Sunday, 3 October 2010

Glimpsed in railway stations

It’s a commonplace that a pleasure’s all the greater for being unexpected.

For example, there are lots of good things to be said of railways stations. Obviously, they’ve got a lot going for them if you want, say, to catch a train. Hard to imagine doing that without a station, to be perfectly honest, unless you plan to jump onto a moving carriage in time-honoured Western style. In addition, though, they often provide other things too: a cup of coffee, a passable meal at an occasionally less than rip-off price, or even, in certain shining examples such as the major London terminals, access to some fairly good shops. A decent latte in the morning, Marks and Spencer fresh orange juice in the evening, and I feel Euston station has done a good job of topping and tailing my day.

What I don’t expect from a station is art, particularly not art that strikes me. So I was pleasantly surprised the other day at St Pancras station to come across Paul Day’s sculpture The Meeting Place.

My first feeling was that there was humour to the piece. It seemed a bit cartoon-like in treatment, for instance the overstated folds of the clothes, and that made me smile. At second glance, what struck me was the contrast in the scene: on the one hand, the meeting itself, an incdent repeated dozens of times a day at stations around the country, so unexceptional as to be banal, while on the other hand there's the sharp poignancy of what it represents – the end of separation.

It made welcome relief from the dullness of station life. It also reminded me of a similar experience I had several times as a teenager when I used to travel to Devon from Paddington Station. The train left from platform 1 which is where the Great Western Railway First World War memorial stands. Now I generally feel that, if railway stations have little to do with art, war memorials have even less. Most war memorials are trite representations of a young man striding resolutely forward, a rifle with bayonet fixed in his hands or at his shoulder. It’s all about courage and heroism, and feels completely artificial in sentiment.

The exceptions are the memorials that are about loss not glory, like the Vietnam wall in Washington. Or Charles Sargeant Jagger’s memorial on platform 1 at Paddington.

The man is young but no teenager. He’s in battledress but not striking a warlike pose. Instead he’s wearing all the clothes he can, against the cold and probably the wet (whenever I see the statue, I feel that something about it says that it’s raining). He’s reading a letter from home. So, the statue’s not about heroism, but about longing to be somewhere else, which could hardly be more appropriate than in the trenches. And isn't out of place in a station.

Two London stations, two uplifting moments. I recommend them if you’re anywhere nearby.

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