Some readers may recall that life for Ping England started with a wizz-bang promotional show in the beautifully renovated St Pancras Railway. The big names of English table tennis were invited, along with the bigwigs from Sport England, to witness the launch of free street table tennis. Tables were scattered across the many concourses of the station and the general public were invited to have a go. It was a roaring success and the whole Ping phenomena took off from thereon. Of course, it wasn’t a national programme way back then, but an ‘arty’ initiative simply aimed at the Capital. No-one imagined that this plucky ping pong adventure would so quickly take on national dimensions, or that eight years later, one of the very best examples of Ping England would spontaneously emerge just a few metres away at the back of the stunningly revamped Kings Cross Railway Station.
‘Spontaneous’ is perhaps the wrong choice of words because like any successful endeavour, it inevitably requires one or a few people with the vision and the energy to make things happen. What started out as a hit and miss collection of four lonely table tennis tables in the enclosed forecourt of the Granary Building at the back of Kings Cross, was soon to become a thriving self-managed table tennis community right in the heart of Central London. Yes, there was a degree of spontaneity about it, but without the input of a handful of committed table tennis enthusiasts, it would be unlikely that things would have reached their current frenzied levels of activity.
The tables are accessible seven days a week and on some weekends the play continues well after midnight. With a data base of over one hundred participants and an endless stream of passers-by, the tables rarely stand empty. In fact, on the few times I have visited, there have been long queues of players waiting to get a game. Every new day brings new participants, but there are regulars too. It was explained to me that KX Table Tennis is as much a social gathering of ping players as a free place to practice. There is, I was told, some sort of weekly tournament that takes place every Sunday evening and judging by the quality of play that I witnessed, it would be a pretty tough tournament to win.
As is always the case in the sporting world, good players attract other good players. I witnessed this tendency at first hand in a club that I used to manage. Get a handful of decent level players and before long you’ll have a hall full of top-level athletes. But like most successful things in life there is invariably a down side.
Despite the KX Table Tennis players setting aside a table for those they amusingly call ‘civilians’, ie casual recreational players, the strong semi-professional players inevitably start to monopolise the table time. Why wouldn’t they. Having travelled across London for the single purpose of playing their fellow ping players, they don’t want to be hanging around for ever just to play ten minutes of ping. I get it. But these high-level performers can easily start to act as a disincentive to the civilians. It can be quite intimidating to watch very good players training in what is known in the trade as ‘cross court’- ie two pairs of players per table hitting the ball diagonally at rapid speed, spin and accuracy. The civilians might be initially impressed but then after a while would drift away feeling totally out of their depth. The end result; before you know it, a club mentality has emerged and the civilians have been relegated to the margins.
No one is to blame for this development. It just happens. If anyone could solve the problem it would be the UAL (University of Arts London) who own or lease the building. They could comfortably put 12 tables in the area without in any way compromising safety, but for reasons best beknown to themselves, they seem reluctant to do so. With extra tables, the KX Table Tennis Tribe could ensure that the ‘civilians’ were not marginalised. And speaking with one of the organisers, I feel confident that they would make this happen. With the best will in the world, there is only so much you can do with four tables. But even with more tables, unless you have the mindset to want to include everyone, including complete beginners, then sooner or later all the tables will be taken over by the high-flyers.
Leaving aside this tricky contradiction, what has been created at Kings Cross is truly impressive. Self- managing and dynamic enough to attract good players from across the capital but inclusive enough to draw in the locals. The participants create a wonderful international tapestry befitting of a global city that London has become. The next time you are in the Kings Cross area I strongly recommend a short detour to the Granary Building. And even if ping pong is not your thing, the whole area is a glowing testament to what urban regeneration can really achieve if humans are built into the planning stage. The Table Tennis Tribe, along side the student, media and canal tribes make for a wonderful mix. The whole area just buzzes with energy and at the heart of it is the KX ping pong players. Long may it last.