Fighter pilot, Royal Navy 1945, Hydrographer Iraq 1947-52 India 1952-53, Canadian Hydrographic Arctic explorer 1953-1960, Writer-producer Canadian National Film Board 1961-72, Freelance journalist, audio-visual producer 1972-2009, National Press Club of Canada 1961 - 2006

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

London’s Liverpool Street Station


A warm, grimy, unforgettable scene of romance


During the 1940s, Liverpool Street Station epitomized Britain at war. Located at the extreme edge of the City of London—as the bustling square mile of the business district is known—Liverpool Street Station serves England's East Anglia and northeastern regions with trains running to such places as Southend-on-Sea (known to most Londoners as Southend-on-Mud), Clacton, Ipswich, Norwich and Cambridge. The station is also the terminus for a web of suburban commuter services.
The station, like much of the rest of wartime England at that time, was wall-to-wall with British, Canadian, Australian, New Zealand, Rhodesian, South African, Indian, Polish, Czechoslovakian, Norwegian and especially, United States military uniforms. With its blitz-battered, high-arched Victorian roofs of soot-smeared glass, rambling cobble-stoned approaches, echoing alleyways, and high connecting footbridges, stairways and galleries, all massively built of open iron work and stout wooden beams and planking, the old station was an unforgettable scene. Combined with shrilly urgent blasts of steam whistles from smoke-belching locomotives, the slamming of carriage doors, cries of busy porters, shouts, curses and laughter of soldiers, sailors and airmen from around the globe, it was a noisy, bustling place.
The silent white faces of loneliness left behind on suddenly deserted departure platforms and the heavy clump of army boots hurrying to meet the eager click-clacking of a young girl's wedge-soled shoes, would often be punctuated by the low thump of bombs aimed at the nearby Thames docks. All this, together with the general smoky, murkiness of the whole, gloomy, partially blacked-out scene, echoed the pathos, romance and adventure that has been part of all the wars that ever were or ever will be.

For the casual convivial and thirsty traveller in those far-off times, there were three points of interest regarding Liverpool Street Station.
Firstly, if arriving or departing by underground train, Liverpool Street tube station was noted (as was Sloane Square) for having a bar right on the platform. This meant one could lean up against it, glass in hand, right up until almost the very last moment before the carriage doors began to slide shut. Secondly, just across Bishopsgate, the street outside the station's east entrance, was Dirty Dick's. This ancient pub is reputed to have inspired Charles Dickens to write the Miss Havisham episode in Great Expectations. The pub earned its name from the legend that a former owner, after being devastated by the death of his sweetheart on the eve of the nuptials, vowed himself to everlasting celibacy, the wedding breakfast to remain for eternity in the room in which it had been set, and the rest of his tavern to perpetual neglect. Luckily, for the customers, by 1939, the essential items in the pub, like glasses, floor and toilets were kept in good order, but the cellar-bar's walls and ceiling were left begrimed and sporting such various gruesome objects as dead cats nailed to the rafters.

The third handy spot for alcoholic refreshment at Liverpool Street, apart from the usual station buffets, was a small tavern or tap room hidden away below one of the wide sets of stairs leading up to the long gallery to the Bishopsgate exit and the portals of the Great Eastern Hotel. It was also conveniently close to the broad set of wide stairs leading down to the cavernous gentlemen's underground toilet. A toilet so large that it could cater to the urgent needs of up to half a battalion of soldiery at the same time.
During the war years, this rough and ready station pub seemed not to have a name. It was just known as 'the pub under the stairs'. Yet it was a good spot, shabby but cozy. A nice handy place to drink good draught beer whilst keeping an eye on one's train standing at a nearby platform. With its sawdust-strewn floor and throngs of service people from around the world, I found it an attractive place to order a half pint of beer and note the shoulder flashes of the cosmopolitan and commonwealth soldiery. Just about to turn eighteen, I revelled in being of that company.

Revisiting Liverpool Street Station after a lapse of twenty years abroad, I noticed some changes. The bar on the underground tube station platform was still there but somewhat more unobtrusive.
Dirty Dick's was flourishing with a nice clean street-level bar and attractive lunchtime food counter. But downstairs in the cellar, all that could be seen from a hasty peek into a darkened interior packed with rockers and ear-splitting sound, was that it could still possibly be the same—in some ways.

The biggest shock was the little pub, 'the pub under the stairs', right in the station proper.
As I turned the corner after crossing the long elevated bridge leading over from the long-distance platforms, which gave an overall birds-eye view of many departure and arrival platforms, and where visiting groups of German schoolgirls were hoisting their knapsacks and taking their first look at London, I inwardly shrank with disappointment at the sight that met my gaze.
Where that little oasis of a pub had been there was nothing but a roughly-boarded up plywood shell.
I looked forlornly at it.
"How long", I asked a nearby porter, "has the pub been closed?"
"Just a couple of weeks, guv." he replied shortly, and walked off with his trolley.
I shed an unseen tear. But, I wasn't particularly devastated. There are other pubs galore in the City. But it did seem a shame that that special little place should have been closed down just weeks before I came back after so long a time away. My murky memories of Liverpool Street Station would never be the same.

Two years later business again took me back to Liverpool Street Station. I walked round the same corner as before and looked sadly over to the site of the old pub.
But! Alleluia! What on earth was that?

Lights! Brilliant brasswork! Gleaming shiny windows, artistically etched with motifs of fruit and grapes, and framed in rich cherry-wood! People holding handsome shiny gin and whisky glasses! Full pints of pumped up draught Bass ale on a polished, gleaming bar!
That railway porter I had spoken to on my last visit had omitted something important. Very important. The little pub had not been closed for good. Just for rebuilding. And what a wonderful job they had made of it—for a change!
Nor was that all. What was that overhead? Hanging near the foot of the long staircase leading up to the massive Great Eastern Hotel. It was a pub sign. With the pub’s name painted on it.
At last the little pub had a name.
I moved forward and looked up. I could see the sign plainly, now. It was a nice colourful painting of some apples. A painting of some apples and some pears.
That's it! Of course! Yes! And there was the name under the picture. What name could be better? What a perfect name for a little pub which has stood so long under those big wide stairs.
It was ideal.
“The Apples and Pears”
—the old Cockney rhyming slang for stairs!

Another long period of years passed before I again visited Liverpool Street Station. It was heartbreaking. The religious men with a twisted Cause, like that one I had met in the bar in Edmonton, Alberta, many years before in 1959, when I was returning from the wilds of Yukon, had done their stupid work.
After their senseless bomb had done its damage, the old station had been gutted and modernized. To a fault. It appeared more like a vast public sombre convenience than a romantic place of meeting and farewell. Its flat expanses of lightly coloured floors and walls, its unnatural fluorescent brightness, its paucity of alcoves, nooks, crannies, garbage containers and any other spots conducive for concealing deadly, and blatantly cowardly, packages, meant that though full of people it was devoid of its former vitality. Deprived of traditional human warmth by barbarian morons. Modern and artificial. Devoid of romance. Stark.
Because, the little pub under the stairs was gone for ever. Replaced by an impersonal modern bar beneath the hotel upstairs. A wide, cheerless, open-concept bar with no dangerous nooks or crannies and with little appeal,.
Bereft of romance.
And memories.


1 comment:

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