Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Back in London

I flew back from South Africa on Saturday night. I got to Johannesburg International Airport (or whatever they are calling it now, having changed the name about three times at great cost to the tax payer) early, so I could try and buy an upgrade with air miles. As a result I got to the gate really early (there were only three other people), and settled into my book.

A young fresh-faced girl, approximately 22, approached me looking worried, "Is this the gate for the plane to London?" I responded that it was indeed a gate with a plane going to London, and then we established that she was indeed flying Virgin too. Her face spread into a broad smile, and relieved she sat down next to be and began telling me her story. She was from an Afrikaans farming family and had never travelled in her life, "Not even to Zimbabwe," she gushed. She had studied beauty therapy, and was now heading off to London to do training, before going on to the United States where she would board and work on an ocean liner.

She was so excited, naive, and enthusiastic, and had all these wonderful things ahead of her: New friends to meet, new places and experiences to have, romances, broken hearts, smelly people on the underground to encounter, learning that you can actually walk from Piccadilly Circus to Covent Garden, that an A to Z is an essential, and to maintain that wonderful openess but to also develop a sense of self preservation etc.

There was so much information I wanted to give her - but then I thought about how I discovered all of these things for myself - sometimes the hard way, and how ultimately rewarding it all was. And the resultant feelings of independence, and gradually, almost imperceptibly, finding that you are growing up in the midst of all this discovery. I wished her the best of luck with everything that lay ahead of her. It made me smile, and strangely, a little bit sad too. I suppose she reminded me a lot of myself on that first plane journey that I made almost ten years ago.

Gradually more and more people arrived, and eventually the entrance to the gate was mobbed with individuals really eager to settle into a confined space for nearly 11 hours an hour earlier - something I've never understood. I sat back and let everyone else board first, which gave me an opportunity to take a good look at my fellow passengers. I noted eight people in wheelchairs (some of whom I think weren't handicapped per say but elderly), five people with distinctive limps - one of which was a young girl who was barefoot (both feet), and had a large tattoo on what looked like the painful foot. I wondered if perhaps the tattoo was a new installment and the cause of the limp.

There was also a stern-looking Germanic couple who wore matching red Emirates shirts, the woman accessorising hers with a matching pair of red trainers. As we were flying Virgin I wondered if they were making some sort of statement, or if perhaps they were just one of those weird heterosexual couples who like to dress alike, and all their other ensembles were dirty - the cowboy ones perhaps?

On the Heathrow Express on Sunday morning, London, enveloped by thick grey clouds, resembled something out of a second world war film - bleak and depressing. It was only when I arrived at Paddington and sweatily fell into a cab with my plastic wrapped suitcase (something Virgin South Africa are insisting on now?), that things started to regain colour again. No matter how awful the weather is, the architecture in central London never fails to cheer me up - it has such great character and beauty. Then there's the disturbing yet strangely reassuring fact that nearly every black cab driver maintains three impenetrable opinions: 1. Ken Livingston is a bastard, 2. Tony Blair has lost the plot, and 3. Britain lets in far too many foreigners.

I've learnt there's no use arguing with them on any of these points, and the best thing is to try and change the subject (tough but not impossible), or pretending as though you are very tired and just want to sit quietly and watch the sites go by. The latter usually means they return their attentions to the radio show they were listening to - usually a call-in one with people discussing just what a bastard Ken Livingston is, the fact that Tony Blair has lost the plot, and how Britain is letting in far too many foreigners.

It's good to be back.


Theo said...

Who is Ken Livingston and why is he apparently widely disparaged as a bastard?

letters from london said...

Ken Livingston is the major of London.

People dislike the guy for various reasons - including some anti-semitic remarks he has made and a story about him physically abusing his pregnant partner.

I think in the case of the cabbies it's that his new transport rules and regulations, including things like the introduction of bendy busses, make their life difficult on the roads. Also, even though it's to reduce congestion in central London, the new £8 a day charge (to drive your car into this area), hasn't really seemed to solve the problem.

See more here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ken_Livingston