VisitLondon, that seasoned oracle, lists ten stations in which the visitor to the capital ‘can expect to travel to and from in London’. These so-called ‘cathedrals of steel and glass’ have touched and inspired numerous writers, from John Betjeman getting the horn for St Pancras’ arches, to Simon Jenkins making the unlikely declaration that there is ‘magic in the air at Paddington’.
Your correspondent is not inspired by the romance of our sublime stations. In fact, he despises them entirely. Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 nailed romantic simile for eternity, comparing the lover to a summer’s day. As I sit, staring wide-eyed at Euston’s platform 1, the delicate scent of discarded Burger King wrappers tickling my nostrils, with the dribbled piss of the men’s toilets clinging to the soles of my shoes, and the great swelling mass of my countrymen locked in miserable commune with their iPhones – the only things I can seek to juxtapose with these icons of the nation’s industrial past are the very summit of human evil: serial killers.
While London’s stations are unlikely to claim your actual life, they will, at some point, claim your will to live – making them, to my mind, much, much worse than any of the monsters with whom they are compared below.
You wake up at some ungodly hour, next to your wife, who you refuse to love, in the front bedroom of a house that looks like every other in the cul-de-sac. You open the curtains as yet another sunrise soaks the view you have come to loathe of Woking, or Wimbledon, or Guildford, or any other place that a budding TV writer looks to situate his sitcom delineating the agony of the human condition.
You put on your T M Lewin outlet-bought suit and shirt. You walk to the station, and crowd into a silent miasma of Metro ink and morning breath. And so your daily journey through your life’s failure begins, your morning cappuccino cooling in your hand as the train glides through the suburbs.
Finally you arrive, and as you drudge alongside your fellows, you dare, unusually, to lift up your eyes unto the skies – in the vain hope that from there will cometh help. But no help comes from the cold marble porticos. Instead, there stands embossed one word as a lasciate ogne speranza for our times: WATERLOO. You look down to your shoes, your Christmas present from your wife. Everything is forever meaningless to you now, but you will continue on, to the tube, and then to office.
Just as Shipman murdered more than any other killer here, so Waterloo has harvested suited souls innumerable.
‘Lizzie Borden took an axe, gave her mother forty whacks. When she saw what she had done, she gave her father forty one.’
This was the charming little ditty that became popular in the late nineteenth century, after Mr and Mrs Borden were found cut to pieces in their New England home. The Victorians, the very same people who went around singing dainty tunes about parricide to themselves, were also the people who built and designed our railway stations. I refuse to view this as a coincidence.
The psychopathic instability of that age has seeped into the very bricks and mortar they have bequeathed to us. Charing Cross is a prime example of this – all is very much well and good with you, as you leave the capital, until suddenly, for no reason, every single train is being diverted via Dartford.
It’s the perfect fit for Lizzie Borden – not least as her apparent motive for the murders was that her father had killed some pigeons she’d taken a liking to. As Charing Cross is more pigeon than person, the comparison sings with a happy veracity. The air-rats of the city seem to exert a malign influence over the place. Aim one kick at them and *poof* the last train to Dover Priory disappears off the departure boards, and you’re left, sleeping against a Caffè Nero kiosk, hoping no one axes you to death before services resume at 5am.
Yes, I know that Dr Crippen wasn’t technically a serial killer, but he’s a perfect fit for Victoria station. Crippen murdered his wife and almost got away with it, concealing his crime under a veneer of professional virtue. A doctor wouldn’t dismember his missus in a cellar, would he guv’nor? A station named after Her Majesty the Queen couldn’t be a sprawling commuter hell, could it really be Sir?
Crippen helped demolish presumptions about bourgeois respectability; Victoria demolishes any claim this nation has to an efficient transport structure. Lest we forget, Victoria is the station out of which the totalitarian evil of Southern Rail operates. Pity the poor tourists though, the Mrs Crippens of this situation. They imagine Victoria, just round the back of Buckingham Palace, will be Ye Olde Train Station, where beefeaters hand out toffee apples. Instead they watch Brightonians have Charlie Sheen-style breakdowns as their train is cancelled five minutes before it was scheduled to depart.
John Wayne Gacy
Oh-ho! It’s Paddington! The fun station! It’s got a cute bear named after it, and they have a band of old people who play Christmas Carols at commuters in December! What wholesome fun! What rich pleasure!
Paddington is like John Wayne Gacy, the infamous killer-clown. By day, Gacy was a podgy children’s entertainer, complete with a hilarious name (Pogo) and that oh-so-reassuring deathly lead-white makeup. By night he was a prolific murderer and sex criminal, responsible for 33 particularly revolting crimes.
Just as Gacy did, Paddington would have you believe it to be the jolly friendly uncle in the railway termini family. In fact, it is an evil monster of a station, ready at any moment to shaft you with the blazing hot poker of a Heathrow Express ticket, or hold the entire rail traffic of the West of England at a red signal because a pensioner accidentally pulled the alarm at Pangbourne.
If one station was going to be kept locked up in a rural homestead, ready to kill anyone who dared disturb its tortured parody of an existence, it would definitely be Euston. Physically deformed by incidents presumed to have occurred in the 1960s, both Leatherface and Euston share a similar bond in ugliness of body and soul.
Both are also messy with their killing. If you want to see the transport equivalent of a chainsaw massacre, observe the havoc when the platform number of the Virgin Pendolino to Manchester Piccadilly is finally announced, precisely two minutes before its intended departure time on a Sunday evening. Hordes of Mancunians – drunk on the sweet confirmation of their hatred of the capital – surge towards the single functioning ticket barrier, at which a Spanish tourist is attempting to scan an Air Iberia boarding pass. The resulting scene would make even the hardiest Deep South simpleton squirm.
Certain names throughout British cultural history are inexorably linked together – Jeeves and Wooster, cheese and onion, Kate and Wills – the list of naff pairings goes on and on. Even the nation’s favourite murderers come as a duo.
The preening edifice of St Pancras is linked by a network of A Clockwork Orange tunnels with the squat, workmanlike King’s Cross. With the Wests, Rose was often the outward face of the operation, tempting in clients for her astonishingly well-patronised prostitution business, while Fred did the heavy work of killing victims in the cellar.
So too at King’s Cross/ St Pancras there operates a similarly dualistic approach, one that is part-front, part-execution. Betjeman’s neo-Gothic Disneyland castle tempts in the unwitting Parisian for a day trip to an ancient British city. After a hellish subterranean experience they emerge at the tough truth of King’s Cross, where they are packed into a four carriage stopping service, loaded to the brim with students in vomit-encrusted black tie, then onto a journey that will take a full two hours to dump them at Cambridge station: a fate that makes being buried underneath a patio look positively appealing.
H H Holmes was famous for building the ‘Murder Castle’, a nightmarish guest house in Chicago. It was designed with bricked-up windows, staircases leading to sheer drops, and rooms filled with body-disposal equipment. He could have also conceivably designed Liverpool Street station – the bastard lovechild of a 70s shopping precinct and a M. C. Escher painting.
Every turn you take is fraught with horrors that would make Holmes proud. Need the lavatory? That’ll be thirty pence to be wanked at by some deviants in a basement. Trying to work out what the overhead walkways are for? Not even the trainspotters know. Hoping for a quiet weekend in Suffolk? Well think again, the Murder Castle owns you now.
John George Haigh
Haigh was a particularly ludicrous figure. Convinced that he deserved the high life, he ended up robbing and killing a number of wealthy acquaintances, so to maintain the lifestyle to which he had become accustomed.
Marylebone has absolutely no business masquerading as a mainline railway station, yet you remain keenly aware that it would happily kill you and dispose of your body in order to maintain that status.
It is the sort of station that would kill once, then allow the entire situation to spiral out of control. What other recourse does miserable, pathetic Marylebone have?
This stations drips with a calculated faux-sophistication. When one of the less subtle stations committed a horrific murder (probably a botched disembowelment by Euston), Chris Grayling (or some other MP involved in transport), was led into a high security prison, past cells crammed with commuters yelling unprintable obscenities, down into the depths of the dungeon, to find himself face-to-face with London Bridge – the only station capable of getting inside the uniquely sick mindset involved.
London Bridge pretends to be all slick and shiny these days, but deep down, you know that it would kill you without a moment's hesitation (or at least trap you on a faulty escalator, after a turgid evening getting six-pints-deep at the Barrowboy & Banker).
It is the cannibalistic pseud of the London train station line up. They probably even offer liver and Chianti at the ticket office.
Jack the Ripper
No one knows who or what it is and it was last of any relevance in 1888.
Illustrations by Nicolas Chuard