It was a humid New Year’s Eve in 1998 in Zimbabwe. Rain was threatening the skies over Bulawayo, and our family was settling into my sister’s home after a wonderful Christmas break at a small, private game reserve outside the city.
There were 22 of us together that year: my parents, my three siblings and all of our families. Some of us stayed at my sister’s house in Bulawayo, and some in friends’ homes around the neighbourhood. We gathered during the day and for meals and outings and arguments; not all of the above were planned. Hey, we’re family.
After a week or two in Bulawayo, we’d spent an amazing five days at the reserve, celebrating Christmas and the rare and welcome opportunity for us all to be together. We arrived at the reserve armed with food and drink to sustain an army. My brother-in-law’s family were at the reserve when we arrived; it was planned that Christmas Day would be our overlap day and 45 of us sat around the same celebratory table for lunch. A marquee doubled as a dormitory for the 18 children in sleeping bags that night, while the adults enjoyed the luxury of sleeping in thatched rondavels (round huts) overlooking a small dam. As they say, it’s hell in Africa.
After a further few idyllic days of horse-riding, fishing, swimming, walking, reading and enjoying good food and family time – including a spontaneous concert that we siblings put on for the incredulous children, and a wonderful awards’ ceremony that one of my brothers orchestrated to mark the unique contribution to the holiday of each one of us – we returned to the city to celebrate New Year together. It was on the day before New Year’s Eve that, one by one, 14 of our clan of 22 fell ill. (My original family plus two sturdy youngsters remained either completely or relatively untouched.) My sister – who is a nurse – took great care of each patient, ensuring everyone was well-hydrated and fever kept at bay.
The next day we took my elder son to see the doctor. Before she examined him, we told her that we had 13 more like him at home; whatever he had, they all had too. Tests revealed that shigella dysentery was, well, running through our family. All 22 of us had to have treatment for this notifiable disease, and so it was that we celebrated the dawn of 1999 quietly and, I guess for the most part, gingerly.
The medicine took effect quickly and within a day or two, all the cousins were gathered around the dining room table sharing stories of their experience of the disease. For the young boys – aged between about 8 and 14 – the conversation was not repeatable, and much laughter rang through the house; it made a change from those other sounds.
Part of the family left soon after the New Year and 12 of us remained to travel to Hwange Game Reserve and Victoria Falls for a few more idyllic days. We travelled in a pack, enjoyed incredible game-viewing and sight-seeing, and found that hysterical laughter can hurt your stomach almost as much as the disease. As we visited two of the most beautiful places on the planet, our memory banks filled with stories that will follow us around our whole lives, and shared memories of joy and discomfort that bonded us in a way you could never imagine.
We’ll never know where the disease came from but we do know that love, laughter, family and brown paper packets filled with bullet-sized tablets took it clean away.
So, as I sit in my London flat on a chilly, grey New Year’s Eve and await the dawn of 2012, it warms my heart to think of this time 13 years ago and all the interesting adventures of our family reunion. We bought a beautiful wooden carving of a giraffe who we named “Relly” (for relatives), and he stands proud in our home (currently in my parents’ home) as a reminder of that holiday.
Reflecting on the past year, I feel anxious to press on into the new. I miss my family and home and friends – I always do at this time of year – and my heart feels heavy with nostalgia. But I guess – like the shigella – that feeling too will pass and I look forward to rediscovering the laughter that will make my belly ache.
As I wish you all a wonderful and happy New Year, and every good blessing for you and your family, what is it that you reflect on at the dawn of this New Year? And what are your hopes for 2012?
Happy New Year to you all. Sunshine signing off for this year!
She’s feisty and funny, gentle and bossy, kind and loving, generous and caring, scatty and awesome. She talks plenty and laughs even more.
We shared a room through our childhood and memories through forever. We travelled to boarding school together and sat and swung our little, hairy legs from hard benches as we waited in small, random airports in Africa. We’d climb into each other’s beds when the movie was too scary, or we were homesick, or the monster was about to climb out of the tissue box again or if we were just plain scared. We were best friends.
We shared a cigarette when she was ten and I was eight. We took advantage of the babysitter when all he wanted to do was lie on the couch and watch telly; we ran amok through the house and went to bed late and our parents never knew.
We moved from town to town and school to school and it was okay because we always had each other. We wore matching clothes and our patent leather shoes were always filled with mom-knitted cotton socks. We learnt to play the piano together and we trained for swimming in the same big swimming pools.
Ever longing for a career on the big stage, she wrote, produced and directed our early productions which she presented, with a flourish, in front of a packed lounge full of parents and visitors. All four members of the audience were riveted as Rapunzel let down her golden hair from the dizzy heights of the dining room table. She cast me in various productions as a tree and as Queen Victoria and as her production assistant and she always smiled as the dining room doors closed after another well-received ovation.
After school she started a career in nursing, and her carer heart has brought light and joy to everyone she looked after. She married young and has always been a loving and passionate mother to her children.
She’s fought for freedom and her big heart has broken when change hasn’t yet come. She’s spoken on big stages and small, sung at rallies and in meetings, stood by her principles and risked imprisonment for speaking the truth. She uses her beautiful voice for change.
She’s a mother and soon to be a grandmother, she’s a wife and a daughter, a much-loved aunt and an adored sibling.
She’s my big sister and it’s her birthday today. Happy birthday to you, my precious S. You’re one heck of a sister and I look forward to growing old with you.
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.
As the actors withdrew, they left the wooden stage strewn with roses. They bowed and bade farewell not only to an adoring audience but also to a run of almost four months of All’s Well that Ends Well. Night fell on Shakespeare’s open-air theatre, and I was spellbound.
Sunday couldn’t come quickly enough. We’d booked to go and see the last performance of this Shakespeare comedy at The Globe Theatreon the South Bank in London. We met up with our friends at a great Turkish restaurant next to the Thames River, and enjoyed a relaxing late afternoon meal before wandering down the South Bank – under a beautiful summer sky – ahead of our planned feast of Shakespeare.
According to their website, The Globe Theatre is a faithful reconstruction of the open-air playhouse, first built in 1599, where Shakespeare worked and for which he wrote many of his great plays. It is an outstanding and totally special venue. The courtyard of the theatre complex is paved with stones that bear the names of benefactors to the beloved project of American actor, Sam Wanamaker, whose dream resulted in this amazing theatre project overlooking St Paul’s. He caught the vision to recreate Shakespeare’s theatre, on his first visit to the UK in 1949; he died in 1993 and the theatre was officially opened by Her Majesty the Queen in 1997. His life’s work breathed life into this modern-day shrine to Shakespeare.
I love that The Globe Theatre describes itself as being “designed with the 21stcentury in mind. An additional exit, illuminated signage [health and safety is king in the UK], fire retardant materials [Shakespeare’s own theatre burnt down in two hours during a 1613 production of Henry VIII, when some stage cladding caught alight], and some modern backstage machinery are all concessions to our times. The reconstruction is as faithful to the original as modern scholarship and traditional craftsmanship can make it, but for the time being this Globe is – and is likely to remain – neither more nor less than the ‘best guess’ at Shakespeare’s theatre.”
The season runs annually from April to October, and features productions of Shakespeare’s work, and the work of his contemporaries and modern writers. We were four of the 350,000 audience members annually who experience the ‘wooden O’. We sat in the gallery, while many stand “as a groundling” in the yard, just as they would have done 400 years ago.
The tickets for the standing area – where peasants would have stood centuries ago – cost a fiver and, honestly, if I’d been 20 years younger, I would have done that. However, we’re not 20 years younger, and nor are our friends, so we all sat in the relative comfort of the gallery on wooden seats with the luxurious addition of hired cushions. I felt sorry for that poor dear old lady who stood in the bard’s mosh pit and clutched on the corner of the wooden stage for, what seemed, dear life. She also appeared to droop lower and lower as the play went on.
Before the play began, the actors came on to the stage, singing, and we were welcomed to the theatre. The play was set in France, so one actor engaged us in a lesson in basic French: “les telephones portables?” he ventured and, with wildly flailing arms, shouted, “Non! Les cameras videos et les cameras flashy-flashy ou non flashy-flashy? ABSOlument pas! Parapluies? [here he mimed an umbrella opening up] PAS du tout!” He closed his lesson with, “D’accord?” before apologising to anyone in the audience who might actually be French-speaking. And then the play began.
It was a delightful play and the actors were fabulous. They took us on a typically fast-paced romp through mistaken identity, cowardice, lust, war, greed, miracle cures, covetousness and that rarest of elements: true love. Each character carved his place in the creation of the tale, and they took us along for the hilarious ride.
As dusk fell over the open-air theatre, and pigeons landed on the stage roof, the play grew ever more complicated (ingewikkeld, as you would say in Afrikaans). Inevitably, all the knots were loosened, true identities revealed and each character predictably came face to face with himself. And, as the play drew to a close, all was indeed well that ended well.
An actor stepped forward and reminded us that as the play ended, the King was again a beggar and all the actors had resumed their own identities. He thanked us for our patronage, and with that the actors began their closing routine. They stepped forward in time to the live music, they whirled and they twirled in dancing delight, they screamed and they laughed and they stamped and they clapped. The audience watched in adoring, reflected enchantment and soon, as the actors disappeared behind the scenery, it was just the roses that remained on the wooden stage.
I’d heard that The Globe was amazing. I had no idea just how special it would be. I’m hooked and I can’t wait to experience another evening enjoying the bard’s art there. Our red box has a few more tickets in it and London – once again – has revealed another jewel in its formidable crown. What a privilege.
In cricket, when a batsman scores a century (100 runs) or half a century (50 runs), he takes off his helmet and waves his bat at the crowd. The crowd responds with uproarious applause and appreciation for the milestone. My sons said I should have done the same when I reached my significant milestone earlier in July.
We’ve just returned from a heady three weeks in Cape Town where we celebrated my younger son’s 21st birthday, closely followed by my half century. To say it was an outstanding holiday is to understate how special every single minute was; spending time with our family, in unseasonal sunshine in our home city. I loved spending time with my boys and getting to know them again, and celebrating significant birthdays in the style that means so much to the four of us: surrounded by family.
Through coincidence and design, all of my siblings were together in Cape Town for the celebrations and I am at a loss for words to describe what that meant to me. My husband’s family, who all live there, joined us too, which was also fabulously special. My darling, elderly parents sat among their growing dynasty and smiled in the glow of all of us who love and cherish them.
I remembered why Cape Town is known as the fairest Cape. Mid-winter just happened to look like this:
If I’d dreamt of an idyllic holiday, I don’t think I could have imagined it looking like this:
Or feeling like this:
I’m now back in London, missing my family like crazy, but celebrating my runs on the board, and raring to get going again towards my century. I understand that 50 is the new 40, and, if that’s the case, now is when life really begins. I’m waving my bat at the crowd, and preparing to put my helmet back on.
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.
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.
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…
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!”
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.
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!
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 …
The more I get to know London, the less I realise I know of this city heaving and overcrowded with history. And the more I get to know the city, the more I love living here for now.
My New York blogging buddy, jacquelin, told me about Postman’s Park, just behind St Paul’s. I met up with my husband one sunshine-filled lunch time last week, and we walked across the London Millennium Footbridge over the Thames, towards St Paul’s Cathedral – a sight that still takes my breath away – and we walked around the massive and awe-inspiring church to this little spot:
This little spot is interestingly one of the biggest parks in the City of London. It was built in 1880 on the site of a churchyard and burial ground of St Botolph’s Aldergate. Named as it is because it stands on the former site of the General Post Office where postmen often sat to eat their lunch, Postmans Park is also home to a sheltered wall commemorating, as something of a protest against the upper class, ordinary people who lost their lives heroically trying to save others. G F Watts, the painter (1817 – 1904), came up with the idea and he commissioned Doulton to create the hand-lettered tiles to honour the otherwise unheralded and unnamed heroes.
In a similar vein, one of my colleagues showed me this little site just down the road from our office. Known as Cross Bones, this is an unconsecrated burial site, going back to medieval times, for “single women” and paupers. (“Single women” was a euphemism for prostitutes, known in the area as “Winchester Geese” because they were licenced by the Bishop of Winchester to work within the Southwark area known as the Liberty of the Clink.)
According to Wikipedia, the Liberty of the Clink lay outside the jurisdiction of the City of London, and as a result became known for its brothels and theatres, bull and bear-baiting. The age of the graveyard is not known: John Stow (1525 – 1605) wrote about it in A Survey of London in 1598, and by 1769 it had become a paupers’ cemetery for the poor of St Saviour’s parish. It is believed that about 15,000 people are buried there.
When the London Underground planned the construction of its Jubilee Line through the area, between 1991 and 1998, archaeologists found this overcrowded graveyard with bodies piled on top of one another. Test showed the deaths to have been caused by anything from smallpox to TB, Paget’s disease, osteoarthritis and Vitamin D deficiency.
The find captured the attention of local community members who created an informal group – Friends of Cross Bones – to campaign for a permanent memorial garden on the site, which has also become the site of annual Halloween festivals – held every year since 1998 – marked by processions, songs and candles.
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
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”.
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.