Tuesday, December 9, 2008

London diary: extracts

4 Lowick Road

January 2002

I go out into a wintry landscape. Frost covers the grass, the trees, the shed and the bench in the garden. It looks like snow; it looks so northern.

The streets are icy; the pavements are icy. I crunch along, trying to avoid the ice patches. The cars in the street still have ice on them at one in the afternoon, and there are messages written in the ice. It melts slowly; then it’s night again, and the ice reforms.

A clear, cold day: the sky is blue, almost cloudless. Aeroplanes taking off leave two streams in the sky as they ascend.

At night, the streetlights shine a dull orange into the room. Trains rattle off into the dark, busy, fast, speeding off importantly, a hard steady rhythm, unstoppable.

Walking into Harrow shopping centre yesterday I passed big yellow notice boards warning of a kidnapping that had occurred at the corner of Radnor and Nibthwaite Streets. An Asian man was bundled into the back of a car on December 15. Police are appealing to witnesses to come forward with information. I wonder if they’ll find the man.

It’s a sharp, yellow reminder of crime. It happens here, just like at home. Except here they erect big notice boards.

The street is silent as I cross over, not a car in sight. Despite this we walk to town, to the stations to catch buses and trains, to walk home with parcels bulging. It is still a safe society. There are ATMs built into the walls on the outside of banks, and I use them as freely as everyone else. There are no double security doors at the entrance and no security guards at the ready. Not as there is in Johannesburg. And this is what we’re going back to, what we’re choosing to go back to. It all seems so unreal.


Friday night in Harrow. I am restless, seemingly far too restless to write and think. I want to be home now. I’ve had enough of London, living in limbo, reading, reading and reading. It’s the cheapest thing to do. Occasional visits to the centre of London. It’s too expensive to go more often. So, we go into Harrow, visit the internet café, buy food at Tesco’s, wander around the shops, check out the movies showing at the mall, but so often they show junk: Hollywood thrillers and action movies. So here we are, in Harrow until January 31.

It turns out we travelled illegally out of South Africa because we used our EU passports. When we went to the High Commission we were told we would have to apply for temporary SA passports. The clerk said we might have lost our South African citizenship by using the EU passports, and that they might have to write to SA to get proof that we were still citizens. That could take a month. And only then could we apply for temporary passports, which takes about two weeks. We left the High Commission shell-shocked. We walked around Waterstone’s bookshop in a daze, had something to drink there and agreed we’d have to get jobs, any jobs, just to pass the time. We couldn’t be here till the end of February still not working, using up our money, bored and idle in Harrow.

We went to the National Gallery, still stunned by the news. We gazed at sixteenth and seventeenth century paintings. We went to look at the Impressionists: there was Van Gogh’s ­famous sunflowers, Monet’s paintings, but much as we tried to appreciate it, it was hard. At the back of our minds was the thought of having to remain in London till the end of February, of perhaps having lost our citizenship. It seemed bizarre.

Standing in the queue at the High Commission the next day, we clutched our now completed forms, our birth certificates, IDs, passports, my SA naturalisation papers, Gary’s permanent residence, hoping the news would be different this time.There was some hassle with the translation of my Spanish birth certificate: it didn’t seem to state clearly that I had been born in Spain, or that my mother had been born in South Africa. But the woman behind the counter took our papers. The news was good. We were allowed to apply for temporary passports. We had finger and handprints taken and were told we could collect the passports on January 29. It was such a relief. I felt buoyant, exuberant, like we had been given a reprieve. We had an expensive lunch at the Pizza Hut — pizza and pasta, we had cold drinks and shared an ice cream, and it came to a whopping £14. Still, we never do it and it was nice to sit indoors and eat a warm lunch instead of eating our packed sandwiches outside, wind flapping, cold air biting.

Back to the National Gallery to see the RB Kitaj exhibition. I especially liked his later series: paintings of lovers, done on canvas, bright splashes of colour between the black lines representing the figures, and the white canvas showing through it all. I found the rest of his work bright too, but also slightly messy and chaotic. Almost too simple, although the more I looked, the more it seemed to flow together. We went through the rooms showing older paintings, the heavy formalism, the subjects of the portraits sitting there stiffly in their old-fashioned clothes; we looked at the Impressionist landscapes of Turner. We sat in the coffee shop almost until closing time before setting out for Covent Garden.

It was rush hour and London’s workers were going home, storming past us, dashing for buses and trains, in such a hurry to get home. We passed a mad old man weeing on the pavement and hurried on.

We found The Poetry Place, a café with an underground basement where poetry readings are held. It was packed with people who had come to hear poetry, poetry that seemed so trivial. Poetry that spoke about catching buses back to the 1960s and about working-class people eating at working-class cafés. A woman sang a satirical song about Margaret Thatcher. Some poets forgot the words to the poems they had learned off by heart, or not so off by heart, it would seem. An Icelandic man, Maunie, which meant moon, ‘so now you all know one word of Icelandic’, read and sang and bantered with the audience. The best was a poem about a race in which hunger and poverty and HIV virus and other calamities raced against each other on a racecourse; it was recited like a racehorse commentary. It was clever and it worked.

After we walked quickly to Southampton Street to catch a bus to Euston train station. Again, there were people on the streets, a long line of people stood in the cold, waiting to get into a club. We caught the bus, exhilarated at being out at night, catching buses at half past ten. It’s so liberating. It’s one thing we’re going to miss. Arriving in Harrow, we walked quickly home. There were no other people around, we still had all our documents with us, and were still not convinced of the safety of walking home late at night.


Saturday afternoon in Harrow. A grey, cold day. Dusk in about an hour or so. We only woke up at 12 and had breakfast/lunch at one. It was like we had both been drugged, we simply couldn’t surface. We had set the alarm for nine to go into the city, but I didn’t hear it and Gary simply turned it off. I just wanted to go home last night. Today I feel a bit calmer, slightly more patient. I’m just going to have to let the time go.

Gary looks forward to having beers on the balcony, watching a brilliantly coloured African sunset. We both look forward to the freedom — what an irony — of being back in South Africa.
We won’t be prisoners of money that doesn’t go very far. Here we are trapped by our limited pounds, not earning, having bought our pounds with rands. We’re also limited by our own lack of knowledge about this city. We are alienated by London: it’s a big, anonymous, unfriendly city.


Christmas had been lonely. On Christmas Eve one of Gary’s fillings fell out. He couldn’t get to a dentist till after Christmas, the city was shut. We ate a prepared chicken from Tesco’s, sweet potatoes and vegetables. It felt odd, as though we had been left out. We had bought books for each other. Things weren’t that bad, but I still ached to be home, ached to be in warm sunshine, surrounded by people. Plus, there was the worry of Gary’s tooth and how much it would cost and what would have to be done with it. The National Health isn’t that free over here. There was no public transport on Christmas Day. In the end, we found a dentist and Gary had a temporary filling put in; it was £25. The dentist recommended a crown and Gary said he would sort it out in Johannesburg.

On Friday we finally went into the city after being cooped up in Harrow all week. It was icy and there was a strong wind. We went to the Tate Modern, I had discount vouchers to see the Surrealist art exhibition, Desire Unbound. But the show was disappointing. It was overheated and crowded, and you weren’t allowed to go back into the rooms where the exhibition had been mounted. Too many people meant you had to fight your way to the exhibits; otherwise you just couldn’t see anything. English people are rude, not polite, as you would expect. Perhaps on an island of 60 million people you learn to shove, otherwise you just don’t get anywhere. The exhibition showcased paintings as well as writings of the surrealists, and also interesting commentaries on the exhibits. There was a Frida Kahlo painting, some Salvador Dali.

Afterwards we sat outside eating, our fingers turning numb in the cold. Gary had a sandwich brought from home; I had a tasteless wet pasta tuna salad. We bolted lunch down, dashing back inside the Tate for some warmth. Then we walked along the Embankment, huddled against the weather. A man was selling roasted chestnuts, and I enthusiastically bought a packet, remembering eating them 10 years ago in this city. We threw the shells to the cold and ate quickly, overlooking the grey river. The chestnuts were nice, but not as magical as I had remembered them. It’s amazing how worry and anxiety cloud your enjoyment of things.


We could have had a better time in England if we’d had jobs or rent-free accommodation or had been visiting and had jobs to return to. In the meantime our experience of London is murky. Much as we try to forget we’re living off our savings, and have to look for jobs at home and hope we’ll find good ones, with good salaries, it’s still difficult to let go and enjoy the views from the Embankment, or the Poetry Library.

On Saturday we met Jane at the British Library. Gary and Jane used to work together. Jane worked in the UK for two years previously, and was one of those who had told Gary that there were loads of media jobs here. She has a South African passport, and is here on a work permit. Her job involves writing cellphone manuals.

We walked around the museum of manuscripts at the ­Library, gazing at a page of a typescript of a Virginia Woolf novel, at the only known piece of writing by Shakespeare, at versions of the Bible, the Magna Carta, old Hebrew books, fourteenth century manuscripts illustrated by monks. It’s a special feeling to be among such antiquity. On the audio panels I listened to Virginia Woolf droning on in an aristocratic accent, drawing out the words, such as ‘my-ster-ious-ly’, talking slowly and pompously. Clearly people spoke slower then, perhaps they had more time. I listened to a recording of Florence Nightingale done in the late 1890s. The woman announcing her said, “Eighteen hundred and ninety...” (then whatever the exact year was, I cant remember) and her voice was all high falsetto. Nightingale’s voice was also slightly distorted, too high for the microphone. She too spoke slowly, pompously, it sounded deliberate, as though she thought she wouldn’t be heard if she didn’t drag out her words.

Lunch with Jane in the Library café afterwards. We ate and spoke about what we missed about South Africa. She said London had everything; you just had to know where to look. We replied that there was a lot about Johannesburg we hadn’t appreciated, but Jane pooh-poohed any good in that city. She was in London now, and was determined to make the most of it. She didn’t want to go back — and so it was easier to dismiss SA, easier to acclimatise if you insist you left somewhere dull and going downhill. I think she thought we were mad to be returning, but could see for herself that the job market isn’t as rosy as it once was. Most of her friends have emigrated too; she hasn’t got many left in SA.

New Year’s Eve we stayed at home. We didn’t fancy going out, spending money, plus it was minus eight degrees outside. The streets were icy, weather forecasters warned motorists and pedestrians to be careful. I don’t have the clothes for that kind of weather, and we didn’t want to get sick. So, it was slightly disappointing but we stayed in and watched Pleasantville on TV and celebrated 2002. The New Year means nothing to Gary; it’s an arbitrary manipulation of time. I know that’s true — but time is what we’ve created on earth, and I enjoy the promise of the fresh new beginning that a new year offers.


Of course, there are things that we’ll really miss about this city — things you don’t get in Johannesburg, or only in limited forms. I’ll miss the incredible bookshops and sheer variety of books: the short story anthologies, the travel sections. The theatre that is being staged — although we haven’t had the money to take advantage of it, the advertised writers’ meetings and readings, all the happenings listed in Time Out. But all this doesn’t translate into jobs, nor take away the drudge aspects of living in this city: the miserable weather, the public transport, the drab cafes, the indifferent food (unless you have the money to go out to smart restaurants).

Last Sunday we walked up to old Harrow, up the hill to Harrow School, which Byron attended. The school dates from the Middle Ages. We sat in the garden, hearing the organ playing in the church. We sat on the benches in the green gardens with a sprawling view of London before us. It was peaceful, sweet. This is how I imagined England: quiet, green, graceful, traditional, history talking at you from the old walls, ancient stones and plaques. We crossed the road to St Mary’s Church. The church is old, there are fortifications remaining, and around the front there are those same burial mounds we saw at that church in Aversham. The mounds were small, short, indicating again that the people buried in them were short. But this time the gravestones were unreadable, the words washed away by rain or the simple accumulation of centuries.

As a schoolboy, Byron used to enjoy the solitariness and the views from this churchyard high on Harrow Hill. There is a plaque indicating where he used to sit, and the plaque contains lines from his poetry about the view. The view today still stretches out endlessly, a view that’s misty blue-green, showing roads and packed-together houses.

We wandered around the cemetery, reading the inscriptions on the tombstones of people who died in the 1800s. Byron’s illegitimate daughter was buried here in an unmarked grave. There were whole lists of names: wives, sons killed in battle or of typhoid, people dead at young ages, a son of nine dearly loved and missed. There were more graves lining the quiet hills, but it had been raining and the path was muddy and slippery. We walked near the church again, pausing at a gravestone, and read the inscriptions. Suddenly I pictured the mourners, small, short women in black nineteenth century billowing dresses, clutching each other in comfort, grieving. The day heavy with death, sadness, loss. I said nothing. A few minutes later Gary remarked that you could just see it: the mourners, the men shovelling dirt onto the coffin. It was like we had both glimpsed a bit of the past.

We walked along the narrow streets of Harrow, the streets were barely wide enough for one flow of traffic to pass through. We had drinks and English muffins at a tearoom, Tea at Three. Next to our table a boy sat in school uniform, his parents in their forties, a younger son, also eating English muffins. At other tables too sat schoolboys in uniform. Again, it was like another vision of quaint old England. I kept staring at this family across from us, the mother blonde, American-sounding, tall, her manner slightly stern. The father looked like a businessman. The schoolboy slouched in his seat, eating; the younger son seemed slightly in awe of all that went with his older brother’s schoolboy position: in uniform, being visited. I tried to imagine their lives, thought how odd it is to send your children away to school, seeing them only at weekends and during holidays.

Afterwards we wandered along some of the streets. Peering into homes, an inscription on the wall of one read 1720. A black and white cat followed us. A ginger cat stared out of a window, eyes hooked on the free cat in the street. Two schoolboys in muddy shorts and tops passed us, carrying sports bags.


Keats’s house in Hampstead. A bus ride to Golders Green; another to Hampstead, clearly a plush area with its big houses and driveways, some homes had four storeys and a basement level. The cars driving by were smart and expensive. This was one area we felt we could live in.

Keats’s house was a bit of a disappointment. Originally two semi-detached houses, the dividing wall had been knocked out, making one biggish house. It was sparsely furnished. A group of American tourists were also visiting, one woman loudly commented on everything: the chairs, some of which you could sit on, some not; talking about the shade of green in the diningroom. The rooms were annotated, detailing the biographical facts of Keats’s life. Strands of Keats’s hair was kept in two lockets, one brown, and another a faded sandy colour, bleached by years of exposure to the sun. The kitchen still had a coal-burning stove, but little else, the room was bare. Another tiny room had a washbasin or sink without taps, and another, smaller stove at eye level. A damp, cold storage room led off from it.

Up the steep stairs, we found Keats’s bedroom, small and cramped. It had a canopy bed of the type he may have slept on, and a stand holding a commode. His friend’s room was bigger, and had a double bed. In another small room we read photocopies of Keats’s letters to Byron, to other friends, and to Fanny, his fiancée. But there seemed to be little sense of what the place was really like in Keats’s time, what the kitchen would have looked like, or the sitting rooms. There seemed an absence instead of a presence of the poet.

Rushing to get things done, shopping at Foyles. Going to Kensington, Selfridges, gazing at the opulence of Harrods, where I found ripe figs and Spanish mantecados. Closing bank accounts so recently opened, withdrawing diminishing funds. Packing up a suitcase to send home as unaccompanied baggage. We go to the Transport Museum. We return books to the Poetry Library at the Royal Festival Hall and gaze at the darkening Thames as night falls. Lights reflect on the water, glittering London winks across at us over the expanse of ­water. Hanging over railings, we listen to the remains of a concert in the foyer as the real Londoners drink and eat at the café. We go to the British Museum and look at antiquities. A friend comes from Manchester to say goodbye, she’ll see us next at Christmas in Johannesburg. The days fly by. On the last few nights, we trundle through London on buses, saying goodbye, discarding the brief lives we have created here in only a few months.
(Published in Green Dragon 2)

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