Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006

My London Anthem


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

Author: charlotteotter

Novelist, feminist, crime writer

11 thoughts on “My London Anthem

  1. Ah, well, London did not match your expectations of England because London is barely in England. I can only function there at all if I pretend I am in a foreign city where a high proportion of the locals speak some English.

    The rest of England is nearer to your mish-mash of expectations than London ever was, though in an increasingly grey and Orwellian way.

    Some years ago I saw a road sign in the West Midlands for the “Forest of Arden Indusdrial Estate” and I knew we had lost our national soul.


  2. You were 21 in 1990? Gads I feel old. I went to London when I was 17 in 1970 and since I was going there from the rural mountains of Colorado it was terrifying, wonderful, confusing, intimidating, stimulating. I got to go to the Prom concerts, to see Carmen at the Opera, to see more museums than there wer in the whole state of colorado.

    I loved it. It started me on my life long love of foreign travel.

  3. This is so exquisitely written – your language just shines here!

  4. I loved the little I saw of London – we spent five days there in 2001, which was barely enough time to get my bearings. The museums, the art galleries, Harrods, the touchable history — oh god, the history — all inspired a sense of awe in this Antipodean. However, had I not been there on holiday, I suspect my experience might have been somewhat different.

  5. What a great post Charl! I have the feeling there are more stories in there itching to get out. Most of all I am glad you made the most of London, I reckon that is what it is there for, before you run away again! Country mouse that I am, I can only take it in small intense doses, but it is just so exciting, hey?..

  6. I think you and I are exactly the same age, Charlotte! Loved this post – I see you had the full experience of English pubs, English eccentricities and hopeless English men. It always takes ages to settle into a new country – at least 6 months, but it sounds like you had exactly the right kind of heterogeneous experience for a year out!

  7. AB, I think coming from a largely British background, I expected to find England and London familiar and they were both very strange, though England itself slightly less so.
    Ms Magic Hands, yes I think once I got used to being so foreign, I learnt to love travel too. Now, as I’m more secure in myself, I really enjoy that weird dislocating strangeness of being somewhere new.
    Thanks for the kind words, Courtney and Emma!
    Kerryn, you’re right there is a big difference between passing through and thinking “My God, and now I have to LIVE here.”
    Litlove, yes my English boyfriend was a bit hopeless. And you’re right it was a broadening experience, after which I went home, and did well in my post-graduate study. I definitely went home a little more grown-up than when I left.

  8. London has a hundred different faces, none of which Beatrix Potter painted. I had the same sense of dislocation as a teenager shopping in London for the day from the wilds of rural Somerset. I wandered down the King’s Road, ten years too late, wondering where it was all supposed to be happening.

    Later on I lived there and it became familiar and more village-like but as soon as the children arrived I headed out for the country again..just happened to be a foreign country this time.

  9. Kit, you’re right, London does eventually turn into a village. It did when I lived there later, married and a with a child. But on first meeting, it’s quite scary.

    Litlove, I think I somehow also worked out that we are both on the same gentle downward slope. My birthday is imminent – 18 December.

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