In search of hope and optimism at Clapham Junction | CAMILLA BRUETON

August 19, 2014

Abstract. This paper explores what kind of place, or non-place Clapham Junction station is, and how this space is authored, with particular reference to Augé’s (1995) thoughts on non-place and Massey’s (2005) approach to how space is made. The relationship between people and place is a core theme and is reflected in the way the paper is structured. The critical paper ‘In search of hope and optimism at Clapham Junction Station’ has been presented alongside Appendix A, which is a stream of creative writing, written by myself. Appendix A is set in ‘Courier New’ and right orientated against the left hand setting of the critical paper.

In search of hope and optimism at Clapham Junction

‘Before the railway came the area was rural and specialised in growing lavender.’ [1]

Clapham Junction (CLJ [2]) is Europe’s busiest interchange station [3]. Annually, over 20 million people use it as a conduit to their journey – a place to change trains. For more passengers than any other station, it is neither a start nor end point. It is not a destination but somewhere that facilitates passage to somewhere else. 2000 trains pass through the station each day. Although most do at least stop, the experience for half of the passengers who use the station is one that is not connected to the vicinity; it is a blip on their journey; somewhere one hopes not to stay too long. But if we choose to linger, what kind of place is CLJ, and who authors the space we recognise as such?

I arrive at Clapham Junction during
the morning rush hour,
on a train from Streatham Hill.
Passengers alight and melt away,
leaving the bright orange high-vis jackets of the station staff
and me on the platform.

Commuters spill out of trains, coffees in hand.

I glimpse Christmas jumpers:
Rudolf and snowmen
peep out of work suits and coats.

CLJ could be a non-place, as described by Augé, a symptom of supermodernity, where thousands of people act in an isolated way as they go about their solitary, daily commutes [4].

The station and rail network displays many characteristics of non-place. Entry is by identification: passing through the ticket barriers you blip your Oystercard or ticket, purchased by credit or debit card. Only those who use cash or unregistered pay-as-you-go Oystercards, enter unidentified [5].

Non-place is a lonely place with a paradox. Having identified yourself, you become part of the crowd, herded around in the facilitation of your journey. And whilst being like the other commuters, you feel apart from them [6].

At busy times, there can be thousands of passengers, waiting on platforms at CLJ “in the process of departing” [7].

On Platform 9,
everyone stands equally spaced, as if
there’s some kind of unspoken rule.

Most look down:
into their phones,
into a free newspaper,
into a book.
Are most people here,
actually somewhere else?  

These isolated passengers are contributing to the production of the non-place we recognise as CLJ. Massey sees space as being “the product of social relations” and talks about destinations and “places in between” as being created from “a bundle of trajectories”. Travel for Massey, is not about crossing “space-as-a-surface”, but “travelling across trajectories”. CLJ is all about travel and being in transit, so to consider it as a place, we must also consider the relationship between travel and space.

On Platform 14
a kid in bright yellow astro boots
(high-vis footware)
moves restlessly on the platform,
side to side,
wide stance,
pointing at his feet (like dance moves).
The commuters around stand stock still,
playing on their phones
or watching expectantly for their train.

With 17 sprawling platforms spreading out in a fan, CLJ is literally a bundle of track and trajectories connecting London with the South Coast and the South. Also present are the trajectories of the thousands of people who encounter the station everyday. Do they linger long enough to form a meaningful relationship with place and/or each other? What level of engagement is required for space/place to be made? Is catching the eye of someone on a platform enough? Is ordering the same coffee at the same time every day, a space making story or just another commuter with a caffeine habit?

“To travel between places is to move between collections of trajectories and to reinsert yourself in the ones to which you relate.” [9]

The isolated passengers waiting to leave CLJ are at a point of non-insertion. They are continuing along their own trajectories and whilst their presence alters the experience of others (who gets the last seat?), the etiquette of mass transit means individual stories present on a platform weave in and out, but rarely connect.

The passengers, by their sheer volume are the primary consumers of CLJ. Through their movements, they actively author the history and space [10].

But what of the contribution to place making of the station staff, who in their high-vis jackets, dispatch trains and oversee the general activity on the station? Whilst being a smaller group, they have a more intimate relationship with the place and each other. I witness their interactions about the last night’s football being shouted between Platforms 14 and 13, reminiscent of Massey’s description of arriving at her office:

“collecting the post, picking up the threads of discussions… Picking up the threads and weaving them into a more or less coherent feeling of being ‘here’, ‘now’.” [11]

Non-places tend to be ordered by language and a set of rules [12]. At a station, we know we are meant to ‘mind the gap’ and stand behind the yellow line to keep a ‘safe’ distance from the edge (there is no standard distance for this as it varies from platform to platform).

I watch commuters wait for a
train on Platform 10.

They line up, on the edge of the
yellow-hatched area
(etched with ‘Mind The Gap’)
separating them from the edge of the platform.
Clusters form where the doors of the
train will be.
The train arrives,
everyone huddles forward into the yellow zone,
parting to make a small corridor
for passengers to exit.

The train dispatcher blows his whistle
raises his paddle.
The train closes its doors and moves off.

Similar clusters of commuters
reappear on the platform,
awaiting the next train.

Automated announcements are a constant backdrop, imparting information and instructions on how to behave. Only when something unexpected happens does a member of staff make an announcement. Whilst the pre-recorded ones are clear, the reliance on them distances passengers from the staff who facilitate travel.

I wonder what Sir John Betjeman would make of this. In his 1963 BBC TV programme, “A Branch Line railway with John Betjeman”, he introduces “Evercreech Junction Somerset. It was to be the Clapham Junction of the West” and asserts:

“But a station master’s life, now that’s something worth living.” [13]

In this short film, Betjeman shares his love of train travel and distrust of roads as a transport solution. It was made the same year as Beeching’s now infamous report, which led to the closure of thousands of miles of track in Britain [14].

The pace of the film is slow, the rhythm of Betjeman’s narrative echoes a steam engine; far removed from the frantic commutes of CLJ today. There is sadness throughout. Betjeman communicates the lost hope that railways would bring prosperity to small towns and villages.

“And here… we can dream again that ambitious Victorian dream which caused this railway still to be running though deepest, quietest, flattest, remotest, least spoiled Somerset.” [15]

Betjeman did have optimistic words for the future:

“You know, I’m not just being nostalgic and sentimental and unpractical about railways. Railways are bound to be used again. They are not a thing of the past and it’s heartbreaking to see them being left to rot.” [16]

With the construction of Crossrail 1, the contentious approval of HS2, and Crossrail 2 in consultation, there is certainly a renaissance of interest in railways in London. The most recent arrival to CLJ is The Overground orbital service, opened in late 2012.

On Platforms 1&2 we enter an
‘Overground’ colour scheme.
A muted Overground orange colours the
hand rails and
adorns the station staff’s jacket.
She swings a small megaphone from her wrist
as she walks up and down the platform.

The orange, blue and white Overground roundel greets you as you step onto Platforms 1&2. It’s a Tranport for London outpost, orphaned in a sea of Southern and South West Trains (SWT). Unlike the geographic names of the other train services at CLJ, ‘The Overground’ is an abstract description of a non-geographic place. It is relative – ‘Overground’ as opposed to ‘Underground’ and suitably non-directional for a 21st century orbital railway.

These trains can take me back to my past-
‘Kentish Town West’ for my secondary school
‘Highbury and Islington’ for my primary school
‘Dalston Junction’ for
the house I grew up in.

The Overground didn’t come to
Clapham Junction then
and it wasn’t called ‘The Overground’.
Instead it was ’The North London Line’
Unloved, underfunded and
fairly dysfunctional.

Part of me is tempted to
hop on a train to Highbury,
but I know you can “never simply ‘go back’” [17]

CLJ has a reputation as being a bleak place. In 2009, it was voted the 2nd worst station by customers customer and was included in a Department of Transport report highlighting the need to modernize stations [18].

Unlike a terminus such as Waterloo or Paddington, CLJ is not an impressive train shed, but a large sprawl of platforms above street level, connected by a footbridge and a subway. There are three entrances, including the station buildings at the crest of St Johns Hill. This entrance reopened in 2011, as the culmination of a programme to improve access and ease crowding [19].

In an article for the Guardian in 2009, titled “Yes, Clapham Junction is that bad. The sun shone, but the roof still leaks” Zoe Williams explains how CLJ improved cosmetically in the 2000’s:

“…if you were transported from the 80’s to the station today, you’d think you’d died and gone to America. It might be dirty and have disabled access that, I believe, is functionally illegal, but at least you can get a cup of coffee, a paper, some cheaply made hair accessories and a birthday card. In the old days this station was like a ghost town… Sure these improvements are a bit fur-coat-no-knickers (or the railway equivalent, Costa-coffee-no-lifts)…” [20]

Williams lays the blame for lack of investment on railway privatisation and was surprised that more has not been done to CLJ, despite the change in the area around it [21]. This link between stations and location was echoed by the government’s “rail champion”:

“Stations are deeply entwined with their local community and effectively act as the gateway to both town and railway. They leave passengers with their lasting impressions of both.” [22]

Yet, at CLJ half of the passengers who use the station, never leave it (apart from by train). What link do these passengers have with the locality? Some do look up at the vista around them, but for most, the time spent on the platform is time spent looking down: into a mobile phone, a newspaper, a book. Looking anywhere, but here.

In the distance is a London skyline:
Battersea Power station
Blue gas holder in Nine Elms
New tower block in Vauxhall
The Shard glimmers through the half light of
the grey morning mist.
Low-rise estates fill the space between.
I look up and see an aeroplane overhead.

“CFC Jose’s Back Happy Days”

A bit of graf on a window sill on the footbridge
reminds me where Clapham Junction is located:
Chelsea territory
.

But where is here? CLJ is not in Clapham, it’s in Battersea. It is widely accepted the name came about because Clapham was a more prosperous area than Battersea when the station was built [23].

If half of the people who use the station never enter or leave it, it is likely many will never know they are not in Clapham. Couple this with the prolific use of mobile technology, allowing individuals to “live rather oddly in an intellectual, musical or visual environment that is wholly independent of his immediate physical surrounding” [24], and a picture builds up of a place full of people completely disconnected to it, both spatially and intellectually.

This dislocation expands outwards and extends to how the world is mapped and perceived, perpetuated by emergent technologies. Google Maps only recently corrected the placement of the area marker ‘Clapham’ from next to CLJ, to the actual area ‘Clapham’, allowing the station to appear “in the heart of Battersea” [25].

Back at platform level, new canopies of glass and steel abut awkwardly with the original Victorian architecture. Bold with aspiration, they reach upwards to the sky. Light filters through the grey-green glass. A yellow-orange handrail accentuates the stairs ascending to the glass box at footbridge level; a waiting gallery and lift (key to improving access) [26]. This architecture is bordering on aggressive in comparison to the gentle decorative detail of Victorian ironwork and wooden edging. There is a shift in scale; the glass and steel constructions feel larger, not of human proportions. The new steel-only canopies scale in the opposite direction, being smaller and less generous. Augé speaks of how Benjamin was interested in the iron and glass architecture of Parisian passages, because “he sees these things as embodying a wish to prefigure the architecture of the next century as a dream or anticipation” [27]. The new architecture at CLJ aspires to a positive future, but one less personal.

I move to the glass and steel box
above Platforms 15 & 16
and watch a steady flow of passengers
leave Platform 14.
As they clear, the orange handrail of the stairs
becomes visible against the dark blue staircase.

The orange light on the train
announcement sign glows:
08.14           Epsom Downs           On time

On the footbridge:
A sea of people
rise and fall
looking upwards-
Which platform?
What time?

The experience of the station is informed by both architectural styles. Massey believes history is an active thing, happening now. This is a crucial part of her argument about how space is made. It can be tempting to see CLJ as a “collage of the static”[28] when looking at its physical infrastructure. The Victorian architecture is as much an active part of the experience of the station today as the modern canopies. It is the conversation between these styles and the people beneath, right here, right now, which makes the space.

Today, coffee and travel go hand in hand. At CLJ, you cannot turn a corner without stumbling upon a coffee shop. This is true of most large UK stations, often resembling shopping centres with added trains. The experience of these coffee shops with overt branding, clean lines and mochaccinos, is a world away from the station tearoom featured in the film Brief Encounter (1945).

The ‘Pumpkin’ coffee shop on Platform 5
invites me to
‘Come in for a coffee’.
The orange light looks warm and appealing.

Here, the station tearoom is site of a chance meeting between suburban housewife Laura Jesson and doctor Alec Harvey, leading to an affair. It is the location of the couple’s first and last meeting, and is described by Laura as “the most ordinary place in the whole world”. Warm, personable, but not without tension, it has character and characters. It is definitely a ‘place’ as opposed to a ‘non-place’. The train station is a refuge from ordinary life, (“I must go home now” says Laura, whilst in the station), but also a place of decisions and departures – his train leaves from one platform, hers from another. In the dark and dangerous tunnel that connects them, there is a wrenching apart and an illicit kiss. On Alec’s final departure, which they both know is their separation; Laura rushes from the tearoom onto the platform, but resists her urge to throw herself underneath the express train. Train stations do have a darker side. CLJ was the site of a major rail disaster in 1988. Suicide unfortunately is on the increase in the UK [29]. This is something taken seriously by SWT, and their attempts to reduce risks for all is reported in their customer newsletters [30].

Due to high volumes of people, major stations are targets for terrorist activity. Augé suggests that there may be another reason why terrorists are attracted to attacking the non-places of “Airports, aircrafts, big stores and railway stations”[31] , caught up with the fabric of non-place:

“…in a more or less confused way, those pursuing new socilaizations and localizations can see non-places only as a negation of their ideal. The non-place is the opposite of Utopia: it exists, and it does not contain any organic society.” [32]

This is all sounding a little bleak. However, non-places do not have to be negative, they are simply symptomatic of our time and encourage us to behave in particular ways [33]. Non-places also rarely exist in pure form:

“In the concrete reality of today’s world, places and spaces, places and non places intertwine and tangle together.” [34]

The Victorian appetite for railways, privatisation in the 1990s, SWT, Access for All transport policy and TfL’s plans for London have all shaped the physical space of CLJ. Its future is likely to be influenced by Crossrail 2. On the surface, the place can seem isolating, with tens of thousands of people each day performing an amplified display of ‘being in transit’. If you step outside of a travelling itinerary long enough to linger, you can catch glimpses of the stories attached to the trajectories of the passengers who pass through this non-place, and ultimately author it. A sign on Platform 10 proudly declares Clapham Junction to be: “Britain’ busiest railway station”. It seems more important, that passengers understand their part in this and its place making potential, than their actual location in South West London.

Platform 5 fills up as the 08:45 to Teddington
is not expected till 08:51

White dog (chilly paws)
Bobble hat
Red and white polka dots
Coffee and a Kindle

A family:
a man carrying a buggy,
a woman with a baby strapped to her chest.
Smiling as they climb the stairs
and make their train.

A gaggle of young teenage kids make their way to
Platform 13, wheeling their wheely suitcases.

A man with a Brompton,
wearing a high-vis orange jacket.
A union jack made from reflective strips
adorns his back.

I look up and realise I’m sitting
directly in line with a CCTV camera.
I wonder if I’m being watched?

“Mind the gap between the train and the platform edge”

A train with a moustache pulls into Platform 4
(no really, it had one – did South West Trains do Movember?)

The colour palette of commuters:
Mostly grey,
navy blue and black
a smattering of bright red,
turquoise and green.

The 08:45 arrives.
It’s 08:52
Platform 5 empties a bit.

Bright orange trainers,
dark blue jeans,
muted red tweed jacket
(makes me smile).

Spotty blue scarf,
orange rucksack straps,
red wellies.

Yellow edging on the stairs.

CAMILLA BRUETON is a London based artist and project manager. She is interested in the relationship between people, infrastructure, architecture and place and is drawn to linger in locations that most people pass through quickly, often without a second thought. These are places that could be seen to be ‘non-places’ (Marc Augé, 1995). Whilst the term ‘non-place’ could be understood to be a negative, Brueton challenges this. She views these sites as being symptomatic of our time; having been shaped by the advancement of technology, political policy and use.

She has worked extensively in shared spaces (mostly within cities), examining how these spaces are used, recorded and remembered. Her process is often collaborative and involves site visits, photography and collecting information; exploring history through conversation and research and occasionally toying with nostalgia. Outcomes include drawings, collages, photographs, installations and multiples.

Often these concerns spill over into her project management work. Camilla has managed a variety of creative projects for small and medium sized arts organisations and local authorities. She is currently undertaking an MA in Drawing at Wimbledon College of Art.

NOTES:

[1] Catford, N, 2011, Clapham Junction, [online], available at: http://www.disused-stations.org.uk/c/clapham_junction/index.shtml accessed 03/11/2013

[2] CLJ is the National Rail station code for Clapham Junction

[3] South West Trains, 2013, South West Trains celebrates 150th anniversary of Clapham Junction [online], available at: http://www.southwesttrains.co.uk/claphamunction150.aspx accessed 03/11/2013

[4] “Clearly the word ‘non-place’ designates two complimentary but distinct realities: spaces formed in relation to certain ends (transport, transit, commerce, leisure), and the relations that individuals have with these spaces.” Augé, M, 1995, Non-places: An introduction to Supermodernity, translated by John Howe, (second English language edition 2008), London, Verso, p.94

[5] “Alone, but one of many, the user of a non-place is in contractual relations with it (or with the powers that govern it)… the ticket he had bought, the card he will have to show at the tollbooth… are all more or less clear signs of it.” Augé, 1995, p.82

[6] “The space of non-place creates neither singular identity, nor relations; only solitude and similitude.” Augé, 1995, p.83

[7] Augé 1995 p.82

[8] Massey, D, 2005, for space, London, Sage Publications, pp.118-119

[9] Massey, 2005, p.130

[10] “Space and place emerge through active material processes… Movement, and the making of relations, take/make time.” Massey, 2005, p.118-119

[11] Massey, 2005, pp.118-119

[12] “But the real non-places of supermodernity – the ones we inhabit when we are driving down the motorway, wandering through the supermarket… have the peculiarity that they are defined partly by the words and texts they offer us: their ‘instructions for use’, which may be prescriptive… prohibitive… or informative.” Augé, 1995, p.77

[13] Betjeman, J, 1963, A Branch Line railway with John Betjeman, Lets Imagine, [archived BBC TV programme] available at http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b03495yn/Lets_Imagine_A_Branch_Line_Railway_with_John_Betjeman/BBC, 1963, accessed 13/12/2013

[14] Hamer, M, 1987, Wheels within Wheels: A study of the road lobby, London, Routledge and Kegen Paul.

[15] Betjeman, 1963

[16] Betjeman, 1963

[17] Massey, 2005

[18] BBC, 2009, £50m revamp for ‘worst stations’, [online], last updated 12:04 GMT, Tuesday, 17 November 2009, available at http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/8363621.stm , accessed 03/11/2013

[19] South West Trains, 2011, Station upgrade gives Clapham Junction a big lift, [online], available at http://www.southwesttrains.co.uk/ClaphamJunction.aspx, accessed 31/12/2013

[20] Williams, Z, 2009, Yes, Clapham Junction is that bad. The sun shone, but the roof still leaks, The Guardian, [online] 18 November 2009, available at: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2009/nov/18/clapham-junction-sun-shone-roof , accessed 13/11/2013

[21] “This is Britain’s busiest rail station… in an area of London whose face has changed beyond recognition over the last 20 years… yet its defining hub has attracted no spending. In part this is an indictment of privatisation: The incentives were built on carriage of passengers, so the money went on rolling stock and track, not stations.” Williams, 2009

[22] BBC, 2009

[23] Catford, N, 2011, Clapham Junction, [online], available at: http://www.disused-stations.org.uk/c/clapham_junction/index.shtml accessed 03/11/2013

[24] Augé, 1995, p.VIII

[25]Love Battersea, 2013, [online] available at http://www.lovebattersea.org.uk/ , accessed 03/11/2013

[26]The Station improvement works, completed in 2011 were funded through the government’s Access for All programme (SWT, 2011). “The ‘Access for All programme’ is part of the ‘Railways for all strategy’, launched in 2006 to address the issues faced by disabled passengers using railway stations in Great Britain.” Department for Transport, 2013

[27] Augé, 1995, p.76

[28] Massey, 2005, p.119

[29] Samaritans, 2013, Suicide: facts and figures, [online], available at http://www.samaritans.org/support-us/why-support-samaritans/facts-and-figures-about-suicide accessed 02/01/2014

[30]South West Trains, 2013b, Customer Update Summer 2013, [online], available at http://www.southwesttrains.co.uk/uploads/iyrnewslettersummer26.6.13v3.pdf accessed 02/01/2014

[31] Augé, 1995, p.90

[32] Augé, 1995, p.90

[33] “…some experience of non-place… is today an essential component of all social existence.” Augé, 1995, p.97

[34] Augé, 1995, p.86

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