I started my Sunshine in London blog many years ago, as a random collection of posts about job-hunting, living in and exploring London as a newly-arrived Zimbabwean/South African, and pretty much anything else I could think of. It was one of the best things I’ve ever done – not only did it give me a chance to write every day of the week, but it opened my world to the most beautiful, generous and wonderful community of fellow writers right across the globe. I learnt so much from reading your amazing writing every day – it was a fun and hugely valuable learning experience for me. Thank you to every single one of you.
So to bring us back to today – the final day of 2021 – I am thrilled to announce that I will soon be publishing my first novel! For more years than I care to remember, I’ve longed to write a book – I just never knew how to approach it, or where to start. And almost exactly two years ago, I just went ahead and started. I had boxes full of notebooks in which I’d noted quirky and random observations from the past couple of decades; the universe had served me all the characters and context on a silver platter! I just needed to find a hook and build my story around it.
I started writing, and I kept going. Not always forwards – often backwards, many times sideways, sometimes in circles, but always learning. I annoyed myself intensely many times. But I followed my nose and my instincts and I hope you’ll enjoy the final product – a feel-good comedy.
Keeping hold of all of my characters and story threads and plot-lines sometimes felt like I was doing all my grocery shopping without a basket or a trolley. I hoped like mad I hadn’t dropped anything and I’d reach the till with everything I’d set out to buy.
Having started writing at the beginning of 2020, just before the global pandemic began, I ended 2020 with my first draft and 2021 with my final manuscript. Morag, my main character and Sweet Charity’s narrator, is as nervous as a kitten to make her debut and hopes she doesn’t make an idiot of herself and everything. She feels exactly the way I did the first time I pressed ‘publish’ on this blog, and she really really hopes you’ll like her. I do, too.
Sunshine in London signing off for now, and wishing you all a blessed, beautiful and peaceful 2022.
Having been on furlough between April and November last year, I’ve now been back at work full-time, from home, since the end of 2020. Our organisation’s agile working policy means we all return to the office again next month, for 40 percent of our full-time hours. I’m looking forward to it in some ways, especially the part where we all get to see each other in person for the first time in yonks. But I’m also wondering how it’s going to be after living in a different world for the past 19 months. (And I told you about that one disastrous day I had, returning to the office a few months ago.)
When the world went into lockdown last March, my colleagues and I – along with millions of others – had to adapt, at pace, to working from home. It soon became a natural way of working and I’ve just been thinking about how tricky it could be when we start going back to how things used to be, sort of.
Take office meetings, for example. At the moment, in our organisation, we meet on Teams and, for the most part, these meetings are efficient and productive. And really easy to set up too.
But will we just transfer our working-from-home ways to our working-from-the-office ways? How will it all look?
A global pandemic aside, here are my top ten (light-hearted) questions about our imminent return to in-person meetings:
Will we bring our laptops and phones into meeting rooms? I’m not talking about using our devices for taking meeting notes, I mean, how else will we email, book holidays, chat to friends and pootle around on social media when meetings get a bit boring?
What happens if we’re having a bad hair day? Without the option to turn our cameras off, will it be acceptable to put a cardboard box on our heads just while the meeting’s happening?
How will we take deliveries? Will we change our delivery addresses to the office and, when the front doorbell goes, just jump up and go to collect our deliveries? Will we bring them back into the meeting room and open them, hoping no-one will notice us doing that?
Will we wear acceptable clothing on our full bodies? It feels like my trousers and skirts and dresses have gone way out of fashion since the world went mad. What will we wear, after almost two years of limiting acceptable clothing to our top halves? Is a silk shirt, shorts and slippers an okay look for the office, do you think?
What will we do when our meetings finish? Will we wave goodbye to each other, stay seated in our chairs in the meeting room, close our laptops and yawn and stretch? And then faff around on our phones, make a cup of coffee and gently return to our email inboxes? How will we remember to go back to our actual desks?
What about unforeseen interruptions? Will our family members and housemates pop their heads into our meeting rooms to ask about the mouldy cheese in the fridge, or to ask if we’ve put tomatoes on the shopping list? Will they wander around in the background, half dressed and on their way to the shower or to get something from the fridge? Will pets come to work with us and walk across the meeting table?
How will we survive without the mute button? Will we just pretend we can’t hear certain colleagues when they’re going on a bit too long? Or just speak over them? Also, will we ask people if they’re still there if they haven’t said anything for a while?
What happens if the meetings get boring? I can see the cardboard box might have multiple uses. Will we put those on when the meeting gets boring, so we can get up and have a quick wander around the kitchen or the garden, or go and have a quick natter with a housemate or family member? Or just to answer or make a random phone call?
How will we manage sneaking in a late breakfast? Will we just eat our bowls of cereal in front of each other, or do this under the bad-hair cardboard box too?
What happens when there are too many of us for the meeting room? I make use of the large gallery preview on Teams, when there are more than nine people in a meeting. That means I can have everyone on my screen, but the more people there are, the smaller their images are on my screen. What’s the in-person version of that? Will we all just pile on top of each other, squeeze each other off the table, or what?
What else do you think we’ll do when we return to in-person meetings? Silly answers only, please.
I think I’ve forgotten how to commute. It used to come easily to me. But as I discovered yesterday, commuting into central London isn’t really like riding a bike. After not doing so for 15 months (commuting, I mean – I haven’t ridden a bike for ages), the skill didn’t return as naturally as you’d expect. Here are some lessons I learnt.
1. Make sure your umbrella isn’t broken.
Okay, I know I chose the worst day possible to go into the office for a day, after a period split down the middle between furlough and working-from-home. But the challenges began when my umbrella broke. It started to drizzle as I left home, and I pulled my jacket hood up over my newly-straightened and now-long hair. A few minutes in, it was clear the hood wasn’t enough to keep me dry, so I put my umbrella up. (I’ve had little use for my umbrella in my current commute from the bedroom to the lounge.)
The rain was steady but gentle. Not enough to make my umbrella collapse, though, which is what I now realised was happening. I pulled it up to get that reassuring little click, and the entire shaft broke in two. I now had half an umbrella in each hand (I hate it when that happens). I managed to put the two pieces together again, but I had to hold the two halves of the umbrella together for the rest of my walk to the pier.
(Full disclosure here: part of the reason I was so eager to go into the office was because it meant I could travel in by boat. It’s much more fun when it’s not pouring with rain, or at least when your umbrella’s still in one piece.)
As I approached the boat, I tried to close my umbrella but it wasn’t co-operating. Like a child not wanting to do what you’re asking them to do, it went all stiff-legged and plain refused. I talked kindly and gently to it and was about to throw it into the river (not really, I wouldn’t do that to my umbrella, or the river, or my child, promise), when it folded itself up. I put on my mask, tapped in with my Oyster card, and tried to hide my frustration and my wayward brolly as the nice man welcomed me on to the Thames Clipper.
2. Wearing a mask is not just about wearing a mask.
I learnt yesterday that you can’t do the following things all at once. They don’t work well together:
listening to a podcast with corded earphones
wearing a mask that has loops around your ears
wearing hoop earrings
having newly-straightened now-long hair.
I honestly don’t know what I was thinking. But the combination of these four things involved a disproportionate amount of faffing. And then when the cord of my earphones got caught under the arm of the seat as I stood up, it pulled nearly all those things off my head at once. I think I still have a bit of whiplash.
3. Sometimes memories are more romantic than reality.
(a) I alighted at Bankside and managed to get my umbrella open and in one piece (ish) again. I couldn’t wait to take the wonderful walk past Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, gazing at the changing tides of the Thames, St Paul’s in the distance, before walking past the Tate Modern, through a stylish Richard Rogers-designed complex and on up to the office.
But, to be honest, it’s not that much fun when it feels like someone’s walking alongside you pouring a bucket of water over your head all the way. The rain was relentless and sometimes horizontal, matched only (apart from the horizontal bit) by my determination to stop the rift between the two halves of my umbrella. Add to that puddles that required a diving suit and snorkel to get through, and you’ll understand the walk wasn’t as much fun as I’d hoped it would be. Oh, and I didn’t even see if St Paul’s was still there. I think it is, though. I’d know, otherwise, right?
(b) In my previous commuting life, I had a regular morning stop at a coffee shop a few blocks from the office. I got to know the server there; she was a delightful and chirpy, chatty young person who got to know me, my reusable cup and my usual order. We’d chat about our various interests; she knew I was writing a book, and I knew she loved writing poetry. ‘I think up poems when I’m out and about, and I don’t always remember them,’ she told me one morning. ‘Can’t you use a notes app on your phone?’ I asked. ‘I don’t have that kind of phone,’ she said.
I bought her a notebook so she could write down her poems. The day I gave it to her turned out to be my last day of work in central London before lock-down. I’d written a note in the front of the notebook, encouraging her creativity. She loved it and wanted to hug me to say thank you, but we couldn’t.
The coffee shop is still open, but it’s somehow lost the charm it had before. When I got there yesterday, I looked through the window from under my broken umbrella and the unfamiliar face behind the counter pointed at her watch and told me they weren’t yet open. I went back a while later and she had no recollection of the person I’d met there last year. ‘She must have been a temp, I don’t know anyone of that name,’ she said, with little interest in me or my usual order.
Shradha, if you’re out there, I hope you’re still writing your poetry. You brightened my mornings last year.
4. Make sure your backpack’s waterproof.
I got to the office and to my assigned desk, now called a docking station. I peeled my soaking jacket off and tried to stop my sopping trousers from sticking to my legs. I took my notebooks out of my backpack and both were sodden. So my backpack, like my umbrella, wasn’t waterproof. And when I went to the bathroom later, I saw it wasn’t only my notebooks that had gone curly and weird from the rain. My previously-straightened and still-long hair had done the same. (Oh, another lesson I learnt: don’t forget to take a hairbrush with you. I spent the whole day with what looked like a long, damp shaggy carpet on my head.)
5. It’s weird the things you miss about the office.
I had a number of Teams meetings online yesterday and in almost every one of them, my colleagues working from home said how they missed the trees they could see through the window behind my docking station. And they cooed to see trains going past in the distance too. At least that kept their gaze away from my weird-looking-hair silhouette. On the other hand, I loved being able to see some colleagues and the office again in 3D, and being able to chat to colleagues from merely walking distance away. There was a bit of shouting because of the distance and the masks, but still.
6. London is still amazing.
It was sad to see how many shops had closed since I’d last been in central London, and the amount of empty office space. But I was encouraged to see places that were still open and some signs of the buzzing central London that I know and love. A few blocks from the office, I stopped when I saw a group of people standing together, posing under see-through umbrellas. I didn’t want to walk into their photo so when they started walking, I did too, and walked straight into their film shoot. I hadn’t seen the camera crew under the arches around the corner. It’ll be easy to spot me in the midst of that group – I’m the one with a broken umbrella.
I was glad the rain had ended when I left the office at the end of the day, as my broken umbrella had now been assigned to the bin. I’m sure I’ll get used to commuting again, I will grow to love going into London on the boat again, and I will get a new umbrella. But I probably should have put in some practice before yesterday. My shoulders still feel tense today; I’m not sure if that’s from the weight of my backpack, the incident with my earphones, or the tension from gripping my umbrella. One thing’s for sure, my Wednesday hair appointment can’t come quickly enough.
We nearly didn’t see Gregory Porter. I’d booked our tickets in July last year and, as the April date grew imminent, I realised I’d noted the date incorrectly. I’m so glad we didn’t miss out. It was a privilege and a joy to experience an evening of beautiful jazz delivered by the soul man.
Nashville-based singer/songwriter, Kandace Springs, opened the concert. Showcasing songs from her new album, Soul Eyes, she also shared a beautiful cover of Roberta Flack’s The first time ever I saw your face.
Porter’s band took the stage to an enthusiastic welcome. Pianist, double bass player, saxophonist, trumpeter, Hammond organist and drummer welcomed the nattily dressed, hat-wearing gentle giant to the stage with beautiful music.
Gregory Porter opened with Holding On from his upcoming new album, Take Me To The Alley. When the audience responded with appreciative applause and whistles, he introduced his band. Throughout the evening, he shared the stage generously with his band. He stepped out of the spotlight at every instrumental solo, and never failed to show appreciation for his band. And so he should – they were a superb match for his liquid velvet voice.
On My Way to Harlem was his second number. Porter clicks his fingers through every song, feeling every beat, every nuance, every note. After some gentle scatting, he brought the number to a close, before moving on to the beautiful Illusion.
“There’s a lot of trouble in the land,” he reflected, before introducing his next number.
“At the end, feel free to join in with me. But not until the end. I love you, but I don’t want to hear you,” he said.
The son of a preacher mother took us to church and brought us back into the room with No Love Dying. We joined in at his command – at the end – and he seemed pleased with our performance.
“There’s a good vibe in here tonight.”
He encouraged us to clap to the rhythm of our hearts in Liquid Spirit. Porter moved across the stage, taking his mic stand with him. The song featured an insane piano solo, and an equally insane drum solo.
The lyrically and melodically exquisite Hey Laura followed, before another clearly personal track from his new album, Don’t Lose Your Steam.
Boy, you hear me calling your name
The bridge is your time
Your engine rolls hot
If the bridges fall down, don’t lose your head of steam.
“I wrote that for my three-year-old son to help him eat his cereal. Just carry on doing what you’re doing, and you’ll be all right. But especially for my three-year-old.”
As Porter sat down next to the piano, the rest of his band left the stage.
“This next one is called … whatever I feel like,” he said.
He chose the very poignant and beautiful Don’t Be a Fool, which he and his pianist presented with intimacy and tenderness.
His band returned to the stage, and his very smiley double-bass player opened the next number: a rousing and soulful cover of Motown’s 70s hit – Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone.
Musical Genocide, again with an extraordinary piano solo, and The Consequence of Love followed. Porter, tall and with a towering presence, never hogs the limelight. He appears to revel in the talent of every band member; he feels and appreciates every note.
After another cover – Nat Adderley’s 1960 Work Song, made famous by Nina Simone – followed the moving story of Be Good. This brought with it an outstanding and beautiful sax solo – delicate, sultry, sublime.
An astonishing trumpet solo in 1960 What? – the song inspired by Porter’s own stories of life in Detroit, as well as Martin Luther King’s assassination – brought the concert to a close and the audience, screaming and whooping to its feet. Porter again acknowledged his band, said “God bless you,” to the audience, and walked off the stage.
He came back with the energetic Be Free. He sang his gratitude to the audience and hoped we’d felt the love. He bowed, waved to us and walked off the stage, leaving his band playing. Starting with the pianist, each band member took it in turn to play solo before walking off the stage. The double-bass player – now on an electric bass guitar – and the drummer challenged each other to a musical duel, before the guitarist left the stage with guitar flung over his shoulder.
The drummer held the stage for a further five minutes. He teased us by pretending several times to stop playing, and then continuing his awesomeness. When he eventually stopped, put down his sticks and sauntered off the stage, the audience went crazy.
Give me a blues song, tell the world what’s wrong
And the gospel singer, giving those messages of love
Woah, and the soul man, with your heart in the palm of his hand
Singing his stories of love and pain, woah.
Thank you, Mr Soul Man, for holding us all in the palm of your hand for the evening. What an outstanding band, an awesome concert. Woah!
One of the many wonderful things about living in the UK is that if you’re not already living in a beautiful little town or village, you’re always just a short drive away from one. Mr Sunshine and I have just returned from a short break in an exceptionally beautiful part of England, and it was less than two hours’ drive away.
Rye is an enchanting, medieval town in the historic county of Sussex. You have only to walk along its cobbled streets and through its narrow alleyways, marvel at its Tudor buildings, and soak in its charm and character to know you’re walking through a town rich in history.
At its heart is the Mermaid Inn, on the beautiful, cobbled, Mermaid Street. Once the haunt of notorious smugglers, the Inn is laden with stories and creaking floorboards. With cellars dating from 1156, the building was rebuilt in 1420. It maintains much of its original character, including crooked walls, higgledy-piggledy staircases and sloping ceilings.
We stopped for a drink in the hotel’s Giant’s Fireplace Bar, which we heard boasts the second largest open fireplace in the UK. The barman also shared with us some history of the hotel, which was frequented in the 1700s by local smugglers – most notably the Hawkhurst Gang. He also stage-whispered the whereabouts of the now-not-so-secret passageway into the bar.
A walk along Rye’s central street introduced us to a range of vintage shops, antique shops, restaurants, coffee shops, and nothing that looked typical of a UK high street. We found Thomas Peacocke’s Rye Grammar School, built in 1636, which is now home to a large store selling second-hand CDs, vinyl and DVDs.
We stepped into Edith’s House, lured by its offering of teas and scones, and it felt like we were sitting in a family home from the 1970s . The walls are papered in textured florals, the crockery and furniture are all a mish-mash of styles and colours, there are doilies on the dining and side tables, an ancient television set, and teapots and old telephones dotted around. Everything about it feels comfortable and welcoming, and the food is outstanding.
We walked past the Wobbly Wardrobe, the Hatters House, Simon the Pieman (the oldest tearoom in Rye), and saw that we could buy fossils, crystals and gifts from A Pocket Full of Rye.
The Parish Church of Rye, dedicated to St Mary the Virgin and sometimes known as the ‘Cathedral of East Sussex’, is the oldest building in Rye and dates back more than 900 years. It is told that in 1377, when the town was looted and set on fire by French invaders, the church bells were carried off to France. The next year, men from Rye and the neighbouring seaside town of Winchelsea, sailed to Normandy, set fire to two towns and recovered much of what was stolen, including the church bells.
We heard those bells at close quarters , when we visited the church at noon and climbed the 85 stairs to the top of the bell tower. The stairways, ladders and passageways are very narrow and low, with several cautions to ‘Mind your head’. I enunciated one such warning in English, and my very best French and German to Mr Sunshine, and then stepped up and bumped my own head.
From the top of the tower, the views across Rye and surrounding countryside were stunning. You can see from there the second oldest building in Rye – the Rye Castle, also known as Ypres Tower, which was built in 1249.
As you walk around the bell tower, you can see the three rivers that frame Rye, and in the distance, the sea and a glimpse of Winchelsea.
When we visited Winchelsea beach in the early evening, the tide was low. The pebble beach opened out on to acres of sandy shore and it felt like the sea was miles away. (At high tide, as we saw the next day, the beach was a tenth of its low-tide length, and only pebble.)
As the light faded and the shadows lengthened, we watched lambs gambol and sheep graze in the green fields across the road, as the sun set beyond them.
We found great, character-filled pubs and restaurants in Rye where we enjoyed excellent fare. We explored some of the countryside around Rye, and discovered places of outstanding beauty and views that went on forever. We stumbled upon a most delightful little place in Pett, called the Tic Tockery: a bespoke hair salon, tearoom and giftshop (yes really). Overlooking rolling hills, the tearoom was filled with homemade cakes and treats and colour and character – unfortunately, we couldn’t stay as they didn’t take card payments and we had no cash on us.
And on our drive home, we found the Five Bells Inn in Brabourne in Kent. This divine little country inn not only served excellent food, using only locally sourced, sustainable, traceable and fairly traded ingredients, but it looked like this:
With good food, a peaceful town full of history, beauty and charm, plenty of sleep and some blue sky and spring sunshine, and surprises all along the way, I’m not sure our short break could have been any better. If you get the chance to visit Rye, go.
I posted this piece in the wake of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations in London in 2012. I thought, as today is Human Rights Day in South Africa, I would re-post:
Yesterday’s Diamond Jubilee river pageant was an extravagant spectacle to commemorate Queen Elizabeth II’s 60 years on the British throne. In March 1995, on this day (Human Rights Day) in South Africa, the Queen commemorated something similarly historic, with slightly less pomp and ceremony, in a dusty township in South Africa. The occasion was no less grand.
In May 1994, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was sworn in as President of the newly-democratic South Africa. I remember voting in those historic elections and feeling an overwhelming sense of being part of something special. In March 1995, the Queen and Prince Philip paid their first official visit to the newly-free country.
At that time, I worked for a non-government organisation that received funding from the British government. Ours was selected as one of two beneficiary organisations in Cape Town that would receive a royal visit.
Planning began in earnest about four months ahead of the visit. The Queen’s time was limited, so we two beneficiaries set up a ‘visit site’ at the other organisation’s premises in Khayelitsha. Their premises proved bigger and more adaptable for the visit than our premises, which were mostly in church halls and community centres.
Khayelitsha is an area of the Cape Flats in Cape Town, South Africa. The Xhosa name means ‘new home’ and it is reputed to be the biggest and fastest growing township in the country. Our organisation worked in that and other communities, to train unemployed people to start their own small businesses.
Being the project manager for the visit, I met three or four times with the royal team of Private Secretary to the Queen, press and police secretaries, as they made regular scoping trips to the country. We faxed letters to each other regularly. Information was paramount, planning was detailed, timing was precise. We learnt fun facts such as:
when the Queen drives through residential streets lined with people, she drives at 4mph
she always gets out of her car on the right-hand side
verified information is required about each person the Queen is due to meet
equally, the people who will meet the Queen get the information required for meeting her.
The day dawned: Tuesday 21 March 1995. Human Rights Day in South Africa. We all travelled together to the Khayelitsha venue to get ready for the visit. Everyone was dressed to the nines, ready with their own story to tell the Queen. We were excited; animated. The royal entourage arrived on the dot of their expected time and began to make their way through the itinerary we so painstakingly put together.
I remember seeing the Queen up close and personal and thinking she looked radiant. She had soft, smooth skin and shining blue eyes. She took an interest in each person she met, asked beautifully well-briefed questions and graciously listened to each person’s story. Prince Philip broke away from the entourage and typically adopted a more spontaneous approach. We got wonderful images of him, head back and laughing loudly as he chatted to my colleagues. The Queen, gentle and genial, proved photogenic as always.
I don’t think even the most strident of cynics would have criticised that visit to dusty Khayelitsha in 1995. I’m not an ardent royalist myself, but I was glad to be part of a visit that was truly special, relatively and appropriately ordinary and supremely intimate. And most importantly, it took place away from the glare of the media.
For us, months of planning bottlenecked into a 10-minute visit that will stay with each one of us always. The weather was never going to disappoint. It was windy that day, and the sun shone as it always does. Not only was it a royal seal of approval for the micro-enterprise development work that our organisation did, but, more broadly, it was one way of welcoming South Africa back into the international community. No number of boats could have done that quite as perfectly.
Sheridan Smith is a funny, Funny Girl. We were privileged to see her last weekend in the new stage production of that name (Funny Girl, not Sheridan Smith), which finishes its run at the Menier Chocolate Factory in London Bridge this weekend. Easily one of the best and most fun shows we’ve seen.
From the moment Fanny Brice whispered, “Hello, gorgeous,” to her reflection in her dressing-room mirror, we were enthralled, entranced, entertained, moved, captivated, delighted.
Sheridan Smith, a beautiful and skilful comic actress, brings so much charm and wit to the role of Fanny, the ugly-duckling-turned-Ziegfeld-Follies-star. We laughed and cried with her as she sang and one-lined her way to stardom and into heartbreak in the arms of Darius Campbell’s smooth, debonair Nicky Arnstein.
The staging was inventive. The musical direction and all those familiar numbers sublime. Sheridan balanced comic timing with emotion, taking us from awkward squirming out of Nicky Arnstein’s advances in You Are Woman, I am Man to the passionate delivery of People and her poignant, rousing Don’t Rain on My Parade. She carried the adoring audience – and her enthusiastic cast of singers and dancers – along on her every note.
The ambience and intimacy of the 150-seater theatre make it an experience unlike any other. Built as a five-storey factory and warehouse for the French Menier Chocolate Company when they expanded overseas between 1865 and 1874, the building opened in 2004 in its current incarnation. According to the website:
“Throughout its history, the Menier Chocolate Factory building has been inspired by both individuality and the pursuit of quality. […] the Chocolate Factory is a stimulating environment to enjoy a high-quality and entertaining theatrical experience.”
“There’s nowhere quite like the Chocolate Factory anywhere … The bubbliest kid on the block, and one of London’s great theatre hopes.” The Daily Telegraph
It is an extraordinary, beautiful space. It was a privilege to sit in the second row and feel involved in every song and dance routine before us. We’d seen Kyle Riabko’s astounding and beautifully crafted What’s it all about: Bacharach re-imagined there in July last year, before it too moved to a bigger West End theatre.
A friend once ran out of superlatives as she described a new book. She eventually just said, “Don’t ever not read this book.” I feel the same way about Funny Girl, and Sheridan Smith.
Our red box is richer for these tickets, as are we for the joy of watching Funny Girl. It’s moving to the Savoy Theatre in the West End in April and, who knows, maybe Broadway next. Don’t ever not see this show. Or Sheridan Smith.
I started writing my blog about a year after we arrived in London. I started writing it for a number of reasons. It was mainly to do with catharsis. Little did I realise a new world would open up in front of me.This week I met up with someone who follows my blog from South Africa. Sitting in a hipster little coffee shop in central London, and chatting to Jacqui from Africadayz about why I started my blog, and hearing how it had inspired her to start hers, I realised how pivotal my blog had been to my whole London experience. It kept me sane, it kept me focused, it kept me hopeful and it kept me connected at a time when things could so easily have been so different.
I was job hunting at the time. The process was soul-destroying. It took so much of my time, with little if any return, and it was challenging to feel upbeat about making that the focus of my every day. With encouragement from friends across the world, I investigated starting a blog. I thought it would balance the tedium of seeking employment in the Big Smoke. And I hoped it would be fun.
I had no idea – and I still don’t – where it would lead. I just knew, on a gut level, that I needed to write.
I chose to call my blog ‘Sunshine in London’ for reasons you can read here. I remember the trepidation with which I pressed ‘publish’ for the first time ever. It was August 2010, and I was nervous as all heck to put my writing out in the public domain. It was the first of what became daily posts about my London adventure. I write about life in London, about job hunting, about being an outsider in the Big Smoke, about our now overflowing red box, and about everything that makes me laugh.
The process of writing a blog has been almost life-changing for me. I find I look at the world slightly differently, I’m constantly fine-tuning my observation skills and, while reading the outstanding, often exquisite, work of a community of writers I’ve grown to know and love, I know I’m learning from the best. Every day brings the opportunity to read great work, and to sharpen my skills.
My now dear friend, Wendy, from Herding Cats in Hammond River, was the first ‘stranger’ to visit my blog and comment on a post I’d written. I remember how excited I felt that someone – who lived in Canada – had paid my blog a visit, and had liked what I’d written enough to comment. She and I would visit each other’s blogs every day and I loved discovering with her how much we had in common. I’ve not met Wendy in person yet, but I know that one day we will. We’re already friends.
Through meeting Wendy, I found other equally fabulous bloggers and connected with them. As my blog world grew, organically, I soon found myself part of a community of like-minded people from across the globe. I loved it. It gave meaning to my days, I read excellent and honest writing, and I laughed and cried with an outstanding bunch of human beings.
I’ve loved the sense of belonging I’ve felt. In many ways I’ve felt validated in my writing, and in my perspective on life. I had no idea writing a blog would do that for me.
One snowy day in December 2010, I went out for the morning and spotted someone cutting her finger nails, at my local bus stop. It got me thinking of all the strange and weird sights I’d seen on public transport. When I got home I wrote a characteristically light-hearted post about what I called ‘public displays of toiletry’ (PDTs). This throwaway post – Please don’t do THAT in Public – got Freshly Pressed and attracted the attention of about 5,500 readers and hundreds of commenters over the next few days. I was flabberghasted. I was also thrilled and slightly unnerved by this unexpected attention.
I’ve also discovered just how discoverable your online writing can be. As lovers of live music, Mr Sunshine and I go to many concerts and I write about them. One post reviewing a Van Morrison gig not only got picked up by a Van Morrison fanzine, but the chap I’d sat next to read it too! Equally, a blog about a Paolo Nutini concert got picked up by one of his fanzines too.
I found more new friends and blog followers after that. I have since met – in real life – two other fellow bloggers from North America: Renee from Life in the Boomer Lane and Caitlin from Broadside. It was amazing to meet them and, as I did with my new friend last week, discover that friendship in cyberspace can easily translate into real life. I have a few other blog buddies I’ve connected with on social media too.
One of the most moving blog moments for me involved a post about language, and about sounding forrin here in London. In the post – So this is where I learnt to speak funny– I mentioned my Zimbabwean high school teachers, one of whom (Mr K) I reminisced about with affection. Through schoolfriends in Australia and Canada, I got in touch with Mr K’s wife in Cape Town, who read the post to an ailing-and-in-hospital Mr K. She told me it made him laugh. It was only a short while later that he passed away.
I did find a job after my seemingly endless hunt. That was five years ago. My blog took a back seat for a good part of those years, and I’m just starting to get myself back in the blog writing lane. My book is ever brewing in my belly, I have a constant desire to get better at writing, and I value the nurturing connection my blog writing has given me to a world of talented and remarkable people. What better motivation could there be?
In the late spring last year, I had to travel to the Cotswolds for work. I had to spend most of a Friday in a picturesque little village in Gloucestershire. It’s tough, I know, but someone had to do it.
I travelled by train from central London. A 90-minute journey took me to a village called Moreton-in-Marsh, where I met my colleague.Together we travelled into a village called Stanton, where our work awaited us.
When we’d finished our filming, we wandered around the beautiful village and marvelled at the homes and village life. I imagined a future that involved a home in the Cotswolds, and spent some time wondering how Mr Sunshine and I could make that happen.
My colleague took me back to Moreton-in-Marsh where I was to catch the train back to London. I walked around the village, and stopped for a meal before the return journey. I chose a sweet and cosy little ‘tea shop’ on the village high street. When I entered and asked for a table for one, I was shown, with some empathy, to a little table next to the window.
I read the menu, and couldn’t find anything I really wanted. So I asked the waiter if they could make me a ‘special salad’.
“A special salad?”
I said something really simple would be perfect.
“A mixture of what you have would be great.”
“A special salad? What do you mean?”
When I explained some lettuce, tomato, potato salad and the like would be fabulous, she said, “I’d better ask my manager.”
She scuttled, frowning, towards the kitchen.
A few minutes later, the manager came over to my table and said, “I understand you want a special salad?”
Again, I explained what I was looking for.
He looked at me sideways and then excused himself. He disappeared kitchenwards.
A few minutes later, a third person approached my table and asked me about said special salad.
“What is it you want? Lettuce? Tomato? Cucumber? Potato salad? Coleslaw?”
When I responded in the affirmative to whatever she could offer me, she offered to see what she could do for me. She returned 10 minutes later with a plateful of deliciousness, and encouraged me to enjoy it. She looked like she felt sorry for me.
When I’d finished the multi-coloured selection of freshness, I called for my bill.
The manager brought the bill to me with an apology.
“I’m really sorry, I had to put it through as a quiche. I didn’t know what else to do.”
I was so amused I’d caused a storm in a tea shop. And then it got me thinking – maybe that’s how we could fund a life in the Cotswolds: open a tea shop specialising in special salads. Especially for the fussy townies.
When I first started blogging, I wrote about all the things in London that were new and different from what I was used to. Having grown up in Zimbabwe and Zambia, and having lived in South Africa, I still find many things fascinating, while others have become part of my everyday life in this beautiful Big Smoke.
In addition to all the huge and obvious differences between life in the northern and southern hemispheres, here are 20 everyday things in London that still feel new to me:
In the winter, I dress in layers. With central heating everywhere, as long as I have a warm coat, boots and a scarf to keep me warm when I walk outside, I’m OK if I wear light clothing when I’m inside (indoors, as they say here). By contrast, in southern Africa when it’s cold enough to wear a jacket, I’ll keep my jacket on even when I’m inside.
On hot days in the middle of summer, my friends and colleagues rather love going out in the midday sun. We southern Africans are the ones who sit in the shade.
When the weather is warm, it is a rare and special treat to swim in ‘an outdoor pool’ or ‘lido’. For the rest of the year, swimming will be in heated, indoor pools.
People here tend to talk in terms of seasons, which I find quite unusual. Probably because seasons aren’t so remarkably defined in the southern hemisphere. So, while someone in London may say, “We’ll probably go on holiday again in the autumn,” in South Africa, you might say, “We’ll go away again when the rand is stronger.”
When someone offers you ‘a drink’ here, unless you’re in a pub it usually means ‘tea or coffee’.
We have power showers in our bathrooms here: you turn on a power switch on the bathroom wall, and then press the ‘on’ button on the shower, and out comes hot water, instantly.
At supermarkets here you pack your own groceries into bags (not packets, as we call them in South Africa).
At petrol stations here, you pump your own petrol, whereas in southern Africa there are paid petrol attendants who do this.
At many shops here, you can scan and pay for your purchases yourself at a self-service checkout area.
You can pay for your shopping here with a ‘contact-less’ bank card – which means you merely touch your card on a machine for any purchases up to the value of £30 (ZAR750).
Swearing on television talk shows here seems to be OK.
It’s a crime here to beg. The crime is ‘Begging and summoning alms’.
You can be arrested here, or at least get a warning, for peeing in public.
It costs you 30p (ZAR7.50) to use a public toilet at a London train station.
Public transport in and around London is expensive. My commute into central London costs around £11.20 a day (ZAR280).
There is a difference between a tube (underground) and a train (overground), and between a coach (inter-city) and a bus (within a city).
You can buy alcohol here on Sundays, and you can buy wine, beer and spirits in the supermarkets. (In South Africa, you can’t buy alcohol in a supermarket on a Sunday, and you can’t buy beer and spirits in a supermarket.)
You can get about 80 channels on Freeview television here, and a TV licence costs £145.50 a year (ZAR3,500).
On weather reports on TV and the radio here, you’ll hear the weather described as ‘bright’, ‘breezy’, ‘dull’ and ‘disappointing’. Usually all on one day.
There are a number of free daily newspapers and magazines available at tube and train stations: the Metro and the London Evening Standard, the Timeout magazine, and NME.