The Heart of the City

Our editor-at-large has spent far too much time at Charing Cross station.

‘It’s the heart of London you know’, I find myself telling people who don’t care. They edge away along sofas, anxious about the quality of my small talk. I press on: ‘They measure all London distances from there I believe.’ I sometimes continue with ‘Go on, tell me where you think the centre of London is.’ It has become a bit of a hobbyhorse of mine, I’ll admit. 

More than that, Charing Cross has become an awkward friend. Why this freakish obsession? Recently, I have gotten to know the place intimately. I don’t mean I’m shagging a mainline railway terminus but that I am there regularly, and see the place at special times and in colourful hues and from all different angles. 

For a year or so, I was reverse commuting out of Charing Cross Station early most mornings. Consequently, the place is in my head. The run of stations that I hear announced there pleases me, for no particular reason. I intone them randomly in the shower or on the tube ‘Wye, Chilham, Chartham’ mimicking the particular inflections of the automated voice who broadcasts them out. 

The station gets its name from the original Charing Cross the funerary monument to Eleanor of Castile built by a grieving Edward I. Its original location, the place from where distances to central London are measured, was slightly to the west, where the statue of Charles I is now. However, such is the synonymity of the name with the station that there is now a fume-stained Victorian replica in its forecourt. Until a recent restoration, bits kept falling off, imperilling the cabbies who smoke beneath it.

In 1864 the railway arrived, in 1905 a roof collapsed, in 1927 a murdered woman was found in a trunk in the station locker room, and in the Second World War, a parachute mine dropped in on platform 4. There have been multiple attempts to officially move the centre of London – to Marble Arch, to City Hall, to a cartographically more satisfying patch of anonymous land near Temple – but none have succeeded. Today, London’s centre remains at shabby Charing Cross.

What does London’s heart (which it is, just to remind you) tell us about the city’s body? The Globalization and World Cities Research Network ranks every global conurbation based on their soft power, financial power, presence of global institutions, and so on and so forth. London remains, with New York, one of the only two cities on Earth ranked as ‘Alpha ++’. Does that ring true at Charing Cross? The question is not so much an exercise in measuring human geography or financial clout: it’s more like a cardiology report.

The lack of natural light in the main concourse gives the space an eerie timelessness. Charing Cross at 06:55 feels much as it does at 16:55 or 23:55: like an airport lounge but with Edwardian décor and facilities, which, in many ways, is exactly what it is.

It is quieter though, when the city awakes. True, it’s normally a quiet feeling station, only getting crowded during one of its regular spates of unexplained cancellations. Its pub, The Beer House, has been shut since before COVID. One of its last reviews on TripAdvisor claims that the ‘only responsive member of staff there’ was the fruit machine. It is not the only boarded-up premise on the concourse. Even Burger King has beaten a melancholy retreat: the pigeons now peck at old fag ends and thin air. WH Smith and Boots cling on – as they inevitably will even after a nuclear holocaust –  so too, mysteriously, does Hotel Chocolat.

It’s not just the businesses – or lack of them – that add to the sense of a non-place. There are billboards for shows long since closed in the West End and rarely updated adverts. My particular favourite is a stained poster depicting a gnome huffing some form of bottle. It stays up all year long, the silent commuters who breeze out of the station’s doors still being sold pollen relief in the very depths of January. 

Despite this air of decrepitude, there are still living things in the station. The early morning is its unguarded hour. Trains shunt in, suits and workmen pour off. They spend perhaps half a minute, at the most, inside the station before scurrying from the six short platforms to the four exits, on their way to buses or down the poorly maintained staircase to the tube. Others, however, linger. 

Most mornings I join them, catching a later train to soak up the non-atmosphere as the place awakens. There are people I see every day. There is the cheerful man who pushes the rattling milk trolley as it makes its way across the concourse. Not many people smile in Charing Cross but he does. The benches by the ticket machines are populated by people who welcome the refuge from the streets. Every morning, I see the woman who sleeps on the fourth and fifth seats along. There is the man who shouts at the pigeons: ‘Fuck’, ‘Greedy cunts’. He’s not wrong. Those fag ends go down a treat. There is the man who uses the bend of the bench to stretch his back. A commuter stalks past and winces at the clicks. 

The station loos technically open at 7am. By 6:55, there is a queue wanting to use them for morning ablutions. Often the staff open earlier to allow the would-be washers in. Most have slept just outside the station or within walking distance. I wait with these men – they are almost all men – and one, whose name I later learn is Marek, asks me if I’m ok. I reply affirmatively and ask if he is. He smiles broadly and says ‘FANTASTIC’. When the doors open he picks up his bags with clothes and wash stuff and bounds down the stairs. The others look at him, as if resenting his energy. As the clock ticks past seven, others begin to make use of them. There is the lightly built young man who, almost every morning, follows heavy-booted workmen into the gents, always returning back up the stairs three minutes later, disappointed. He goes back to his spot and waits until one time that he gets lucky.

One particular morning, on a side bench near the cash points, a man is closely squinting at a newspaper; an advert in the previous day’s Metro to be precise. He reads with deep intent what most people idly discard: the closeness and seriousness of his observation being the mark of the long-sighted – or the irretrievably insane. As I watch him, I begin to fear the intensity with which I want Charing Cross to mean something is taking on a similar distance from reality. It’s true that at this weird plot between the Strand and Trafalgar Square, many things don’t work, that there is the unmistakable air of melancholy and decay, that it is the permanent preserve of those who can go nowhere else, while the productive forces of capital merely pass through. But I suppose the key point – or the central point, if you will –  is that this doesn’t feel particularly odd or surprising or even symbolic in London in 2024. It just, depressingly, is what it is. 

More recently, in the middle of the day, I hop two stairs at a time down the funny side staircase onto Villiers Street. I’m late for an appointment and am irritated at the tourists who are, understandably, confused by the pointless transition between Charing Cross and Embankment. As I reach the bottom of the flight of steps, a hand grips my shoulder. ‘Laces are undone, dude’, says a man. He does genuinely call me ‘dude’ which makes it sound like he’s a surfer but he’s not: he is a man in, I would guess, his fifties, with an intense stare. I thank him and kneel to tie them up. ‘Not a problem for me: ain’t got laces’. I flick my eyes up and see he’s right, his feet being shod in a pair of flapping delaced converses. I feel I ought to make some small talk by way of thanks for his kindness. ‘What brings you to Charing Cross?’ I ask. ‘Centre of London, dude!’ he replies. ‘Yes,’ I say, ‘it is’. 

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