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pilgrimage: No Expectations
put me on a train.
take me to the station
OCTOBER 3, 2021: It’s a cold, wet and windy, Saturday, grey skies and grey clouds. It’s the kind of day people think of when they think of London, but I rarely have bad weather when I’m here and in fact have been here in the past when it’s been so unseasonably warm no one was taking the Underground home or even to the main train station they came through on their way to the suburbs.
That’s where I am now, standing on the platform at London Bridge rail station, waiting for the train that will take me to Dartford. Dartford rail station is where Mick Jagger and Keith Richards met for the first time, waiting for the train to London. Mick carrying a shopping bag filled with American blues records. They had each heard about the other, not an uncommon thing in a small village where having hair longer than your collar and sending international money orders to America to order blues albums is going to make you stand out. It was probably inevitable, but it happened there.
British people often make a joke that’s something like, “Should be a blue plaque there” for some unremarkable event or location. The blue plaques are installed all over the country to commemorate somewhere a famous person lived or a minor thing happened; it’s supposed to “raise awareness of a building’s historical significance” and if you wander London for any length of time you will run into at least one. It has taken a while for the scheme to extend beyond LORD FOTHERINGHAM THE THIRD HAD HIS STABLES HERE IN 1879, but now there are plaques on the building where Jimi Hendrix lived and died, on Abbey Road studios, at 23 Heddon Street, where the cover of ZIGGY STARDUST AND THE SPIDERS FROM MARS was taken.
And, since 2015, there is a blue plaque on Platform 2 of Dartford rail station. It is the kind of thing I heard about because I am the kind of person who makes those jokes and the kind of person who stops to read blue plaques and the kind of person who will take a 45 minute rail journey on a rainy day to go stand on a platform at Dartford rail station. Honestly, the plaque just makes a good photo op; I’m the kind of person who had this site stored in my head for a time when I’d be in London and have the time to trek out here. A thing happened here that altered the course of my life, I don’t much care if it was a parking lot or a city dump. I need to come and stand there and see what I can feel and see.
The train arrives and I board. It’s your typical rounded square plastic immediately-adjacent-to-a-large city train-like conveyance, a step above the New York City subway and a step below New Jersey Transit. Your ticket is scanned at the turnstile before you enter railside; there are no conductors. There is a electric sign board that displays the train’s progress, as well as a cool voice that makes the announcement of the upcoming and next stops. I put my headphones on a low volume and opt for Beggar’s Banquet. I wish I could tell you that I’d planned this, but as the train moved forward the (obvious) song that popped into my head was “No Expectations” and so Beggar’s Banquet it was. I might have even napped gently at one point between stops, reminding myself that Dartford was the station after Slade Green, but before Stone Crossing. But none of this was actually necessary because I have an iPhone with an international data plan so I could just look at the damn phone. Old habits die hard.
Back in the day you had to know someone who had gone or someone local would escort you to find these kinds of places. There were some books, but not a lot, and at that time they did not cater to the obsessive; no book publisher was going to print something that told you how to get to an abandoned building where a rock musician once lived. Again, there was a plaque and I had a phone but I also reached out to the one person I knew had already been to Dartford, a fan who lives in South America. (It’s a long story.) I tell her, I’m going to Dartford but I hate looking like a tourist. Is it obvious? Is there anything I need to know?
She replies with an annotated map one of her local pals created, in answer to all of the above. I am impressed but not surprised. I am not quite at this level of dedication at this point in my life, but I both understand and respect the effort.
thank you rollingcircus!!
The journey is unremarkable, if perhaps greener and less bleak than taking Metro North to Connecticut. Arrival at Dartford is a whirlwind of shoppers and parents and children and pushchairs and carry bags getting off the train. I stand aside for a second because I’m not burdened and I’m not in a rush, before I make the trek up a metal staircase in order to cross over the tracks and then back down the stairs to Platform 2.
no i'm not a tourist why would you think that
To my dismay, the platform is not empty; there is a bicycle leaning against the pillar holding the blue plaque. It is also chilly, and the rain is blowing sideways. I could sit on the adjacent bench in the rain and see if the next few trains cleared the platform, or I could take my photo and do my contemplating while waiting for the next train back to London. In this weather I was definitely not going to wander up and down Dartford high street searching in vain for some vibes from 70 years ago. I take a few photographs, walk back and forth a bit, jot down some notes in my phone. I wait for a train or two and then decide to get on the next one, back to London. In total, I’m probably there for 20-30 minutes, tops. I’m sure everyone on that platform would have thought that I was daft for spending the time and energy to come and walk around a train platform, and it’s the kind of thing I just don’t explain to most people any more, I just plan the trip and go. It’s always worth it.
Platform 2 at Dartford Station is still a place where the universe decided to collide and pull two humans together. As someone who also grew up in a suburban town about 45 minutes away from the bright lights and big city I remember the anticipation of standing on the platform and waiting for the train to arrive, the train that was going to take me away from what felt like forever gray and boring to the place where anything was possible. I think of all of the things the train signified to the people who created the music that drew Mick and Keith to it and together, a different level of escape and freedom, a symbol of hope and passage onward to a new place in this life or another one. But it is all of those things, and that is why I wanted to stand in that place for myself. It is a pilgrimage to the event and the dominos that fell once it occurred. It is a way of paying homage to the universe and the kind of magic that caused it to happen. It is an action that is vital to the kind of historical and archival work that I do, that informs my work and writing in ways both tangible and spiritual.
The next train to London arrives and I step onboard, along with everyone else heading to the capitol for a Saturday afternoon or evening. I sit by the window, headphones on, watching the rain fall as the train glides by a series of backyards and warehouses, the train car full of gently anticipative energy. I imagine young Keith or Mick sitting in the train looking forward to the freedom of the big city, stepping off at the train station in London and being swallowed up by the vastness of it all, the excitement of the unknown, feeling the potential for anything to happen next.
I know in the last newsletter I promised a pub date and a cover reveal but everything just moves slower these days. I will, however, amuse you with one of the outtakes from my author photos session, where we took one of the cliche Detroit artist photos just for funsies, because we were in the area. I'm facing east, that's the Renaissance Center (aka the RenCen) in the background, the river is to my left.
Photo credit: Cybelle Codish