So it has taken me a year to get here, and I am sitting on an iron bunk in London. Travelling at a time when the rand is weakest, in one of the most expensive cities. Everything is paperless and electronic, even flushing the toilets. In four days I had to go from Nokia cellphone to booking everything on line, paying on line, a new smart phone that was so smart, I couldn’t keep up with it..yet it was bottom of the range. It did help me keep in touch in real time so that I didn’t feel the distance so much. Its like leaving home without your mummy and getting lost in the supermarket when you are five. So much that is familiar isn’t. Luckily they speak English here, well mostly, I heard a group of scots talking, and literally it took me a while to realise that it was also English.
So there is so much that is different in this huge city, and I keep wondering how it came to be what it is. Also wondering where are all the beggars, the black people, yes there is quite a cosmopolitan group of people, but they all have British accents unless theyre a tourist, and there are hordes of tourists. Of course I decided to come during the world cup rugby. So the world and his brother and sister are here.
So why does it feel so different? First a lot of the the buildings are all dark and made of old brick, and they all seem miniature in size. (the roof starts low down and is steep. This gives the impression that the houses are small. Some of them are small, hardly head height) Theyre also always in long row and semi detached. Streets are rarely in fact I can now say, never, straight so you have to really keep your sense of direction..no mountain to guide you. Then they all have rows of chimney pots on the top. Never seen so many. Are they all still used?
The weathers not that different..yet. Apparently we have been having good weather. I have only used my brolly twice. Its just very changeable and you have to wear layers and always take a brolly, as the rain comes down whenever it feels like it, and when it does, it is relentless, gentle but persistant. I prepared quite well, thanks to kway and the schools gift. A good raincoat, feather waistcoat, good brolly, waterproof shoes and small backpack, I have wandered the streets of London. The telly always quotes the weather as “sunny patches”, rather than “rainy patches’ I suppose they are trying to be optimistic. But I have been lucky as we have not had rain for 2 days now. Its just the beginning of autumn and you notice how GREEN everything is. Super green. There are many parks in London with HUGE trees. To give you an idea, I am on the fifth floor of a hostel (cant afford a hotel with the rand at 20:1) without a lift, so I am getting very fit., but out my window is not even the top of an average size tree).
Many of the parks are surrounded by iron gates and are private. I always wonder what would happen with a more socialist government. I think I would feel put out by all the private property. However, there are also HUGE parks and gardens free for all, that are all so immaculate, you have to look hard to find a weedy patch, and you know I love weeds. However, I was heartened to find occasional South African plants like COSMOS and melianthus (the smelly plant growing outside Imhoff high school). I also wonder how they manage to sustain the perfect upkeep of these gardens and realise that much is tax. It is a wealthy country but also highly populated. Lots of people. Lots and lots!, all living on top of each other in expensive rooms. But lots of garden in between. I think a lot of my sister Claire, who loves gardening. Here it seems so effortless that things just grow so well, you spend more time cutting back than encouraging growth.
I decide not to plan my day, but to head in a direction and see where I get to. This was all very surprising as I’d suddenly realise where I was, looking at some place I’d only seen in pictures, or remembered vaguely from my first visit 20 years ago, like Buckingham palace or Trafalgar square or Big Ben even. Then when my feet could not walk anymore..literally, I would take the tube to my hostel. In this hostel I am lucky to get a 4 bed room. Many have 20 beds. There is no sexism or
racism, and I particularly had to confront my own sexism, as I was in a room with 3 burly men! I realise how entrenched is this fear of the opposite sex, and soon got over it. Then one night I woke up with two of them in one bed together, and I had to confront my own homophobia..okay they werent having sex, and it seemed quite sweet really. I only realised later, that one was female, but still, it was quite a shock to realise my own resistance.
So, as I was walking the street, I realised that I wanted to share it with certain people. The fashions in the window, made me think of Jamie Lee, Lindi and Yolani, and of course, Gemma and I realised that I couldn’t tell them. so, finally I downloaded whatsapp and promise to send some fashion out of London top of the range shops. Then there were so many theatres..all familiar in name, I found myself taking hundreds of photos wanting to send them all to Charisse, Sinetemba, Joseph, Bianca
and of course the globe to Janis! (Shakespeare productions)
The art struck me the most and again I took hundreds of photos thinking of tracey and wanting to share with Indi, Adam, Courtenay and Chryssea. Weird stuff. Very little beautiful, I must say, other than the portrait exhibition which was HUGE..over 4 floors of old and new portraits..Chryssea you would have loved it.
Of course I took a photo of Lord Byron..the famous portrait, after which my dearest son is named. Here there is a design festival and I know he would love it all. Byron, you have to come and visit me and see this all for real. Then of course the Tate modern, where the most famous artists like Picasso and Miro and Kandinsky sat side by side with unknowns and other 20th century artists..it made you think, as they are usually exhibited in periods, where as these were in themes. Also they re not protected by armoured glass or fake copies. Adam you would have loved the surreallist, Salvador Dali, the paintings were so small and fine, (when printed it seems so big,) it looked like airbrush, but wasn’t. And the enormous installations. The Tate modern is in a HUGE old power station. The spaces are HUGE and perfect for exhibitions of everything BIG.
In London, you walk around expecting to pay for everything, but get good surprises when so much is free, while others are horrendously expensive. Here I am lost in Turner land, with the most exquisite rooms of Turners work. He is truly an inspired artist. Nothing else touches the quality of his work.
I gave up on Madame Tussauds and a visit to the inside of Buckingham palace at R400 a shot and never mind the queues. To me these are overrated. I unexpectedly found some HUGE scuptures in surprising places. Everyone photographs Marble Arch, but theres a HUGE horses head..just a head standing on its own, called still water, and a fantastical dragon, called She guardian, with a cats face, bat wings, by a Russian artist, Dashi Namdakov.
Now lets not say anything about the architecture in London. There is truly a meeting of old and new. The skyline is so diverse. Really experimental spaces right next to ancient cathedrals.
Of course my excitement at being here finally was marred by the unexpected and horrifying news about Amani. I suddenly felt like wanting to be back and feeling so awful for Mandisa. Also unbelievable in some ways. London is so remote from Africa and what is happening there. Here, everything is so concerned for polish and image and I sometimes rail against the damage that was wreaked in Africa that led and still leads to this extreme wealth that fortunes are spent on gardens (mowed literally in stripes so that it looks like astro turf but isn’t), while Africa struggles with what was left behind in the wake of the colonists leaving it to cope with the after effects, while the real wealth still travels daily to the North. There are a HUGE amount of office buildings, and I wonder who fills them. All the men wear suits and women dresses. (very few jeans). What are their jobs? Is it all about finance and wheeling and dealing stocks and shares..virtual money. I sometimes have found it hard to explain what a place like Masi is like..no concept exists here. I spent time googling all the news I could find. Even going into the beautiful churches here to find some expression for my grief around Amani felt very remote. I went to a service on Saturday at Westminster cathedral..one of the largest and very catholic and felt very remote. On Sunday I went to another old church that was a bit more transformed by a young christian movement, and felt more moved, and the singing was heartfelt, but the only prayer for south Africa was because we lost the rugby to Japan.
Yet in the streets of London, there are few shopping centres. All the shops are small and unique, very few franchises, although I did buy a mac double cheeseburger and chips because I was starving myself because food is so expensive. (R60 for a breakfast consisting of white bread, artificial coffee, a slice of cheese and ham..and that was cheap. I cant get over R40 for a decent coffee take away). Shops are always small and tucked together down almost every street, mixed up with houses. I notice that there are no awnings to shade the rain! No garages even in the wealthiest areas they park in the street although they are reserved for residents. No one other than the wealthy have cars in London and you can hire bicycles at every corner..R40 for half an hour…is considered free! Of course you have to have a card to use. Everything is by cards, buses trains, that you swipe everywhere and it deducts preloaded money. An electronic nightmare trying to work out how to use machines for loading money, machines for taking it off again. I keep thinking of old ladies, like my dear departed mother, who couldn’t operate an atm, and how they would get around. Someone needs to make a movie of Aunt Agatha going to London. In some ways I feel like that. Cant ask anyone anything, because theyre all machines..supposedly user friendly, but very unfriendly..well you cant even use that word because it has a human edge to it. Even on the aeroplane, it felt like science fiction. Everyone sitting in chairs each with their own video screen and speakers on ears, each visiting a different world watching everything from horror to romance. All the windows closed to stop the glare on the screen. No one looking where we’re going.
And this of course..charging your electric car outside your house.
Okay, enough for today. I am going to book a bus to Gloucester and get out of this infernal city. One place I HAD to visit, was Neals Yard dairy. Being an erstwhile cheesemaker, I have lusted over this place for years. Its small and tucked away, but oh the cheeses!