back in britain (III)

The only people who gave us a seat at a crowded Costa café in Reading were two men from Lebanon chatting about politics in Arabic. Groups of posh girls slid about the station in denim skirts that just cover flat bottoms, staring at the cleaning lady like she’s scum. Accessorize in Reading station is almost indistinguishable from Accessorize in Johannesburg’s Oliver Tambo airport. BBC Radio Four has a very narrow agenda but the news presenters are damn fine interviewers when you’ve been listening to SAFM for eleven months. Everybody seems to be more sluttish and slaggish, greyer and colder and plumper, than they were when we left a year ago. Small pots of sliced chunks of pineapple cost £2.50 in Marks and Spencers. Berries of the Forest cost nearly £4. Public transport is a great leveller, and teaches patience in unknown ways. British people are frightened of intervening when young men are shouting and drinking Red Bull. Only an equally frightening person is brave enough to confront them. I’m suddenly conscious of my accent and how I am perceived by other British people. I long for foreigners: they have better manners and are more considerate. The UK is full of badly behaved, angry, bored, under-educated young people who wallow in alcohol and can afford to talk on mobile phones for several hours and buy new trackie tops every few weeks. But they’re unemployable. (In South Africa, people who don’t have access to running water are employable.) Nobody smokes. Middleaged women with grey faces are lonely and sad and single. Country Life promotes posh girls in miniskirts who are studying Geography at Edinburgh and teaching in Mexico for their gap year and are already talented artists. Fox-hunting was never banned. Middle-aged men wear pink V-neck jumpers and long dark blue brand new jeans with ready-worn-out hems at the heel of their cowboy boots. Equality through consumption. The Independent newspaper headlines articles about safari holidays ‘Discover the real Africa’ because the big five is still what Africa is. And I saw a woman in a black bikini sunbathing in North Cornwall in 16 degrees of, er, heat. A lot of kids can’t walk because they’re too fat. The internet has changed my perception of being away and coming home.

I was so convinced I loathed South Africa. I’d just forgotten the detail of England and how angry it makes me. I’m not here yet anyway. I’m only watching.