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Vol. 6 No. 19 · 18 October 1984

A New Zealander in London

C.K. Stead

Finding the sun pouring in through our London kitchen window K puts a chair in place and settles with a book. She expects the sun to rise to the left where there is plenty of sky. It doesn’t. It goes off to the right and disappears behind trees. When you come from the Southern Hemisphere you’re used to the idea that the seasons are reversed – summer in August, winter at Christmas. You’re prepared for it before you ever cross the Equator. All the literature tells you of it – the seasons as they occur in books rather than in ‘reality’; and our Christmas cards in New Zealand still sometimes show fir trees and snow. But in all the years of coming half-way around the world (I’ve now crossed the Equator 17 times) I don’t remember noticing this peculiar habit of the Northern sun. Because I’m not of a scientific bent it takes some hasty diagrams to convince myself that we haven’t made a mistake. But of course it’s true. If you imagine a stick figure in the Northern Hemisphere looking down the globe towards the sun’s path around the Equator, the sun moving east to west rises at the figure’s left and sets at his right hand. A corresponding figure in the Southern Hemisphere, looking north to the Equator, will see the sun rise from the right and pass over to the left – hence K’s (and my) expectation in our London kitchen.

With our two teenage daughters we have rented the house for five weeks. It belongs to a couple who are taking their holiday abroad. He is a retired civil servant (knighted); she has been a tutor in literature. His study is lined with books on economics and politics; hers with books I am entirely at home with, though in rather better order and condition than mine. The house is on four floors, counting basement flat and attic bedroom. It is compact, more solid, and in most respects better appointed, than our own in New Zealand: but to get in and out of it we have to operate an array of keys, bolts and locking devices, not to mention time-switches to bring light and sound on and off at strategic times when we’re absent. It’s a Victorian house looking out on a small square (more accurately an oval) with an enclosed garden and tall trees. We were told there is a viscount next door, and somewhere not far away a grandson of Winston Churchill. There are also crows, squirrels and a goat, which strike me more immediately and ingratiatingly. The house has its own garden, at the back, and I enjoy watering the beans and tomatoes, picking spinach and herbs and roses, and listening to the pears dropping.

This enclave of affluence sits more or less midway between the Brixton Road and the Clapham Road – hence, I suppose, the locking and timing devices. No doubt there’s much to be said, and not all of it simply wishful, about working-class energies, the fruitful mixing of cultures, the melding of black and white. What strikes the visiting eye is the squalor and the distress.

Flying to London from New Zealand, you spend 24 hours in the air. Even with a break of two days in Los Angeles it takes most of a week before your inner time-switch stops turning you on like a 100-watt light-bulb at two or three in the morning, and plunging you into darkness in mid-sentence over lunch. But it wasn’t the inner time-switch that woke us a few nights after our arrival. It was a scream – or rather, screaming. It went on at length. I’ve never heard anything quite like it. K was out of bed and over to the window almost at once, while I lay staring at the ceiling trying to remember where I was so I could make sense of that terrifying noise. There were shouts and the sounds of a chase. A black youth came into view down in the street, pursued by two white youths. He went up and over the wire fence enclosing the garden in the square, and vanished among the trees. His pursuers circled about the garden, shouting: ‘Come out you black bastard.’ Meanwhile, like most other occupants of the enclave, we were staggering downstairs and out to our front gate. Information passed up and down the street. A young woman had been mugged. She was unhurt, and being comforted. Audibly the police were on the way. Soon there was the sound of their boots as they raced from their squad-cars and vans. I had heard that sound last during the Springbok tour of New Zealand, when it came to represent the Enemy. It’s hard to like the police, or to do without them. We were standing around now, watching their torches flashing among the trees. I admit to hoping the black youth would escape. After ten minutes or so he was caught, not among the trees but in a private garden on the far side of the square. His shouts didn’t last as long as his victim’s and weren’t as blood-curdling, but they were full of fear, and I had no doubt a little instant justice was being meted out.

What does one come to London for? Long ago there was the sense that it was the centre of the world, but it was not ‘reality’. (‘Reality’ was more mundane, less supercharged, less like literature and the News.) That sense passed, partly because the world changed, and partly as London acquired its own mundaneness. Now it is, I suppose, for me, a shameless culture-feast – theatre, music, galleries, but not museums, not architecture, not history. When I was a child I was always bored by museums. Later I was ‘good at’ history, but it was history, I now recognise, as causal narrative, as fiction, even as romance. The events we studied were removed not only in time but in space. There is a cliché about people from the New World (used most often as a way of putting Americans in their place) that we lack a proper historical sense. It may be true. The New Zealand poet Charles Brasch wrote poems looking forward to a time when we, too, would have a landscape littered with ruins. ‘The plains are nameless and the cities cry for meaning,’ he wailed. I think he may have been remembering New Zealand from his rooms in an Oxford college, forgetting that if there were indeed any nameless plains they were nameless only to the European settler – and not for long. As a child I used to play on the slopes of the small volcanic hills with which the Auckland isthmus is dotted – each of them about five hundred feet in height, their slopes visibly terraced by what were once Maori fortifications. It was easy to imagine the far-distant tribal wars that had been fought up and down those slopes. But that was not our own past. Our European past existed only in books, and on the far side of the world. New Zealand men went away and fought in wars there, and came back and seldom talked about it, thus increasing its mystery and its romance. Certainly I feel quite remote from those serious English couples who wander into churches with guide-books, point out architectural features to one another, and murmur dates.

As a day-to-day environment London strikes even the visitor who knows it very well and feels at home in it as a city in which it is incomparably difficult and time-consuming to do even the simplest of tasks – to acquire a travel-card, for example, since one is living in SW9. First you need a photograph. The coin-operated machine at Stockwell tube station is jammed. We are told Brixton is the nearest station with a machine. There we wait with half a dozen others. Slowly it becomes clear that the machine, which shows all the signs of being in good working order, is producing photographs sometimes, not always. Two of the four of us achieve a photograph, though all four pay. Next day I try at Victoria. Again a queue, but this time success. I take the photograph to the ticket-sales counter. There are three queues – two for regular sales, one for travel-cards and red-rovers. The queues are long and move slowly. When I am close to the window the man in the next window closes, directing his queue to join ours. There is a fierce and quite wordless war going on between those who have waited in the travel-card and red-rovers queue, and those who have waited in the other and don’t believe they should be sent all the way back to the tail to wait again. Meanwhile the man who has closed his window is inside the booth still, laughing and chatting with his mates. The wait is long, the tempers short, blood pressure high, though there is a corresponding sense of achievement when you finally get your ticket. It is supposed to save money. It has cost me the price of two photographs and two tube-train journeys in addition to my £4.70. Should I now phone or write to Photo-Me of Walton-on-Thames who are responsible for the machines? Of course not. I would only experience the same frustrations all over again. This is a very tedious recital, but it is truly representative. Every visitor to London has a stock of such stories. And with Thatcherism it has all got worse. With three million unemployed, post-offices, shops, cafeterias, every facility requiring a staff to serve the public seems undermanned. If you think post-office queues are long in the West End, try SW9. Are the poor not supposed to write letters? Like Marie Antoinette urging cake on the masses, the Post Office recommends long-distance phone-calls.

In New Zealand just before I left we got a Labour government into office after three terms (nine years) of National (i.e. conservative) rule. It happened convincingly, because there was complete accord between the moderate Left, represented by the present leadership of the Parliamentary Party (both the new PM and his deputy are lawyers) and the trade unions. Even the Socialist Unity (i.e. Communist) Party supported Labour. That accord, and the fact that it held, owes a lot to the personality and strengths of David Lange: but if the Left had split, as it has split here between socialists and SDP, we would have had yet another term of the execrable Muldoon and the yes-men he gathered around him.

In our SW9 house there is evidence that our landlord and his wife have joined the SDP. Also I notice that among the runs of periodicals they keep in the attic, the New Statesman was discontinued in 1983. It’s easy to see how it happens. In The Real Thing, Tom Stoppard turns some of his best verbal fire against the kind of cant and half-truth to which the Left is prone. The mistake he makes, or the play makes, it seems to me, is confusing the cant and the cause. His playwright hero defends brilliantly and wittily his conviction that to be a writer you need, not a cause, but the skills of a writer. His adversary is permitted to put, but with no comparable eloquence, the counter-statement that to have the skills of a writer and nothing to say is not exactly a position of strength. What comfort will there be for those who attack (as Stoppard’s play does) the failings of the language in which the anti-nuclear argument is put, if that argument proves nevertheless to be correct? Looked at from a long way off – I mean from New Zealand, which is as far as you can go before you start coming back the other way – it still sometimes seems a possibility, remote, but too real to be taken lightly, that the ‘unreality’ of Europe will one day become actual.

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