Monday, 12 July 2010

Sartre on the Tube

"What would Sartre make of this, then?"

The voice came from somewhere behind my left ear. I looked round and found myself face-to-face with a tall thin stranger.

We were on the London Underground, Saturday lunchtime, packed in the July heat with all the other travellers and tourists, en route with the girls to Hammersmith for a show. Their first time in London.

The stranger gestured around him at all the people sitting and standing, pressed up against each other, physically so close, trying so hard to be apart. "This, eh? What would Sartre make of it?"

"Yeah, crazy." I ventured. "And hot too."

"I think it's a shame people don't talk to each other on the tube," he went on.

"Er, me too."

And then I had a choice. I could revert back to the old me, the me who'd lived in London all those years, who'd carefully honed his defences to avoid having to make contact with the people around him, the me that would keep his eyes firmly fixed on the middle distance, and his mouth firmly shut. Or, the new me, the me I'm still growing into, the one finding different ways of looking at the world. The me in transition. I made my choice.

"So," I began, "where are you off to today?"

And we started to talk. He was on holiday and off to visit his parents in Devon; they owned a place there, he said, with some acres of mixed woodland. And there, in the heart of London, on a baking hot day, in the tube under Oxford Circus, the busiest shopping street in England, two complete strangers talked about trees, about nature, about biodiversity and forest management. About Europe's ancient woodlands, and about how much we loved trees.

Two stops later, we arrived at our station, said goodbye and we went our separate ways.

Sartre famously said "Hell is other people". I think he was wrong. And I think that community is not just about the people who live in the neighbourhood around your house. It's something you carry around inside you.

And you can take that anywhere.


  1. That's a great encounter. The last time I was in London I had a ten-stop conversation with an ex-doctor from Africa about reskilling (his extremely darned jacket was an artwork!). By Edgware Road the whole carriage was joining in. My former Notting Hill self would have DIED with the uncoolness of it.

    As for the existentialist, well he wasn't a big fan of trees. "Nausea" started with a bad trip under a sweet chestnut in a park in Paris . . .

    It's hard, I reckon, to get on with people if you haven't got the earth in common.

    Salut! Charlotte

  2. Great post, Jon! And especially impressive on the Tube, which I hate so much that I always take a bus or walk if I can. I can't match your lovely tree encounter, but I have had lots of Transition-friendly conversations with strangers on our dreadful commuter train service. And with regulars too.... there is something about being on a shared journey in adversity that gets us Brits chatting in a great way.

  3. Thought provoking Blog! The Underground was always one of my favourite of London experiences, notwithstanding the often cramped conditions. Undoubtedly a microcosm of society, with all that is good and bad therein, a great place to both meet and avoid people.
    The ban on alcohol on the tube will no doubt have an impact!