Shiny and new: the new Kings Cross Station is a far cry from its former grim incarnation. Photo: Getty
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King’s Cross – from derelict wasteland to caffeinated utopia

In the mid-1990s, when I often caught the train out to Cambridge, King’s Cross was known for two things: a dirty, decaying station and prostitutes. Now I secretly enjoy missing a connection.

King’s Cross has been transformed from a grim commuter necessity, somewhere that had to be endured but was never enjoyed, into a place where you’d be happy to waste time. Sixty-seven acres of what was industrial scrub – disused railway hoardings and empty Victorian warehouses – are now home to, among others, Google and Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design. The transformation shows the power of confident planning, long-term thinking and proper public transport. It should be copied elsewhere.

In the mid-1990s, when I often caught the train out to Cambridge, King’s Cross was known for two things: a dirty, decaying station and prostitutes. Every minute spent waiting in the station, enveloped by grime, felt like a minute stolen from you. I cut each journey as fine as possible: better to have to run for a train than to kick your heels in the concourse.

Now I secretly enjoy missing a connection. It’s an opportunity to drink superior coffee while sitting in a free deckchair next to the Regent’s Canal and watching Wimbledon on a huge outdoor TV screen. If someone had told me 20 years ago that a flâneur would gravitate here, I’d have assumed that I was talking to a fantasist.

Coffee is a serious matter in the progress of cities. In South Australia, the stated aim of Adelaide’s redevelopment think tank is to create “a walkable, bikeable . . . [and] hyper-caffeinated city”. Nudging citizens towards coffee has a good history, as well as making good sense. In seeking to explain the rise of the west, Niall Ferguson argued in Civilisation that the English got lucky with their drugs. The arrival of Arabic coffee in the 17th century roused the English from sleepy alcoholism; the east got stuck with the lethargy of the opium den.

Indeed, this column began as a chance conversation with the two brilliant baristas who operate under a canopy between St Pancras and King’s Cross stations. An aimless chat over flat whites led to a full tour of the site by Robert Evans of Argent, one of the developers of the master plan.

The land behind King’s Cross and St Pancras – now being converted into 50 new buildings, 2,000 new homes, 20 new streets and ten public squares – used to be entirely disconnected from central London. No one, emerging on to the Euston Road, used to turn back on themselves, wondering what lay due north. Not only was there nowhere to go, there was also no easy way of getting there.

The sense of a void in one direction is subtly influential in creating a negative atmosphere. I learned that lesson by living in two different flats in London. Both were nice homes. But on leaving one flat, I always turned right: that was the only way to get to civilisation. Leaving the other, I turned equally often in either direction. Feeling connected all around influenced my sense of belonging. I was in the middle of something, not stuck out on a limb.

The same principle underpins the transformation of the land behind King’s Cross. The developers wanted to bring new residential areas into central London. That could only be done by creating public spaces: squares, parks, boulevards, schools and a university. If the site had been turned into luxury flats alone, like so many others in London, it would have remained wholly cut off from real city life. “It’s a public space,” Evans explained to me, freely admitting a long-term business rationale behind the plan. “Create the conditions for urban life and you create value. Because we focused on making connections with London and mixed-use diversity, it’s not just a series of buildings with asset values. It’s a place.”

Place influences people. As a cricketer, I noticed that there was less “sledging” (unprovoked verbal abuse) at Lord’s – the world’s most civilised cricket ground – than at other venues. People tend to find the level that is expected of them. Most of us don’t recognise that our behaviour is changing even as it is elevated. By the same process, there is little graffiti in the new Granary Square in King’s Cross and the deckchairs and tables have not been stolen or defaced.

There is nothing new here. The Ideal City, a 15th-century painted panel executed for the palace of Duke Federico da Montefeltro in Urbino, depicts urban life as a humanist utopia. “The city is like a great house,” argued the Renaissance architect and theorist Leon Battista Alberti, “and the house is in turn a small city.” The wonder is how that tradition was lost.

In the absence of aristocratic largesse on a grand scale, developing neighbourhoods today is more likely to rely on an urgent sense of purpose. And the engine behind the new King’s Cross could not be more historically appropriate: high-speed rail. It was the railway that first made the area important in the 19th century. Two rival businesses, the Great Northern Railway and the Midland line, competed for custom and kudos. Just as aristocratic families tried to build ever taller towers in San Gimignano in Italy, St Pancras was built in the Gothic style as a riposte to the simplicity of King’s Cross.

The railway has now helped to remake the area. I have no professional or personal stake in the environs at all: no business or property. Yet I travel by HS1 from Kent, so King’s Cross is necessarily part of my life. That necessity has become something more. In seeking distraction or just wasting time, I’ve met people outside my professional bubble, noticed different things and developed new interests. That’s how cities function when they work properly.

When HS2 happens – I write “when” in the spirit of optimistic faith – it could have the same effect on, say, the Leeds South Bank as HS1 has had on King’s Cross. 

Ed Smith’s latest book is “Luck: a Fresh Look at Fortune (Bloomsbury, £8.99)

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 13 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, A century of meddling in the Middle East

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Of course we could do more to stop terrorism – if we’re willing to live in a police state

 The only way to stop this sort of human monster completely is to become like them.

What are we prepared to sacrifice to keep children safe? On Monday night at Manchester arena, 22 people were senselessly slaughtered. Many of them were young girls, pouring out of a pop concert, giddy with excitement. Hours before the killer was identified or Islamic State had claimed responsibility for the attack, the political conversation had already turned to vengeance, and respected public thinkers were calling, in the name of those dead children, for further crackdowns on immigrants and perceived outsiders, for troops on the streets, for "internment camps'" with straight faces and the sincere implication that anyone who disagrees is weak-willed and possibly a terrorist sympathiser. A lot of little girls have been killed. What good are tolerance and human rights today?

Nobody can be expected to be instantly rational when dozens of kids have just been maimed and murdered. There are, however, individuals who seem more than prepared to exploit the occasion to further their own agendas. Yet again, we are told that the state is failing in its duty to protect "our" children, that pansy liberals won't let us raise the "obvious solutions" to this problem. Nobody can quite bring themselves to articulate exactly what those "obvious solutions" might be, hedging the issue instead with grave looks, raised eyebrows and stern allusions to the consequences of political correctness. The consensus is that we are living in a nation so paralysed by hand-flapping progressive talk-talkery that ordinary, right-thinking folks aren’t allowed to say what’s really on their minds. 

The truth is that nobody’s stopping anyone from saying what they think about any of this, and if you don’t believe me, take a brisk scroll through Twitter this afternoon, and keep some eyeball bleach on hand. In fact, the reason a lot of people are stopping short of saying what they think ought to be done is that they know full well that what they think ought to be done is unacceptable and shameful in any sane society. So shameful, indeed, that it takes a professional shit-stirrer to speak it aloud. 

Enter Katie Hopkins. It’s not just pro-trolls like her who have called for a "final solution" following the Manchester Arena bombing. Telegraph columnist Allison Pearson declared that we should start putting "thousands" of people in "internment camps" in the name of protecting children. Spiked editor Brendan O’Neill echoed the tone, blaming "multiculturalism" for mass murder, and implying that anyone advocating calm and tolerance in the face of terrorism does not feel sufficiently angry about the murder of 22 of their fellow citizens. “It is becoming clear,” insists O'Neill, “that the top-down promotion of a hollow ‘togetherness’ in response to terrorism is about cultivating passivity.”

In fact, Britain is far from passive in the face of extremist violence. Britain already has one of the most robust counter-terrorism programs on the planet. We are among the most surveilled societies in the Western world. We have a counter-extremism program, Prevent, that places a duty in schools, universities and other public bodies to report any suspected radical or "extremist" activity, and is so exacting that it has been condemned by experts and educators across the board as an infringement of the right to free speech and thought. The authorities responsible for heading off and hunting down these psychopaths and all who sail with them are hardly slacking on the job. The problem is that there's really no way to up the game from here without going full police state. The pundits condemning the relevant institutions as shirkers today know this full well, which is why a police state is exactly what they’re asking for, with the inference that anyone who disagrees is awfully relaxed about the violent death of young girls and their parents.

So let’s not mince words. Let's be absolutely clear what’s at stake here. Let us acknowledge that yes, we could do more to stop this, if we wanted. And then let's think about whether that's really, actually, what we want.

Yes, we could do more. We could allow the state to round up and lock away anyone even remotely suspected of violent, extremist tendencies; anyone who has ever accessed a suspicious website or attended a dubious lecture. We'd have to lock those people up for a very long time, of course, because if there's one thing that nudges people from a passing interest in anti-state violence into full on fanaticism, it's active state oppression. We could ban anyone who's ever been in any way associated with extremist ideology from entering the country, including those who are fleeing violence themselves. We could institute total surveillance of everyone’s online activity. We could build those internment camps. They’d be expensive, so it’s only fair that potential degenerates and their associates be obliged to work for their keep. Of course, you wouldn't want those internment camps spread out - you'd want the inmates concentrated in one place. What could we call such camps? I’m sure we’ll think of a name.

If we did all that, and more, then yes, there's a chance that we could stop atrocities like this from happening again. Even then, there's no guarantee. The most exacting neo-stasi infrastructure can’t always stop the rogue loner with a breadknife and a brain boiling with arcane violence. It would, however, significantly lower the odds.

The question is not whether it can be done. Of course it can be done. Paranoid, bloodless, hyper-vigilant police states have been instituted in European nations before, and if any country on earth has the infrastructure to make it work right now, it's Britain, a small island with an extensive surveillance architecture, a mostly urban population, a conservative government currently seeking re-election on a tough-love platform, and no pesky constitutional rights to free speech. We can do it if we want to. Sure we can. The question is whether we should. The question is whether it's worth it. Is it worth it, to prevent the loss of one more young life, the devastation of one more family?

Don’t answer that right now. Give it a few days, at least, because right now it makes a great deal of emotional sense to say yes, yes, it’s worth it. Anything to stop something like this happening again. To save one child. To keep hundreds more from being traumatised for life just because they went to a pop concert with their friends. I suspect that today, tucked away in the collective psyche of a great many otherwise tolerant and decent people, is a furious, frightened voice yelling - sure, let’s do it. Let’s shut the borders and build the camps. It might not be nice, it might not even be right, but these evil dickheads are killing kids, so frankly, fuck the Geneva convention.

That furious, frightened instinct needs to be named so we can deal with it like adults. The anger and the fear here are real and legitimate, even though a great many bad actors are exploiting them to further racist, xenophobic agendas. It’s alright to be frightened and furious. It’s not alright to let those emotions dictate public policy. Today, with the faces of murdered little girls all over the news, is not a day to ask anyone what they’re prepared to sacrifice to make sure this never happens again.

Because the truth is that the only way to stop this sort of human monster is to become like them. The only way to be sure that no swivel-eyed extremist who hates life, and liberty and raw youthful joy so much that he's prepared to blow up a pop concert full of teenagers can never do that again is to acquiesce to the sort of state apparatus that is anathema to joy and liberty and life, the sort of state apparatus that no child should grow up with.

This is why platitudes about 'unity', about 'not letting hate win', about keeping it together and trying not to let our worst instincts take over, are not, in fact, platitudes at all. They are not banal. They are not hollow. It takes enormous strength of character, at a time like this,  not to give in to fear and rage and the rationale of revenge. The people of Manchester are showing that strength in the wake of one of the most horrific mass murders this tense and divided nation has ever seen. We owe it to them, to the victims of this attack, and to their families not to sully their memories by surrendering to the logic of intolerance.

It is at moments like this when a community proves its character.  It is at times like this that it is more, not less essential to refuse racist and fascist ideas. Tolerance is not passivity. Kindness is not weakness. It is not cowardly to stay with our anger and our grief and refuse to let those emotions sway our commitment to human dignity, or to look dreadful vengeance in the face and refuse it. It is strength. It is strength more profound and more human than fundamentalists of any faction can comprehend, and if we hang on to that strength, they will never, ever win. 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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