Talk this way

So, here’s the thing. I can speak English. I paid £125 to chat to someone for eight minutes yesterday to prove it. My certificate will soon be on its way.

Proof that I can ‘speak and listen’ in English is a requirement for my settlement visa application process, and passing an exam in central London at an approved exam centre was one way of proving it. I winced at the thought of paying so steeply for such a short test, but having completed it, I now understand why it all cost so much. Walk with me.

With the instruction to arrive no later than 15 minutes before my allotted time at my allotted venue, I arrived a good half-hour early. I announced myself – as instructed – to the concierge at the ground floor reception area and was met with a blank stare. He had no idea, really, where the English exams were taking place but he suggested perhaps the kind people on the third floor might know. He directed me there. I went to the third floor offices, to be told the English exams were in fact going to be held there, but the company hadn’t moved in yet. After kindly phoning the company on my behalf, the receptionist handed the phone to me. I spoke to someone who admitted that the administrative bungle was entirely theirs. He apologised profusely and directed me – with a further thousand apologies – to the correct venue, which was a five-minute walk away.

I found the new venue, and the fun began. I was greeted by Joe (not his real name), a clipboard-carrying gentleman who asked me for my name. He checked my name on the list, crossed it off and directed me to follow him into the nearby waiting room and ‘sit on that chair, please’. I climbed over several people to sit on that particular chair. As soon as I sat down, Susan (not her real name) came over to ask me for my passport and my ‘topic form’. [For the English exam, you have to think of a topic you can talk about for five minutes. Woe betide if you were to arrive at the exam centre without said topic form.]

After making a photocopy of my passport, checking that I had in fact thought of a topic and written it on my form, Susan handed me back my passport along with a few other papers. She instructed me to ‘put the papers down [like this] on the table in front of you when you’re called to the front table’. I nodded. I was tempted to ask if I was allowed to cross my legs while I was sat on that particular chair, but thought that was too risky.

I was then called to sit on another chair, this time at the front table. I sat down and looked at Mary (you know that’s not her real name), the clearly stressed and over-worked admin person, to see if I had put the papers down in the right spot on the table. She took them, so I must have. Mary hauled out a pile of papers from her oversized folder, asked me to check this and sign that and verify the next thing. She then took my passport, opened it at the photo page and held it up at eye level.

“Lift your head and look me straight in the eye, please,” was the instruction. I did so. Mary looked at me and the photo – double checked me and the photo again – and then ticked another thing off her list. She handed me back my passport along with a few other pieces of paper and told me to ‘put these documents [like this] on the table in front of you when you go into the exam room’. She then instructed me to go and sit on ‘that chair’. I obeyed.

A few minutes later, Penelope came along. She had a long dark pony-tail and an officious walk. She greeted me and asked me to ‘walk this way’ down the corridor. I tried, but found her gait quite difficult to mimic. I followed her nonetheless. We got to the end of the corridor and she told me to ‘stand here’, which I did. She then told me that I was to follow her into the exam room, sit down [she didn’t say on which chair] and put my papers down on the table in front of me [like this]. She then told me to sit on ‘that chair’ and wait for her after I’d finished my exam. Again, I promised I would.

I decided to tell each staff member I encountered that I had, in fact, been sent to the wrong place for my exam. Partly because I was annoyed and partly because I thought it might display my ability to take part in spontaneous conversation. It also led to every single person saying ‘sorry’ to me.

I duly followed Penelope into the room, and by now I think I’d perfected her walk. I put my papers down in the right place (I think) and with a flick of her pony-tail, Penny left the room and me to my exam. The examiner introduced himself to me – I have no idea what his name was – took my papers (I guess they must have been in the right place otherwise he might have called me Kevin), and, after clearing and setting his stopwatch, said, “Shall we get on with this? For what it’s worth.”

I said yes, because I thought that was the right answer. No-one told me to say anything else.

What followed was about eight minutes of conversation about the magazine I write for work (the topic I chose), ‘entertainment’ and ‘special occasions’. It was kind of awkward, given that I can speak English and everything, but we both persevered and lived in the moment. I am grateful to the examiner for that, and for telling me about a club that he and his wife belong to where you can get cheap tickets to the theatre. Cheers.

The exam ended rather abruptly, when the examiner I think got tired of talking to me. He said we were finished and I needed to leave. And with a dismissive wave of his hand, he told me to take my papers with me. I left – by now I’d reverted to my own style of walking – and went to sit on the designated chair to wait for Penny. She came by a few minutes later, surprised that I was already finished, and with another person in tow ‘walking this way’. After depositing the next student in the exam room, she emerged with another piece of paper for me and a look of excitement on her face as she told me I had passed with ‘two distinctions’!

After a brief discussion about how quickly I could get my certificate, she put my piece of paper into an envelope, popped in a complimentary pen, and wished me well on my way. So many people, so little time, so many instructions. In an ordinary world, Mary and the examiner could have had this covered, and the exam could have been cheaper. Hey, I got a free pen, I guess.

As I said goodbye, Penny told me to ‘like’ the exam centre on Facebook. This time, I don’t think it was really compulsory.

Sunshine signing off for today!

In step with today

I don’t know what it is about some days. It’s like they get stuck under my shoe, and no matter how I try, I can’t shake them loose. With every step I tramp awkwardly and feel, for the most part, a little off balance.

I had such a day today.  To say it was frustrating is like saying that Madonna is quite rich. At midday, I decided to try and walk it off. My plan was to take my lunch and go and eat it down by the River Thames.

Having bought my lunch, I walked along a lovely piazza lined by restaurants. I got distracted by a small band setting themselves up in the shade of a leafy plain tree. I sat down in that same shade, and waited to see what would happen next. And the band began to play.

Adam was the lead singer and guitarist; a kind of curly-haired Leonard Cohen. Leonard Cohen on Prozac; slow and poetic, but not as depressing as he could be. He was joined by a violinist and double bass player, and together they played some really interesting, original music.

Soon after I sat down, a young woman sitting next to me lit herself a rolled “cigarette”. I use the word loosely. She took a drag, stood up and put the rollie down where she’d been sitting and disappeared. I watched her disappear out of view, and wondered if I was part of a social experiment. I thought maybe someone was about to come and have a second drag of it, but no. About five minutes later, the young woman returned with a coffee in her hand. Of course.

Next, I saw another young woman, dressed in a bright yellow, lycra, polka dot body suit. She walked past, not without some sniggering from the construction workers sitting near me.  As I looked around for a camera – surely a candid camera moment? – I saw another young woman emerge from the opposite direction on an old-fashioned bicycle with a basket in the front. She had a scarf wrapped around her head and knotted on top, like an old-fashioned washerwoman. She stopped her bike for a short while and stood and watched and listened. She then rode off, with her furry toy penguin strapped in as a pillion passenger.

Adam continued to pour his heart out into the piazza, to very little attention from the lunching majority walking by, or sitting chatting at the local restaurants. After one lively-ish song, a friend of Adam’s shouted out that his last song had sounded “quite happy”. Adam apologised.

Oh, and a chalkboard next to the small wooden stage from which Adam and band played held a stern warning: “No stage diving”.

I sat a bit longer and soaked everything in. I looked at the beautiful late-autumn-sunny London day. The sky was blue, the sun was streaming through the green leaves of the trees, and what I was experiencing could not have been happening anywhere but London. The city that does random, bizarre, funny, unique like no place I’ve known before. I found sunshine in my otherwise grey day, and I remembered the joy of a city such as this.

I walked back to my office. Funny, there was no longer anything under my shoe.

Sunshine signing off for today!

Randomness

Random thoughts. They tie together not at all and appear in “no random order” as I heard someone once say.

This morning on my walk to the bus, I watched a swan as it dipped its head deep into the water right in the corner of the local dock. I stood and watched for a while. Soon it came up, shook its head a little and its forehead was green with algae.

As I rushed home from work to get to my zumba class in time, I wondered if there would be any mail in our letter box. I imagined finding a letter there telling me I’d won a million pounds. You know what my first thought was? Would I still go to zumba?

On my way home from zumba, I saw three young professionals studying the plaque on a small heritage building in the area. One young man, dressed in a suit, hairstyle like a Beatle with long, pointy sideburns, was giggling as I walked by. He pointed at the plaque, and said, “I can’t believe it says erected.”

When we were at the open air concert in Hyde Park a few weeks ago, I discovered an amazing sense of community and the art of mime. I’d forgotten to take with me my note pad and pen, so I could make notes of the concert for my blog. I mimed “pen?” to my friend who was sitting behind us. She made a face as if to say she didn’t have one, and then motioned that she’d ask her friends. After a few minutes, she looked at me and made a disappointed face and showed me her out-turned hands, palms up. No pen. No worries. About two minutes later, the pink-haired lady with every finger nail painted a different colour, who was also sitting behind us, came over to me with a pencil. She’d borrowed it from her bovver-booted husband, and brought it to me. Who ever said mime doesn’t pay?

A relentless eavesdropper, as you know me to be, it was difficult to overhear conversations at the concert, against the backdrop of never-ending music. It was interesting, however, to watch the goings-on all around us anyway. I watched a family of four enjoy a day out in Hyde Park. Endless trips to the bar saw them taking it in turns to bring back pints and Pimms and ciders and spirits. You name it; they knocked them back. They danced and as the day progressed, their dancing became more “uncle- like” and standing upright seemed to be a growing battle for each of them. As dusk darkened the sky, I noticed the husband and wife arguing. She said, “Fine, then.”  And with that, she turned tail and disappeared into the crowd. The daughter appealed to her dad, “She’s just gone. She’s just literally gone.” Dad appeared unperturbed. Oh well.

A few hours later, in the rainy evening, the mother appeared in front of me. I looked at her and smiled, and she said to me, “My whole family’s just fallen out. It’s an absolute nightmare.” I mimed sympathy, and smiled at her some more. She said, “I saw you look at me, so I thought I’d tell you. It’s a nightmare. We’ve all just fallen out.” I asked if they’d arranged to meet up somewhere, and she told me no-one knew where she was and reminded me that it was a “nightmare”. “Oh dear,” was all I could manage. At that point, her husband appeared to our right and said, “Oh, there you are! We’ve been looking for you everywhere!” To which she said, “Is that so?” and turned tail and disappeared back into the crowd. He looked at me, sighed and said, “It’s an absolute nightmare.” You think?

Sunshine signing off for today!

Riding in buses with people

I commute to work by bus every day. I take a ten-minute walk to my stop, hop on my favoured ride, and sit among the good and the great, the quiet and the noisy. Usually I catch up on texting my friends or family, or I read my book. Sometimes I sit and listen. Other times I just sit.

Last week, the American President paid an official state visit to these shores. Barack and Michelle Obama were welcomed by both Queen Elizabeth II and British Prime Minister, David Cameron. In the midst of the pomp and ceremony and formality, David and Barack went to visit a south London school to play table tennis. And to meet the schoolchildren. Apparently the area was a no-go zone for most of the day, as security measures ensured the safety of the two highly competitive table tennis players.

The day after this school visit, which was splashed across all national and international media, I travelled on the bus with a bunch of schoolchildren who were clearly part-time political commentators.

“You know they went to that school, yeah? They chose that school, right, because them kids, yeah, they’s well bad, right? So they went to that school to make them good, innit?”

I hope they were successful.

So these are the things I observe as I ride in buses with people:

1. Some people bash everyone’s heads with their bags as they walk up or down the aisle of the bus. It looks like they have either a small washing machine, or an old-fashioned television set in the bags they carry on their shoulders and, systematically, they will bash the head of each person sitting on an aisle seat on their route. I am not sure how many points you get for a whole row of commuters, but there must be some high-fiving happening somewhere.

2. Some people like to take up two seats on the their own. They will sit on one seat and their bag on the other. (See above.)

3. Some people who travel with their friends or partners or spouses, love to speak loudly and sometimes to argue. I sat on the bus once listening to a young couple argue for forty minutes about the same subject. When eventually I got to my stop, I was tempted to say, “For goodness sake, do the freaking exam tomorrow. He has a point – you’ve got nothing to lose.”

4. Some commuters are very British. And others aren’t. One morning, as I walked up the stairs to the upper deck of the bus, I heard a young man seated at the back of the bus having a conversation on his cell phone. Clearly, he didn’t need a phone; I think his friend would have heard him from Edinburgh. He finished his conversation, and then began to strike up a conversation with the guy who had sat down beside him. I thought it was an entirely one-way conversation because all I heard was the young guy, at the same number of decibels as his phone conversation, tell his neighbour about what had happened on the bus the night before. After a polite pause, his new friend said to him, “Would you mind calming down, please?”

5. Some people don’t mind having inappropriate conversations that everyone on the bus can hear. One evening, I was joined by a chubby and jovial young man who came to sit next to me. He was already having a conversation on his cell phone, which he continued at full voice for the entire journey. As hard as I tried to concentrate on reading my book, I couldn’t focus for the incessant yabbering from my neighbour. My book was much more interesting than the fact that he argued with his partner for three hours on Monday night because, as he was ironing, he forgot to tell her when Glee came on television.

6. Some people are fruit murderers. The other day, I sat near a guy who wasn’t so much eating an apple, as beating it to death between his tongue and the roof of his mouth. Loudly.

Despite how it may sound, I do love travelling to work by bus. I have a scenic walk along the docks, the river and then a treed walkway to my bus stop. And it is fun getting to know some familiar faces who catch the bus at the same time as I do. Once I’m on the bus, I make sure I don’t forget to look up at the regular sights that we pass, like the occasional uninterrupted view of the River Thames, and the view of Tower Bridge. Mostly I sit there and feel thankful for my job and for this opportunity to live in London.

On the odd occasion – and thankfully this doesn’t happen too often – the journey can be quite different. Once, I planned an entire tantrum in my mind. I had no intention of acting on it, but the process of imagining turned out to be just what I needed. Let me explain …

One day a few weeks ago, I’d had a really full and busy day at work, and I got on the bus feeling quite tired and wearing the hair-shirt of grumpiness. I was trying, unsuccessfully, to send a text message to my husband; traffic was bad; our bus sat in one of the railway tunnels for ages; a young couple was arguing non-stop and a Spanish couple were shouting at each other (I don’t think they were arguing, just trying to get themselves heard above the arguers). In my mind, I imagined the following: flinging my head dramatically into my lap, grabbing my hair with both hands and doing a screen-worthy “aaaargghhhhh!” Once that had got everyone’s attention, I imagined myself storming down the aisle – telling the young couple to “sort this out, one way or the other, for the love of London!”. (I actually thought that.) As I stormed down the aisle, I would also be bashing everyone’s heads with my bag – not on purpose, but just because I had a big bag over my shoulder – and swearing like a pirate at the bus driver for the traffic, before demanding he let me off the bus.

It felt quite satisfying to imagine that drama in my mind, until I remembered that that very morning, I had prayed that God would use me to extend His kingdom in whatever I did that day. Major fail. That made me smile and it loosened the grumpy shirt that I’d been wearing. I breathed deeply, I tried to remember the true meaning of tolerance and chuckled as I stepped off the bus, quietly, at the next stop. I didn’t even touch my hair.

Sunshine signing off for today!

Sevens heaven

Two more tickets landed in our red box last night when we returned from a full day at Twickenham, the home of British rugby in London. We left in bright London sunshine and returned in balmy dusk, having had an amazing new experience in this city.

We were two of the world record crowd of over 54,000 at the first day of an international 7s rugby tournament, one in which our Saffa team – the Springboks – feature in the top four in the current standings, having being world champions in the 2008/09 season. It was too exciting to see our boys in green running on to the pitch to take on a series of rivals throughout the day: sixteen teams from around the world take part, namely New Zealand, Australia, Fiji, Samoa, Argentina, USA, Canada, Russia, Argentina, South Africa, Kenya, Spain, Portugal, Scotland, England and Wales. South Africa was ranked fourth at the beginning of this, the penultimate match of the series.

Our boys in green - Springboks, otherwise known as blitzbokke

The day was much like a festival of rugby, with a wonderful, colourful atmosphere for the entire day. A beach party theme encouraged more than half of the fans to arrive at Twickenham dressed for a day at the beach … some sharing a little more than they should, others – like the guy in a Speedo and mankini – causing more than a little trauma for fellow spectators. Grass skirts and paper flower garlands around necks and heads predominated the fancy dress, while there were a number of pirates (?), lobsters, sombrero-and-poncho-wearers, ice-cream cones, sailors, mermaids, many silly hats, painted faces, men in tutus and one guy dressed as a London bobby sans trousers. I guess some people just have fancy dress that they will wear regardless of the theme! There was way too much flesh on display, although the weather was just magical. One fan took that to the extreme by running on to the field, dropping his kit entirely and running around the field in his birthday suit. I did feel sorry for the security team who had to stop him…

Colourful fans abound at Twickenham

The rugby, which was brilliant and hugely entertaining, continued relentlessly through the day. South Africa won two of its three matches of the day, which means it went through to the quarter final of the cup event today, and we wait to see what happens next. The home crowd went ballistic when the England squad appeared in front of our stand to warm up – grown men stood and applauded spontaneously, some almost wept with pride as their team ran up and down the width of the rugby field to prepare for their first pool game.

When England did appear for their first match, they were welcomed onfield by a swathe of red-and-white-clad young dancers, bearing St George flags. The crowd, to a man, jumped to their feet, screamed and applauded with excitement as the home side made their first appearance. The young men in front of us who, like many of their contemporaries, viewed the day as an excuse to go “on the p***” as they say here, actually paid attention to the game and jumped up every time England scored. Much lager was spilled underfoot, but who cares when your team is on the field?

The red-and-white girls provided much entertainment throughout the day and, for the most part, not in the way they intended. A group of them lined themselves along the stepped aisle in our [north] section and within seconds, there were comments flying about relating to one of the young women who, some said, “clearly has her head on facing the wrong way”.

I couldn’t work out who they were talking about, until my eyes fell on a beautiful young blonde woman who was standing, with her hands on her hips and her elbows pointing forwards at an angle that would make your eyes water. Oblivious to the comments about her strange joints, the young woman smiled and carried on regardless. Every time the dancing girls appeared thereafter, the guys behind us would say, “Look! There’s funny elbow lady!” or “Miss Bingo Wings again!”

As the day progressed, and the lager flowed, everything seemed to be that much funnier. And louder. A tartan tam’o’shanter-wearing supporter seated behind us, came staggering back up the steps towards his mates. As he approached, one of his friends shouted, “Oi, ‘ow you gettin’ on, McBain?” The young hat-wearer stopped in his tracks, put his hands on his hips (luckily his elbows faced the right way), and melodramatically said, “Ye can tek ma land, but ye can neverrrrr tek ma fridom!”

His would-be Scottish accent was horrible, a fact not overlooked by one of his mates who said, “Yeah, especially given that you’re Jamaican!”

We noticed an interesting quirk in the way Twickenham supporters responded to the different teams and matches played throughout the day. Generally, with the exception of national fans from the other countries, the crowd favoured any team that was the underdog in any match. Or any team playing France.

England came on to play France in what could best be described – historically – as a grudge match. Throughout the match, fans sang “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” – the song that has become an anthem for English rugby – and hearing that, in the midst of a 54,000 strong crowd, really gave me goosebumps. My sentimentality was interrupted by desperate pleas from a guy behind us, who yelled “DO something!” as France gained ground throughout the match. France narrowly defeated the home side, much to the horror of one English fan behind us who shouted, “Let’s not forget what happened at Agincourt!”

Patriotic welcome for the England team and its opponents

It was a wonderfully fun and entertaining day, and one I’d definitely love to repeat next year. Witnessing how teams warmed up together and left the field together was quite moving. Many teams held on to each other as they withdrew to the dressing room between warm-up and match.

The New Zealand 7s team walk back to the dressing room, holding on to each other - I loved this spirit of team

We travelled to Twickenham crammed in a train full of colourfully-dressed fans, walked to the stadium in the midst of equally colourful and chirpy fans. Our return journey was slightly less crammed, but with fellow travelling fans in sentimental, almost maudlin, mood. I think today will dawn with many throbbing heads, but I’m pretty sure Twickenham will be equally full and do an equally brisk trade in sales of alcohol. I hope our Saffa team continues to do us proud. Go blitzbokke!

Sunshine signing off for today!

Twickenham in the dusk

Said the spider to the fly

So, I’m pretty gullible really. Easily flattered, I’m something of a pushover at times. Say a few kind words and the blinkers emerge to block out any sensible thought. Let me explain.

I went to a big expo at a large exhibition hall in London a few weeks ago. As I left, I was walking in determined fashion, thinking about getting back to the office and all that awaited me there. A young guy with a clipboard approached me. Survey radar failed me, and I stopped in my tracks.

He greeted me with a smile, asked me if I’d been at the expo and I duly answered him.

“Where does that accent come from … South Africa?” he lamely ventured.

I nodded and he proceeded with his spiel, everything moving ahead like clockwork for him.

“I love your accent, it’s just amazing. It’s one of my favourite accents … I could listen to you talking forever,” he gushed.

In the midst of my “Oh really?” responses, he continued to tell me just how wonderful my accent was. I was totally oblivious to the “reeling-me-in” motion he must have been gesturing in his mind.

He then went in for the clincher.

“We’re doing this amazing giveaway. We just need your mobile number; we don’t need your email address because we won’t email you, but if you give me your number you can win a makeover in a photographic studio, worth hundreds of pounds and it’ll cost you absolutely nothing. Your mobile number is?”

And I proceeded to give him my mobile number. Like a lamb to the slaughter. He wrote down my number, gave me my “winning” ticket and wished me everything of the best.

I walked away, wondering to myself why on earth I just entered a competition in which I had zero interest, why I gave him my number and why was I so stupid. Why didn’t I switch a few of the digits around on my mobile number, or better still, just say I wasn’t interested in being part of their promotion. What was I thinking? I did get the call a few weeks later, and managed to say that I was not at all interested in a studio makeover, thank you very much, but I am sure I haven’t heard the last of them yet.

It reminded me of a plot my older son hatched when he was about four years old. It was the foolproof method to catch a robber. He told us that we needed to get a banana, tie it to a piece of string and then hang the string from the curtain rail in our lounge. We then needed to write a note that read, “Robber, eat this banana” and clip the note to the curtain next to the banana. We would then hide behind the curtain and wait for the robber to come and eat the banana, and then we could jump out from behind the curtain and catch him.

It was such a sweet and simple, yet – as I thought – flawed plan. My experience of a few weeks ago makes me realise we could just have caught Mr Robber in that fashion. If only I didn’t like bananas so much …

Sunshine signing off for today!

My world in random order

Today is officially Squirrels-Gone-Mad Day. I know you might have been expecting a Royal Wedding post from this heaving city because nothing much else seems to be happening here at the moment. People are camping outside Westminster as we speak to get a glimpse of the family-that-is-not-boring and the couple-who-are-also-not-boring as they get set to tie the royal knot on Friday. But squirrels captured my attention today; they just did.

As I walked to my bus this morning, I decided that the squirrels in our ‘hood had gone nuts. Firstly, I saw a squirrel scurrying towards the water as I crossed the dock. There was no tree in sight and, I know it’s been a bit warmer here, but I didn’t realise squirrels liked the water. Although I saw no towel or swimming cap (health and safety considerations, of course), I think my squirrel friend was going for a squim.

Then, when I walked past a row of weeping willow trees, a couple of squirrels rushed past me and scurried up a tree. I heard a crinkling sound and then saw that one of the squirrels was carrying a large, crumpled-up piece of paper in its mouth. I watched it as it ran to the top of the tree, towards a nest. (Do squirrels have nests?) I thought maybe the squirrels just wanted to do anything to take their minds off this royal madness all around them; it was their equivalent of sticking their fingers in their ears and going “la-la-la-la-la-la”! I know the feeling.

My version of doing that is to share a few more of the things that I love about life in London and, in so doing, to keep the attention away from the you-know-whats.

1. Sir John Soane’s Museum

A glimpse inside Sir John Soane's museum (via culture24.org.uk)

Friends of ours told us about this little hidden gem in the heart of London. Sir John Soane was the Royal Architect (sorry for using the “r” word) in 1806 and, according to his website, began “to arrange the Books, casts and models in order that the students might have the benefit of easy access to them and proposed opening his house for the use of the Royal Academy students the day before and the day after each of his lectures. By 1827, when John Britton published the first description of the Museum, Soane’s collection was being referred to as an ‘Academy of Architecture’”.

We visited this Museum in Lincoln’s Inn Field near Holborn in central London a few weekends ago. We stood and waited our turn to enter the hushed and hallowed halls of this building that was home and house to both a family and an exorbitantly large collection of stuff. The number of visitors to the house at any one time is limited to about 20, as space to move is at a premium. I had to put my handbag into a plastic bag and hold it in my hand, to avoid the risk of knocking over artefacts that are stood and stored everywhere; all cameras and laptops were surrendered at the front door and no photography permitted. No washing machines either.

When we got the nod, we stepped into a surreal world of compulsive collections of artwork, furniture, paintings, statues, stained glass, casts, architects’ models and history. Our eyes stood out on stalks, our senses were overloaded and the abundance of assembled heritage from every corner and age of the world just about blew my mind. The house itself is a fascination of levels and sunroofs and alcoves and cellars and nooks and crannies. Every available surface and space is filled with another piece of art.

The “monk’s cellar” at the bottom of the house is home to a collection of Egyptian art, including a sarcophagus, complete with hieroglyphic engravings as well as a wooden mummy case. A cellar-level courtyard hosts the final resting place of “Poor Fanny” whose inscription on a massive headstone tells of a greatly revered personality, laid to rest in pride of place. I asked one of the staff members who “poor Fanny” was and was surprised to learn that “she was, madam, Mrs Soane’s dog”.

We were ushered into a high-ceilinged room whose walls were lined, from floor to ceiling, with paintings. The door was closed behind us and a white-gloved curator proceeded to talk us through the profusion of artworks that covered the walls. He talked with perfect comedic timing through a series of William Hogarth paintings, A Rake’s Progress, and then described the provenance of each other gem hanging from the walls, or should I say, cupboard doors, as they opened to reveal a further collection of artworks lining the inside of the doors and the real wall behind the doors. The opposite “wall” was also so composed, with one difference: the doors opened to reveal another set of doors which then opened on to an open space above the monk’s cellar, where Soane’s model of the Bank of England stood proudly for all to see. We all gasped and applauded.

The rest of the house brought with it equal numbers of surprises and sensory treats; it certainly requires a second and third visit and you can be sure that we’ll be back to discover more.

2. Charity in London

I work for a small charity that does remarkably big work in London. I never cease to be amazed at the level of dedication to our work that I see all around me every day, and the pace of change that results from passionate and focused campaigning.

Ten days ago, we stood on Tower Bridge and cheered on the 100 or so runners who joined the 36,500 others to run the London Marathon 2011 in our charity’s colours towards a goal of raising some quarter of a million pounds for us. It’s far and away our biggest fundraising event of the year, which makes sense: the London Marathon is, I am told, the “biggest fundraising event on the PLANET”.

The elite women. The green-vested speedster on the right ran in what was her second marathon and won in just over two hours.
From the sublime to the ridiculous: these ladies stopped their running and took photos of each other on Tower Bridge.

Each person running for us had a reason to run for us: to raise funds for world-class research that might change the course of his four-year-old son’s life; to run in memory of her nephew who died 15 years ago, aged 16; three university students who ran because their mate is in a wheelchair and he’s an awesome guy; brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, friends – all honouring someone close to them and supporting them in this amazingly tangible way. There are no more words.

3. Endless eavesdropping opportunities

Last week, a woman sat behind me in the bus on the way to work. She arrived at her seat mid-conversation on her cell phone. She had a slight accent, and from what I could overhear, she was whingeing about someone; female I think.

The conversation continued in a monotone and then I heard her say, “But you know what? I’m really worried about the herpes.” I then began to wonder what kind of a weekend she’d had, exactly, and began to understand why she was so irate with this other person.

“Everything else is okay, the shoes and everything, it’s just the herpes. And I’m really worried. I don’t know what to do about it.”

I was about to move seats, when I realised I was heading off down the wrong track.

“You see, the thing about the herpes is that … well, it’s more like a veil than a herpes. You see?”

She was talking about a “hairpiece”.

4. Riding along the Thames

I am quite proud of myself because I can still ride a bicycle. Well, ride might be too generous a word. I can stay upright on a bicycle and not fall off. Just.

Easter Saturday was a beautiful, sunny day with a light breeze. My husband and I set off on our newly-sorted bikes to enjoy a little ride along the edge of the Thames. I haven’t been on a bike for about 30 years but, as they say, it’s just like riding a bike. I managed to stay pretty much balanced and didn’t wobble myself to a complete standstill.

Thank goodness we didn’t ride in traffic, just along the Thames footpath, and I mostly managed to avoid hitting any pedestrians. For a short distance we rode on a road with traffic and I discovered a have a unique instinct: instead of fight or flight, I have my own response: act like a complete idiot. Fearing being knocked over by a car, I do the sensible thing when I hear it approaching: I ride towards it.

I don’t think that approach will lengthen my life, but I’ll stay off the busy roads just in case. It is also a bit of a challenge riding a boy’s bike that is slightly too big for me, but I’ll get over it. In fact, I did! And the uncomfortable saddle. And the handlebars that seem designed for gorilla-length arms. But you know what? The freedom of riding along in a gentle breeze, alongside my best friend and along the edge of a raging river that’s been churning and flowing since time immemorial, made me feel alive and unbeatable.

Until I hit a cobbled path and riding over it was like being aboard a jackhammer at full throttle. It wasn’t a pretty sight.

This post has felt a bit like Sir John Soane’s museum – nothing really makes too much sense; it’s filled with bits of this and bits of that and peppered with randomness and collections of thoughts and observations, with nothing really to hold them all together except that they all come from me. I don’t think there’ll be people queuing for a viewing of my thoughts but you never know; this is London, man, and people here are crazy.

Sunshine signing off for today!

Tall, dark and interesting

There’s a really cool guy who comes to clean our offices in the evenings. He listens to music through earphones as he works, and, quite frankly, he fascinates me. He looks so trendy and interesting, and the other day I found myself wondering what his story was. And that reminded me …

A few years ago, back in Cape Town, I went to night school to study. I had two young sons, I worked full-time and I studied part-time with a bunch of mainly youngsters who had just completed their undergraduate studies, and had continued straight on to this course. Most of them still lived at home, most had nothing else to do except the course. I thought about that as I juggled supper, washing, helping my sons with their homework and trying to study for a test the following evening.

I also thought about that the one evening when our lecturer told us to “cast your minds back to 1978”. I got totally in the zone … where I was, what music I listened to, who my friends were, the level of insecure that I felt as an awkward teenager in her second last year of high school … when I was shaken out of my reverie by a fellow student who said, “Bob! Most of us were only born in 1978!” Was I ever glad I didn’t open my mouth?

One evening, our first lecture in research methodology was about to begin. Students had gathered and seated themselves and were chattering noisily throughout the lecture theatre. The lecturer arrived and put his books on the podium, and we all settled down in silent anticipation of the riveting lecture ahead. He greeted us, welcomed us and began to introduce his topic for the evening.

The doors – which were near the front of the lecture theatre – opened dramatically. A tall, gorgeous, James Dean-esque vision in denim stood in the doorway. Perfectly coiffed and beautifully sculpted, he surveyed the theatre to see where he was going to sit for the evening. A million of us wished we could raise our hands and invite him to sit next to us, but we all just stared, open-mouthed, fascinated and speechless.

He took a pew and we all – males and females alike – repositioned our jaws and turned our gazes, reluctantly, back to the lecturer.

A few weeks into the course, we were invited to form ourselves into groups – where we were sitting – to discuss a possible research topic. We were encouraged to think about topics relevant to our work, if we worked.

A delightful and infectiously smiley fellow student sat in front of me. He knew everything and everyone. And what he didn’t know he would find out. Lecturers loved him, he made everyone laugh and he became everyone’s best friend. He joined with the students on either side of him to form a group with the four students sitting in the row in front of them. The Eastern European James Dean was sitting in the row in front, and joined that group.

We began to discuss the topic in our group, as did others all around the lecture theatre. My smiley friend in front of me suddenly sat up tall and swivelled his head around at me, like an owl. He stared at me, wide-eyed and open-mouthed like he was yawning, but he was sharply inhaling, not yawning the air out. Then he wrinkled his nose into a full concertina and, when he could breathe properly again, he whisper-shouted to me, “DO YOU KNOW WHAT HE DOES FOR A LIVING?”

I kind of wrinkled my nose too. I had to; the situation called for it. Then I whisper-shouted back at him, “NO. WHAT?”

“HESONLYAMALESTRIPPER!”

At this stage, the smiley guy was swivelling his head backwards and forwards, not wanting to miss out on any conversation in his group and wanting to report it as quickly as he could to me and my group.

From that moment onwards, we all took a renewed interest in that tall, handsome Eastern European guy in our research methodology course. We wanted to ask our lecturer to arrange a special “show and tell” evening in the course, so everyone could share a little about their work. But I know the internal auditor guy in the grey suit would have totally hogged the limelight. He really loved his job.

Sunshine signing off for today!

Shockingly surprising

I’m a bit of a sucker for surprises. So when I got my weekly email from the comedy club in Greenwich last week, announcing that the Sunday Special had a “top secret megastar” for top billing last Sunday, I couldn’t resist. They even went on to say “we can’t reveal who it is, but you won’t want to miss this”!

I absolutely love surprises. Not really surprises like when someone jumps out from behind a door to give you a fright and then laughs their head off because you’ve just jumped out of your skin. That would be a shock more than a surprise. Fun surprises are more my thing.

Like the time a few years ago when I had a few surprises rolled into one: firstly, I was given two tickets to a Women’s Day concert at one of Cape Town’s most popular theatres. I invited a friend to go along with me, and we enjoyed a few hours of the most unbelievable talent that I didn’t even know existed in Cape Town. Poets, rappers, rock bands, jazz singers, story tellers, soul singers and opera singers appeared on the stage and wowed us in the most amazing way. Audience members had no access to a programme; the show just unfolded, one beautiful surprise after another.

As the show neared its end, the compere came out on to the stage and thanked everyone for being there. She thanked the artists for performing, invited people to come and meet them after the show, and thanked everyone once again. As she was about to leave the stage, she said,
“Oh, and I have one more surprise for you. She’s in South Africa doing some work with a charity that she supports, and we managed to convince her to come along and entertain you tonight. She’s all the way from Manchester, England, where her group MPeople had massive success. Ladies – put your hands together for Heather Small!”

And on to the stage walked one of my favourite singers; a tiny, pint-sized dynamo, blasting forth “Moving on Up”. She sang “Search for the Hero” and “Proud” and many of her new hits, and I was literally beside myself. After an embarrassment of talent, the evening closed with this final, perfect surprise.

If you’re a regular follower of my blog, or indeed if you know me, you will know that I digress. Easily. So back to the start of this post…

We went to the comedy club in Greenwich last Sunday night to enjoy not only the line-up of up-and-coming young comedians, but to wait – in delicious anticipation – to see who the headline act would be. We imagined Ricky Gervais, Stephen Merchant, Michael McIntyre …. just who would this megastar be?

There’s nothing quite like live comedy, and it makes for such a fun evening. The opening acts were a delight. They are always young, up-and-coming comedians cutting their teeth on a smallish, London audience. A young guy in a “jumper” opened the show with a really charming set of observational humour. He talked about everyday things like chairs and jumping castles, and how, when you get to that certain point in your relationship, one of you always has to pretend to be dead just to get a reaction.

Another young stand-up came on to the stage next, and, although he was nervous and didn’t seem too sure of himself, he kept us amused – even if it was just because we were waiting for him to be really funny. The third act was (and there always has to be one in any line-up) a manic singer/comedian. He was pretty funny, though – and his closing song about panda bears just being polar bears in bad relationships was bizarrely amusing – and he continued the work of warming the crowd up. (Some audience members were doing that perfectly well by themselves, as they devoured jug after massive jug of lager.)

The wait then began for the “top secret megastar”. Our 15 minute wait became half an hour, then 45 minutes (“traffic” was the excuse for the superstar’s tardiness) and then the MC returned to the stage to hold the crowd while we waited for Mr Man-of-the-Moment. He said it was an MC’s nightmare to hold the floor when the headline act’s eta is as yet unknown. He did well, though, and his time was made easier by – long story – downing three pints of lager on the trot, to the audience’s chanting. The moment then arrived that Mr Megastar was about to arrive and we were told to “put your hands together for Mr MEGASTAR”!

First up, we’d never heard of him. (Sorry, east London.) Secondly, he was a megastar? Thirdly, he was really not funny… he was trying out new material for a tour he’s embarking on later in the year, so he read from his notes, scribbled notes on the paper and seemed a tad distracted. It must have been the “traffic”.

He picked on audience members and insulted them. He said pretty tacky stuff to a bunch of young girls near the front, made a comment about the weight of a young guy near us and then he spotted my husband. He asked him his age, and when he heard my husband’s age to be a year on the far side of a half-century, he proceeded to made “old” jokes at my husband’s expense. They would have been funny if my husband had been 100, or even 75, but for a healthy, bright, professional, it was just plain rude.

He said, “Have you heard of BBC Three, sir? It’s a radio station for YOUNG people. It’s really good – but maybe you guys should have your own station called, I don’t know, BBC Seventy Three. Where they play all the stuff for young people, just loud. With reminders to pay your gas bills. I don’t know, would that appeal to you, sir?”

We thought he had written a set of jokes for an “old person” and saw my silver-haired husband and tried to make the old jokes fit.  However, he lost us as he waded his way through heavy-handed comedy and we bided our time until the show finished and we could wend our way back home to a safe, insult-free place.

You know I mentioned the difference between a surprise and a fright? Mr Megastar was more fright than surprise, and he wasn’t even funny. Not even for a minute. From now on we’ll be wary of surprise megastars – I’ll just have to hide behind the door when I see the word “surprise” – and focus on the new up-and-coming young comedians. At least you can be sure of a good laugh.

Sunshine signing off for today!

Comedy and errors

I remember a joke from a hundred years ago, when I was a child. It went, “What goes hahaha-bonk?” The answer, which had me laughing like a drain, was, “A guy laughing his head off.” We’ve done a fair bit of that, lately, and I wish we could have done more.

I spent a day in Liverpool last week. I went there for work and, apart from seeing (from the outside) the Beatles Experience Museum and spying the shining waters of the Mersey, I could have been in any city in the world. I’d love to go back and spend more than twenty minutes exploring the city.

I travelled with three colleagues to a meeting in Liverpool, and we really had a lovely and useful day. We stopped at Crewe to change trains on the way up, and we decided to go and buy some sustenance for the continued journey. We stood and waited for about 20 minutes to get served at a station cafe  and eventually abandoned our would-be purchases and ran. It’s not like we had a train to catch, or anything.

I spotted a well-known UK comedian in that station cafe. I am pretty sure he’s still there today, waiting for his sandwich. He’ll gather good material doing that.

On my return from Liverpool, we went to have supper with some friends. They invited us, after supper, to go with them to a comedy night at their local community centre. “Apparently it’s really fab,” our friend told us.

We got to the community centre, knowing little about what lay ahead and even less about where on earth we’d find a place to sit. We eventually benefited from the kindness of a stranger bearing chairs, and sat and waited for the show to begin.

The first half of the show was a Whose Line is it Anyway? kind of deal. Four comedians – I’m not sure if they were professional comedians, but they sure were funny – took improvisation and improbable scenarios to a whole new level. They would glean ideas and suggestions from the audience, and work off each other to great and hilarious effect. They shared the telling of an improbably-titled story at the random, pointed command of one of their colleagues. The story rambled and roamed in all directions as each one took the mic. It was clear they worked together often, as they played off each other so crisply and intuitively.

My favourite was the monologue of the Latvian cat-juggler, kindly interpreted into English by his fellow comedian. The disconnect between the body-language expressed as the Latvian cat-juggler spoke and the words that emerged in English, was just cryingly hilarious. The interpreter said, “All of which leads me to my favourite Latvian folk song that I am now going to sing to you.” Too funny.

We laughed ourselves silly in that first hour. There was then an interval, and we waited in anticipation for the second half to begin. The MC introduced the next act and when he couldn’t think of any more descriptive words to say about him, than to say “he’s a real ****er”, I thought we might be in for trouble. Enter the manic, un-funny clown, with his physical, slapstick and hysterical (in the true sense of the word) act. We sat wide-mouthed and hopeful that he would actually become funny, but it didn’t happen. Not even once.

When we got home, I Googled him to see if I could find out if he was for real or not. Turns out he has the dubious accolade of having been the first person, live on TV (in Germany’s Got Talent, no less) to have placed a firecracker in an unmentionable orifice (of his own) and set it alight. I think you get what I mean. He must have laughed his *****cks off.

Sunshine signing off for today!