At journey’s beginning
“He is a chilly Londoner who does not endow his stations with some personality, and extend to them, however shyly, the emotions of fear and love.” – E.M. Forster, Howards End
My first experience of the pleasure of reading in train stations came as you might imagine at the beginning of a journey. Marylebone Station was the doorway to London for me as a young person, the portal through which I passed as an adolescent from the rolling quiet of the Chiltern hills into the bustling adolescence of Oxford street, Maida Vale and the charmless pretension of the South West. Despite being the busy confluence of these two realms of the head, the quiet wait beside the flower stall, browsing in WH Smiths or reading on a bench was always much improved by the gurgling traffic of people and voices throwing up a busy, anonymous hum in which to focus on a slow and arduous task like deciphering a book.
After Marylebone came St Pancras’ refurbished splendour, Victoria’s eminent and sturdy hustle, and Paddington’s bizzarre and claustrophobic length. Clapham Junction has some of the best coffee in London but Kings Cross is good for no reader – saved (perhaps) by its proximity to the British Library.
But what is most apparent – following a short and necessarily haphazard consideration of the benefits of London’s train stations for the concentration required to read and read well – other than the suitability of the train station for reading is that an important part of that same aptitude of the train station evaporates when you go there to read but are not waiting for a train.
The cord of concentration drawn out by the need to be in a certain place at a certain time – the pricking of ears – that is necessary for catching trains is also just right for reading: too much concentration is anxious and ennervated – fidgety – too little concentration is lazy, dangerous and likely to leave you in ignorance or taint you with tardiness or both.
Waiting for a train in a train station offers the perfect combination of concentration, relaxation, ephemerality and memorialisation. You will not forget that it was outside the Paul coffee shop in Marylebone that Kafka’s K was first executed, or in Le Pain Quotidien in St Pancras that Pierre Bezhukov tied a bear to a policeman in War and Peace and threw them together into the Moskva or that it was beside Delice de France in Victoria that Myrtle’s nose was first broken by Tom Buchanan in The Great Gatsby. The books create the memories of course – and to their writers the credit – but the world is so much brighter when stretched along a modest rod of apprehension and few activities benefit more from this, and the meditative bustle of a crowd, than sitting down and reading a book.