THE END OF THE LINE: King's Cross out of joint 1
Seeking ambitiously for a north-west passage, instead of circumnavigating all the capes and head-lands I had doubled in my outward voyage, I came suddenly upon such knotty problems of alleys ... I could almost have believed, at times, that I must be the first discoverer of some of these terrae incognitae, and doubted whether they had yet been laid down in the modern charts of London.
- Thomas de Quincey, Confessions of an English Opium-eater
Early European explorers believed a sea-passage existed which would lead them from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific, and thence west to Asia. There was and is no such passage of course, but the image stuck for Thomas De Quincey, who walked the streets of London to find a route which would lift him from the fierce travails of urban existence. 150 years later, the Situationists borrowed De Quincey’s nautical metaphor and added another. For them, the north-west passage was the real or imaginary channel through which one could evade the capitalist spectacle of the city – and the drift was the means of locating it.
Whether they would have found the north-west passage nearby is debatable, but De Quincey, the Situationists and the many other celebrated posses of urban drifters would have felt quite at home wandering the spaces in and around King’s Cross and St Pancras stations. Rimbaud and Verlaine, two celebrated flaneurs, lived in the neighbourhood for a few months in the summer of 1873.
Until recently, the area north of St Pancras and King’s Cross was an abandoned industrial wasteland with a reputation for drug-dealing and prostitution. A massive £2bn redevelopment – the biggest in Europe – is set to transform the area in the next 10-15 years. For now, “King’s Cross Central” is both out of time and out of place. Its industrial spine has mostly been ripped out to make way for the Channel Tunnel Rail Link, and its local community has been uprooted and moved on. But they have not yet been replaced by the parasitic retail and business parks – these, thankfully, only exist in cyberspace at the moment. For now, though not for long, King’s Cross is yours for the taking.
Living and working so close to King’s Cross, I have taken to prowling around it during unoccupied afternoons. The northern sun bathes its one surviving gasholder and the ruins of old housing in a gorgeous orange glow. While frenzied commuters run along Euston Road or up the escalators at St Pancras, to be jolted about in heaving trains and tossed out into empty suburban platforms, the King’s Cross drifter can wander or sit unseen among the rubble of blown-up tenements and consider the view.
Its distinct zones call into question the purpose of urban space – a viable business environment, or a place for people to live? King’s Cross has evaded the advances of neoliberalism for so long, but is its future role to enhance the individual’s consumer power and line the corporate wallet, or are the malls and the office blocks really doomed? Will whatever we do end up being ruins?
That was the conclusion of Christopher Woodward’s lecture at the Hauntology Now! symposium on Monday. Woodward observed the nexus between the past and the future which ruins provide. We are haunted by what they once were, and fill their gaps with our own histories, but we are also haunted by their future, by the knowledge of what they will become.
A walking tour is an anathema to the psychogeographer, and one might say that King’s Cross is really too small to warrant one. I have merely picked a few points of interest and you can join the dots. I suppose it’s more of a loitering tour, a manual for the malingerer. I would urge you to go there before its history is completely erased, but one cannot appreciate King’s Cross without exploring the wider area: Somers Town’s philanthropic estates; the thundering ravine of Euston Road; Regent’s Canal and its idle narrowboats; Agar Town and the “greasy rebrandings” that Savage Messiah located along St Pancras Way. To describe these here would be too much. You can explore these for yourselves.