Layer Cake author looks back at the changing face of King’s Cross
PUBLISHED: 14:24 20 August 2020 | UPDATED: 14:24 20 August 2020
JJ Connolly grew up in East Finchley and is author of acclaimed novel Layer Cake which was turned into a 2004 film starring Daniel Craig and Sienna Miller.
On the 20th anniversary of the book’s release, he charts the gentrification of the area where he lives and which inspired the setting for his drug-dealing gangsters.
Kings Cross has always been in the wars. It was known as Battlebridge years ago.
It had been the site of a celebrated extended skirmish between invading Romans and Anglo-Saxon resistance fighters led by the legendary Boudica. The Anglo-Saxons must have lost on that occasion because the Warrior Queen is rumoured to sleep her eternal sleep under one of the platforms in Kings Cross Station – somewhere in the vicinity of where, a more recent legend has it, Harry Potter jumped on the Hogwarts Express and a career in wizardry.
In the 70s and early 80s, the area fell into serious decline. Large parts of it became squatted, derelict and abandoned. For many years in the 90s, Kings Cross was known as London’s drug central – a one-stop-shop for vice and debauchery.
That could make it sound exciting, but it wasn’t. There was more than a whiff of desperation and hopelessness in the air. Going down “The Cross” to score was a last resort for withdrawing addicts.
The bed and breakfasts of Argyll Square had become the dumping ground for Camden’s homeless.
Nowadays, during the week, the same B&Bs accommodate the highly specialist workers – engineers, steel fitters or expert tunnellers – who are employed on the vast building projects currently taking place in London. When they go home at the weekends, their rooms are occupied by cool French and Italian tourists. By the time I arrived 27 years ago there was talk of regeneration, but it was still what you could call euphemistically “quite lively” – the streets full of addicts, street dealers and sex workers.
One of the problems was that different areas of Kings Cross fell under different police jurisdictions; Camden, Holborn and Islington police stations. Drug dealers could avoid arrest by simply crossing the street out of one jurisdiction and stepping into a neighbouring jurisdiction to attain a form of modern-day sanctuary.
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Heavy-duty CCTV and a review of the police’s working methods ended most of the street shenanigans. The trap houses and crack dens moved away from The Cross. They never disappear entirely: they, and their customers, are simply displaced to another part of town.
When the Eurostar was moved from Waterloo to St Pancras International, I think the powers-that-be made a real concerted effort to rejuvenate the Kings Cross area.
They couldn’t have La Chic French tipping off the train and getting robbed in a war zone. The move started a process that soon gathered its own fantastic momentum. Redeveloping the upper gothic part of the old St Pancras station into the Renaissance Hotel made a big difference. Out went Traveller’s Fare – the home of British Rail catering – and in came civilised but expensive afternoon cream teas.
And converting the 70s concrete town hall – which some local residences believe to be a brutalist monstrosity – into the Standard Hotel, turned it into a five-star destination.
Also, they eventually finished building the British Library that took about fifty years from conception and planning to final completion – welcoming and open to the public (and the local community) with its Henry Moore sculptures, cafés and sitting areas. Their museum of the written word in the library is well worth a visit. They have one of the few existing copies of the Magna Carta and one of James Joyce’s drafts of Finnegan’s Wake. Plus, a collection of Beatles lyrics: a first draft of Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds scrawled on a Christmas card to John Lennon and McCarthy’s In My Life on a Lufthansa napkin.
Years ago, behind Kings Cross station sat the largest urban development site in Europe. It looked like an industrial wasteland in the heart of the city – cement works, golf driving ranges, scrapyards and car-breakers. Brand-new office buildings to house corporations – YouTube and Google – and housing have sprung up overnight. It’s all slightly too clinical and shiny, reminiscent of Vancouver.
Google’s new landscraper looks suspiciously like a skyscraper to me, all nine storeys of it. The Regents Canal has been opened up to pedestrian traffic and new restaurants, and très exclusive shops have opened in Coal Drop Yard.
The family-run Italian café where I sat and wrote, in longhand in a yellow pad, the graphic scene in Layer Cake where Morty pulverises Freddie Hurst, is gone. It’s now a very good vegan Japanese restaurant.
I’ve lived here in Kings Cross for approaching three decades. It’s noisy and polluted but I have developed an incredible fondness for it. It’s all changing for the good in Kings Cross. You could suggest The Cross is a reformed character.
The 20th anniversary edition of Layer Cake is published by Duckworth.
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