Still fresh from my Highlands tour, I was blessed enough to be back on a bus, this time to the Big Smoke, London. I’d been a handful of times before but not on my own. Something that should perhaps not happen again. A number of patriotic South African events had lined up, including the Twickenham Sevens and some local touring bands. I was moer keen.
The cheapest way to get from Edinburgh to London is a Megabus, pretty much like every other bus, with that little extra mega. We load on mid-Friday, due for the UK capital. The trip is a long one, close to nine hours in total, going through places like Newcastle and Leeds. The bus was fairly full, with various people hopping off here and there. Again, I castle myself with my backpack in the seat next to me and send as many fuck off vibes as I can to retain the seats to myself. I am successful. Unfortunately, the bus has no wifi, so this renders my tablet pretty much a bulky item on which to play stick cricket, and my phone a data-hungry muti-tool. This ruined my Tripadvisor plans, and pretty much anything else I had yet to organise, like the logistics of my accommodation. I was staying with my sister’s friend’s sister, that much had been sorted, but how to get there seemed a distant problem.
Halfway through the trip and we stop off in England for food. It is here I encounter my first problems in using Scottish pounds. The UK has a complicated relationship with all the countries contained in it. And by complicated, I mean they all hate England, but England makes all the decisions. Kind of like an older brother that committed various atrocities to you when you were younger, but you’re too scared to disown him in case someone else’s older brother comes up to you. Of the many, many things that divide the UK, currency is one of them. They all have the Great British Pound Sterling, the most powerful currency in the world, but they all have different pictures on their notes. Legally, these are to be accepted all around the UK. Practically, they are not. But the British way is to be passively rude about things, so I follow suit and make sure I use Scottish pounds first, then when they look at it funny I assure them, as Michael McIntyre predicted, that is it “legal tender”. I do so, and it works, but in her defence, the chick behind the counter was a foreigner as well, and had never seen a Scottish note before. So the fault was not her’s. It was England’s.
Having finally eaten, I surfed the web to the point of having a wee nap. I awake, realising my phone is close to flat so I plug it in at my seat. Nothing. After a bit of a communication barrier, I discover all the plugs are fucked. Naturally, my phone dies and I arrive at a plug-less Victoria Station that is rather rude to people who try to charge their phones in the bathroom. I eventually find a pub, use their power and abuse their wifi. Between Facebook calls, unsent smses, I manage to contact my contact and navigate to Wimbledon. Turns out Wimbledon has two stations and I find out the hard way. But it is late. I find home, and I nest.
Wimbledon is an interesting area. The unofficial South African capital of London, it has a lot of SA shops and pubs (I hate the term Saffa for surely obvious reasons). Coming off of the tube, you find no fewer than 2 shops at the station that sell South African shit, from boerie to Milo. It also is pretty central to the rest of London, but doesn’t actually have a lot going on in the area itself. I realise this when I’m up the next morning and only then decide what to do. I’d already seen a lot of the major touristy places, so I decide on the Museum of Natural History, embarrassingly inspired by Night at the Museum. I get off the tube and find it.
The queue is out the door and the major exhibition is some kind of butterfly thing. I’m over it. I Google Maps it through Hyde Park, passing the Diana memorial. I am far from a royalist, but this feature is pretty moving. I continue through the park to find speakers corner. It is empty, since we now have social media and people don’t need to form and argument anymore, just a hashtag. I head down Oxford street, which in itself is quite the experience. It’s mainly shopping places, but there are some groovy buskers on the way and interesting buildings that literally change patterns in the wind.
I eventually find the British Museum and have my bag checked on entry. I guess they don’t appreciate people taking things that don’t belong to them. I enter and it’s a massive hall with countless rooms of endless history. Granted, it has all been stolen (a word they avoid on the plaques. Tend to use “acquired” or “brought back”) from their colonies and beyond with no intention of ever returning, but it is still a hugely impressive display of theft. I am let down by the African display, and also befuddled as to why we had been sponsored by Sainsbury’s. The rest was interesting, a bit too Egypty for my liking, but unlike the local woman, it was well put-out. Their exhibition on clocks was quite cool, having set them all at slightly different times to display the different chimes. The watches were all in for repair. At the same time.
I return home and am treated to left-over braai. It’s barely been 3 months but this almost brings me to tears. We get ready and hit the town to a place called “the Slug”. It is unapologetically a SANZAR bar, having the SA, AUS, and NZ flags on the sign on the way in. I was told it would feel like a South African club and this is no word of a lie. Although they are not actually playing South African music, there is a certain playlist of overseas songs that make it feel homey. They even serve Hansa Pilsner, and I am almost in tears again. I finish one easily without being drunk. I miss this feeling, still struggling with the heavy draft beers served from the tap everywhere. I see an old school mate and we have a laugh. I asked how he was finding London with all the regulations over an SA passport and he tells me he’s got a Greek one, so he has no problems. Poes.
Early rise and I’m off to Twickenham sevens rugby tournament. After Glasgow got booted, this is the only UK leg in the international sevens tour. Every few weeks, 20-odd international teams battle it out in this two-day, micro-rugby in a party festival. South Africa are one of the best in the world, often fighting New Zealand and Fiji for top honours. A short walk from the station and we are greeted by locals offering me tickets for literally half of what I paid. I ignore them and arrive at the stadium and it’s pretty impressive. Only last year did it host the Rugby World Cup final, so naturally, it is still at its international best. There’s not a hang of a lot of atmosphere here, but it’s still early so I give it a chance. I walk past all kinds of food vendors and find my seat, which is directly in front of a handrail, and I find it sizeist. The first South African game is at 10.50 and new regulations mean the bar only opens at 11. Smart move by the organisers.
Judging by flags and jersey colours, the crowd is about 40% Fijian, 30% South African, and the rest mixed, including local teams. The crowd is picking up, but not to the extent that I had imagined. The match just before lunch is a playoff between England and Scotland (to two closest and most populous nations) and the stadium is not even a third full. I recall some rumours I had heard and later found out to be quite true. Locals had complained that their residence had become unlivable, with people passing out in the streets and pissing in their gardens. This is an understandable issue, seeing that I would, later this weekend, be such a person. They had since cut ticket sales, enforced strict bar rules, discouraged dressing up, and tried to turn the tournament into a “festival of food”. I see both sides, as drunk people are shit to deal with. However, my old university also likes to live in a fantasy world where nobody wants to drink to enjoy themselves and we all just want to hold hands and chat about how good the world is. Alcoholism aside, the tournament lost some serious gees.
As much as I disliked the concentration on the food, the vendors had made gluttons of all of us. Turns out that I’ll eat anything that has been smoked, and I smell like the soutie who insisted on braaing on camp. I met up with some university friends and the day gets a lot better. We had known we were going to meet up, but Facebook has an interesting feature for such a situation. “Nearby friends” is a tool of Facebook that tells you which of your friends stays close to where you are, and if you turn it on, even those that are travelling near you. Having all checked into the rugby, I was sent a notification of which friends of mine were also at the tournament. Take that knowledge and spread it.
Having been hit with all these factors, we’d almost forgotten the main attraction to the tournament: the rugby. Whatever was going on around the field had little impact on what was happening on it. I moved to my mates who had ample free seats around them and had a decent view. Scotland knocked out England, USA smashed New Zealand, and SA almost threw it away, but finally beat Fiji in the semis. We race to get some beers in before the 5PM bar closing time and are seated for the final between SA and Scotland. We all belt out Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika and I even full in the the rude bits about the English in O Flower of Scotland. The local fans are suddenly British again. It’s a tight match. SA lead for most of it. Just 20 seconds to go. The Scots are 6 points behind. Their flyhalf tickles the ball across the line like the under-table mischief of a royal Christmas lunch the Scots regain possession and score beneath the posts and go on to win. It’s anti-climactic, but still a decent show.
Most folk are off to work and cruise out of the stadium. I follow my mates out, say goodbye and head back in to try catch some of the players. My FOMO is real. I am greeted by a security guard who tells me to fuck off. I told him I paid a dick-load for these tickets and am most certainly getting back in. He tells me if I’ve got a problem he’ll call over the police. He could clearly take me and I feel he should’ve backed himself. I’m not drunk and genuinely want to suck the last bit of atmosphere out, but this pawn is moving neither backwards, nor sideways. I try to use their ridiculous bureaucracy against them by claiming that there is no sign indicating the outlawing of re-entry. He’s not interested so I go in the gate next to him and take this doos out en passant (Google it).
These guys’ commitment to their fans is pretty unreal. The BlitzBokke played in a tournament in France the weekend before and had now just lost a final. But Kankowski, Hougaard, Dry, Africa walk around the perimeter of the field to take selfies and hold babies. These guys are rock stars to the bittereinders that consist mainly of Fijians by now, with some South Africans whose kids can’t correctly pronounce “Hougaard”. I catch a few of the athletes and they’re pretty cool about everything. I head home about an hour and a half after I had intended to since the trains were all fucked. The information given to us varies dramatically between the people on the platforms, the people at the gates the guys on the intercom, and the prompts on the sign. We rotate between like 4 platforms and very much fucked around. Whoever said that London trains operate like clockwork was clearly referring to Anthony Burgess’s interpretation of the phrase.
My final day and I head to the centre of town, near Big Ben (or since it’s 2016 Beautiful Ben #AllBensAreBeautiful). Someone has seen a gap in the market and they now try and convince you to buy grouped tickets for the London Eye, the London Dungeon, Madame Tussauds, The Aquarium, and some new Shrek-based adventure. After much contemplation, I decide to cross the Big Smoke well and truly off of my list and hit the London Eye. The wait isn’t too long, although you do stand in a queue adjacent to the more expensive “fast track” queue, so you can spit on them as they walk by. The Eye has huge domes that rotate around like a ferris wheel. Those that know me, know that I don’t exactly do heights very well, and I’m usually the dude grabbing onto the pole in the middle, ever-so-politely asking the fucks rocking the carriage to rather use their energy jumping off.
The Eye is actually pretty cool. The wheel only stops to let in fragile users, so everybody else jumps on while it’s still moving. We stand in this glass elevator with a panoramic view of London and it’s pretty spectacular. There are seats in the middle, and everyone is constantly darting to different parts of the pod as they become available. It is only on occasion of the Eye stopping for the elderly that you feel that free sort of swing in the pod that I shat yourself. The other passengers start to wonder why I’ve gripped the hand rails and started breathing loudly. Besides losing humour and reaction to every little squeak, the ride is a rewarding one, and over pretty soon. London is a massive city, and an interesting mix of new and old.
Having made it back to the horizontal, I then walked past Parliament Square and get a picture with Madiba, since this is an obligation for any South African. I also take one with Jan Smuts, who was important to our country in other ways and in another time. I feel he doesn’t quite get acknowledgement he deserves, but that’s a debate for another time. I walk next to some kind of palace or parliamentary building or whatever to the Churchill War Rooms. Winston Churchill had made sure there was an underground set of rooms where he and his ministers could discuss and react to the progress of World War II and even had a network of bedrooms for safety. These had since been preserved, with some rooms converted into a Churchill museum. The Bulldog was an interesting character and the war rooms are packed with stories and quotes from the man who was so instrumental in winning the war. I am inspired, but at the same time tired, hungry, and thirsty. Just like a war-time Tommy.
I fly back to put on some South African regalia and head to Putney to see South African bands December Streets, Al Bairre, and Shortstraw. I’d seen them all before but I was missing home and this concert came at just the right time. The venue is pretty small, but apparently the same stage where The Who had once played, so this was damn impressive. The acts were great, even when trying some of their new stuff. Granted the crowd was about 90% South African, but these guys had traveled around the world to play music and I suppose that’s the point of making it. I’d long since been a fan of the Streets and they’d not disappointed, sure to headline their own tour soon. Al Bairre, who I had previously thought a bit hipster, were super impressive and converted me to a fan. Shortstraw showed why they were headliners of this tour and even managed to play through the drunk assholes who were at the front ruining it for everyone.
The guys all finished and since it was such a small venue were hanging with us at the bar. It was pretty cool of them to mingle with the peasants. That’s where the evening should have ended, but my FOMO kicked in and ended up at one of the band’s family’s house, having pretended to be mates with some chicks. It was here that we shared stories of music, South Africa, and that I got pretty drunk and ended up teleporting to the road a few hours later. Dammit Rabbit. I’m now cursing myself on the streets of London, attempting to navigate home. I’m becoming more coherent but am pretty sure I had missed my bus home. But, by the work of some kind of guardian angel, I make it to Wimbledon station. I’d walked to my place from this point so many times I could now almost literally do it in my sleep. I also discover that I am an hour and a half early for the bus, which I eventually catch. On the one side, it was pretty cool to party with rock stars, solving the world’s problems into the morning in someone’s kitchen like an old school house party. On the other, I’m getting well over my oblivious drunk exploration. But hey, maybe I inspired a song. The bus trip was an uneasy one. I had not even fully reached hangover yet and had to go through the full cycle for 9 hours on a moving vehicle. I even had to somehow master taking a shit on a bus that was not only moving on the road, but moving in my head.
On a serious note, the main thing London gave me was a bad taste in my mouth for South African ex-pats. Sure, you have every right to practice a culture overseas. But I felt like the London ex-pats just want to run down their country, and then want you to move over there and join their group. Until the Springboks play and then magically the flags are out again. Ex-patriotic indeed. But perhaps this is just the group I met, or the experiences I have. Perhaps I just tend to side with the Scots. I’ll have formed a better opinion at the end of the sabbatical. I wish I could handle drinking as much as I could my thinking. But what kind of stories would that make for?