It matters where you are born. Not only the country or the city, the burg or the hamlet – but the precise location, its height above terra firma, its positioning in the welter of the world; for this is the still point at the exact centre of the ever expanding shock wave of your life.
For years it mattered to me that I had been born in the Charing Cross Hospital. Not, you understand, Ralph Tubbs’s air terminal for the pathologically grounded on the Fulham Palace Road, but the old Charing Cross Hospital, slap-bang in the middle of London. Here, I fondly felt, I was ushered, expelled into life but paces from the Strand, the high-tension cable that connects the financial and regal powers of the land. Here, I considered, I was within dandling distance of the eight, fake statues of Queen Eleanor that mark the spot where – Dr Johnson averred – “The full tide of human existence is to be met.” Here, I was convinced, on a clear day of profound stillness, Bow Bells might be heard, their brassy clanging hammering me into the shape of a Cockney.
It pleased me to believe that Benjamin Golding’s hospital, founded in 1818 in Suffolk Street, and transliterated a few years later to 28 Villiers Street, was my fount. I liked even more the vile Terry Farrell development the Thatcher era shat down atop Charing Cross Station, and which I felt certain obscured my very origins with its lumps of concrete, curvilinear steel and smoked glass. Liked it, not least because I ascended the windy decks while it was under construction, in my then capacity as a lowly corporate puffer, and looked out on the bend of Thames, pewter under a leaden winter sky.
How wrong I was – about everything. It wasn’t until I set out to discover precisely where I was born that I found out the painful truth: far from old Charing Cross Hospital being razed, it has instead been transmogrified … into a police station. I was propelled into the world two hundred yards north of where I had thought – and so the wonky trajectory of my life was amply explained. I identified the building from a photograph in the Museum of London archive. It occupies the triangle formed by Agar Street, William the Fourth Street and Chandos Place, and is now separated from the hubbub of the Strand by a scarified, paved area. Designed by Decimus Burton, the foundation stone of the new old Charing Cross Hospital was lain in 1831. Decimus Burton, purveyor of sculpted blocks of hard cream to the Regency and then the Victorians. Decimus Burton, whose fantasias on the neoclassical stud Regents Park and line the margins of Hyde Park. Decimus Burton – the Terry Farrell of his day.
I suppose there is a niceness to this disappearance: pioneering healthcare replaced by paranoid law enforcement; blind birth giving way to the blinkered investigation of death. There’s a niceness also about the way that the new Charing Cross Hospital compromises the debatable land of Fulham and Hammersmith, dragging the centre of town out there, only for it to be Dead on Arrival. The new Charing Cross Hospital is a very nice hospital: it has hundreds of bed, it treats all comers. It has a pioneering transgender clinic – but no facilities for examining its own metamorphosis.
I went to see the old hospital, and cycling along Exeter Street I was honked loudly from behind then shouldered into the kerb by a monstrous American SUV. “What the fuck d’you think you’re doing!” I bawled at the driver, and he, not understanding that this was a rhetorical question, halted with a squeal, got out, came over to where I was struggling to dismount, said “Who d’jew fink I am, some fucking punk!” Then hit me in the face. Salt blood and toothy fragments filled my mouth. A stagehand from the theatre on the left was shouting – a mobile phoner outside the restaurant on the right was shouting as well. The anti-sophist was already back in his shooting brake and squealing around the corner. I had received a natal blow and was breathing heavily. I stood in the ever expanding shock wave of my own life, and, since the stagehand had got the licence number – I called the police. After all, it’s not that often you get the opportunity to summon help from your birthplace.
A day later I went to speak to the Detective Constable in charge of the case. She wanted to get photographs of my extremely minor injuries and flesh-out my statement. Being in the lobby of the police station felt like a homecoming. I could imagine my father, that quintessential interwar man, striding up and down this stage-shaped space, under the smoked-glass sconces, while waiting for news of my arrival. Behind the duty desk there was a board full of missing persons notices and appeals for assistance in murder inquiries: Camilla Gordon last seen alive leaving the Blue Bunny. Do You Recognise This Man? (Yes, of course I do, he looks exactly like a forensic pathologist’s reconstruction of a decomposed murder victim – I’d recognise him anywhere.) But there was no flyer reading: Charing Cross Hospital, last seen leaving Charing Cross in a westerly direction. In the corner a revolving strip of pinprick red lights made the slogan: IF YOU HAVE BEEN THE VICTIM OF A THEFT WHERE FORCE HAS BEEN USED TO STEAL YOUR PROPERTY PLEASE INFORM THE STATION OFFICER YOU HAVE PRIORITY OVER OTHER CALLERS.
The Detective Constable I’d come to see pitched up and ushered me in. I followed her down a distempered corridor, coated with a carpet so flat and dun that it looked spread rather than lain. Doors opened off to the right, affording glimpses of offices full of obsolete computer equipment and paunchy administrators. Water-cooler tanks, blue, ribbed, plastic, lay on the floor like the discarded shell casings of a liquid bombardment. To the left there were windows; in their metal frames I saw the metallic mangle of police vehicles jumbled up in the triangular yard. We went upstairs.
In a tiny cubicle of a room as featureless as a desert, we were joined by the snapper. She wore a brown woolly and brown corduroy trousers; was she, I wondered, deliberately camouflaged? She encouraged me to roll back my lip and show my chipped tooth. The flashbulb exploded, and into the charged atmosphere I made the lighthearted remark, “I was born here y’know.” The snapper, the DC – they took it well. “There’s been a lot of smoking done in this room,” the cop said and I wondered: “Before or since?”
I wasn’t sorry to leave the nick – I never am. When I was born, in 1961, I had a congenital inguinal hernia. My mother wasn’t able to feed me – they had to put me on a drip. I lay for six weeks – or so she assured me – in “a little cage”, until I was old enough for them to operate. As I strode along the Strand I wondered what had happened to the little cage; had it, like the hospital, transmogrified? Or was it perhaps still here, being used by the Met to contain tiny offenders?
From London: City of Disappearances by Iain Sinclair