Winter 2021–Spring 2022

Leftovers / Each Eye Is Haunted

Caring for a poorly thing

Matthew Mead

“Leftovers” is a column that investigates the cultural significance of detritus.

Roland Hoggard, custodian of the St. Pancras railway station clock.

To my eye, the clock looked like a ruin. Frostbitten shards of its face lay about in the weeds. In places, northerly winds had worn the gilt ornamentation around the dial’s circumference to a sandy, amorphous mass. Everywhere, paint flaked. Mold grew on a slender lip above the lower numerals. At around fourteen feet high, the clock was only just accommodated on the side of the old barn. Brickwork was visible beneath the whitewash at the center of its face. The clock’s movement had stopped months before my arrival, but the downward-dragging force of ruination continued to act on the clock’s hands, pulling them from five-after to half-past three.[1] There, the hands had finally seized. All else moved on: vines crept over the top of the barn and down the north face of the pitched terracotta; weeds grew seven or eight feet tall; cracks ran in the walls of the barn.

Between the lens of my borrowed camera and the clock, Roland Hoggard, straw hat held to his chest, cane in hand, wore the easy dignity of the custodian. The diminishing effect of the clock on Roland’s slight frame made clear that this monumental timepiece was not just out of time, but out of place. A work of industrial engineering, made to be viewed from a distance and from below, it was now strangely domesticated in this rural garden. It has since come to remind me of the pasticcio in the Monument Court of Sir John Soane’s Museum—an enormous column made of architectural fragments that sits in a small atrium, boxed in on all sides by the walls of number 13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields. The clock too is a ruin of some artifice, similarly outsized, similarly domesticated, and, likewise, baffling.[2] Only by an act of imagination could the citizens it once marshalled be conjured, or the story of its journey here be told. The clock at least is easier to read than Soane’s puzzling pasticcio; looking at it, we already know this is not an encounter with the remains of some distant culture, but with the uncanny ruins of our own recent past.

• • •

The St. Pancras terminus clock had for a century—from 1868, when the station began operating, until sometime in the late 1960s, at the nadir of British Railway’s decline—regulated the movement of travelers within what was, at one time, the world’s largest single-span structure. At 245½ feet wide, William Henry Barlow’s train shed was an engineering marvel; the clock, made by the London manufacturer Dent, was its visual centerpiece.[3] Built at a scale to match the cavernous space, it sat just below a pointed arch that seemed to mimic the neo-Gothic architecture of George Gilbert Scott’s Midland Grand Hotel, to which it was attached.

The burgeoning railways epitomized British modernity, and when St. Pancras began operating in 1868, it was “the finest and smartest railway station in London.”[4] As the historian Jack Simmons put it,

The station distils the very essence of Mid-Victorian power: for it is the most magnificent commercial building of the age, reflecting more completely than any other its economic achievement, its triumphant technology, its assurance and pride, suffused by romance.[5]

Moreover, the railways engendered significant shifts in the texture of everyday life. Everywhere the railway arrived, it seemed for many to promote uniformity and do away with difference. It brought with it increasing standardization in everything from food and drink to architecture to the rule of law; and everywhere, local histories and landscapes seemed under threat. The railway passed through or threatened churches, ancient city walls, medieval and Roman ruins, monuments and abbeys. Indeed, the route into St. Pancras Station carved through the east side of St. Pancras Old Church’s burial ground—where John Soane was buried in 1837—requiring exhumations and reburials of a significant number. This work was initially managed very badly; when the vicar of St. Pancras, the Reverend Mr. Arrowsmith, visited the site in June 1866, he found “many graves open in the burial ground, with dead men’s shanks and skulls thrown about or placed in open boxes.”[6] Subsequently, Arthur Blomfield, the architect appointed by Bishop Tait of London to oversee the removal of bodies, employed a clerk of works and an assistant to supervise the project. The latter was the twenty-six-year-old future novelist and poet, Thomas Hardy, who visited daily throughout the autumn of 1866.[7] In “The Levelled Churchyard,” composed in 1882, he wrote:

‘O Passenger, pray list and catch

Our sighs and piteous groans,

Half stifled in this jumbled patch

Of wrenched memorial stones!

‘We late-lamented, resting here,

Are mixed to human jam,

And each to each exclaims in fear,

“I know not which I am!”

‘The wicked people have annexed

The verses on the good;

A roaring drunkard sports the text

Teetotal Tommy should!

‘Where we are huddled none can trace,

And if our names remain,

They pave some path or porch or place

Where we have never lain![8]

But it was the alteration to the measurement of time itself that would have had the most profound effect on daily life. Before the coming of the railways, local time had always won out over London time; the hour changed not only with the ticking of the clock, but also with movement east or west. But across the nineteenth century, the dense experience of everyday life, governed by disparate local times, was giving way to the singular and unified time of the nation. As Marx wrote in Grundrisse, the acceleration of exchange made possible by mechanized rail travel meant the annihilation of space by time, and hence the standardization of British clock-time. Indeed, this new uniformity in the experience of daily life, which slowly saturated the island, was known as “Railway Time.” Thus, the St. Pancras clock represents a potent symbol of the changing temporality of the nation; a challenge to lived, vernacular time, and the regulation of a new, modern subject.

For a century, the clock hung at the apex of Barlow’s train shed. But the neo-Gothic-fronted station, architecturally contentious from its inception, was also subject to competing visions. In 1935, the underused adjacent hotel closed its doors. In 1947, the railways were nationalized, and nineteen years later, with the Midland Grand Hotel being used as office space, and the terminus viewed as redundant, attempts were made to dispose of St. Pancras. Already by 1955, British Railway’s Modernization Plan had marginalized St. Pancras in favor of the line leading into Euston Station, half a mile to the west, which was to be fully electrified. By 1966, plans were in place to amalgamate St. Pancras and its next-door neighbor, King’s Cross Station, designed by Lewis Cubitt, in a project that would have left only fragments of the original buildings and turned Barlow’s train shed into a sports hall. A public argument ensued, largely in the pages of The Times, until on 2 November 1967, St. Pancras was granted Grade 1 status on the list of buildings of “special architectural or historic interest” by the Ministry of Housing.[9]

While the building was protected, this did not stop British Railways disposing of some assets, and sometime in the late 1960s, the Dent clock was sold to an American collector. Perhaps that would have been the end of the tale. However, the team responsible for removing the clock from the south end of the train shed miscalculated its weight, and four tons of slate and metal crashed to the terminus floor.

• • •

A letter to Roland to ask for an interview a few months prior to my visit had elicited no response. On the phone, a few weeks later, Roland resigned himself to a meeting: “I suppose we best get it over with,” he said.

Ninety-three years old, Roland was, so he told me, born during a German zeppelin air raid that came over Sutton-in-Ashfield to bomb Nottingham in 1916. Reading newspapers from the time, I could not get the dates to match. But, in September 1916, when Roland would have been six months old, a zeppelin raid did indeed fly over Nottingham to bomb the lines of the Midland Railway Company, 130 miles north of the network’s London terminus, St. Pancras. Thus, the mainline from Nottingham to London, in Roland’s own telling of his birth, and subsequent years as a train guard and amateur horologist, was central to his life.

Like his father before him—who worked as a signalman—Roland spent all his adult life on the railways. For five decades, Roland worked as a train guard during a period characterized by rationalization, line closures, and decline. “I took an interest in life, and a life on the railways has kept me going,” Roland told me. But he also felt “desperate and desolate” that the world he knew so intimately was disappearing. In this sense, the clock was a relic from better times. As he spoke, Roland routinely did away with the past tense and drew his memories closer by way of the present tense. The day after the platform clock had been all but destroyed, on a Monday of a forgotten month in an almost forgotten year, Roland arrived at St. Pancras to find the clock, as he told me, “laying flat on the floor, on the concourse there.” If Roland’s duties had not taken him to St. Pancras that day, he believes the clock’s destruction would have been assured. “Poorly things matter,” he said. Roland’s mother had instilled in him a creaturely care for the inanimate: “My late mother, among other things, learnt me to make poorly things better. I’ve never forgotten that: poorly things.”

The details of the clock’s 130-mile journey north to Thurgarton are hazy, but Roland remembers traveling with his eleven-year-old son, Andrew. For some years afterwards, Roland engages with other engineering projects and does nothing with the fragments of the clock. Roland knows that the clock is heavy, perhaps four tons. It will not be a simple thing to fix the clock to the side of the old brick barn. When he does turn to the work, Roland builds a supporting platform on the inside of the building: “I’m going to build it up my own way,” he tells me. Even then, the weight of the hands is too great. Roland constructs an extension to the drive to counterweight the hands and prevent the clock from being smashed a second time. “I’ve made everything,” he says. Wiring runs all over the house, “upstairs, downstairs, everywhere.” There’s a relay and a distribution board, joints made from telephone wire; and from these run not only the St. Pancras train shed clock but also thirty smaller railway clocks, regulating the forgotten days of forgotten passengers.

Back inside, Roland shows me a more recent project: a straight-limbed candelabrum, all right angles, with no discernible ornamentation. Its constituent parts are not easily named, but I can make out nuts and bolts, and then lids from jam jars repurposed to catch candle wax. “That’s a bit of scrap, that’s a bit of scrap,” he says. Behind Roland, in the window, is a second, more ornate candelabrum.

“Now,” says Roland, “I’ll tell you a story,” and with little else by way of introduction, he describes how a buildup of fluid under his left eye, always at its worst in the evenings, has permitted him a glimpse into the world of the dead. In a manner as matter of fact as his description of the workings of a clock, Roland tells me he cannot look directly at an apparition, “but if I still stare away where I was, … and I could see in the corner of my eye here, I could see this here, a dark-haired lady, round red face. … That’s all I could see. She was there,” indicating a chair just behind me, outside my field of vision. “And when she got up, she walked, I mean this, she walked through the table, and there was a man standing there, … and he’d got a cap on, and she handed him a candelabrum. I could see that.”

Roland’s vision appears on the night of February 2nd—Candlemas—and instigates a search to find the candelabrum. “It’s given me a project,” says Roland, “What happened to the one they were using? Did they leave it up there [at the church]? So, you can imagine all sorts of questions you like, and we can’t find any answers.” He approaches the puzzle of the apparition as pragmatically as the mending of the clock. He looks in local antiques stores, he looks in at the local church, and looks around in the corners of the old priory building where he lives. One antiquarian, showing interest or sympathy, gives Roland an old candelabrum from the bottom of her garden, “a rusty old thing.” An engineer friend—Roy—finds a second model in an antique shop close by. “He said I’m going down into Netherfield in the morning; there’s an antique shop there and there’s somebody I know—railway people—and as soon as I opened the door, there was another candelabrum.” Roland tells me the two of them “never failed” on a journey.

But how can these miscellaneous candelabra be verified against the hallucinatory original? How do you know when you’ve caught a specter? And then it strikes him: if he can’t find the original, perhaps he can make it, from bits of scrap, old nuts and bolts, washing machine parts, jam jar lids. He can repair a past he has a dim sense is there, just out of his vision, just out of the range of everyday sight. And, in the same way he often did away with the past tense in conversation, institutes with his making a kind of simultaneity of times past and present.

• • •

In the final work to be published in his lifetime, in bookseller and publisher Adrienne Monnier’s periodical La gazette des amis des livres, Walter Benjamin praised curator and collector Georges Salles’s discovery of the past in the present. Benjamin quotes from Salles’s Le regard: “Tout œil est hanté, le nôtre aussi bien que celui des peuplades primitives. Il façonne à chaque instant le monde au schema de son cosmos.”[10] Benjamin, a fellow collector who, in exile in France, had been separated from his own collection for seven years, sympathized with Salles’s tender view of the historical object, which, both perfected and ruined by time, offers up its secret meanings and social memories through its cracks and fissures. As Esther Leslie writes in her intellectual biography of Benjamin, “The effect of time’s passage, the visibility of aging on the object, brought forth the mode of seeing of a ‘dreaming eye’, ‘an eye plunged into the depth of years’, which it met in the object, a witness of its epoch and all subsequent ones.”[11]

When St. Pancras station was refurbished in the mid-2000s, Eurostar requested the return of the clock. Roland refused. He saw the patina of the preceding three decades and understood this as integral to the creaturely clock living in his garden. Roland knew how to take care of poorly things and understood that the clock did not belong to the station anymore. So, new railway people came to take photographs and measurements, and the clock that hangs in Barlow’s refurbished train shed is a careful replica.

Back in the garden, I had seen a ruin; but Roland’s eye was haunted by something else. Roland’s dreaming eye plunged into the past and resurfaced with things remade and reimagined—the all-but-destroyed St. Pancras clock relocated and domesticated, its movement restored; a spectral candelabra fashioned from scraps of memory and metal—his mother’s injunction to mend poorly things fulfilled. And if all this was nostalgic by some measure—and deeply personal—it was also present-oriented, a past remade to move in the now. Roland passed away in 2013, without revisiting the workings of the monumental clock hanging in his garden; but he bequeathed the clock to the Horological Institute at Upton Hall, a few miles from his home, where it is undergoing a second restoration. Roland’s imaginative projections brought forth a simultaneity of times, and a tender regard for lost or forgotten objects, real or half-imagined. Indeed, for Roland, on that afternoon, the St. Pancras clock was just waiting to be fixed again. It hadn’t stopped for the last time; it just wanted a little attention.

  1. In his classic essay on the nature of ruins, Georg Simmel refers to the “brute, downward-dragging, corroding, crumbling power” of ruination. See Simmel, “The Ruin,” in Kurt H. Wolff ed. Essays on Sociology, Philosophy and Aesthetics (New York: Harper and Row, 1965).
  2. Soane is interesting within the cultural history of ruins in no small part because after designing the Bank of England, he commissioned for the bank several paintings from Joseph Michael Gandy of the building in ruins.
  3. Devoid of the sickle-truss construction that made other Victorian train sheds misty spiderwebs of indiscernible detail, Barlow’s parallel-riveted plate construction allowed clear, uninterrupted vision and permitted the eye a “volumetric clarity.” See Simon Bradley, St Pancras Station (London: Profile Books, 2007), p. 76.
  4. Simon Bradley, St Pancras Station, p. 4.
  5. Quoted in Simon Bradley, St Pancras Station, p. 8.
  6. Jack Simmons, St Pancras Station (London: Historical Publications, 2012), pp. 41–42.
  7. Ibid., pp. 41–43.
  8. Thomas Hardy, “The Levelled Churchyard,” The Complete Poems (London: MacMillan, 1976), pp. 157–158.
  9. Jack Simmons, St Pancras Station, p. 127.
  10. Georges Salles quoted in Walter Benjamin, Gesammelte Schriften, vol. 3 (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1991), p. 595. Esther Leslie translates this as, “Each eye is haunted, ours as much as those of primitive peoples. In each moment it grasps the world according to the schema of its cosmos.” See Leslie, Walter Benjamin (London: Reaktion Books, 2007), p. 209.
  11. Esther Leslie, Walter Benjamin, p. 209.

Matthew Mead splits his time between writing about cultures of craft and learning to craft things. He lives in London.

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