St. Pancras station reopened a few weeks ago to great fanfare, so after a stimulating afternoon reading tables of import and export figures into Bengal in the nineteenth century at the British Library, I popped in for a look. For those who don’t know London, St. Pancras used to be a train station, and is one of London’s most iconic buildings. For those with a fondness for the solid, utilitarian yet still proud architecture of Victorian industry, it’s more awe-inspiring than any of the capital’s palaces or cathedrals.
It’s now London’s most tasteful shopping mall. There are trains still here somewhere – at least, there are signs pointing to them – but the magnificent central spaces is devoted entirely to accessories and candles and lotions and posh sandwiches. There are two branches of “your” M&S, among tasteful luxuries that are in no way useful for a train journey. These shops aren’t here for travellers to stock up; they’re here as a destination in and of itself.
Maybe we could turn St Paul’s into a huge Starbucks; Buckingham Palace into a Heat Magazine theme park, or County Hall, the magnificent former council facing Parliament on the south bank, into a lowest common denominator tourist trap. (Oh hang on, we already did that last one).
Shopping is the most important contribution any of us can make to our own and the world’s happiness. It doesn’t matter that you already have everything you need; doesn’t matter that your credit cards are up to their limits, get out there and buy. You can now cross London without ever being out of sight of a Starbucks, Pret, M&S or Tesco Metro. The Onion magazine once ran a spoof story with the headline “Starbucks opens new branch of Starbucks in Starbucks rest room.” That’s what it feels like in St. Pancras now.
St. Pancras is of course the new Eurostar Terminal, and if you look hard enough, you can find the trains. When it was at Waterloo I always thought it was a bit mean making the French arrive at a station that reminded them of their greatest ever military defeat. But St. Pancras has gone the other way. I’m not a Europhobe or Little Englander – that’s why I go to France and Belgium as often as I can to soak up the culture, food and drink. I just don’t understand why everything British has to be regarded as shit compared to anything non-British.
St Pancras has the biggest branch of “Le Pain Quotidien” (French baguettes) I’ve ever seen. The world’s longest champagne bar dominates the central concourse. If you look really hard you can find what just about passes for a pub tucked in the corner, far away from the main mall. I feel dispossessed. St Pancras makes me feel like we’ve been robbed.But as shopping malls go, it is a very, very beautiful one.