Sunday, 1 April 2007

An unexpected invitation

I don't get many offers or freebies as a nursery school and children's centre head - so I was flattered to get a shiny blue card invitation to come to the "Topping Out" ceremony at King's Place, the new office development on the canal opposite where I work. It is going to be a very shiny sort of place - with The Guardian moving in, and a concert hall, restaurants etc. Better than the usual bog standard office development for sure.

Not being great with directions, I started following an arrow to the "Topping Out" and ended up wandering along miles of empty concrete corridors, all open to the elements. I enjoyed imagining them all in the future with their lowered ceilings, lighting fixtures, big office chairs, etc. Finally ended up somewhere called the "Drying and Changing Area" (I think) which was very warm and had loads of lockers. It smelt of school gym, but more intensely. Tabloids had come apart in the hot breeze and were everywhere, against the walls, over the floors, blown up against the lockers. There was a penned note on a concrete wall saying "Silent Jim is gay", or something like. I wondered if this was a good bit of publicity to get if you were working on a building site, or just an example of crude bullying. I suppose it could be both. Hopelessly lost in my thoughts, I came to, realised I must be a long way from where I was meant to be, and eventually located the open lift that was taking lots of rich looking and confident people up to the top. And me. All those rich city workers and trendy architect types in identical, clean yellow hi-vis waistcoats and helmets reminded me of the Pet Shop Boys' performance of Go West at the Brit awards .

I felt alone, I hadn't brought a friend. My ability to strike up conversation with strangers didn't fail me, because I don't have any.

Having a bit of a miserable time, I started to think about the staggering divides in the Kings Cross neighbourhood. Here we were on the top of this fabulous building, where all the talk was about what a superb new location Kings Cross is. Minutes earlier I had been on the ground, where the Kings Cross neighbourhood is one of the poorest in Europe, with an unforgivable rate of child poverty. I also remembered, quite suddenly, a small but touching incident last year when the neighbourhood was evacuated because of a risk of explosion on the building site. A resident was begging a young policeman to let her back across the police tape into her flat, because she was worried her cat was shut in the bedroom with no food or water. She was crying and pleading, worried that the cat would die. As far as I know the cat was fine. But somehow remembering the incident whilst looking down on the blocks of flats (which really did look like Lego houses) was a vivid way to think about a clash of scales. The ambition and pomp of the development; the small, even pitiful, scenes going on below. The residents, for example, got no individual compensation for being moved out (as far as I know). It didn't look like much expense was spared for the ceremonial "Topping Out", the formal completion of the structure of the building.

Of course, all these thoughts came to me, because I was feeling shy, a little overwhelmed, and wishing that someone would show some interest in me and the children's centre I was representing. Even better give us some funding. In other words, my internal political posturing was really about how I was feeling at the time. Whether I came to the right conclusion or not, I came there by way of an unattractive vanity, and hypocrisy too. My own life and nice house in the suburbs is far removed from the lives of most people in Kings Cross. Just as far, for all practical purposes, as the lives of any of the other people up there in the shining yellow waistcoats.

I was thinking that the canal at Kings Cross might as well be a boundary between two different countries.

I left, quietly, passing up an offered glass of champagne and thinking that London - the city I love - makes fools and hypocrites of us all.

(Here are two views from the top of Kings Place)