St. Pancras station in rush hour was the last place I expected to have an uplifting cultural experience with a complete stranger and a massive sculpture.
After leaving my sleepy little coastal town at silly o’clock in the morning to catch a London bound train, I found myself at St. Pancras in rush hour with an hour to kill before meeting someone off another train.
My visits to London are sporadic enough to make main line train stations such as St. Pancras interesting. They make a change from watching the tide go in and out at home.
For me, being in a bustling place full of people rushing here and there is like watching a live play with no obvious plot or ending. The curtain always goes up once I find a place to sit on the edge of it all and cease to be a part of the center-stage action.
As a former press and PR photographer, I never go anywhere, (even to the corner shop), without a camera.
So on this day, I wandered up to the concourse at St. Pancras to see what I could see. It looks more like a shopping centre now of course and as I sussed out the best place to sit and watch ‘the play’ I noticed a blue piano sitting under a flight of stairs.
I briefly mulled over the idea of giving passers-by a rendition of my only piano party-piece which is roughly the same as all other non-piano players’ party pieces but with the musical flair of Les Dawson playing deliberately badly . I quickly decided that Chopsticks played out of tune in public could bring me the kind of notoriety I don’t want.
Enter a member of the commuting public who left Chopsticks behind a very long time ago. As I watched, he sat himself down at the piano and began to play. That was the moment the curtain went up and St. Pancras truly became a theatre for me.
Naturally, I began filming, as I do in these off-the-wall situations. As I filmed this mystery piano man, his fingers danced with the keys to produce a surreal and beautiful soundtrack to the story of a St. Pancras morning.
This was the theatre of life at its best for me. I interspersed my filming with stills and watched, transfixed as most people just hurried past, faces already set with the stresses of their days. A few people stopped to listen; some turned their heads and looked his way as they sped past being chased by the hands of time. Michael , as I later learned the pianist was called, was the calm in the eye of the St. Pancras early morning storm.
St. Pancras Piano Comes To Life
His music flowed from the blue upright piano to compete bravely with the rattle of delivery trolleys, the hubbub of chatter, the clatter of footsteps, the screeching of children, the scraping of suitcase wheels on stone and the disembodied, echoing voice of the station announcer.
Notes seemed to chase each other from the piano in perfect order, sent out with feeling by a man who was just on his way to work but, who stopped for a moment to share his talent with whoever was there.
There was a moment of panic for me as Michael stopped playing and began to gather his sheets of music together. I had seconds in which to fight with my fears and simply walk over and tell him how much I enjoyed the performance and hopefully, find out who he was.
So this is where being more mature comes in handy; my irrational fears lost their battle and I went over to introduce myself to Michael who, as it happened was just a nervous as me but for different reasons.
There was very little time to talk. He was on his way to work and I had someone to meet in another part of St. Pancras before attending a seminar. We exchanged cards and agreed to chat via e-mail. I explained that I have a blog and would like to use the pictures I took.
He asked me what my blog was about and I couldn’t easily tell him because it is about ‘anything except housework’ – so take your pick! It also wasn’t live then. When we went our separate ways, back in the grooves of our conventional days, I still had half an hour to kill. My conventional groove was spending the day in a nearby hotel conference room at the seminar, but I was spiritually uplifted by several notches, elevated by Michael’s micro-concert at St. Pancras.
I wandered away from the piano and went to see what else I could find at St. Pancras that may push my spirits even higher before disappearing into a windowless room in the basement of the Holiday Inn for the rest of the day.
St. Pancras Meeting Place
And I was not disappointed. I climbed the stairs to the platforms of St. Pancras Station and went through the arch where I was completely blown away by the gigantic bronze sculpture that is Paul Day’s ‘The Meeting Place’.
For those who don’t know, ‘The Meeting Place’ is a 9 metre tall sculpture of a couple in a warm embrace. The story of this sculpture and the incredible frieze that encircles the base is a fascinating one which cannot be covered here. More on Paul Day and the origins of The Meeting Place sculpture at St. Pancras can be found on the BBC website by clicking here.
The sheer size of the statue, along with the emotion of what it portrays brought a lump to my throat and yes, I was lifted even higher in the groove of my day.
City dwellers may think I am easily pleased by such simple things – the things that every-day commuters and cultured Londoners take for granted. But actually, I am glad that I live in a small coastal village where my biggest concern is not falling off the promenade into the sea when I walk there planning my day. I prefer that kind of challenge as opposed to not falling off the platform at Moorgate tube station as I fight to get to work.
It means that I don’t take a random pianist or a beautiful sculpture at St Pancras for granted when I chance to see them. It means that such things still get me right in the heart and instantly lift me. It means I don’t rush past them with a frown on my face with no time to stop and really enjoy them.
Having said that, I did run out of time before I discovered the nearby John Betjeman statue. I spent so long looking at The Meeting Place statue and taking pictures that I was almost late getting to my meeting place.
By the time my pre-arranged day began in the basement conference room of the Holiday Inn, I hardly cared about it any more. The random happenings during the spare, unstructured hour I had at St. Pancras were the highlight of my day.
I couldn’t wait to get home to research the public pianos that Michael told me were placed at various locations in London for anyone to play. I also couldn’t wait to research Paul Day and find out the story of his beautiful sculpture and frieze.
Most of all, I wanted to get back and fire off questions to the mystery piano man of St. Pancras to find out his story. As I got to know him over the coming days, via our emails, I realised that if I had known the background of the mystery pianist, I may not have had the confidence to approach him.
Old insecurities do die-hard and I have never thought people with doctorates would have any truck with someone who left school with a 15 yard swimming certificate (university study came later for me, in my 40s).
I now know from my research, Michael, or Dr. Bull as he known professionally, is a highly respected scientist in his field. He works with complicated environmental issues regarding air quality, the likes of which I could not even begin to understand.
Thankfully my curiosity about the piano at St Pancras, and the man who was playing it, was strong enough to push me to speak to him. Otherwise, I would never have known that seemingly confident men have their vulnerabilities and fears and more importantly, are completely approachable.
At the piano, Michael appeared supremely confident and sure of his ability as a performer. However, nothing could have been further from the truth. As his fingers slipped so easily over the keys, expertly teasing out pieces by Bach, Mendelssohn, Gershwin, Nyman and other eminent composers, he was actually pushing his own self-confidence boundaries in readiness for a diploma exam he was due to undertake in front of an audience within weeks. (See more recent news about the outcome at the end of this post.)
When I later asked about confidence, he told me he has no problem presenting data to a conference full of people, without any hint of nerves. But when it comes to playing the piano in public it is quite a different thing and he admits he suffers the fear of public humiliation just like anyone else, despite the easy manner I believed I saw at St. Pancras.
However, he pushes himself to face those fears and grow in confidence. We are worlds apart in many ways but when it comes to self-confidence, perhaps men and women aren’t so different.
One thing is for sure, I am so glad that my more mature years have allowed me to push the boundaries of my self-confidence comfort zone a little further or else I would never have spoken to the ‘piano man of St. Pancras’ and gained such a rich insight into his world. Especially as I was never likely to encounter him in my everyday world at home.
And further, I am really thankful to have been one of the few people at St. Pancras that day with enough spare time to stand still while a stranger courageously performed to a fast-moving, suitcase dragging, briefcase toting, coffee guzzling audience at St Pancras station during rush hour.
Long may it go on – I really love wandering around in the world doing anything except housework.
If you would like to see the film clips and pictures of the St. Pancras Brief Encounter click here.
(Since I first wrote this post, Michael passed his diploma exam with flying colours. His tremendous focus, along with hour upon hour of study, practice and performance earned him a pass-mark of 87% at upper level. It is true what they say, the harder you work, the ‘luckier’ you get. Well done Michael!)