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.
By the time I got a job in telesales, which I believe was the more traditional Saffa first rung, I could scarcely believe the comfort into which I’d entered. There was a small stand with complimentary instant coffee, which you could frequent twice a day. There was a toilet which was yours to use without subterfuge, or without making a purchase, which had been a major issue while selling fish. There were walls and a roof, there was some basic pay, and there were no wooden doors with glossy enamel paint: just the gentle thwak of a phone being slammed down, before the optimistic pinging of a new number being dialed.
Like everyone in this line of work, I bonded with my colleagues over double-entendres in people’s names, or sometimes just single-entendres (poor Mrs. Tit). We’d take our lunches at McDonald’s, and the telesales veterans would complain about the “data.” Then we’d complain about our boss. This massive telesales operation, called “Love,” was subdivided into little teams, and our team was at the mercy of a petty tyrant. While the rest of the office could wear what they liked, for instance, we were forced into corporate attirea decision made all the more arbitrary by a concession to Casual Fridays. Our tyrant spent most of his time waxing on about a bonus he would receive if we met some enormous quota. This bonus was presented as incentive enough for all of us, implying that he occupied some subjective world in which everyone was on his side, and his life must have been incredibly bewildering as a result.
The elected leader of our pack was a pro teleseller, with a nice cynical air, who smoked rollies and was the natural nemesis to the tyrant: i.e. wry, likeable, and anti-authoritarian. He spent lunches plotting a revenge coup, and we laughed along. But what do you know: he would eventually lead the whole team to quit en masse on the same morning, a great synchronized no-show. All of us needed the moneyI was still aglow at how much my lot had improved since my first sales joband yet we all obeyed. “Love” called all morning, and I ignored its calls and went to the Vue to watch a movie. A few things were dawning on me in the screen’s light: that I now possessed this incredible urban power to disappear; that the people who knew me had no idea where I was, and the people around me had no idea who I was, and wedged between the two ignorances I could almost cease to exist (where existence is understood in its stifling, obligation-ridden sense). It’s a feeling you can’t do without once you’ve known it. To suddenly have yourself in perspective, and everyone else. Their opinions of you meaningless and fleeting and soon forgotten.
I became utterly in thrall to London. I wanted nothing more than to think of myself as legitimate there. To be real. To be a “Londoner,” or at least to be able to say, “I live in London.” I kept dwelling on the vague temporal qualifications each of these identities required. How long till you’re living there, and not just visiting? Is it three months? Six? How long till you’re a “Londoner”? Is it five years? Seven? Or do you have to be from there? I attempted rampant assimilation. Having pointedly refused anything but instant coffee in all my days, I became a filter coffee convert, in the way of my new people. I felt an immense satisfaction and sense of belonging when I could publicly cling to a paper coffee cup.
After a few months, my best friend arrived from Johannesburg. The year before we had declared that we were going to do this together: Big Ben, Beatles, pounds, center-of-everything, discover-the-world. We found our own place: it had bay windows; or, more accurately, it was a bay window. The space probably began life as a reading nook or something, back when there was enough London to go around, but by the time we showed up it had been transformed into a stand-alone studio. Likely it’s been subdivided again since then. We practiced, in these first efforts at running our own home, forgoing every imaginable tenet of domestic hygiene, without incident.
We stayed in the same room, we read the same books out loud to each other, and a few weeks in we managed to find the same job. It was in this new job, at last, that I attained the status of working in “admin.” A status that had long since replaced stardom as my notion of success in the capital. Admin represented not having to sell a damn thing, which felt better than I can begin to describe. All I had to do was to transform handwritten forms into electronic forms in a discipline known hyperbolically as “data capturing.” And of course I occasionally had to switch a few things around, under instruction from the higher ups, where people had made a mistake or two with the boxes they’d checked. Or I sometimes had to quickly fill out a new form where it might’ve slipped someone’s mind to complete it. In fact what we were mainly doing, for the first two months, was just filling out a shitload of forms which had slipped people’s minds. For this task we were given an array of different colored pens, and a weird room in the back of the office. The bosses were very lax about whether we arrived on time, which in turn we didn’t, and on the walk over from the train you could get these bags of chocolate-filled doughnuts for one pound. What I’m sayingif you can picture someone well-slept, scoffing bulk confection, and conjuring new handwritingsis that it was a pleasure to commit what was, in retrospect, almost certainly audit fraud for these people.
When our “special project” came to an end, they osmosed us into the legitimate staff: an incredibly Saffa-heavy brigade. There was an orphan from East London, looking for his birth mother, and a guy from Hartbeespoort Dam escaping his conservative parents. There was a pack of men who had all gone to the same posh high school in Bloemfontein, which had so consumed their identity in the fledgling state of their manhood that they’d collectively had the school mascot tattooed on their torsos. Most likely they aren’t even friends anymore, but we were all friends back then. I thought they were solid okes, and they thought I was quite eccentric on account of a buoyant red velvet hat I was partial to wearing. They were on the pay-back-Oktoberfest version of the working holiday. There was a separate Benoni Saffa packall very young, very Afrikaans, very religious, and very marriedthat was on the save-for-a-down-payment version of the working holiday. They brought little austerity lunches to work, and spent all nights and weekends in, each small restraint in London representing another territorial gain in the Maginot Line between the bank’s ownership of their dream Benoni pad and taking possession themselves.
We’d been hooked up with this coveted admin job through a school friend who was already on year two in London, indicating fundamental success as an individual: transforming her working holiday into a working life. Different people were on a variety of different visa missions. Some South Africans, through various contortions and applications, could hang around long enough to get a British passportwell worth having in case the revolution comes, etcetera. None of these options applied to me, which makes me somewhat hazy on the details, but it all involved demonstrating how some long-lost ancestor of yours was living it up in the U.K., being indisputably of there in a manner so concentrated that it would trickle down all the way through several generations, many thousands of kilometers, a few emphatic declarations of national independence, and still somehow apply to your travel documents. If your grandmother ate shortbread in Suffolk, and you were willing to join the army, then after five years in the U.K. you could get a passport; or if your great-grandfather cut a toenail in York, after seven years of manual labor you’d be in luck, provided you could find the original nail clipping. That sort of thing.
Aside from my Milgram tendencies re white-collar crime, which was a revelation, I learnt another valuable lesson during this phase of my employment. Namely, that the only meritocracy still in operation in these neo-whatever societies concerns how much fun you are at office drinks. That you were any good at your work, or indeed did any of it, was too irrelevant to mention. Your true job security was accomplished on Fridays between 5 and 9 p.m. at the corner pub by proving yourself amusing to the CEO and his deputy. For men this involved downing drinks at a gobsmacking speed, sometimes throwing whole pints into their faces as easily as if their mouths were buckets. I was relieved to have nothing to do with this. For women the main trick was to transform, like quickly disarming a little bomb, the CEO’s inappropriate sexual remarks into harmless banter, thereby permitting him to make nothing but such remarks all evening, and still feel in the end that everyone was having a great time. Here, at last, I excelled. In turn I was blessed with a kind of peculiar undeserved favor that, in another context, would have made me the next Jennifer Lawrence, but for present purposes allowed me to capture data negligently for another eight months and then receive, on departing, a knitted pink hat with a lovely felt lining.
Before its legislative demise, the whole U.K. working holiday sojourn became totally passé. In general, a wake of passé follows me everywhere I go. It might even precede me. If you are tired of London, as they say, you should try some other places: there are plenty. The sensible Saffas started going to Dubai to scratch together their down-payments, and the YOLO Saffas started working on super yachts, and then cycling through Cambodia, or hiking through Mongolia, or moon-walking through Nigeria, or what have you. A whole different set went off, missionaries of tongue, to teach English in the far reaches of everywhere, always allegedly saving a fortune (staying just one more year, one more year) and invariably coming home broke and depressed and thinking of studying again.
With the global options thus multiplying, the prospect of living in a tiny face-brick room on the fringe of a gray city, catching three modes of transport each day in order to work in admin, stopped sounding like the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity it once had, and began sounding like the dullest life on earth. In some respects the whole year resembles a sublime exercise in irony: that my grand adventure should have been eating ready meals from Tesco and working nine to six, which is almost the quintessential version of an adventureless life that you would want to escape from. But within even the dullest life, and perhaps especially those, an abundance of lessons. “Anything can happen,” Houellebecq warns us in Whatever, “especially nothing.” And lo: the thing that happens most often is that you get some middling job and you do it, and you will yourself to fall in love here and there and nothing comes of it. It was in 2004 that I developed my love for bathos.
It is an odd feeling, and partially insincere, ostensibly writing this from on high, at the expense of my former self. And yet that’s not what I want to do. Nor would it explain the many times I’ve wished for one jot of the spirit and fundamental calm I had back then. I wasn’t yet in the habit of writing people off. I didn’t know much and it made me kinder. I wanted to have a few friends, I wanted to scream along to “Livin’ on a Prayer” till ten and be asleep by eleven, and when I was older I wanted to go into advertising or animation.
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.
Anna Hartford is a writer based in Cape Town, South Africa.