Photograph of Clapham Common by Herry Lawford
From Threepenny Review:
I know nothing about London. I’m often amazed I lived there at all. But in total it was almost a year, on what was then the “working holiday” visa, which granted youths from the Commonwealth temporary work permits. This visa ended abruptly for South Africans in 2008, but at the time I went, four years earlier, it seemed like it would go on forever. And also that we would go on forever — a limitless supply of mostly-whites, eager to work menial jobs in the UK for their magnificent minimum wage.
We’d go to London, from whence we’d “discover the world.” We’d have pounds, and be at “the center of everything”! Alas, we’d also have London’s cost of living. So as the months wore on, the fantasy of international conquest gradually got pared down to a few weekend trips. Or, also popular: an initial debauched journey to Oktoberfest, care of a credit card, followed by eleven months and twenty days of paying it off. We’d live in Zone 3 outward, for the most part, and in between our shifts we’d drink snakebite at the Slug & Lettuce bars, screaming along to Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer.” I think it was during these years that the derogatory term “Saffa” became popularized to describe a certain kind of South African, and I guess what I’m getting at is that I had some part in that.
I spent my first months selling fish door-to-door, a job I acquired after responding to an advert which read: “Do you want to be a star and earn a thousand pounds a week?” I knocked Hampstead and Battersea, I walked Chelsea and Notting Hill. February was as cruel as promised, the nights falling at 4:30 p.m., and myself under-dressed in the manner that only an eighteen-year-old girl can endure. The doors, hundreds upon hundreds, all merge together in my mind. Doors of goddamn vegetarians. Doors of people who hate fish. Doors who would happily take a few portions, but not the enormous box I was forced to sell.
In most photos from the time I am a little bit pink and chubby. My hair is dyed box yellow, with its mousy roots growing out, my clothes are too tight, my pants are too low, and I almost can’t recognize myself: I look that happy.