Saturday, 15 November 2014

St Albans, again

“Good morning everybody, this is James, and can I say how lovely it is to see you all. I’m so pleased that we’ve managed to get you here on time. I wish you all a pleasant day and look forward to seeing you this evening on your journey home.”

St Albans stopped being my home. Work, however, continued to take me there daily.

Every morning, and every evening, there would be James, the platform announcer.

“Good evening everybody, this is James, and can I say how lovely it is to see you all. I’m so sorry we’ve got you home two minutes late this evening. It jolly well matters. Rest assured I will not rest until I have found out why we have failed you this evening, because you really do matter. If you are boarding the train here, I wish you a pleasant onward journey, and I shall see you all, bright and early, in the morning.”

The following morning, there he would be.

“Good morning everybody, this is James, and can I say how lovely it is to see you all. I’m very sorry about the weather today. I have a few umbrellas here should you need one, they were going spare in lost property. I do hope that, despite the weather, you have a wonderful day.”

Day in day out, there would be James, standing among his people.

“Ladies and Gentlemen, as Shakespeare wrote: ‘One touch of nature makes the whole world kin”. As we await the 1750 to Bedford on this platform, we, too, are all connected. The train is only half a mile away, but the system is saying it is delayed by around 10 minutes. I’m ever so sorry.
I’m trying my hardest to understand why this might be, I don't like to keep you waiting.”

And with each message, more and more on the platform would smile, though his colleagues rolled their eyes. James, peering over his round frame glasses, swamped by his luminous First Capital Connect jacket and hidden beneath his train driver’s hat, would pore over the information screen, scrabbling for helpful information to share with those waiting to go home.

At last, the train arrived.

“Good evening everybody, this is James. I’m so sorry we’ve got you home ten minutes late this evening. I’m not sure what has happened, our systems promised they would get you here sooner. Please believe me when I say that this really does matter. If you can forgive us, I look forward to seeing you again tomorrow.”

And that he would. James, whose previous job as a butler had tasked him with anticipating all requests for help before they were made, strove daily to assist all passengers, and to do so with charm. A former alcoholic, he had found meaning in spreading politeness.

It was not long before he had an apprentice.

“Good evening everybody, this is Tom. Welcome to St Albans station. It is a pleasure to meet you all, and I hope you have a wonderful evening. Please do not hesitate to ask my colleagues or I should you need any assistance.”

And then the franchises changed. The carriages sported new logos, and the artwork around stations was replaced. Routes on the network changed. Giant businesses negotiated with government, and eye-watering numbers were circulated in trade press: 273 million passengers, government to pay £8.9 billion, expected returns of £12.4 billion. Despite the promises, of station improvements, of free wi-fi, of new trains, of better connections and of more seats, more services and greater capacity, trains were delayed on the very first day of franchise handover. On that very day in St Albans, as passengers finally arrived, frustrated, late and in need of a gentleman to welcome them and carry their troubles…

…James was not there.

Neither was he there in the evening, nor the next day, nor any day after that. I asked after him, and was told he had been moved on.

Journeys, no longer bookended by a doddery platform announcer whose declarations ensured a rickety train system could be, however fleetingly, forgiven for its failings, became a faceless routine. No longer was it bearable to squeeze on as the final sardine in a bumpy tin can. Trains were still late, but now an unemotive automated recording attempted to apologise instead. The tedious commute became, simply, a tedious commute.

One evening, I took a train in the other direction. Passing through the middle of London, bound for the airport, I chanced upon a familiar figure followed by a familiar voice.

“Good evening everybody, this is James, and can I say how lovely it is to see you all. Welcome to Farringdon station. I’m so pleased that we’ve got you here two minutes early this evening. I wish you all a wonderful evening, wherever you may be heading.”

Knowing that James is still out there, making passengers smile, the journey to St Albans is no longer a chore.


See also: The train dispatcher who defines what it means to be a gentleman

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

St Brelade

We sat, staring across the beach and out to sea. The sky was grey, the sand a dark brown, and the sea was slate. Trees on the distant headland flashed their greens as they swayed in the wind, until they fell victim to a mist that was slowly, but unrelentingly, swallowing the world. Swimmers, too, were swallowed, as standup paddleboarders faded to grey and a lone yacht retreated into the gloom. All around the landscape became saturated but for the merest wisps of colour: the yellow of a tennis ball, thrown for a Springer Spaniel — splish! into the waves — and the artificial red of the strawberry syrup on our ice creams.

A man walked across the scene, some distance ahead of his Highland Terrier. The terrier, it seemed, had grander plans in mind than a mere walk, for beneath the sand he dreamed of treasure. Like a dog possessed he found his spot, and now hemustdigHeMustDigHEMUSTDIG, sand spraying aft as the hole before him deepened. No man could lead him astray from his objective.

To our right, a greyhound sat and waited for his new best friend: a toddler. The child waddled and stumbled as her legs, so new to walking, searched for traction in the sand. Eventually she succeeded and reached the dog, who, after a brief cuddle, rose and found a new resting place, just metres away. Events repeated. By these means the greyhound encouraged the child on this adventure, across a beach that was disappearing.

Over time the mist receded: first the top of the headland reappeared, a foreboding hovering presence in the sky before its base was later revealed. Public on the beach, swimmers, paddleboarders and colour slowly returned to view. As we left we saw the footprints of those who had walked, undetected, through the haze: paw prints, bird tracks and a set of footprints belonging to an adult. Alongside them, as if they had walked hand in hand, were further footprints, of a child.

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

The Building on the Corner

The ‘Building on the Corner’ has been empty for some time. Nobody wants to buy it. Nobody wants to demolish it. Inside, there is nothing of material worth. Instead, there is darkness.

In the small wood-decked lobby, a lady hands us a slip of paper each. These are passes granting entry into the building beyond, just as visitors in 1940 would have been given. Had this been 1940, we could only have been here for two reasons: to post a name into a box — to spy on your neighbour, who would then be hunted; or to search for someone who had been hunted and was now missing — or to answer a summons, to voluntarily answer the call of the hunter. Here, in 2014, that threat has gone, and we are here only because it is important to do so. We have stepped inside the former home of the SSR People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs, the Cheka — you may know it from any of its many other names over the years: the Committee for State Security, the NKVD, the People’s Commissariat of National Security or, simply, the KGB.


Latvia, 1918. After freedom from centuries of russification, and freedom from German occupation in World War I, there is, at last, independence.

No sooner is there independence, there is occupation. Vladimir Lenin, having locked his opponents outside of the Tauride Palace and declared Soviet rule of Russia in their absence, now sets his sights on the Baltics. From one direction the Germans advance, from the other the Bolsheviks. Riga, the capital of a proud, neutral nation, sits in the middle, awaiting its fate. The Soviets take the city, among their troops even Latvians themselves fight. Estonia now fends back the Germans: Latvia fights off the Soviets. In 1920, at last, there really is independence.

But now begins the semi-benevolent dictatorship of Kārlis Ulmanis. Elected democratically, he dissolves Parliament and illegally detains other elected officials and military personnel. And yet, education standards rise, illiteracy drops and national wealth soars. Amongst the darkness: progress.

Independence does not last, and it fails because Moscow has decided it should. The Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact is signed, a supposed non-aggression pact that is secretly a land grabbing exercise. ‘Spheres of influence’ in Eastern Europe are partitioned on paper between the Soviets and the Nazis. Finland is first to fall, but fights back hard: the Molotov cocktail is born, in defiance of the Soviet foreign minister who so casually decided Finland should belong to Russia. Finland’s success is deceptively reassuring, and Latvia is unprepared for when Stalin comes knocking. And so, in June 1940, Latvia’s ‘Year of Terror’ begins.


The neoclassical apartment building on the corner of Brīvības ielā and Stabu ielā was designed by Aleksandrs Vanags, and was once lavishly decorated. The doorways alone were considered by many to be works of art. But just twenty eight years into its history, in the Year of Terror, this ornate construction became home to the secret police.

We step through from the lobby proper, past steel bars. Here, there is no sign of any decoration. The walls are covered in plain wood panelling, the corridors intimidatingly narrow and labyrinthine, and the corners are blind: a visitor's fate around each corner remains hidden until it is too late. All character to the building has been concealed, and all stimulation stripped away.

We enter a large room, bereft of features, save the museum exhibit that has been installed — yet as interesting as the signs and notices are, the true museum is the building itself. On one side another room juts off, housing what might once have been a kitchen, with at least a sink. Now, a projector presents people revealing memories, but the walls speak aloud too: chipped pale blue and white tiles peppered with rust stains. It is cold and it is emotionally sterile.

Below our feet are prison cells. We do not get to see them, for our visit is late in the day and, having missed the English language tour, we are unable to see the building alone. Likewise, the apartments above our heads that became interrogation rooms are out of bounds. We are left, instead, with the details on display.

This was a hive of oppression. On receiving a summons, the residents of Riga would have to go to the corner entrance to register and meet investigators. When they left — if they ever did — they did so as different people. If they failed to answer a summons, they would be arrested anyway. Even if they were not summoned, the slightest slight against the regime would lead to arrest. The wrong surname could lead to arrest. The Cheka ruled by fear.

Arrests were done silently, families not told of their loved one’s fates. Detainees were at once stripped and placed in isolation before eventually being transferred to a cell. The heating remained on full, even in the height of summer, and lamps kept cells lit for 24 hours a day. Poorly ventilated and overcrowded cells were equipped only with a bucket for ablutions. Inmates were allowed 15 minutes of fresh air every ten days. Unsuccessful interrogation led, once again, to isolation. Bit by bit, the mental strength of detainees would be chipped away.

We leave the main hall and follow the signs to the exit. The route takes us into a corridor with three small rooms coming off of it. It is silent today in the museum. Here, there are no windows, and there is no light. Suddenly, over a loudspeaker, a pistol is cocked then fired, right into the soul I have been told to imagine kneeling before me.


During the Year of Terror, 22,000–23,000 people were executed. In June 1941, 14,424 Latvians were deported to inland Soviet territories, 6,081 of whom were executed or died en route. As the Year of Terror came to an end, the Cheka evacuated its prisoners to Russia — those unable to be transported were executed. Nobody knows how many people were killed in the Building on the Corner, but when it was liberated in July 1941, evidence of 94 shots and 240 expended cartridges were left behind.

And who should it be that liberated the Latvian people from such oppression? Nazi Germany. Darkness, it seems, is never simple.

With the eyes of Europe upon it as a Capital of Culture for 2014, Riga has had the courage to open the corner entrance of the Building on the Corner for the first time in years. But, as the exhibition now draws to a close, questions arise. What do you do with such a powerful symbol, once left to oblivion, its horrors now awoken? Should you destroy the very thing that reminds you daily of those horrors? What do you do when that same reminder is so powerful, and the horrors are so important, that that reminder becomes a part of the fabric of a nation's character?

Riga has a problem. What to do with the Building on the Corner, and the darkness that lies within?

Stūra māja ("The Building on the Corner") is open as part of Riga 2014 until October 19th. Upstairs exhibitions and the cellar tour cost 5 Euro. Main exhibition free.