.

sofia piano

Live music, wherever it is, in the concert hall or the departure lounge, is always preferable to the piped variety. I’d put my own Bluthner grand piano in the street outside my apartment if only I could get it through the window. It would probably get more playing there than in my living room.

People often think that classical music should be played with a special kind of dignity, in sombre, old-fashioned, uncomfortable, expensive clothes, in sombre, silent, sepulchral halls. We forget that it’s ‘entertainment’, by which I don’t mean that it isn’t serious or intelligent. It’s entertainment because it’s played for, or to, an audience, and audiences can be found anywhere.

Most of the time classical music is played as if it’s a ritual, whose moves are known only to a few initiates, and as if its practitioners are unapproachable high priests, even Gods, remote and full of dignity. It’s usually played in sterile ‘laboratory’ conditions, in an inert and unvarying atmosphere, where performers and audience are set decisively apart. Heaven forbid that you should clap at the wrong time or show too much emotion as you sit and absorb what the musicians are doing in front of you. Small wonder that when this is the prevailing style, audiences are sparse, and elderly.

Why should we listen to music in just one way? We eat in restaurants, on the street, at home, even at 30,000 feet. Every new location adds something different to the experience. Food tastes different in the open air. A Beethoven sonata, taking us by surprise on the concourse of a railway station, comes at us in a different way, catches us in a different frame of mind. And for the performer, too, it can be exciting to play for different audiences in different places. Why should the experience of performing and listening be confined only to a few locations?

Classical music needs to be stripped of its excessive dignity. At its best it’s an informal, warm, living, exciting, entertaining, even challenging, activity that’s performed by people for people, the one lot ‘saying something’ to the other, and the other responding with appreciation, delight, or sympathy. Music, at least in the form of singing (or howling!), was probably the precursor of speech. Music is communication of an elemental kind.

The fact that music is entertainment doesn’t mean it can’t be serious. I mean ‘entertain’ in the broad sense of capturing the attention of an audience. In this sense both Hedda Gabler and Absolutely Fabulous are entertainments. Seriousness needn’t be pompous, needn’t be surrounded by too much dignity. You can play Beethoven just as well in blue jeans as in a dinner jacket.

When I played my oboe regularly in amateur orchestras in London in the 1980s we often performed in busker venues, such as in the piazza at Covent Garden, and these performances were as serious, and as much fun as any in a concert hall. Never mind that some people came and went, that others stayed, that the applause came at the ‘wrong’ moments, I’m sure we said as much as we ever said in the frigid conditions of the concert hall.

So, I love the pianos that we see in public places, where the public are invited to perform any music that comes to mind. Sometimes it’s jazz, sometimes (too often) it’s Fur Elise, and sometimes it’s deeply serious music. When my nephew Frederic played some Chopin at Herne Hill Station in London, a small crowd gathered and applauded. I would love to come across Alfred Brendel or Andras Schiff playing at St Pancras station or on this Steinway at Sofia Airport. I hope that they could dispense with the dignity they’re used to.

But, for some players, music is so special that it’s no longer part of life. It’s something separate, dignified, dead. There’s a young pianist I know in Prague who takes himself too seriously. He’s good, and has played as a soloist with many famous orchestras. Though he has a magisterial way with Brahms, he’d be a happier man if he could lighten up a little. I invited him to my annual Christmas Party, which is also a Birthday Party for my partner. As I lit the candles on the birthday cake (a little the worse for drink, I will admit), I asked him, on an impulse, to play ‘Happy Birthday’ on the Bluthner grand. I knew immediately it was a faux pas of colossal proportions. He actually shuddered, as if I’d put something nasty under his nose. Too much dignity!

If Leonard Bernstein were my guest (sadly, he never will be now, because he’s dead), I wouldn’t even need to ask. It would be difficult to get him to stop. Music infused every moment of his life, not just those moments in the concert hall, and he didn’t give a damn about dignity.

The English at Ebbsfleet

It seems frivolous to complain about a single and comfortable journey from London to Avignon when thousands are struggling across the entire continent, on foot, by train, by bus, by any means at all, to reach a safe haven called Germany. So I’ll complain only quietly about the mishaps that befell my friend Caroline and me at the hands of Eurostar and SNCF. en route to a bicycling holiday in the south of France. We chose to travel by train this year rather than by low-cost airline (never Ryanair if we can avoid it). Trains are comfortable, fast, civilised and you can eat in style as the scenery whizzes by.

I’ve only two observations to make. The first is about cheerfulness, the second about superstition.


Things went wrong from the start, our Eurostar train halting at Ebbsfleet, just outside London, fifteen minutes into the journey. There was an announcement about technical problems. Eventually disgorged onto the platform, we waited an hour or so for a ‘rescue set’ of carriages. Two hours meant that we would miss our connection at Lille. But what was remarkable about the whole experience was the cheerfulness with which the English reacted to this minor inconvenience. True, in our carriage they were mostly elderly passengers on a Saga holiday, with all the time in the world (or less, depending on how you look at it). But you’d think that the adversity were some kind of bonus, something they would even pay for if they could. You could feel the mood lift and camaraderie set in as the situation worsened. It’s as if the English take pleasure in inconvenience as long as they can all be in it together.

We switched to a later train at Lille, and sped towards Avignon just two hours late. Two hours into the four-hour journey we slowed to a crawl and the driver announced there were problems with the track. We were three hours late at Lyon, where we remained in the station for a further two hours. Track problems further slowed our journey so we were seven hours late at Avignon.

We couldn’t then leave the car park because another passenger was blockading the exit, protesting at the extra hours he’d been charged because the train was late. Remonstrations, threats, made no impression, but this insane man eventually gave up, and finally we arrived at our hotel eight hours late at two in the morning.

My second point is about superstition. It’s hard to resist the feeling that bad luck is sometimes personal, caused, or planned for a purpose, the effect of divine or satanic interference, or witchcraft or wizardry. Bad things come all at once. But it’s nonsense, of course. A bad run of luck at the roulette wheel is precisely that. But even so, I can’t help feeling we were meant to arrive late, but whether so that we should be delivered from disaster, or into it, I don’t yet know.