When I was 21, I spent a year in London. I was a green little expat fresh off the boat, head suffused with images of England that didn’t match the world I found myself in – images that started with Beatrix Potter’s fluffy bunnies and Enid Blyton’s smashing teas and ended with Wordsworth’s daffodils and Shakespeare’s tempestuous island. In the middle of these literary references were my family’s ones: Sunday lunches of roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, the green Harrods bags my grandmother kept her sewing in, photos of my father punting in Cambridge. With these swilling in my head, I arrived in 1990s London, and I found it alien.
It was not remotely the England of my imagination. It was not the cream teas and cricket dreams my family had painted for me. There was nothing peaceful or bucolic about it. I was scared of everything: the tube, the intimidating crowds, the shining shops. So I ran away, first to Oxford (that was much more like it) and then to France, but soon my money ran out and I had to go back to the big scary city to start earning some more.
I had a varied career as a waitress, a waitress and a waitress. I began by temping and on my first day had to serve meals at a function at the Home Office, which was nerve-wracking since as a South African I was not actually allowed to work. Then I did a week in the canteen of a large corporation (wearing a paper hat and slapping mash onto trays – yuck), a week in a department store restaurant and a few weeks in a Green Market pub (sad men and hookers). By posing as a New Zealander, I finally got a job at an upmarket Notting Hill bistro and things began to get a little better.
The rest of the staff was a mixed bag of other expats and some colourful locals, and I slowly began to feel as if I could fit in. I met some tough London girls – they were very mouthy, a bit aggressive and a lot of fun. I developed a veneer of cool like theirs, but it was very thin. At night I had a long walk home after work. I would always buy a drink in a bottle at the Seven/Eleven so that if I was attacked, I had a weapon. I can’t imagine what would have happened if I had been called on to use it.
The new job came with the start of summer. I began to enjoy London as if I belonged. With my other expat friends, I soaked up culture and saw things not available to apartheid-ruled South Africa. I saw John Malkovich enflame the stage in Burn This, went to the ballet at Covent Garden, saw The Stones, Bowie, Van Morrison and the Travelling Wilburies. I went to art galleries, experimental improv theatre, arthouse movies and got lost in bookshops. It was a huge cultural awakening.
We went clubbing, pubbing, smoking, walking, talking and like everyone does in long, hot London summers – we went to the park. Lying in the park, drinking in the park, kissing in the park. I fell in love with a very inappropriate boy, who later dumped me for a man. I suffered, exquisitely, but there were comforts: borrowing a friend’s open-top Volkswagen and driving across London, singing; ridiculous parties on bottles of one-pound Bulgarian wine; dancing in our flat after pub closing time.
For me, my London summer was a time of extremes: of growing up and being childish, of sadness and wild joy, of fear and exuberance, of leaving behind a constricted society for headlong freedom. To my delight, I have just discovered a song, an anthem really, that perfectly describes that time for me. So here to tell you more is the redoutable Lily Allen singing LDN, for me, a mere sixteen years later:
LILY ALLEN LDN exclusive video