A look back at Rishi Dastidar’s Arts Council-sponsored Common Ground event, by Justina Hart.
We met, appropriately enough, in the Met Bar above Baker Street station on Saturday 2 December 2006, on the promise of a poignant but pointless journey to the end of the Metropolitan line and back, to celebrate Rishi Dastidar’s Common Groundchapter about Julian Barnes’s Metroland. This was also touted as an escape from the Christmas shopping we hadn’t yet done, and proved the perfect respite from doing something constructive of a Saturday afternoon.
After a kerfuffle about the price of tickets, we plonked in our Met line seats, where we were to remain for the next hour and a bit. We noticed that Sarah McCartney’s outfit blended perfectly with the magenta swirls of the décor, which seemed an excellent omen. Other passengers steered clear of our carriage, much to Rishi’s relief as he declaimed Betjeman’s ‘The Metropolitan Railway’ and ‘Harrow-on-The-Hill’ over the sound of arriving trains, human traffic and whooshing, clonking station noise.
Our tube started to chuff along the ancient line. With nowhere to go but the end of the line, we heard only Betjeman’s iambic pentameters in the rhythm of the train and were free to gaze on the passing scenery – leaping up to take in sights like the new Wembley Stadium. It brought back memories of school trips, where a mysterious sense of higher purpose filters down to the excitable schoolchildren: (fortunately, the badges marking us out as 26ers hadn’t arrived). London was soon replaced by a Betjemanesque landscape of ever larger mock-Tudor houses, fields and woods. Various of our number told anecdotes about periods of their lives measured out by different stops along the line, and the winter light shafted through the windows into our eyes, turning gold and red before it died.
Having changed at Chalfont & Latimer, the end of the line turned out to be a place called Chesham, replete with a beautiful toy town station. Bitterly cold, it was disappointing to have to walk rather than sit, but we were comforted by the low rooflines and amateur shop window displays, all remarkably reached by tube. Christmas had arrived in Chesham in the form of piped organ music and a faux-Victorian merry-go-round. We paid our two quid and climbed aboard the shiny horses and went round and round.
It was time for the serious bit. We found a bookshop boasting a café but the drinks actually lived next door in a shop which sold fruitcake, as well as all manner of sewing and knitting implements. Carrying our drinks and knitting needles back to the bookshop, we discovered its upstairs room – like a cosy local library – empty and perfectly suited to a reading. Rishi introduced us to Chesham, to his experience of the suburbs as a teen and how he’d discovered Barnes. He then read from his chapter and we bantered about how we had perceived London if we had grown up outside, and how we had perceived the metropolis if we had been born where it’s at.
Our cockles warmed by the pace of plush suburban life, like reverse commuters, we nodded all the way back into town.