Postcard from Lille, Part 34

Always worth Saying, Going Postal
St Pancras International
© Always Worth Saying, Going Postal 2019

As if mountaineers roped together, we troop along Euston Road in a line, making our way from Euston Station to St Pancras International with our packs and cases. My now middle-aged self leads the way, ahead of my wife, three of my children and a close relative, a Chinese girl. Time is tight and, if we’re to connect with our train to Lille, we have to forgo the first-class lounge at Euston, and head immediately for the Eurostar terminal at St Pancras.

It’s about two-thirty pm. It is Saturday.  It is cold and damp, it is late November 2018. London is busy, our little expedition spends as much time on the side of the road, at the edge of four lanes of continual traffic, as on the crowded pavements.

Ticketing, passport and security demands a check-in time about two hours before departure. Why is it called ‘Freedom of Movement’? It’s certainly not free and you can barely move, perhaps ‘Eye Wateringly Expensive Glacial Progress’ would be a better description?

I’m old enough to remember St Pancras when diesel engines, named after northern fell sides, charged out of Barlow’s great giant arched train shed dragging the Master Cutler to Sheffield. Cars and vans were parked on the platforms and, in-between commuter rush hours, not much happened. There was talk of demolishing St Pancras and the adjacent (at that time abandoned) St Pancras Hotel. Now transformed, an upper level of platforms has been added for the international services to Paris and Brussels via the Channel Tunnel. The original platforms now carry East Midlands, Thameslink and Southeastern trains on a very frequent and regular timetable.

A lower level has been created as an International check-in, security and waiting area and that’s where we’re now sat. Endless rows of cast-iron pillars suggest that this was originally a goods or storage area beneath the platforms.

Am I allowed to say, ‘Well yes, well no, well meh.’?

Rather than the chrome and lights and swarms of people looking at their phones, am I the only one who might prefer to stand on gravel ballast, next to the singing rails, as an express to Prague slides to a halt in the gloom of a Great Plain at sunset? A gipsy woman with a beard tries to sell us clothes pegs from a tray slung around her neck. An abandoned steam engine boiler (up on old wooden sleepers) is providing heat to a badly whitewashed Hapsburg bungalow which serves as ticket-office, station master’s house and village school. There are stork’s nests where chimneys should be. I’ve just been bitten by a rabid dog. Those were the days.

When I was first nudged towards the secret world, they (not surprisingly) wanted to have a bit of a look at me down there in The Smoke. Over and over again I was told that it wasn’t anything like a James Bond film. Far from it, it was very dull, plodding desk and paperwork, with an off chance of been sent abroad to somewhere not at all glamorous, to plod at a different desk and shuffle papers under a different sky.

Directions to the London office were unique and, I must say, would have looked good at the start of a OO7 movie. You’ll have heard of, and seen, Vauxhall Cross (a Lego Ziggurat) and Thames House, Millbank (a corporate HQ of one of the great manufacturing houses of Empire, which it originally was, ICI). Not very secret, are they? Never been to them, you know as much about them as I do. There are other facilities that you won’t have heard of, in the same way that you’ll never find out exactly what happens at Mersin Docks during an arms embargo, or the easy way to let yourself and an accomplice, anywhere, anytime through any very well locked door.

It was to such a building that I was directed. The route was via an underground station (not the closest or obvious one). There were left and right turns to be observed. A street corner with an oak door was to be ignored, another corner with a polished elm door was to be approached where, more or less, a blind man standing with a dog was waiting to be kicked. Whereupon, while pretending to tell me something, he would point his white stick towards a back-alley containing a steel door next to an answer-com which patiently awaited my password. Ian Fleming eat your heart out.

The only way I could get to London in the time allowed was by sleeper train and, connections being tight, the best way to do it was to wear my pyjamas under my suit. It being the coldest winter for three decades and in the taxi-less middle of a provincial February night, I walked through the snow to our local town (From Russia with Love?) in anticipation of sharing a bunk with a complete stranger (Live and Let Die?). All this at two in the morning.  I didn’t get any sleep but at least I was horizontal and had my eyes closed (Diamonds Are Forever? Albeit in a crematorium oven). I managed a quick bite of shortbread and a mouthful of British Rail coffee while rattling through the track-work into Euston (Casino Royale? Dream on). And yes, I had my blue Berghaus pack but, obsessives will be needing to know, it hadn’t yet been harpooned at a maharajah’s memorably unsuccessful tea party.

To start with I lodged in Tooting. I used to alight at Balham tube station and walk past the actual Tooting Beck, which at the time was a trickle of water running through a concrete trench filled with shopping trolleys. That’s what the locals told me and, being a hill and lake man, it made perfect sense to me. Home was a row of one up one down terraced-houses which backed onto a builder’s yard. Not a bad place, rather cramped, and with the transitory nature of the profession, all sorts passed through. I had to share a room. Occasionally I had to share a bath.

I moved on. You’re going to love this, I certainly did.

What have, Harold Wilson, Princess Margaret, Mr X, Sir Oswald Mosely and your humble author got in common? One more clue and, as I add to the above list a bronze statue of three aquatic mammal’s leaping around a fountain, there’s no excuse for not raising your hand and shouting, ‘Dolphin Square’.

The Victoria line’s Pimlico station exits onto either side of Bessborough Street SW1 which, walking west, passes St Georges church which in turn bounds one end of St Georges Square, an impressive Westminster block of townhouses. Within the centre of the square are gated lawns and mature trees which run all the way down to the Thames at Pimlico gardens.

Always Worth Saying, Going Postal
Dolphin Square
Dolphin Square, Paul FarmerLicence CC BY-SA 2.0

At right angles to the square, in a concrete trench (presumably excavated to basement level following wartime bomb damage), stands Pimlico secondary school, fronting onto Lupus Street.

Since rebuilt, the original post-war building impressed an imagery of flowing water upon its architect. A central spine allowed a confluence of pupils to ebb through its classes, year rooms, labs and halls. A hard and corrosive water perhaps, as its catchment was Westminster’s high-rise council estates.

On the other side of Chichester Street, the rear of the school backs on to another architect’s metaphor, Dolphin Square. Quadrangular, enclosing three and a half acres of gardens, Dolphin Square was developed by Sir Richard and Sir Albert Costain in the 1930s. It is brick-built, rather slab-sided and ten stories high. Mentioned in Pevsner as ‘notable and period’, the period is Art Décor, when transatlantic ocean liners were the cutting thrust of modernity.

As that metaphor, the separate ‘houses’ of Dolphin Square were named after admirals.

As built, there were one thousand two hundred flats. A hotel formed the northern, town end, of the quadrangle, alongside shops, an arcade, restaurant, gym and, as if the aft of an ocean liner, a swimming pool.

Having survived both the war and post-war austerity the property changed hands a number of times with, by the 1960s, the freehold being owned by a mutual society who let the property to Westminster City Council (making it a council estate of sorts), who in turn sub-let it to the Dolphin Square Trust.

Bear in mind, the lie of the land was very different half a century ago than it is now. The population of inner London was dropping as people were moving out to new towns. London was being deindustrialised, abandoned docklands had yet to be re-developed. Fine town houses in places like Notting Hill had been split into cheap and often decrepit accommodation for recent immigrants from the Commonwealth. When my father was at the War Office, his and his colleague’s accommodations were prefabs, digs and tenements awaiting slum clearance. Given the choice between living in squalor and slowing starving to death (while doing the quantity surveying for Blue Danube) or owning twelve hundred flats, a thinking gentleman may well have chosen the former.

However, salvation was at hand. Because of its proximity to Westminster, the Dolphin Square Trust could afford to let or rent apartments, at reasonable prices, to public employees and public figures who had to be based in central London.

Inside Dolphin Square, in keeping with the nautical theme, many of the internal windows were shaped like portholes. There were narrow corridors lined by cabin-like doors which led to each of the ‘houses’. You’ll recall them being named after admirals.

Friends tell me that I should pretend to have been in Rodney (behave) which would have allowed me to wake up every morning next to Duncan (stop it). This seems an apt point to tell you that Sid James and Barbara Windsor were also once residents.

If you prefer deep depravity to innuendo then wait patiently. In much the same way that one may sleepwalk into the Vizconde massacre, I wandered into the epicentre of a slew of Dolphin Square scandals which we shall package and personify euphemistically as the aforementioned ‘Mr X’.

It’s my recollection that my flat was on the third floor in ‘Hood’, at the blank end of a corridor, allowing me to see all the comings and goings down the hallway through my cabin door spy hole. I’m not nosey, I’m interested. It was on a corner, allowing me a view outside down two different streets.

I understand corner suites to be a status symbol, especially in the United States of America. Consumer advice: status symbols are deployed in order to pay you less. On asking for a pay rise you will be reminded that, ‘you’re already in a corner room, ____ off’.

Inside my apartment, to port a generous built-in wardrobe, including a combination safe (concreted into the wall), which I never understood how to use. Items of value or importance remained under my pillow, wrapped up inside my pyjamas.

To starboard, a kitchen which, rather un-hygienically, was also the bathroom. Shower, no bath. Ahead, my bedroom with double bed, guarded by bedside tables, lights and chairs. As a corner suite, it enjoyed huge sash windows on two sides, complete with heavy, dark drapes and three long elderly lukewarm pipe circled radiators (always covered in drying washing). Radiators and windows were jammed, respectively, shut and open all summer and open and shut all winter.

In other words, it was absolutely ideal and this starry-eyed, slack-jawed young man from the provinces spent all day and all-night pinching himself to make sure that this wasn’t just the best dream ever.

It was at Dolphin Square, fairly early on in the process, that there was an unexpected tap on my door. I answered it embarrassed, having just managed to tip the entire apartment upside and fill it with smoke while trying to make beans on toast for supper. The caller is Williams, also from the provinces but female, even younger than me, an NCO’s daughter. She is slightly built and has short hair. Her dress sense can best be described as ‘straight up, straight down’. She closes the door behind her, grimaces at my culinary efforts, addresses me by my full and correct name (unusual even these days) and pushes a single piece of paper, almost completely blank, in front of me.

‘Something for you to sign.’

It would be countersigned elsewhere and subsequently stapled to five hundred pages of small print. I’d joined the team. Or so I thought.

She administered that spine-tingling oath which begins, ‘What you are about to hear is proprietary and top-secret, it is for your ears and your ears alone.’

Back in our story, oceans away and halfway between my youthful Dolphin Square and middle-aged St Pancras, lies the baking heat of a Manila barangay chapel. I am preparing to administer the same obligation to my associate, Gisele. She had become weary of the continual evasions of the life we lead. With some urgency, I must indoctrinate her as, in the distance, along the endless muddled thoroughfares of the Asian meg-city, danger and opportunity hold mismatched hands and rush towards us.

To Be Continued …….

© Always Worth Saying 2019

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