After 2 weeks in a closed environment in which I was almost always the youngest person in any gathering (and that by quite a long way), I was desperate to spend some time with a few age peers – although obviously that wasn’t the only reason I was so keen to see my friends. So it was with great relief and anticipation that I stepped off the Queen Mary 2 in Southampton.
England was, of course, cold and wet (as is obvious in the movie above) – but the debarking process at the Southampton docks was so slick and trouble-free that it almost made up for the weather. And despite the rain and mist, it was a special day for Cunard too – when the Queen Mary 2 left Southampton later that day, en route to New York, it was joined by the two other ‘queens’ in the Cunard fleet – the Queen Elizabeth and the Queen Victoria. There are some lovely pics here:
My ex-South African friends Michele, Chris and Ruth have all lived (separately) in the UK their entire adult lives. They were among my closest friends in Cape Town in the mid to late 1980s, when we all worked as juniors at various jobs, earning very little money, lived in communes with a range of folk (some odder than others; and sometimes we were the odd ones), and drove jalopies if we were lucky enough to have a car at all (we were often reliant on bicycles or other people with cars). We jolled at the River Club, played pool at The Lounge in Long Street or Stones in Obs, danced at Deviate, smoked zol in the outside roof-garden at The Loft, had late-night Irishes at Café Camissa, and slummed it at the Crow Bar or the George.
We haven’t all been together in 27 years (since my 1988 wedding), and we wouldn’t be on this trip either, as Ruth had to go to America on business, but we grabbed what time was available to us, and I spent Sunday with Ruth and her family at their lovely home in the Hog’s Back in Surrey.
Above: Me and Ruth in 1987 (at our commune in New Church Street, Cape Town)
Below: Me and Ruth in 2015 (in Ruth’s garden in Surrey, UK)
Above: As if I hadn’t been spoilt enough for food on the Queen Mary 2, the Derseys treated me to a full-on English roast Sunday lunch – cooked, a little ironically, by Julien, a Frenchman.
Above: The Derseys at home – Annabel, Ruth and Julien.
Above: Ruth (on piano) and Anni (on violin)
On the Monday, I travelled by rail to Ashford International – and it’s worth a word here about two things: the price of public transport (and everything else) in the UK; and the lack of clear and understandable rail timetables – something that put the Gautrain’s ridiculously opaque ticket-buying system at Johannesburg International airport into perspective.
First, South Africans spending rands are dead in the water in the UK. Not only is the exchange rate risible (it was about 18 to 1 when I was there; I think it’s nearer 20 to 1 today), our actual spending power in the face of the astonishingly high cost of living in the UK is so weak as to be almost nonexistent. So, thank god for my lovely lovely friends, who paid for all my rail travel while I was there, and also, for that matter, for everything else.
As for the rail timetables – Ruth and I asked a few different people how I should go about getting to Ashford International, which seemed to involve several changes. The guy at the ticket counter gave us information that was dead wrong. A helpful commuter who looked online on her phone for us while we waited on the platform got it half-right. And the only reason I actually ended up in the right place was because a train driver, seeing me sitting reading a book on some random platform in the southeast of England, took it into my his head (for reasons I don’t know) to ask me if I was waiting for the Ashford International train. ‘Yes,’ I replied. ‘Well, this is it,’ he said, pointing. ‘You’d better get on right now – I’m about to close the doors.’
Michele had had a more successful rail journey southwards, and was waiting at Ashford International with Chris when I arrived there.
Above: Me and Michele in 1987 (at Lady Anne Barnard’s Garden, Groot Constantia, Cape Town)
Below: Michele and me in 2015 (in Rye, UK)
Above: Chris and me in 1987 (at Algeria campsite, Cedarberg, western Cape)
Below: Chris and me in 2015 (in Dungeness, Kent, UK)
The three of us set off to Chris’s Dungeness home in his trusty little Land Rover, stopping briefly en route to have a look at the small farm where he aims to breed alpacas. (The farm is beautiful and alpacas are gorgeous – what a goodlooking new career Chris is going to have!)
Chris’s house at Dungeness (a headland on the wild coast of Kent, made largely of a shingle beach, and loomed over by a gigantic nuclear power station) is every bit as interesting as the place itself. It looks – like all the other shacks in the area – modest from the outside; inside, it’s a little work of art.
The burnt-out shell of a train carriage, roughly refurbished on the outside and with every necessary modcon inside, is Chris’s kitchen – it’s sited within the ‘bowl’ of the wineglass-shaped house, with the ‘open’ part of the wineglass made up of a huge window facing the sea.
Above: The view of Chris’s house from the lighthouse (his house is second from the right).
Below: The view of the lighthouse from inside Chris’s house (from his bedroom)
It’s such a sad truism that all good things must come to an end, and I wasn’t happy to leave first Chris, as Michele and I set off on our train journey back to London; and then Michele, after we’d negotiated the Tube to St Pancras and I’d found the Heathrow Express. But it was good to see my dad again at Heathrow after a week apart (he’d spent time with his UK family), and I was excited to get home after 3 weeks away.
I loved every second of my trip but it was marvellous beyond words to get back to my kids of all kinds (flesh, fur and feathers), and also to South Africa’s wonderful climate, beautiful wide-open spaces, and lovely people of every colour and culture.
We do indeed have our problems in South Africa but we live in such a gorgeous country, with interesting and largely well-meaning and hardworking people (excluding, obviously, practically everyone at almost every level of the ANC government). For South Africans who aren’t as lucky as I’ve been this year, and get an opportunity to step outside our borders for a while and see what’s happening elsewhere in the world, and also to miss home, let me reassure you: the grass may be greener on the other side, but that’s just because it rains there all the time!