Sunday, February 17, 2008

Over Bridges Under Tunnels: Some belated thoughts on the opening of St Pancras International partially inspired by a trip to Margate.

or how to contradict everything I said before…..

Yesterday I watched a film called Passage (Passacaille) by Andrew Cross, an oblique and fragmented portrait of High Speed 1, the Eurostar rail link to St Pancras International. It was showing at the Turner Contemporary gallery in Margate, which is appropriate because, although it was commissioned by Camden Council, it is also about Kent, a county obsessed with defining and to some extent defending an idea of Englishness.

Cross’ film follows the line from the white cliffs through the Kent countryside and then down into the long tunnel that takes it under the Thames and Barking, Stratford, Dalston and the rest of North London until it finally emerges, backwards, as it were, into the refurbished St Pancras Station. Cross’ film focuses, if that’s the right word, on tunnels. Sometimes he points the camera down at the ground, at wild fields and mud banks and bits of waste ground or at the people in Barking shopping centre in a fruitless search for the line humming away somewhere beneath.

Tunnels carry things, often dirty unsanitary things. Hopefully they take away the things we don’t like. Sometimes they allow things to escape and sometimes they let unwanted things in. The history of the opposition to the channel tunnel is a history of people not wanting to let things in. Drawn up in the 1950’s it took several decades to get it past the UK’s fear of mainland Europe. In the 1970’s the UK went through a hysterical fear of rabid dogs from Europe. It was a metaphor for the wild slavering beast of Europe made comically real. Along with wealthy Sheikhs buying Harrods, it constituted the illegal immigrant fear of its day, a paranoia that the ultimate horror could appear at any time and take away England.

Nowhere is the sense of this fragility more evident than in Kent. Ian Fleming, that most zenophobic of authors, frequently based his villain’s lairs in Kent along the coast, as if they had already to some extent impregnated our defences. He himself had a house there, perched on the cliffs near the Godwin Sands, forever keeping a look out for invaders. Since then the coast of Kent has become synonymous with asylum seekers and their negative mirror image: illegal immigrants. In the paranoid world of the Daily Express, the tunnel is another portal for the unwanted to get through. Meanwhile, Eurostar offer some great deals in getting away for a romantic weekend and St Pancras International is hailed as a triumphant return to the heroic days of rail. High Speed 1 supports two distinct and contradictory fantasies: our yearning for inclusion within sophisticated European culture on the one hand and our paranoid insularity on the other.

Andrew Cross’ work is romantic about things people are not normally romantic about: trucks and distribution networks and Swindon for example. It’s also optimistic and a little bit utopian in its love of how things work and in no longer celebrated feats of civil engineering. St Pancras’ opening has of course been much celebrated but it is as Cross points out, the building itself and the supposedly civic and progressive values that it embodies that is celebrated and not the miles and miles of underground tunnels that he makes the subject of his film. It is almost as if the aligning of St Pancras with Paris is enough.

A delighted squeal of excitement has emanated from the middlebrow media at this chic instant connection as if, immediately after browsing though the farmers market, we might find ourselves in a delightful Parisian café for the afternoon. Trains are the organic vegetable of transport options. They have an authentic credibility that rests more on symbolic value than on fact. Everyone loves a train. St Pancras has been hugely hyped yet it shaves just twenty minutes off the journey time to Paris from Waterloo. It is a nostalgic and highly romantic idea of train travel that is embodied by the rejuvenated St Pancras. The station itself and its sky blue Victorian engineering are photographed again and again.

Meanwhile, the genuinely contemporary infrastructure that support it is ignored. No one reviews the tunnels and the bridges or the huge new town currently sprawling up around the Eurostar stop at Ebbsfleet. Just as no one celebrates the routes taken by the trucks that bring our organically grown, hand reared produce. Perhaps, ultimately, the tunnel allows us to ignore the journey and the sliced up landscape of Kent and Northern France. It collapses the difference between London and Paris. Two great Metropolitan cities are united and we can ignore the crap in between. Architects and planners who love St Pancras are always denigrating suburbia. Here it is obliterated altogether. Meanwhile, we remain suspicious of what washes back the other way.

(With acknowledgements to Vicky Richardson and, of course, Andrew Cross for their robust views on ethical food production).

Andrew Cross Passage (Passacaille) was on show at Turner Contemporary , Margate.

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