Before sending Frightgeist to be printed I walked all the way from Brixton to Westminster Bridge, just as Lorraine Linton, my fictional Mayor of London, does in the novel. I wanted to make sure my mental pictures of the route, albeit many of them were quite recent, were accurate – my story is a “tall tale”, but the various parts of London it describes needed to be reasonably real. Here’s part of the passage in question from the novel, in which Lorraine arrives at Vauxhall Cross:
“Emerging from beneath the railway bridge at Vauxhall, Lorraine paused to contemplate the bus station with its cantilevered solar arms. Some loved it as a local landmark, others thought it ugly and in the way. Lorraine was troubled by the issue, torn between her own attachment to the building and the logic of removing it. She disliked her indecision being final.”
Vauxhall Cross is where six roads converge on an architectural dog’s dinner served up on the south side of Vauxhall Bridge. In one of his famous guides, architectural historian Sir Nikolaus Pevsner described it as it was in the mid-20th Century as “one of the most unpleasant road junctions in South London”.
It’s still hard to feel fond of. Despite being served by an Underground and a railway station, the area is dominated by motor vehicles. Its long-standing hostility to pedestrians has been intensified by its baffling Boris Johnson-era bicycle infrastructure. The Secret Intelligence Services (or MI6) building, Sir Terry Farrell’s 1990s attempted modernist homage, was not damaged enough for some tastes by a rocket fired at it in September 2000, probably by Irish Republicans. For such critics, its imagined demolition in the 2015 James Bond film Spectre was a recommendation for life imitating art.
Amid all this kitsch, din and muddle, the bus station has the air of a sanctuary of good order, noble sentiments and relative tranquility. Completed in 2005, it was built at a cost of £4.5 million to consolidate the public transport interchange having been commissioned after a more ambitious project called the Pod, a two-storey oval building designed by Rolfe Judd, became too expensive and was dumped.
The structure, designed by Arup, is exotic in a way few stations are, primarily because of its 200-metre long stainless steel canopy with its twin cantilevered ski-slope prongs at one end, containing 167 solar panels. Between them, these supply a third of the bus station’s electricity requirement.
Ten years have passed since Lambeth Council and Transport for London announced plans to knock it down, just eight years after it opened, as part of a large future regeneration scheme. The 2oth Century Society is among its admirers, but an attempt by the Vauxhall Society to get it listed failed. And in April 2020, following a public inquiry, the government gave the go-ahead for two mixed-use tower blocks of 53 and 42 floors respectively to be put up in its place. A duller bus stop is to be re-provided.
Frightgeist is set in an unspecified “London, lately”. Lorraine Linton is an honest politician who wrestles with difficult dilemmas, such as how to reconcile her affection for the bus station with the arguments for making a different and arguably more rational use of the land it stands on. The Vauxhall bus station, therefore, enabled me to provide readers of my novel with an in-transit insight into Lorraine’s character. And visiting it gave me an excuse to, well, hang around it for a while.