Marvin is unhappy

Marvin Meintjies has been posted to London for a couple of years. Not in the stamp and envelope sense, I don’t think – more that his boss sent him away to do some journalist stuff in the UK for a while.
A couple of months into his new job, he’s sent home a missive detailing his travails, which Business Day has published and with which I have a few issues.

But first, a few disclaimers before we begin, lest I get accused of rampant hypocrisy, xenophobia or comparing apples with other fruit, bearing an uncanny resemblance to… er… apples.

  • I’ve never lived in London, but I have studied there, partied there and visited there about a billion, billion times. Ish.
  • I’m not even a huge fan of the place – it’s just too crowded and impersonal for me to want to actually stay there.
  • Like Marvin, I’m also an expat; a migrant worker. I too have left the comfort zone of my homeland and ventured some 6000 miles from… well… the UK.
  • I’m happy here. Cape Town is my home. It’s where I live my daily life, it’s where I have chosen to raise my family. I like it here, even though it’s not perfect, because, where is?
  • I find myself regularly having to defend my adopted homeland against the misconceptions, wild rumours and exceptionalism regularly and unfairly meted out by all and sundry.

It’s clear to me – perceptive individual that I am – that Marvin is not entirely content with his first few weeks in London. And that’s fine. Torn from the metaphorical bosom of his beloved South Africa, and thrust beneath the wintery, grey skies of February in the Big Smoke, it’s clear to see that most people would struggle with the immediate cultural and meteorological changes to which they were subjected.
People react in different way to this shock treatment. Adapt or die, as the old saying goes. Or, in Marvin’s case, adapt, die or whine and slag everything off, conveniently forgetting that people many other places, not least here, face equally testing conditions every day.
And that’s my issue. I’m not saying London’s great, I’m just saying that it’s not as disproportionately shit as Marvin makes out. And since his move (literally) mirrors mine, I’m going to compare his problems with the ones I faced when I moved out here and a few of them that we all still face in SA – not, I repeat, because I think London is great and SA isn’t – just because I think he’s singling out Laarden Taarn for a good deal of unjust criticism.

I shall begin those comparisons, now:

…then onto the removal companies. After which you will get rid of half your possessions to shave down the eye-watering quotes.

Of course, I never faced this. It’s only if you’re going to live in London that this becomes an issue. All I had to do to get my stuff 10,000km to my new home was use a series of very accurate and powerful throws.

A newish hurdle is that South Africans now require a TB certificate and must go for an English competency test.

Awkward truth time. Given the horrendous levels of TB in South Africa (something I’m still trying to remedy), I actually think that this is probably fair enough. However, what you might not know is that in order to move from the UK to Cape Town, I also had to provide a medically-reviewed copy of a chest x-ray, proving that I wan’t bringing any more TB into South Africa. For real!
I didn’t, however, face any competency tests in eny off the elleven officiall langwidges.

You will need bank statements for three months, and must prove you have property and investments and/or savings, show that you will be gainfully employed by your South African company, and will not become a burden on the British taxpayer or take a job from a British citizen.

Yes, yes, yes. I had to do all of this as well. In fact, I didn’t even have a job when I came here, which made things even more difficult. You can’t get a work permit in SA without a job offer and you can’t get a job offer without a work permit. And either way, you have to deal with Home Affairs. A lot.

Samuel Johnson once said: “Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.”
Which is possibly true as, on average, one person a week decides they really are tired of life in London. So they throw themselves before an oncoming train in the underground.

I have never knowingly made fun of the suicide rate in South Africa to make a witty point.

You will feel queasier still when you find out that the bodies are stored in a broom cupboard at the station, until collected by the coroner.

This was an allegation from a channel 4 documentary 2 years ago. You’ll surely feel much less queasy when you learn that all public transport interchanges now leave bodies in the full view of the traveling public until they are collected by the coroner. (This only while they are building a morgue at each station).

Forget the nonsense about how “the tube” is the great equaliser of British society.
A young estate agent admitted she walks for 50 minutes to work in central London every morning rather than board the overcrowded, overheated, germ-infested tube.

So, a professional woman chooses the decidedly working-class method of walking instead of using public transport and this isn’t indicative of the Underground being a “great equaliser of British society”? I’m not sure I understand.
But then, I’m not sure how you can honestly slate public transport having presumably experienced the distinctly ramshackle efforts here. Yes, things are improving, but MyCiti and Gautrain aside, the system is mostly held together with duct tape and has a tyre iron as a steering wheel.

Marvin then brings in

Lyndsey Duff, a wonderful South African living in London


…had this to say when quizzed about the tube: “The underground presents myriad opportunities to become infected by one of the many tummy bugs/head colds/flesh-eating viruses to which South Africans simply aren’t immune. I spent the first four months of my time in London in an antihistamine-induced fog.”

Lyndsey – as we find out later in the article – apparently hates London, which begs the question, what the actual **** is she doing there? If it’s really so shit, come home! Where it’s unequivocally lovely. Stop putting yourself through such daily torment. Won’t someone – please – think of the children?
Either way, whatever her reasons for being there, they probably don’t include studying any sort of science, because then she would know that antihistamines will have absolutely no effect on the germs she picked up on the Tube.
It is, however, a little known fact that London is the only place on the planet where there are germs. There are absolutely no germs anywhere else. Anywhere.

Pack a lot of Corenza C. It’s not stocked in British pharmacies and the stuff is traded like heroin on the black market in the South African community over here.

Yes. There are different brands of medication on sale in London. There needs to be, because it’s the only place in the world with germs.
Incidentally, I can’t buy the (excellent) UK product Henderson’s Relish in Cape Town.
That’s because the UK and South Africa are different places.

House price inflation is staggering. Property shot up 18% over the year… more than double the average house price in the rest of the UK.

Staggering, indeed. Compare that with prices in Ekurhuleni, which have only risen by a distinctly unstaggering 13% in the last 12 months (the difference between “unstaggering” and “staggering” lying conveniently at somewhere around 15%, when referring to house price inflation).

A two-bed, two-bath flat in a decent part of central London will set you back about £2,600 a month, minimum.
You have to lower your expectations and move a little further from central London. Which is why areas like Clapham and South Wimbledon are Saffer central.

This was an issue for me as well. When I got here, I wanted to move into a two-bed, two-bath flat in a decent part of central Camps Bay, but that also proved really expensive. Previously, I have also had to forgo my dreams of a penthouse in Manhattan, a compact and bijou log cabin in the mountains above Whistler and a bachelor pad in Monaco for much the same reason.

My lovely wife and I did find ourselves a shoebox to settle into and, after Stuttafords finally delivered our boxes, were faced with having to deal with several different companies to sort out electricity, gas and water (the unintended consequences of privatisation).

Because over here, it’s all “Viva Telkom and Eskom! Viva!”, of course.
And then there’s the people. Eish.

Another lesson for South Africans new to London from Ms Duff: “Accept now that it is inevitable that you will be mistaken for either an Australian or a New Zealander. All white ‘colonials’ are considered one and the same.”

Horrible. Nasty. Hateful stereotyping. And all the Bloody Brits are like that, aren’t they?

Although having said that, a 2012 survey found that almost half the people living in central London (nice if you can afford it) were actually foreign nationals anyway. So I guess that means that as a Saffa, you’re almost as likely to be called an Aussie by a Kiwi. Strange, since it’s such a shit place to live.
Oh, and incidentally, in more than 30 years of living in the UK, I have never heard of anyone referring to an Australian, a New Zealander or a South African as a white (or any other colour) ‘colonial’. Ever.

But wait, there’s more:

Don’t think you’re out of the woods if you’re melanin-enriched, like me. Says Duff: “As a black South African, you’re more likely to be lumped into the unhelpful ‘bloody foreigner’ category, because you’re obviously there to steal their jobs and live a lavish life funded by the UK taxpayer.”

And here’s me forgetting that South Africa is a paragon of virtue when it comes to racial and foreign relations.
Yes, only in London will you ever face any sort of racial or xenophobic slur. *poker face*


There’s a serious side to this though. Two years (or however long) away from home, living in a strange and seemingly unfriendly environment, could turn out to be the worst two years of your life. But if you choose look at it another way, realise that London isn’t South Africa or that South Africa isn’t Sheffield, and stop trying to make it be the same place, you could have the most wonderful experiences.
Don’t go over there and fight the system. The system is there because that’s how things work.
Don’t try to make it fit in with you, because that’s not going to happen. Rather try and fit in with it. And you’ll see that suddenly, everything drops into place a whole lot more easily.
This, as with a lot of other things in this post, doesn’t just apply to London. I went through much the same issue when I arrived in Cape Town. But just look at me now, comparing it unfavourably with other European capital cities. [Is this right? – Ed.]

If Marvin can just change his mindset, he might really enjoy London. I’m willing to admit that an improvement in the weather might help too.

If not, he becomes another Lyndsey Duff. “A wonderful South African”, happy to tell you about how bitter, depressed, disillusioned and disheartened she is by her daily existence in London.

But for some reason not quite disconsolate enough to come back to SA.


EDIT: Obviously, I’m in no way suggesting that the “wonderful South African living in London” Lyndsey Duff mentioned in Marvin’s piece is the Lyndsey Duff who is Head of Secretariat at the South African Chamber of Commerce in London. Otherwise it could be ever so awkward.
Given that “she holds an MSc in International Relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science” though, she’d surely have more sense than to make terrible comments about the Brits like that.