I’ve started re-reading Clive James‘ second wonderful memoir “Falling Towards England” which recounts ‘our hero’s’ migration from Sydney to London in 1962.
I loved reading all of James’s hilarious, witty and erudite memoirs and it is a real treat to dip back in to the early year’s of one of Australia’s finest literary exports.
It is an endeavour tinged with sadness and nostalgia: sadness because Clive James has a terminal illness and because reading his memoir stirs up so many London memories for me.
I am only 40 or so pages into “Falling Towards England” where we find ‘our hero’ virtually penniless, rejected for numerous writing jobs, ill-prepared for the English winter and frequently surrounded by ill-mannered boorish South Africans, or ‘voortrekkers’ as he calls them who don’t like it when the ‘bleks’ talk back to white policemen on television.
James captures perfectly the harsh Afrikaner accent and the mentality of the neanderthals he was living with at the time:
“That’s what’s rewning Efrika,” said a voice from a winged chintz chair, ‘litting a keffir talk to them like thet.” Another chintz chair agreed. “Thet’s right,” it said. “They mist not be allowed to enswer beck.”
I remember with great clarity on my very first trip to London with my mother, aged 13 in 1987, when there was still an anti-apartheid protest moored permanently outside South Africa house on Trafalgar Square, walking into McDonald’s for the first time (that too a novelty) and hearing the black man in dreads behind the counter ask me what I wanted in a thick cockney English accent. I got the shock of my life.
“The bleks are not supposed to talk like thet,” is probably what raced through my naive South African head at the time.
Beyond that funny re-collection, Clive James’s depiction of flat sharing in the 196os reminded me of my own early years in London (I was there from 2000 to 2004), when I lived above a kebab shop on Brent Road, Hendon.
Of course, I didn’t have to feed money into a heater to generate some warmth as James did and my finances were not quite as dire as his – my first full time salary was £16,000 a year working as a ‘content developer’ for Accountancy Age on Broadwick Street, Soho.
I do though remember the barrenness of my little room with its pigeon-shit encrusted window that overlooked some miserable discount shops, a ‘caf’ where you could get breakfast for a few pounds and my local Tesco, where I witnessed numerous disputes between the staff and local yobbos, attempting their daily ritual of shoplifting bottle’s of Winkleigh’s White Lightning cider.
My landlord was a kindly, jovial Jewish man called Harold Schogger who ran the local bridge club on the floor below our third-floor flat. Coming home from work, I’d have to make my way past a posse of bride club players filling the air with a dense cloud of tobacco smoke (One later had a heart attack and died on the landing).
My first flatmates were as follows:
- Andy and Dave, who both hailed from Rochdale, near Manchester in the North of England. Andy, a chubby, bearded fellow, fond of eating but not washing up and Dave, a quieter, intellectual type with the eyes of kindly badger, whose chief pre-occupation was smoking marijuana on a fairly continuous basis
- Sagey, a lanky, pony-tailed Israeli, who spent large parts of the day and night in his lair (the biggest room in the flat) smoking dope, and shagging women (the moans reverberated through the passage walls). Sagey would sometimes invite me into his darkened den for a smoke and to watch a movie. I would sit on a large poof in the cozy lounge area he had created next to his bed, getting deeply stoned, watching something or other on Sagey’s television.
My evening activities home from work via the Northern Line began with concocting some kind of meal in our narrow little kitchen usually piled up to the ceiling with dirty plates, or grabbing a kebab from the Afghanistani who ran the shop below our flat. Then I would sit with Andy or Dave watching something or other on television (the Frank Skinner show was a favourite) as they passed joint after joint around the pungent room.
I must confess here to mild theft – having asked Dave, for a bit of weed one evening, I discovered that he kept it in a drawer by his bed. Later, when my own stash ran low, I’d help myself to some of his when he’d left work for the day – never too much to arouse suspicion, but enough to get me “nicely toasted”. For this act of treachery, I do apologise to Dave, where-ever he may be these days (probably stoned somewhere).
Thus I spent much of my first two years in London in a weed-induced trance, often finding myself up past midnight flicking through the endless channels of Sky TV. Or else, taking the bus up Finchley Road to visit my friends in a share house in Golders Green.
Over three years, a whole stream of eclectic and eccentric characters came and went from the three bedroom flat above the kebab shop. There was:
- Debbie, curly-haired aspiring singer from Cape Town, who aroused the passions of the local drunks in the nearby pub, when she sang show tunes for them (and who rejected my advances on the living room couch)
- Jacqui, a lovely ‘older’ woman (she was in her 40s to my late-2os) with a high-pitched voice, red-cheeked face, who took up the violin with great passion
- Joe, a googly-eyed school assistant, drug fiend and cyclist, fond of opium-dealing in our living room, whilst quietly building a North London property portfolio
- A good-looking Spanish guy (his name has disappeared from memory) who received phone calls on our landline from Europe at all hours of the night and whom I distinctly remember hating.
- Two Israeli girls, one fond of loud bonking (though not with me), the other…sleeping (she worked the 11pm to 7am shift at John Lewis)
- and many others whom have disappeared in the marijuana haze.
I remember those flat-sharing days in much the same way as Clive James recalls his formative months in London with poignancy, hilarity, shocking embarrasment and a great deal of nostalgia.
There was also plenty of rejection and a fair degree of loneliness too among those years.
I recall being turned down for half a dozen other flat-shares, inviting places with big open plan lounges, people that dressed well and leafy gardens.
I remember those experiences like Clive James wrote them, where each incumbent resident “wants to interview you personally before okaying you for the shortlist, after which the final selection is by written examination”.
In the end, I think I got the room in the shabby flat above the kebab shop because no one else wanted it, but at the time it was a cause for major celebration: London, I had arrived!
The flat is no longer there, given way to some apartment development, but the bridge club has remained.
And the kebab shop, where I paid frequent late night visits drunk or stoned, is still there, serving its greasy fare.