It’s warm. I don’t have my coat. I walked down through Soho with my leather jacket slung over my handbag. Coming up the escalator at Tottenham Court Road, it could have been late July, humid and damp outside out the station, there is little relief exiting the underground. No bracing cold wind to chase away the stall tube air. But its not late July, it October, and by 7pm the sun is long gone and the festive lights are strung up ahead of the Friday night revellers, not yet lit but ominously signalling the onslaught of the Christmas. Friday night in Soho, unseasonably warm and its Halloween. Mischief and Mayhem wait in the wings, but for now she’s all perfectly applied black eyeliner, ladderless stockings and strategically positioned fangs. No one’s sold their soul just yet.
I’m not in costume tonight. I’m meeting old friends and taking a hiatus from hell raising, so the only make up I’m sporting is a slash of red lipstick which after kissing everyone hello, is smudged over various cheeks and foreheads. Having a table outside the bar we have front row seats for the warm up show, meaning our conversation is peppered with phrases like ‘check out the tossers dressed as power-rangers’ and mistaking a sexy waitress for our actual waitress more than once. The pubs have spilled out their costumed customers, doors flung wide open to the warm air. Jack’o lanterns winking in the windows, fake spider webbing over neon strip lighting.
By midnight I’m heading back home (for fear of turning into a pumpkin) and Soho has got involved. Her eyeliner is smudged, and the stockings are ripped. Three zombies are vomiting in succession outside a sex shop, a few sugar crazed 7 year olds are chasing each other down Dean street without parents, on scooters, knocking over a witch who can no longer balance on her stilettos. A couple are having a row at the bus stop, she is red eyed and shouting, he shuffling from one foot to another, his monster mask hanging around his neck looking forlorn and not nearly as scary as the his enraged girl who shoving him with her plastic pitchfork. Catwoman and her corpse bride pal are laughing behind their mobile phones, snapping gum and selfies while the N52 rumbles into view.
A dead marine jumps in front of me ‘BOO!’ he shouts,so close to my face I can smell the rancid booze and cigarette on his breath. Its feels violent. He laughs when I tell him to back off, he falls in with his undead platoon, whooping down Regent Street, shoving each other into the traffic. I give up on the bus when the countdown ticks up, 189 Cricklewood 20 mins – contemplating another 5 mins of the shrieking ghoulish hen party currently infesting the bus shelter is horrific enough. I’ll have to brave the last tube fright fest and take my chances.
By the time I get home I’ve encountered a vampire Alice in Wonderland and a coven of witches taking over the local kebab shop, and a trio of escaped convicts trying to negotiate with a minicab driver ‘honestly we’ll be 5 minutes mate, we’ll be right back…’
I fall into bed, wishing I could remember where I packed away my Carrie prom dress, the samurai sword from Kill Bill and my Cruella wig. I used to have this holiday licked. Next year, I’ll even carve a pumpkin.
London at its best, and its worst, dressed up as it’s darkest fantasies and best nightmares. Trick or Treat?
My get up and go has got up and left. I suspect my racing mojo has been trying to find a way to break up with me since our shambolic outing in Hackney. Our recent ‘dirty’ weekend, ruined by a tumble in Kent through some muddy tyres and what was supposed to ‘bring a bit of variety’ to our relationship has left us bruised and battered and more than a bit pissed off. But we promised each other the Royal Parks half marathon. Third time is the charm I said. So here we are less than 24 hours away from pinning race numbers and lacing up, its just over 13 miles until we take a little breather from racing, surely after all we’ve been through this year we can give it one last go?
Let’s not mention the Bike.
The Bike is a new Thing. A shiny new thing. That goes faster than I can on foot. That may save me money on commuting, and could also help shift the ‘I’m in training’ pounds I seem to have acquired over the summer. It won’t aggravate my ITB, and I can buy new STUFF for it (and me). And its a proper road bike. A grown up bike.
But here’s the thing. I am totally, utterly, completely shit scared of cycling on London roads. Having a husband who is a cabby does not make this any better. He hate cyclists. Honestly, as a pedestrian in London, I hate cyclists. But here I am with my new toy and grand plans to cycle the Argus in Cape Town in March. So I need to cycle.
I also hate the morning rush hour on the tube more. So between getting over the fear of commuting, to being sneezed on, literally, but hundreds of people TWICE A DAY, its a straightforward decision.
But going to do it anyway. Because these days I have learned to get stick at things, even when they are hard. Or when I suck at them.
This was not always the case. There was the guitar when I was 16 that lasted all of 3 weeks because I didn’t have the patience to actually learn the chords, my hands couldn’t get into the right positions, and the strings bit my fingers. I could manage E minor, D and C. Which I thought was about enough to get through Nirvana’s ‘Come As You Are’ and then I gave up. And there went that idea, along with my dreams of joining HOLE and becoming best mates with Courtney Love.
A few years later, I decided if I couldn’t be a kick ass rock star, I’d be a kick ass martial artist (thank you Matrix/ Crouching Tiger). So I started Kung Fu and limped through 3+ years of fairly shoddy forms and sub par fitness. I loved the idea of it, but I couldn’t get my head around putting in the work. I just wanted it to happen instantly, without too much blood, sweat or tears. Instant Chow Yun-Fat. I attended training, but only ever gave about 60%. And then I’d get upset when my gradings reflected that. My Tiger form was more fat tabby. Let’s be honest. I was partly relieved when I left for London and it was’t practical to continue.
As a result of these failed endeavours (and many others, there was the brush with Krav Maga that was so terrible I have almost wiped it from my memory) I started to believe that I just wasn’t any good at following through. I avoided committing to anything new, convinced I had a short attention span, and just no sticking power.
Then running came along and changed all that. I never had aspirations to be the next elite competitor, and I just loved that way it made me feel. And I have stuck at it, getting a little better every year. Not smashing PBs, rather chasing them down in a steady and considered way, following through and giving it a good go.
If I can translate some of that into the cycling I think we’ll be okay
Any tips for newbie cyclists like me? Share in the comments!
Opposite me on the tube this morning sat a young girl about sixteen or seventeen, who from the way she was dressed, could have been easily transported from 1997. Doc martens, purposefully scruffy jeans, black lace chocker, and finished off with a pair of marijuana leaf earrings and a tiny silver hoop nose ring. I had almost the exact wardrobe nearly 20 years ago (with the sullen expression to match), and although I have seen the trends for 60’s and 70’s fashion come and go, never did I think I’d see my teenage doppelgänger taking herself too seriously on the Jubilee line in 2014.
The shoes though. Those I can respect. My Doc Martens were hard-won. In 1995 they were the most coveted possession of my ‘friend’ Amy and my parents were having none of it. And they weren’t just any Docs that I wanted. ‘My Friend Amy’ had been to London and bought OX BLOOD TEN HOLES from the actual Doc Shop in Covent Garden. Amy wasn’t even that cool. She didn’t even know what she had, they were totally wasted on her and it was just NOT FAIR. Plus she had also visited London, which was somewhat taking away from my claim to fame of being one of the few of my peers who was ‘well-travelled’.
Growing up in the 80’s in South Africa, I spent a lot of time watching British films, and reading British writers. A throw back to colonial education systems, our canon is almost identical to the British, and with the Commonwealth link, a fair amount of 80s cultural iconography snuck through the notoriously tight Apartheid government’s strangle hold on radio and TV. But with the end of Apartheid rule in the 90s, a number of bands finally started touring, sanctions were removed and TV programs were aired. Finally we were catching up with the rest of the world. We got MacDonald’s.
As a result, my idea of London existed between a Sex Pistols 70’s punk backdrop populated by people with safety pins through their noses, and the dreaming spires of Oxford (which I thought was sort of London-ish). London was not a place, but rather a feeling that I cultivated, built up on the very limited first-hand experience and some Inspector Morse.
My first trip to the UK at 12 years of age it hadn’t occurred to me to buy Doc Martens. I was kicking myself. It was a whirlwind tour that included London, the South East, Bath, Wales and Scotland. I remembered that Wales had rabbits, you could get sunburnt playing tennis (Kent) and that Glasgow was damp but I learned to skim stones on Loch Lomond. We spent a lot of time trying to get our luggage to fit in the hire car. London itself was wax museums and trains. But I had seen a punk or two which was thrilling. No one had pink hair in Jo’burg.
But I carried that feeling of the place, a notion, which took on a life of its own in my imagination, only to meet all my expectations and more when I was lucky enough to visit again on a trip to Europe at sixteen.
At sixteen you are susceptible to falling in love. I fell hard. London was The Place. Everyone had brilliant accents and there was proper music and real super-star DJs and the possibility you could run into Damon Albarn (I chose Blur in the Brit Pop Wars). I had to mark this love affair and I was determined to get my nose pierced in Camden Town. Initially it had been Paris but I though the language barrier could equal me getting my lip severed so I passed on that. Camden still had all the kudos and ‘my friend Amy’ would never be able to beat that. I was scuppered by my mother who insisted it was a bad idea as our travel insurance wouldn’t cover an infected piercing disaster.
But that didn’t stop me getting as much of London into head as possible. By this point I had my worn in, drawn on, suitably scuffed Docs (worked and paid for by cooking dinner three times a week for about 6 months) and they stood me in great stead for marching around Soho, Camden and the West End. I ignored conventional directions and tube maps. Mainly, so I could smoke without being caught by the parents who had given me the directions, but also as I suspect I was secretly hoping to get so lost so that I wouldn’t have to go home (a wish which came true on many levels years later).
Having clubbed the Goth look to death I was now very predictably veering off into a fairly unhealthy relationship with dance music, trance first, then house (with a the beginnings of a flirtation with Garage). One afternoon I stumbled upon Cyber Dog, which blew my tiny mind and I resolved right then and there that South Africa knew NOTHING about anything worth knowing.
I was convinced London was where everything started. Jo’burg had to wait three of four years for the same trends and artists to get any air time. We were so behind. We weren’t even relevant. We didn’t have enough choice. Whereas in London there was almost too much.
My first trip to HMV on Oxford Street pretty much set up my musical taste for years to come. I bought Erykah Badu (she would later lead me to The Roots), and The Chemical Brothers (Surrender). I picked up Prodigy and a new Tori Amos. I spent hours listening to CDs of bands I had never heard of, anxious that I would never, ever find time to hear them all. I had a few days in London. It was not enough time.
And the book shops.
Waterstones Piccadilly left me bewildered in the best way. I couldn’t believe there were floors upon floors I could explore. They had books in stock of authors I had to order in when in SA. I spent almost all my holiday money in days. I bought beautiful journals too and wrote more awful poetry (which thankfully I can’t find)
I did save just enough for a pair of outrageous see-through knee-high leather mesh platform boots from Rome. They were hideous and spectacular and I raved in them for a good 4 years, drag queens in Jo’burg were practically ripping them from my feet. My Docs were forgotten after those bad girls came on the scene.
I went back to Jo’burg determined to get back there when I was a grown up, and listen to everything I missed, go to all the gigs. Read all the books.
So here sits this girl on the train opposite me. Looking like me in London back in ‘97. It’s a surreal moment. What would I say to me now? I have been to all sorts of gigs. She would be thrilled to hear I did get my nose pierced, and then removed it at 24, and weirdly I am thinking of doing it again. I happen to count an ex-manager of Cyber Dog as a good mate, a super star DJ once signed my stomach at a music festival (I had no paper). I have had actual real-life business meetings in Waterstones Piccadilly, and I’ve been involved in publishing books that get displayed in their wonderful windows.
But then equally I would be sad to tell her that HMV is a shadow of its former self and that I don’t get out to see as many live gigs as I used to. She’s be surprised to hear I now find I am desperate for music from South Africa. I attended a music trade gig when Freshly Ground were first breaking the UK and I had to leave the show half way through as I thought I may actually have a minor episode, a streaky mascara mess, shades on, choking back sobs on the train. Homesickness can be a visceral experience. But then how I stood at the front of the stage at LED festival and shouted all of Die Antwoord’s lyrics back at them, smug that unlike the Hackney hipsters behind me I actually knew what they meant. And how to pronounce them. Ridiculously proud of the band of misfits on stage cussing like only the South African can.
One thing though is consistent. I’m on the hunt for the perfect pair of Docs again. And I may even go Ox Blood this time. Or Cherry. Or both. Bet Amy would be spitting.
In a city of 7 million people its preferable to try and make yourself close to non existent to move through the city relatively unscathed and keep the flow of human traffic moving seamlessly. To do this there has to be a combination of written and unwritten rules that everyone abides by. A few are obvious and clearly marked, STAND ON THE RIGHT on the escalator, touch in HERE, let passengers off the train FIRST. There are others that are less so, but enforced just as harshly. Don’t stop in the middle of Oxford Street. Move out of the way if you’re the twat that forgot to check their oyster card had credit before he got to the front of the exit gates. Don’t touch anyone with any part of your body at any time unless forced to do by sheer lack of space. Then and only then is it OK to get up in someone’s face. When reading your local free paper of non-news, don’t stretch your arms too wide and invade person next to you’s space. Turn OFF YOUR KEY PAD on your phone. And never EVER under any circumstances, choose your ring tone in public.When these rules aren’t followed it all contributes to the seething resentment and frustration you can feel jostling around, the rolled eyes, clicked tongues, exaggerated sighs. London excels at being violently passive aggressive.
To be reminded that we are all individual human beings with complex lives carrying trauma and joy within us and all experiencing this tumultuous existence at exactly the same time and practically in the same place is both sensational and devastating to consider. We need to block each other out in order to function. Each of us plays hero in our own story, preoccupied with the small day to day crises we face, all consumed with how everything affects us. And at the same time we play a tiny bit part face in the crowd in another’s. Girl in coffee shop scene 5. Man on ladder opening sequence. You are a blink in someone else’s life. I often wonder, like a true narcissist, how many times I appear in the background of random people’s pictures of touristy London. Girl running past Big Ben. Slowly.
This leads to a strange but not uncommon city paradox that you can be your loneliest in a city of millions of people. That it can be hard to make friends or meet love interests while you zoom past hundreds of people every day. And, weirdly that some behave like they’re in their dressing gowns alone in their bathroom on a rammed tube carriage (I am looking at you lady who clips, files and varnishes her nails on the central line, and you Mr nose-picker. Seriously it’s gross). The lines between public and private are blurred, while trying to be strictly upheld.
Late last year around Christmas, I watched a women try her best not to break down on the train. Sitting completely still and totally upright, twisting her cardigan between her hands. She had tears just rolling down her face. Eventually I broke the first rule of tube law and made contact by offering her a tissue. Turns out she had her heartbroken. Her partner of 9 years had decided he just didn’t feel it any more and walked out the door. She had just left the house to get some air because she couldn’t bear to be in the house they had shared, alone. All of this happening around us every day.
Finding connection is how we feel part of the world, and become more sure about our place in it. With the onslaught of artificial social and digital interaction and the sheer anonymity of the daily grind, it becomes all the more important to find it in real time. To become visible again and not just a face in the crowd or an avatar on the screen. Reaching out and re-establishing those relationships gets harder as we have more pressures on our time, and it’s the reason why my running on a Tuesday is non-negotiable. Finding my place in London again that didn’t centre around the pub or work was largely down to pounding the pavements with RDC weekly and supporting members achieving everything from their first 5km to their 10th ultra-marathon. Its about breaking those rules of unspoken etiquette and reaching out to the city, and the wonderful opportunities it offers
And I am aware of the irony of advocating this on a blog, promoted through social media, which has me glue to the screen way more than is probably healthy. I’m hoping this trumps mindlessly arguing with random people on Twitter. It certainly beats Candy Crush.
Eleven years ago I had the singular pleasure of having to take part in a group interview. It’s one of my enduring memories of early London life mostly because it was so excruciatingly awful. Looking back, I count myself very lucky never to have landed the job selling classified for a big magazine company. I narrowly avoided working for the 26 year old man-boy in a plastic suit who actually threw a watch at each of us demanding we ‘sell him the benefits’ of said watch. I remember the watch was massive, tacky and a bit grubby. I couldn’t think of anything it would be good for other than perhaps using it as a paper weight. Or perhaps a murder weapon. It was heavy.
But the real stand out moment was the individual pitch bit. Here we were asked what we most enjoyed about London and how we’d ‘sell it’ to a tourist. In 2 minutes. I thought I had this one in the bag. Big -blonde- pushy- snob had nothing on me, and scared-account-boy could barely speak. As for the loud lads with their floppy hair they were from London. What could they know about Tourism? Yes this was all mine. Essentially I was a tourist having been in the country about 21 days. I just had to think about what most impressed me when I arrived. I volunteered to go first (a trick I was told always got you an instant gold star. I really am just a big nerd) and blurted out, ‘The Tube!’ and began to rattle off all the reasons why I thought it was, by far, the very BEST bit of London. How whizzing across town in under 45 minutes was just a pure dream of first world capability, how the maps were readily available, how people were helpful, how you never had to wait more than 3 minutes for a train. Travel heaven.
I must have finished my evangelical sermon about the virtues of the Underground looking slightly manic and maybe a bit sweaty. No one said a word for a moment. Probably checking this crazy South African wasn’t about to start speaking in tongues, they all looked at me as though I was genuinely mad. Someone coughed. Everyone shifted in their seats and looked at their hands.
After what felt like an age, plastic suit man-boy said, ‘Well, fantastic, yes brilliant, thank you… the Tube. Interesting take. Thanks for sharing.’ And moved quickly onto to one of the floppy haired lads. I have since come to learn that when someone British says something like ‘Interesting take’ what they mean is ‘stupid idea, we’ll do the other thing’. Everyone else talked about gigs and bars and clubs. Palaces and theatre, parks and culture. Blonde pushy snob looked smug. I was out of the running.
Now in my defence, it’s also worth saying that I moved to London just after the entire Central Line was suspended for about 6 months due a serious derailment, so everyone was hating the tube. Loathing the tube in fact. It meant adding on an additional half an hour to already long commutes, rammed platforms and hellishly full carriages. I had yet to really experience the tube at rush hour in mid-summer and was blissfully unaware of the sheer horror of being trapped under someone’s armpit while they ate a garlic falafel wrap, for an hour.
For me I had no working knowledge of the red magic carpet that is the central line as it was out of action. I was also lucky enough, in those first few weeks, to be based in spitting distance of the Queen of All Tube Lines, The Jubilee. The Jubilee even sounds different to other tube trains, the swooping through Westminster, the glass doors, the shrill clipped and erudite like announcement of each station. It’s a joy. Even now moving back onto the line is cause for great excitement particularly as I get to hear the Jubilee Line Lady announce my station like it was some glamorous outpost, ‘the next station is Wiiilllllsssden Green’. Brilliant.
The thrill of just getting on a train and going somewhere, whenever and pretty much wherever you like was a huge novelty (and if I am honest, I still get excited booking trains to Europe and travelling under the sea. HOW COOL IS THAT).
On the flip-side, public transport in South Africa is almost mythical. It exists in various guises, and you can get from A to B pretty quickly, but the direct correlation between danger and speed has never been more acute. The quicker you need to get somewhere, the more you take your life in your own hands. Back in the 90s pre the Gautrain, if you were a poor sod without a car you had only a few choices. Minibus taxis and buses. We were strictly forbidden as teenagers to get in taxis, mainly due to the fact they were all apparently driven by people ‘who had got the driver’s licences out of a lucky packets’ and were frequently causing pretty major and horrific car accidents. They were always overcrowded and never used their brake lights or indicators.
Of course, being teenagers we swiftly learned the hand signals required to get a taxi to take us to town and back (one finger pointing up – to town, one finger pointing down -out of town, Simples). And we zoomed around Johannesburg, passing our money forward to the driver, being fed by the ladies in the back and crossing our fingers we didn’t get caught. There were often occasions we had to help put the sliding door back on the taxi when it fell off while moving, or had to laugh off the fact the taxi was being steered with a spanner. All true. And worse.
Buses were safer, but so infrequent and unpredictable that you had to allow an entire morning to get from A to B. I spent my first year at University (17 and not yet allowed to drive solo), waiting for the 72 bus and catching up on my Psych 101 reading. But it was also cheap. And you could smoke of the top deck. Well everyone did, and no one seemed to mind.
When I eventually got myself a car, gone were the days of blagging lifts and waiting for buses. But being based in Jo’burg I was very quickly introduced to epic traffic jams, endlessly finding petrol money and the joys of navigating pot holes on the highways. I loved my green second-hand Vauxhall Astra. It could barely get into 4th gear but she got us down to the South Coast twice and transported me through my last years at uni, and carried me between waitressing jobs and reviewing gigs for my first part time writing post.
As much as I had enjoyed the freedom of driving, moving to London and not having a car was even more liberating. No more hassling for car parking, no more fighting about designated driving responsibilities, no more worrying about theft or break ins, insurance and fuel costs. All of that gone and replaced with a cool card that swipes in and swipes out. A network of trains to get you wherever you want to go. The freedom to plug in your headphones and switch off, tune out and unwind.
Ten years on, I have developed more of a hate-love relationship with the infamous tube. I’ve fallen asleep and ended up at the end of the line and had to get 3 night buses home, been elbowed, kicked and shoved on a daily basis, I have fainted at Holborn and been stepped over by my fellow passengers, and been stuck underground with stale air and furious commuters more times than I can remember. I have sworn and shouted and been on the verge of frustrated tears due to the wrong kind of snow/leaves/dust on the line. I have cursed poor souls who take that extra step out off of the platform because they can’t walk any further in their own lives, and the endless delays.
But ultimately I stand by my 22 year old self who waxed lyrical about the system. It’s a marvel. And majority of the time it works for all 8 million of us. Almost every day of the year.
What’s your favourite tube tale/ horror story/ guardian angel moment?