Posted on:Wednesday 16th December, 2015
8 Royal College Street
George Szirtes – Hungary, France and Royal College Street
Could the Hungarian born award-winning poet George Szirtes be the first Hungarian to take an interest in Royal College Street since King Sigismund six centuries earlier? Sigismund came with French interests too, chronicled in Shakespeare’s Henry V. George Szirtes’s readings and poems, reinforced in discussions with Radio 3’s Donald Macleod, offered European perspectives and some answers. The flag-bedecked platform of Europe House provided a powerful visual focus.
Sigismund the King of Hungary, of the Romans and a Holy Roman Emperor came as part of the Post-Agincourt peace negotiations. Bruges Place at the other end of today’s Royal College Street is a reminder of Sigismund’s visit to the estate of William Bruges, Garter King of Arms, Whitsun 1416. The 600th anniversary is 2016. The protracted negotiations proved not to be a great success but in the context of Anglo-French relations such efforts and the spectacular local feast that took place offers a warm glow.
Lester Hillman’s ancestors lived in Great College Street around the time of Rimbaud and Verlaine and this added to his heritage insights. He sought to offer a perspective as wide in time as the No. 8 poets spanned geographically and in the poetry landscape. Something Donald Macleod summed up with breathless brevity and wit.
The poets’ arrival at No.8 came alongside one of the most spectacular events in local history, the opening of St Pancras Hotel 5th May 1873 with celebration and ostentation that could not have been lost on them. Pianos were being commissioned in June 1873 - perhaps from factories nearby. There would have been parties to seek out, facilitated perhaps by hotel porters lodging in adjacent houses.
The nearby St Pancras Churchyard offers clues with memorials to neighbours, famous and forgotten. A young Thomas Hardy had a few years earlier finished his supervision of works (1866 – 1867) moving thousands of bodies in connection with the Midland Railway into St Pancras.
Decades later George Bernard Shaw was a member of St Pancras Council when Goldington Buildings, a few yards to the South, was built.
Playing cards were made behind No.8
Anyone at No. 8 in 1873 would surely have been overwhelmed by the importance of playing cards, millions of which were being turned out just beyond the back yard. There was massive employment in the huge industrial complex generating noise, smells and sights, a recurring theme of the ‘Celebrating No. 8’ evening.
However, trooping in a few doors down would also have been artists, illustrators, designers, colourists, printers, marketing, award and prize administrators. Those present in Europe House had the opportunity to handle a contemporary deck of cards from the Chas Goodall factory, a cheap pack, in design very unlike modern cards, but one which the poets might well have recognised.
This year 2015 the 150th anniversary of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is being celebrated, nowhere more so than in St Pancras at the British Library. ‘Celebrating No. 8’ took place on the 151st anniversary of the manuscript being presented to Alice on 26th November 1864. Local echoes are elsewhere too, in Abigail Fallis’s Queen of Hearts sculpture in King’s Place, the arts complex off York Way. Nearby in Copenhagen Street sits the newly rebuilt Lewis Carroll Children’s Library.
‘St Pancras en Seine’
‘Celebrating No. 8’ turned out to be a month-long event. Earlier in November Gasholder No. 8, a circular park and a perfect future performance space, opened to the public. It is just a few yards away from Royal College Street. Also in November the German Gymnasium at King’s Cross opened as a spectacular restaurant, offering the sort of drama and opportunities that Rimbaud and Verlaine in their day would have been alert to. For the future the nearby Victorian Great Northern Coal and Fish Offices is undergoing conversion to a Jamie Oliver restaurant. This surely offers a platform for a fish-inspired poem at the opening.
The French nickname for St Pancras International, two hours away from Paris and whose station opened in November 2007, seems right. From Sigismund in the early fifteenth century, to the vibrant French community of the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century the local history is colourful. The Royal Veterinary College next door with French origins dating back to 1791 adds to this as does French aeronaut M Gardonia and his balloon in 1855. Today London has a growing French community with institutions in the neighbourhood and the Rimbaud and Verlaine Foundation, No. 8 and the poets sit at the heart of the story.
Gas Holder No. 8 – A new local performance space for ‘Celebrating No. 8’?