Underneath the tall plane trees of the elliptical garden square opposite St Pancras hospital, a woman takes two wolves for a walk. The wolves seem calmer than she is.
In St Pancras Gardens – tucked behind the stations on the edge of Somer’s town – the empty tomb of Mary Wollstencraft – author of the vindication of the rights of women and dead of childbirth induced septicemia at the age of 38 – stands black and grim like a prehistoric standing stone -her body long since disinterred and reburied in the warmer soils of Bournemouth in a posthumous retirement to the South coast. All around, the lone and level lawn stretches far away.
Underneath the red and white arches in the lost streets to the north of the station, a narrow antique shop window displays a row of decapitated mannequin heads from the 1920’s or 30s like a hint for a Dr Who episode that is yet to be written- a male figure with a Clark Gable mustache, a woman with a cloche hat, a golden haired child – all corpse like, with sinister expectant expressions and fixed smiles.
The canyon between St Pancras and the British Library makes the station look like a cathedral to an evil god.
Inside the British Library an exhibition on Imaginary Cities that takes maps and remasters them digitally to make moving grey fractal patterns based on nineteenth century Paris that are nightmarishly symmetrical, a film of a digital cityscape based on early twentieth century New York that feels like a labyrinth with no escape, a 3D rendering of Chicago that has the look and feel of a circuit board. All of these render the city as a machine or a structure in which the human life that animates and transforms it is simply taken as an unacknowledged given. Dead places.
In the “Treasures” exhibition there are music scores in the hand of long dead composers – or written by a contemporary on their behalf. Luminously neat and celestially symmetrical black lines of a piece by Byrd – composed and written as an act of worship punctiliously spaced, harmonious as a motet sung by angels and authoritative as a set of commandments- lead on to waves of emotion slashed into a score by the barely contained energy of Beethoven’s pen as though he had to rush to channel his inspiration before it was lost- the draft of a song by Mahler, full of anxious scribblings out- showing that genius takes work and the first draft isn’t the last word. The Bach Fugue playing in the head sets was an old conversation between the left and right hands on the keyboard that will go on forever.
Just as the dialogue from the gravedigger scene in Hamlet spoken in the headphones by Laurence Olivier and Stanley Holloway will. Four hundred year old words about the mutability of life, spoken with such passion and wit by actors who died 30 years ago that the last words – “let her paint an inch thick – to this favour she must come” – stand as an epitaph for their lives that is defied by the continuing power of their work.
Outside in the sunshine, the chilly steel and glass redevelopment of the scuzzy back end of Kings Cross looks like an animated architect’s poster – sufficiently antiseptic to make the people walking through it, or holding meetings behind display windows in rooms with bare chairs and flip charts like every other room in the complex – look like holograms. On an astroturf seating bank alongside the canal like a hanging lawn of mammon, a set of young people sit scattered watching a film of a corporate panel discussion on “advanced analytics” on a screen on the other side. They seem bored. Several have laid down and seem to be asleep. This is part of a “Festival of AI and emerging technology ” run by an outfit called Cog X that is taking place amid the reconditioned engine sheds of the age of steam. It has the feel of the Chicago circuit board city – but in the middle of it, the canal continues to flow and big geese paddle through the algae alongside canal boats cluttered with bicycles and geraniums.