As the self-appointed writer-in-residence of Victoria Coach Station, I often wonder what new arrivals to England make of our fair capital: the vague smell of pine-fresh urine, the hobbling pigeons, the golden pasties, the screaming children, the flickering lights, the heavily accented tannoy announcements, the punch-hole seats, the grey tiles and greyer faces. It is, without a hint of irony, the most honest arrivals gate we can hope to offer. It’s awful. It’s perfect. It’s exactly right.
I should say unofficial writer-in-residence, but it can surely only be a matter of time until my true office is recognised by the authorities. In the past month alone I have easily spent at least 10 hours resting my Lycra-clad buttocks on the various hard surfaces of Victoria Coach Station. I’ve drunk the Upper Crust coffee and eaten the £1.20 flapjacks. I’ve stared mindlessly at the fossilised wall of departure boards and spent lavishly at the 30p-per-wee bogs. I’ve met passengers from across Europe, chatted to Welsh women waiting for a hip replacement, stared at mud-covered festival prats trying to get back to their semi- detached house in Reading and shared a bench with tooth-shatteringly bored mothers waiting for a delayed coach back to Newcastle.
Until you’ve spent £3.20 on a three-week old samosa, a cup of diluted wood varnish posing as tea and a coin-operated piss, you haven’t really seen London at its most honest, most affordable, most true. Victoria Coach Station is what happens when literally nobody gives a shit. It doesn’t ‘pop up’; it doesn’t have free pianos; there’s no children’s story set on an imaginary platform; it doesn’t have a champagne bar (it doesn’t even have a Wetherspoon’s); there’s no first-class lounge and there are very few signs. It’s a collection of benches, erratically operating glass doors, a few bakeries and a constantly revolving set of coaches that are really the only affordable way to travel since our government sold off British Rail. I don’t know about you, but I haven’t been able to afford an on-the-day train ticket since I grew out of my Young Person’s Railcard.
Something of a siege mentality comes over the passenger waiting in Victoria Coach Station. A sort of fatalistic, jolly sense of doom. In such circumstances – unlike, say, the departures terminal at City Airport – you will talk to the people sitting around you. You’ll roll your collective eyes, laugh at the pigeon trying to eat a bottle top and offer up your seat to the woman apparently moving house to Leeds via National Express. I once heard a girl dressed in a full ice- hockey outfit tell the man next to her that she’d come home unannounced from studying in the US to surprise her mother on her birthday.
There may have once been some romance to railway stations, giddy excitement about airports and an elicit fags ’n’ fingering appeal to bus stops. But Victoria Coach Station is London in all its unglamorous, transient, metropolitan, multicultural, affordable, hilarious, half-baked glory. It’s precisely as it should be. If they’d only make the toilets free.
By Nell Frizzell who’s thinking of hanging out at Victoria Coach Station for the foreseeable future.