Thursday, July 02, 2009

St. Pancras and the Poet

I don't think I'd ever heard the name St. Pancras outside the context of the London railway station. And hearing it would always make me think of the pancreas. St. Pancreas. And damn it, pancreas would always make me think of that icky scene in Love Story where Ryan O'Neal says, "I'm a liver," and Ali McGraw replies, "I'm a pancreas." So I always hated to think of St. Pancras Station because it reminded me of icky Ali McGraw in Love Story. And there I was in London and I still didn't know who the hell St. Pancras was, and why he had a railway station named for him. Could he have been from the Islets of Langerhans, the patron saint of diabetics?

I found myself at St. Pancreas Station, thinking about Ali McGraw and insulin, because I was going to visit the British Library, right by the station. I stopped off at the station to take a look at the statue of John Betjeman, one-time British poet laureate. I don't know his poetry at all, but he's memorialized at the station because he was instrumental in preventing its demolition in the 1960s. It's quite a charming statue.

I hadn't been to the British Library since they moved to the St. Pancras area in the late '90s. I went to take a look at the exhibit of treasures of the library's collection, which includes some truly awe-inspiring items. I'd seen many of these items before, at the old library near the British Museum, but the new addition to the collection that had especial relevance to me was a simple typed manuscript page, with written emendations, the opening of Pinter's The Homecoming, one of my favorite plays by one of my most revered literary forebears. The library had acquired the author's papers after his death. Pinter brilliantly peopled the territory that lay between the kitchen sink of Osborne and Wesker and the abyss of Beckett. "What have you done with the scissors?"

But I needed to put a real saint to the Pancras name. I couldn't keep thinking of the pancreas and Ali McGraw, no, that just wouldn't do, so when I got back to New York I googled our saint. It turns out he was just a kid. Beheaded at age 14, in Rome, during the reign of Diocletian. An obscure saint who, for some reason, is venerated by the English. If not for the London railway station and the aid of poet John Betjeman, he'd probably be completely forgotten by now, just another beheaded 14-year-old Roman boy.


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