From 65
'London: the Lives of the City'

A LONDON VIEW/Julian Barnes

John Gay

Every schoolday for six adolescent years I used to travel by the Metropolitan, Bakerloo and finally District (or Circle) Line from Northwood in Middlesex to Blackfriars. My school was in the heart of London, its main steps across from the Thames; there was just a short walk to St Paul's for the annual commemoration of our benefactors. This transition from calm, green suburbia to vibrant metropolis felt in the main a simple psychological process: from family dullsville to the centre of the world. But there was one thing—one building—one part of one building—which usefully complicated such daily world-turning. Blackfriars mainline station (now demolished) was dismissed by Pevsner in a couple of phrases: 'Opened in 1886. Weak Italianate, of red brick, two storeyed.' Was that all? No, that was not all. On either side of its entrance, incised on rising columns of stone facing, were the names of destinations served by this station. St Petersburg, I remember chiefly, and I think Berlin, and photographic evidence confirms Dresden, Brindisi, Leipsic with a C, Vienna and Lucerne; though not Paris, which had presumably been cornered by some rival terminus across the river. By the time I went to school these continental connections no longer existed: John Betjeman had once straight-facedly asked at the Blackfriars booking office for a return ticket to St Petersburg and had been referred, equally straight-facedly, to Victoria Continental. But still... St Petersburg was where you might run into Anna Karenina, wasn't it? And Vienna... And Cannes... As I stared up at this out-of-date gazetteer, I realized that I did not travel each morning to the centre of the world. Northwood was to London as London was to Europe. My subsequent life has been entirely based in the metropolis; I enjoy the city; but I have always felt it as a place on the way to somewhere else. 

'London: the Lives of the City'
352 pages
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