Chapter 8 — The Hurlingham
I began writing these occasional notes because I woke up one morning to discover that this England wasn’t my mother’s England after all, and that this Britain was neither the Britain my father went to war for, nor the Britain his brother lost his life for.
We arrived in London seventeen years ago. It was January, 2000 — a new year, a new decade, a new century and a new millennium. For Karine and the kids it felt in every possible way like a new beginning. For me it felt like arriving home after an absence of a thousand years.
The grey skies and drizzle we drove through from Heathrow to our flat in Fulham were the grey skies and drizzle of the Natal Midlands. The watercolours on the walls and the bric-a-brac on the mantelpiece of the flat in Fulham were the watercolours and bric-a-brac of my mother’s inheritance that decorated the walls and the mantelpieces of New Dell and Drakesleigh.
Our neighbours had two pheasants hanging by their necks on the fire-escape behind their kitchen, more exotic, perhaps, than the guinea fowls my father used to hang by their feet in the potato shed, but all the more English for that. Jane spoke the way the wives of the Nottingham Road farmers spoke, in that terribly amused hot-potato fashion that makes everything sound, ludicrous, trivial or both. The Colonel, who was writing a book about the Battle of El Alamein, was disappointed to hear that my father had arrived in Egypt too late to see the show.
It was familiar and unfamiliar, like those dreams that superimpose the present on the past, or the past on the present: where the front door of your semi-detached house in West Wimbledon leads out to a garden of cannas so tall and so thickly-planted you can play hide-and-seek in it with adults living and dead.
For a few months I commuted between Fulham and Berkeley Square. At first I was worried that something about my presence accounted for the silence in the crowded carriage. I never ceased being charmed by the pleasant female voice on the train saying, “Alight here for the Oval” every time we stopped at Vauxhall.
I kept being surprised by seeing or hearing things that hadn’t figured in my conception of English life. The posters at the stations and in the Underground, and the headlines of the newspapers being sold in the streets, referred to people and places I’d never heard of, or used cultural nuances that had passed me by, as if they spoke a language I somehow knew but didn’t quite understand.
One in particular stands out in my memory, not only because it was so puzzling, but because it seems in retrospect to have been so prescient. It was a billboard the size of two double-decker buses that loomed for a few weeks over a siding at Clapham Junction. The tiny figure of a man is standing on the vague smudge of a distant beach between a vast grey sky and a vast grey sea. You can just about make out that he’s wearing a dark business suit, and that his chin is lifted in an attitude of sublime introspection. The key to unlocking the significance of this striking tableau is apparently to be found in the seven letters stretched five yards apart along the bottom of the poster:
The first time I saw it through the wet window of the train I thought it was a public service message intended to prevent commuters from suffocating inadvertently in the overcrowded carriages, and I attributed its scale and its boldness to the legendary creativity of London advertising agencies.
The second time I saw it it felt less like a helpful hint and more like a grave admonition, as if it were urging commuters to Waterloo to brace themselves for an imminent apocalypse. I assumed there would be a line of print somewhere on the poster, too small to be visible from the train window, confessing to its real intent — to tease the launch of a film or a book or a cheap flight to the Maldives.
When the train stopped at Clapham Junction the following day, I alighted to take a closer look. I liked alighting. It felt so much more English than getting off. If my South African friends could see me now.
It towered above me. There was no fine print to be seen. And perhaps because I hadn’t had breakfast, or perhaps because I was still adjusting to life at sea level, I was suddenly transfixed by the idea that it had been erected exclusively for my benefit, and that it was exhorting me to open my mind to possibilities hitherto constrained by the narrowness of my South African upbringing — or to risk being drowned in the incomprehensible cultural tsunami that was heading my way. Which is pretty much what happened in the end.
I can see myself standing there now. I’m wearing a knee-length grey overcoat against the biting February wind. And I’m looking up at it the way a cow looks at an aeroplane.
There were others like it, equally spectacular and just as inscrutable. I know now that they would have seemed enigmatic even to people who understood both the cultural nuances and the language. It was before the dot-com bubble burst, and nothing that anyone was saying or selling would make any sense a month after it did.
The London I lived in was very different from the London I visited on several brief business trips in the nineties. Shuttling between Heathrow, Berkeley Square and the St James Hotel had done nothing to alter the image of London fixed in my mind, and in the minds of most white South Africans of my generation, by the cinema commercial that promoted Dunhill King Size cigarettes to adults and children for the period more or less between the invention of Technicolour and the day they decided smoking wasn’t such a good idea.
It showed a sleek black Rolls-Royce arriving at the factitious headquarters of Alfred Dunhill Esquire in the self-same precinct of St James. A doorman in a top hat and tails attends to the elegant egress from the limousine of a woman wearing an ermine coat and one of those wide-brimmed Edwardian hats decorated with a black feather. She is joined by a man in white slacks and a double-breasted navy blue jacket with gold buttons, and together they enter the hallowed interior of glass and chrome. The camera now takes time of observe, as if from their point of view, the marvellous packs of Dunhill King Size neatly displayed on red velvet under the glass of the counter. We get the impression that choosing a particular pack of Dunhill King Size from among these identical packs of Dunhill King Size is a matter requiring some careful deliberation.
We are still trying to figure out what sort of criteria they will use to make this troublesome decision when our attention is thrust forward to a scene depicting its happy resolution. In the sunlit exterior between the gleaming Rolls-Royce and the shopfront of Alfred Dunhill Esquire, the man leans forward to light the woman’s carefully chosen Dunhill King Size cigarette with a gold-plated Dunhill cigarette lighter. As she sucks in and savours that first satisfying toke of Alfred’s finest, the intimacy of the looks exchanged between them suggests other less public intimacies to come.
The whole of London’s history came alive to us in those sixty illuminating seconds; the whole of London society was revealed to us in the subtlety of its understatement and the delicacy of its manners; and we saw in that sunlit patch of St James the whole of London’s width and breadth and splendour. But it wasn’t for its fabulous production values or for the brilliance of its script that it endured in our imaginations as the encapsulation of all that London had to offer. It was that opening title, the Samuel Johnson aphorism voiced over in properly languid and properly supercilious English, ingrained so deeply in the national consciousness that you can’t mention the word London to a white South African of my vintage without hearing it played back to you: “Win uh mehn us tarred uf Lundin, he us tarred ov laaf.”
I had first visited London in the summer of 1974. Debby’s husband was an agricultural attaché at the South African Embassy, and I stayed for several days with the two of them in their neat little house in Southfields. They took me to Trafalgar Square. I remember us picnicking in the sunshine on a patch of Wimbledon Common not far from The Crooked Billet. I remember having my first ploughman’s lunch. But when I try to recall the other impressions of London I might have accumulated on that visit, I can’t see beyond the fascinating images and sounds that emanated from the screen of Glyn’s television.
Like a widespread belief in witches persisting into the late 18th century, it’s an extraordinary historical fact that South Africa was the only country in the world that didn’t have television in 1974. Togo had television in 1974. Bhutan had television in 1974. Australia had television in 1974.
In response to a public clamour for television in the late 1950’s, Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd compared it to atomic bombs and poison gas. “They are modern things,” he said, “but that does not mean they are desirable. The government has to watch for any dangers to the people, both spiritual and physical.”
His Minister for Posts and Telegraphs, Dr Albert Hertzog, went further. Denouncing it as “a miniature bioscope” over which parents would have no control, he called television the “devil’s own box for disseminating communism and immorality”, and warned that, “South Africa would have to import films showing race mixing; and advertising would make Africans dissatisfied with their lot.”
So I sat and watched Glyn’s television as long as I could keep my eyes open. I waited anxiously and a little furtively for the immorality that Hertzog had promised. I steeled myself against the assault on my spiritual and physical being that would surely come. I watched and wondered whether I would have the intelligence to recognise, and the moral courage to resist, the subtle seductions of socialism that surely lurked beneath the glossy cheerfulness of Top of the Pops.
The attractions of London were no match for the lure of the miniature bioscope, so I would have to wait it until we settled here, 26 years later, for Dunhill’s magic spell to be broken.
There were more people, and more types and colours of people, than I remembered. It was more cosmopolitan, and apparently more classless. London seemed simultaneously bigger and smaller — bigger because it stretched out far beyond the last stop on the Northern Line, and smaller because it was impossible to overtake slow cars on Cromwell Road or slow people on the sidewalks of the King’s Road.
The money looked odd. The pound coins felt outlandishly heavy in my pocket. People said “off” instead of “orf”, and “often” instead of “offen”. When people said they worked “in the city” I thought they meant in London. I didn’t know what a Dalek was.
I loved the BBC. I loved the thoroughly decent, tolerant, good-natured, fair-minded, well-meaning tone of it. I loved not having the advertising I made in Berkeley Square shouted back at me in the middle of the news or David Attenborough.
When April arrived, I understood what Robert Browning meant.
The miracle that is the NHS gave us hope for humankind.
It was an immense relief not having to care about the politics. Several years elapsed before we were able to tell the difference between the policies of Labour and the policies of the Conservatives. It seemed to come down to Grammar Schools, whatever they were.
And we drew immense comfort from news headlines about commuter trains being inexcusably delayed by leaves on a railway line, or about the disgraceful backlog of people waiting for knee operations.
But for every one unfamiliar thing there were a hundred I recognised from Mary Poppins or My Fair Lady, from Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Oliver Twist and Bleak House, from Wordsworth and Wilkie Collins, and from the Norman Wisdom and Carry On films that came to Maclin’s Café in Mooi River where a Masonite barrier divided the back rows reserved for whites from the front rows reserved for Indians; the same cinema in which I had first been exposed to the pleasures of Dunhill.
The black cabs circling Trafalgar Square, the great bridges over the Thames, the grand old hotels in Park Lane, the inscrutable facades of the Mayfair mansions, the frozen Serpentine, the black umbrellas bobbing on the pavements of Piccadilly and Regent Street — all of this traffic and tradition was wonderfully familiar. And in the white faces of the cabbies and the helmeted constables, and in the faces of the bankers streaming to and from the City, and in the faces of the pretty things of Knightsbridge, I saw glimpses of the faces of my classmates at Merchiston and Estcourt, like the faint traces of my lineage I could recognise in sepia photographs of my parents as children, and their parents as children.
Two things about the English occurred to me while we were living in that flat in Fulham and searching London for more spacious accommodation. The first was that the mystery of why so many young men and women left these safe shores to take their chances among unpredictable people in volatile climates on the other side of capricious seas could be explained definitively by English domestic architecture.
The second was less of a revelation than an inkling, the pale shoot of an insight that has been germinating ever since, and the fully blossomed consequences of which I’ve only recently begun to appreciate.
The flat overlooked the tennis courts of the Hurlingham Club. Shredded bits of sleet were swirling in a strong breeze coming off the Thames. We were watching them in the hope they would turn into those big, gentle snowflakes promised by the Christmas cards, and they’d settle into those soft, snowy blankets on which the kids would make a snowman with two lumps of coal and a carrot for a face, and a little Robin Redbreast would settle on an artfully placed twig in the right hand top corner of the picture, and for one or two blessed hours we wouldn’t have to fear for safety of the bric-a-brac on the mantelpiece.
Two middle-aged couples, neatly dressed in white shirts, skirts and shorts, emerged from an apartment below, rackets at the ready. With military efficiency they swept the court, adjusted the net, tightened the laces of their brilliant white tennis shoes, and launched themselves into what looked like a dreadfully serious set of mixed doubles.
Karine said, “Only the British.”
Her remark was nicely timed and perfectly apposite. I’m sure I smiled. What we were witnessing, as the shredded snow swirled in gusts and eddies of increasing ferocity, and the players played on with grimly growing intensity, was the very essence of Britishness as I understood it then.
It seemed quaint and charming that the people of England, as exemplified by this foursome, fluctuated between being English and being British along with the fluctuations of the weather. When the days were fine and sunny they seemed happy to be English. The spring daffodils were English. The summer roses were English. They had English teas with English scones in English gardens as long as the English sun was shining.
But when the English rain turned into storms, and English streams swelled and flooded their English gardens, they put on their wellies and donned their raincoats and became resolutely British.
Which explained, to the extent I gave it any thought at all, why my mother seemed to me to be English while my father seemed to be British: because he was the one who had to put on his boots and load up the .303 rifle to investigate the strange howls emanating from the wattle forest in the middle of the night; and she was the one who tended the sunny garden of hollyhocks and snowdrops and red hot pokers.
It seemed quaint too, and harmless enough, that the English could choose from any number of names to refer to their nation of birth. And it seemed again to depend entirely on the weather, chiefly political in this case, if they chose to say they were from England, from Britain, from the British Isles, from Great Britain or from the United Kingdom, the way you or I would choose which socks to put on in the morning.
I thought it spoke to the richly interwoven layers of the country’s majestic tapestry of history, as if not knowing or caring that the official name of your country was the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland set you culturally apart from, and ineffably superior to, people who had to confess they were from ordinary countries with ordinary names, like Sweden or Poland or Nigeria.
So we found ourselves a grand old house at the lower end of the estate that once belonged to the family of John Galsworthy, and we sent our daughters to a primary school in the grand old mansion that once belonged to John Galsworthy, and we sent our son to a primary school next door in another grand old mansion that once belonged to John Galsworthy, because hardly anything could be more English than that. And I persuaded them to play cricket, and I coached them all summer long in the hope they would make their way through the Surrey U-13s and the Surrey U-15s and the Surrey U-17s to play eventually for the county proper, because my Great Uncle Jim once played for Surrey, and nothing could be more English than that. And because there wasn’t a war I could sign up for in good conscience, and because there weren’t any convenient mountains to climb or rivers to cross while wearing a pith helmet, I took to wearing shorts in May because I couldn’t think of anything more British than that.
As the years went by and the kids lost all but the occasional vestigial hint of their South African-Mexican-American accents, my obsession with my Englishness became a family joke, and a tiresome one too. They couldn’t care less whether they were English or Polish or German or Silesian or Mexican or South African, all of which they were, in one respect or another. They had their British passports, Europe was a train journey away, and the world was at their feet. They thought I was hankering after something that simply didn’t matter in the global society they now inhabited, that Englishness was a distinction that had long since lost its worth and meaning in the new millennium’s borderless community of values; or perhaps worse — that Englishness was the relic of a narrow and outdated patriotism, and that clinging to it in the way I did was to privilege my putatively English cultural legacy over the hotch-potch that was theirs.
I recognised the flaws in it. I saw how little it took for it to slide into the hooliganism of English nationalism or to metastasize into the overt racism of British nationalism. But I clung to it nevertheless because I conflated old-fashioned English tolerance with an openness to change, and old-fashioned British grit with a determination to make the world a fairer place.
I should have known better. Our children are older than us in evolutionary terms. They are the newer, sleeker, fitter models of the human being, and a generation wiser.