30 years ago this month my family and I first set foot on British soil for the first time. Before that my only experience of Britain was through what I’d read in books, pictures in National Geographic features and shots of Big Ben or St Pauls in classic films like The Lady Killers. There was also a family photo of an aunt who, travelling through London on her way to Canada, spent some time in Trafalgar Square with the lions and pigeons.
This, in a capsule, embodied what I was expecting from London. At that point I had no idea about other geographical aspects of the UK other than that the Brontë Sisters hailed from Yorkshire, the creator of Sherlock Holmes was Scottish and Jane Austen lived in Bath for a while. They were all the names of places on an atlas and nothing more.
Little did I realise a visit to my mother’s London based sister would end up a lifelong British adventure involving going back to school at the age of 20, painting holidays in Perthshire, a university stint in Salford and then Manchester, culminating in a teaching and writing career in South East London.
But I’m rushing ahead. Let’s start at the very beginning…
Just off the banana boat
The very first thing which struck me as soon as the plane doors swung open was the cold. I stupidly assumed a UK August day would be much the same as a spring day in Johannesburg. As soon as our suitcases came off the conveyor belt we were digging out our thermals and extra cardigans. Thankfully my mother had the foresight to insist we pack these. For me, a Raynoids Syndrome sufferer, it was not a great deal of fun.
After recovering from my introduction to British weather I now had time to marvel at the fact white people cleaned streets here. I stared. How could I not. Then I was totally flummoxed that carrying a reusable shopping bag was an unheard of concept. Not to mention people complained when they had to wait 10 minutes for a bus. My outspoken mother set them right in a loud voice dripping with scorn.
I fell in love with Woolworths and Marks & Spencer with equal passion and to this day mourn the loss of the former. On the streets of London I got hopelessly lost as I’d grown up in a city based around a grid system. Here streets turned and twisted all higgledy piggledly, designed to help you lose your way. My mother navigated by noting which side the moss grew on street lamps. Me, I just followed her. It was easier. However, I instinctively understood the Underground system; so much so my father was convinced I must have been an Underground worker in a previous lifetime. That or a platform dwelling mouse.
But my South African brain, so accustomed to searing sunsets turning to star-spangled nights in the time it took to click your fingers was confused by the seemingly endless daylight of a UK August. To this day I still wonder at it.
Not long into our London visit it became apparent our family plans to use the city as a gateway to Canada were not going to materialise. So here I am 30 years later clutching my British passport. Am I now 100% British? Or is there still a Kleurling lurking beneath my seemingly British exterior? And what have I learnt to value along the way?
Join me during the course of my anniversary month to find out.