Beyond the Stainless Blue: Out of Africa, into the Rabbit Hole

Beyond the Stainless Blue: Out of Africa, into the Rabbit Hole

Even being the child of British parents is not enough to understand what it is like to live among the English, eat their food and observe their puzzling ways, like rhyming yoghurt with doggett and not eating gem squash.

You come out of the rabbit hole and you’re on the plane. It’s May 2006 and you’ve taken off from Heathrow Terminal Five, headed to Cape Town International. The lights of southern England twinkle below you. Kent passes away into black oblivion as the sea engulfs any light that was. Even the occasional faint lights of ships far below soon disappear into wisps of cloud. You’re going home.

When you awake at dawn, overtired and foggy of mind, the new day reveals not a cloud within a thousand miles. There’s endless warmth and you imagine that the brown earth down there is somewhere in the Karoo. And there, over there, is that one stray little tuft of white cloud that is always somewhere in the Karoo, wherever you are and no matter how hot the day. It’s the cloud of which Olive Schreiner wrote to Havelock Ellis on 20 April 1890, when she was living in the little cottage at Matjiesfontein that James D Logan built for her: “It is one of those glorious and beautiful days on which simply to be alive is cause for blessing and praising God. It is perfect, so still, so still, the motionless Karoo with the sunlight shimmering on it. The stainless blue, with just one cloud floating in it like a ship, one doesn’t know why…”

Schreiner’s imagery accompanies us to Cape Town where we emerge from her stainless blue into the rumbling city with all its complexities and troubles. But it is home, with its sea of memories from decades lived there and its new questions about our future. Where is life taking you now?

I’d had the same thought when queuing at OR Tambo airport in 2002 for the flight to London. I knew where life was taking me, but the question was far deeper. What would happen, how would things pan out. In front of me at the airport, in the queue to board the plane, was a young man who asked me where I was “leaving the country” to live. He was headed to Canada. I went quiet, because not for a second did I think of what we were doing as “leaving the country”, as if we were aggrieved whites who felt the need to escape the status quo. For us it was a simple matter of there being, at the time, no jobs for the likes of me, and I knew it well because I had applied for jobs for most of a year after a late 2001 retrenchment. I felt no resentment; accepted that it was time to redress the criminally skewed South African employment situation. But a fact was a practical fact: I had to have an income, I had to work, so I had to g0 where the work was, and within a fortnight of arriving in the UK I started a new newspaper job. It did, and still does, feel like a miracle.

Sometimes that’s a good place to be. Just making a decision, going somewhere else, because you’ve got life and you find, over much time, that uprooting yourself and taking yourself to a new place adds to the richness of the tapestry. If we’d never decided, on that day in 2002, to move to England, so many memories would not be there, friends would not have been made, journeys would not have been taken. Roast duck and dumplings in Prague, the ferry trip to the Normandy beaches and fresh fish and frites at a café in Honfleur, croque monsieur and steak et frites in Paris for my 50th birthday.

Without having lived among my ancestral people I could not have written about Emily Hobhouse, not properly; even though we lived far from Liskeard in Cornwall where her father had been a pastor, living among the English is not the same as watching English characters in movies. Even being the African child of British parents is not enough to understand, to truly perceive, what it is like to live among the English in their villages and mingle with them in their high streets, to shop in their shops, eat their food and observe their puzzling ways, like rhyming yoghurt with doggett and not eating gem squash.

We’d gone down the rabbit hole into a grey England in September 2002, we’d just missed what Britons laughingly call the summer, so we faced another winter ahead, having left Cape Town at the end of the southern winter. A year of winter, and the second one far colder, but full of delights, especially at Christmas. Buying hot chestnuts from a cart in Chichester’s North Street, just up from the Tudor Cross at the heart of the city. Roasting a prime rib of beef you’d bought from the farmer himself at the Saturday farmers’ market. Buying a pound of vegetables from the other, rougher market on a Saturday, set in a huge parking lot. It could have been straight out of EastEnders, with glottal-stop traders yelling “fresh po’-’ay-’ers, a paaand fer a paaand”, confusing the foreigner even further than necessary. It takes you a minute to register that she’s offering you a pound (1 lb) of potatoes for £1.

I learnt quickly how to secure a bargain from the vegetable traders. You had to wait until the market was busy closing down the day’s trading. That was when to swoop. So, in the early weeks, when we had hardly any money because the company I worked for expected you to work two full months before you received your first salary, I took advantage of the “paand for a paand” of vegetables (the woman I bought them from was a dead ringer for tough-as-boots Shirley off EastEnders). This was an extraordinary offer. You got a black plastic crate packed to the brim with potatoes, onions, carrots, a cauliflower, a cabbage, tomatoes, a bunch of spinach, a cucumber, lettuce, leeks, celery, sometimes broccoli, parsley, beetroot, even a huge swede (like a turnip but much bigger, sweeter, with a gentler flavour and just delicious). For a pound. One pound.

That first two months of no income was a hard pill to swallow at the time but a great bonus when the time came to leave four years later and you found yourself with a double parting salary. Maybe that’s why they do it: to make sure that you leave in a happy mood.

The first time I bought a crate of veggies for £1, being the ingenue that I was, I said thank you very much and made off with the crate. A week later the two customers in front of me also said thank you very much, then held out their own shopping bags for the vendor to put the vegetables into. Then “Shirley” looked at me much like EastEnders’ Shirley eyerolls everyone: “Brought yer own bag this time, ’ave yer?”

I had thrown myself into the food department of Marks & Spencer in my first days there, the days before my wife and daughter joined me (I’d gone ahead for a job interview and to find us a furnished flat). We had friends in Chichester, Dave and Janet Philip (Dave related to but not the David from the publishing company), so I invited them around to the new rented flat for supper on the first Friday night. I went to M&S and spent “only” £45 for sundry little tubs of French patés, cold meats and the like, and set them out on the dinner table. Janet’s eyes opened wide when she saw the spread. “Tony, these things are expensive! You’ve spent way too much, they’re pounds, not rand…” But I learnt that lesson quickly, and it was the next morning that I encountered “Shirley” at the weekly market.

I felt more English than I had ever felt, living there, but I also felt my South Africanness keenly. I felt very much like a foreigner in their midst, despite all of my relatives being British, mother, father, sister, even late brother, and my cousins being as Yorkshire as Yorkshire gets, being the offspring of my dad’s sisters who stayed behind (his brothers had no children). You try to fathom them, just as they struggle to fathom our southern African ways. How Britons think 20℃ is a heatwave. How they can be puzzled at the thought of a braai. Or think it’s a little tin foil box you take to the pebble beach to cook your bangers on, then you sit there with pebbles, not sand, between your toes, yearning for a Karoo braai werf and some lekker tjoppies.

But oh, the pubs, and their grub, whether gastropub or just the random one around the corner. The carvery at the Nags Head with four or five massive joints of meat laid out, the potted grouse at the 17th century pub in Kent you happened upon when rounding a country bend, the pork pies at Melton Mowbray on that drive to Yorkshire, the French market that comes to town shortly before Christmas, with their sundry patés, their Moroccan tagines and their little tins of foie gras, and the posh fare at the Royal Oak in Lavant where you rubbed shoulders with the Aston Martin DB set who’d just come back from the races at Goodwood, and you hoping they wouldn’t notice your little blue second-hand Escort Harrier in the parking lot.

In the dark of winter there’s one thing a Brit longs for, and soon you do too. The fleeting, erratic, unreliable summer, when on any given day you might swear it is still winter. But when an English summer does throw out a warm or even hot day, it is truly splendid. It’s when the night comes that you appreciate it the most. Their daylight saving habit is a fine thing. It means that you’re in daylight, at summer’s peak, until 10 or even later at night. I remember the sun only finally, totally disappearing by 11pm on occasion. And that means long hours at an al fresco table outside a pub or restaurant, amid hanging baskets of summer flowers and a bottle of wine (French or Italian, sir?) on the table.

But it’s also these balmy English summer nights that remind you that you can have much more of that warmth on your cheek and sun in your heart if you jump down that rabbit hole again, board that plane and head back to the south and the great expanse of the Karoo and find that one cloud floating in it like a ship, one doesn’t know why. Back to Cape Town and, ultimately, Cradock, where Schreiner once lived and wrote, and where, on most days, I can spot Olive’s little cloud in the sky beyond my study window, hovering endlessly, as if cast astray, a bemused straggler, having been left behind and wondering where the other clouds went. To England, I suspect. DM/TGIFood


Comments - Please in order to comment.

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted

We would like our readers to start paying for Daily Maverick...

…but we are not going to force you to. Over 10 million users come to us each month for the news. We have not put it behind a paywall because the truth should not be a luxury.

Instead we ask our readers who can afford to contribute, even a small amount each month, to do so.

If you appreciate it and want to see us keep going then please consider contributing whatever you can.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options

Daily Maverick Elections Toolbox

Feeling powerless in politics?

Equip yourself with the tools you need for an informed decision this election. Get the Elections Toolbox with shareable party manifesto guide.