Brief encounter

31 October 2014

STATIONS tend to be passing-through places, where we step hurriedly from platform to exit, eager to be on our way. But, at King's Cross St Pancras, the station itself might be the way.

I had time on my hands as I made my way north: it was an hour until my train to Nottingham, and I saw the figures first from afar. The sculpture The Meeting Place is enormous: nine metres high. A man and a woman embrace: it is a fleeting moment on a station. An arrival - or a departure?

It is based on the film Brief Encounter, and the sculptor, Paul Day, explained the emotions on display: "All separation involves a suspended moment when one wonders: 'Is this for ever?'" He also spoke of his criteria for success: "To make a work of art that's going to succeed, it needs to look like it was always meant to be there."

Some love the sculpture, and some don't: online it has been called "kitsch", "touching", "bad art", "clever", "patronising", "hideous", "fabulous", and "absolutely gorgeous".

Many, however, think that there is a better statue at the station. This time, it is a recognisable person: hand clutching his hat, coat-tails caught by a gust of wind, Sir John Betjeman gazes up at the wonderful arch of St Pancras Station's "freshly restored train shed". Or at least his likeness does, cast in bronze by the sculptor Martin Jennings.

He is here because in the 1960s he fought against the proposed destruction of St Pancras. It is unthinkable now; for George Gilbert Scott's neo-Gothic station building is one of the landmarks of London; but it was not unthinkable then. Different days. "He didn't save it single-handedly, but it wouldn't have happened without him," said Sir Andrew Motion, one of Betjeman's successors as Poet Laureate.

I take the escalator down, and discover a young man playing the lilac-painted piano on the con-course, just along from M&S. It is an old piano, but almost in tune, and a place where travellers can play or listen for a while - and I do.

With my harassed soul focused and restored, I wander outside and behold the Francis Crick Institute. It is currently a building site, but very clear about its mission in the world when it opens in 2015: to create a world-leading multi-disciplinary biomedical research centre in London. No absurd hierarchies here, no inter-departmental squabbles - just research excellence and energy set free. A grand vision indeed; and presumably it was with such fire in its belly that the Church announced itself to the world.

It is time to find my train. I have passed through here so many times, but never before stopped to contemplate. On my way, I see the piano-player buying some water. I say "Thank you" to him. He shrugs modestly, as if it was nothing.

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