Talk this way

So, here’s the thing. I can speak English. I paid £125 to chat to someone for eight minutes yesterday to prove it. My certificate will soon be on its way.

Proof that I can ‘speak and listen’ in English is a requirement for my settlement visa application process, and passing an exam in central London at an approved exam centre was one way of proving it. I winced at the thought of paying so steeply for such a short test, but having completed it, I now understand why it all cost so much. Walk with me.

With the instruction to arrive no later than 15 minutes before my allotted time at my allotted venue, I arrived a good half-hour early. I announced myself – as instructed – to the concierge at the ground floor reception area and was met with a blank stare. He had no idea, really, where the English exams were taking place but he suggested perhaps the kind people on the third floor might know. He directed me there. I went to the third floor offices, to be told the English exams were in fact going to be held there, but the company hadn’t moved in yet. After kindly phoning the company on my behalf, the receptionist handed the phone to me. I spoke to someone who admitted that the administrative bungle was entirely theirs. He apologised profusely and directed me – with a further thousand apologies – to the correct venue, which was a five-minute walk away.

I found the new venue, and the fun began. I was greeted by Joe (not his real name), a clipboard-carrying gentleman who asked me for my name. He checked my name on the list, crossed it off and directed me to follow him into the nearby waiting room and ‘sit on that chair, please’. I climbed over several people to sit on that particular chair. As soon as I sat down, Susan (not her real name) came over to ask me for my passport and my ‘topic form’. [For the English exam, you have to think of a topic you can talk about for five minutes. Woe betide if you were to arrive at the exam centre without said topic form.]

After making a photocopy of my passport, checking that I had in fact thought of a topic and written it on my form, Susan handed me back my passport along with a few other papers. She instructed me to ‘put the papers down [like this] on the table in front of you when you’re called to the front table’. I nodded. I was tempted to ask if I was allowed to cross my legs while I was sat on that particular chair, but thought that was too risky.

I was then called to sit on another chair, this time at the front table. I sat down and looked at Mary (you know that’s not her real name), the clearly stressed and over-worked admin person, to see if I had put the papers down in the right spot on the table. She took them, so I must have. Mary hauled out a pile of papers from her oversized folder, asked me to check this and sign that and verify the next thing. She then took my passport, opened it at the photo page and held it up at eye level.

“Lift your head and look me straight in the eye, please,” was the instruction. I did so. Mary looked at me and the photo – double checked me and the photo again – and then ticked another thing off her list. She handed me back my passport along with a few other pieces of paper and told me to ‘put these documents [like this] on the table in front of you when you go into the exam room’. She then instructed me to go and sit on ‘that chair’. I obeyed.

A few minutes later, Penelope came along. She had a long dark pony-tail and an officious walk. She greeted me and asked me to ‘walk this way’ down the corridor. I tried, but found her gait quite difficult to mimic. I followed her nonetheless. We got to the end of the corridor and she told me to ‘stand here’, which I did. She then told me that I was to follow her into the exam room, sit down [she didn’t say on which chair] and put my papers down on the table in front of me [like this]. She then told me to sit on ‘that chair’ and wait for her after I’d finished my exam. Again, I promised I would.

I decided to tell each staff member I encountered that I had, in fact, been sent to the wrong place for my exam. Partly because I was annoyed and partly because I thought it might display my ability to take part in spontaneous conversation. It also led to every single person saying ‘sorry’ to me.

I duly followed Penelope into the room, and by now I think I’d perfected her walk. I put my papers down in the right place (I think) and with a flick of her pony-tail, Penny left the room and me to my exam. The examiner introduced himself to me – I have no idea what his name was – took my papers (I guess they must have been in the right place otherwise he might have called me Kevin), and, after clearing and setting his stopwatch, said, “Shall we get on with this? For what it’s worth.”

I said yes, because I thought that was the right answer. No-one told me to say anything else.

What followed was about eight minutes of conversation about the magazine I write for work (the topic I chose), ‘entertainment’ and ‘special occasions’. It was kind of awkward, given that I can speak English and everything, but we both persevered and lived in the moment. I am grateful to the examiner for that, and for telling me about a club that he and his wife belong to where you can get cheap tickets to the theatre. Cheers.

The exam ended rather abruptly, when the examiner I think got tired of talking to me. He said we were finished and I needed to leave. And with a dismissive wave of his hand, he told me to take my papers with me. I left – by now I’d reverted to my own style of walking – and went to sit on the designated chair to wait for Penny. She came by a few minutes later, surprised that I was already finished, and with another person in tow ‘walking this way’. After depositing the next student in the exam room, she emerged with another piece of paper for me and a look of excitement on her face as she told me I had passed with ‘two distinctions’!

After a brief discussion about how quickly I could get my certificate, she put my piece of paper into an envelope, popped in a complimentary pen, and wished me well on my way. So many people, so little time, so many instructions. In an ordinary world, Mary and the examiner could have had this covered, and the exam could have been cheaper. Hey, I got a free pen, I guess.

As I said goodbye, Penny told me to ‘like’ the exam centre on Facebook. This time, I don’t think it was really compulsory.

Sunshine signing off for today!

Loco-commotion

It’s been a weird winter in London. The highest rainfall since records began has added yet another reason why public transport hasn’t been running on time. Any day now, London commuters will be revolting. Well, perhaps even more so than they are right now.

A tube strike earlier last month threw London into chaos for 48 hours. Commuting commotion aside, the sight of the city’s mayor’s bad haircut and the union boss’ embarrassing sunburn, along with their public spat, were enough to send Londoners scuttling up North. Lengthy talks averted a second planned strike, which I fear will happen sometime soon anyway.

I commute by train into central London every week day. My journey, which should take 25 minutes from the edge of Greater London, usually takes at least 40 minutes. I have now heard – I think – every reason under the chilly British sun why the trains run late. My trainline announcer is always polite and apologetic that the ‘Oh. Eight. Oh. Seven.  Service. To. London.’ is running late, and offers an excuse which can range from signal failure to overhead line problems, late running engineering works, planned engineering works, the train behind us has broken down, lightning strikes, tube strikes, trees on the tracks, snow, flooding, a person taken ill, no staff available at the station, the doors won’t close, the train ahead has broken down, the train ahead has been delayed, a person was taken ill, trains are being regulated, the wrong kind of snow has fallen, leaves on the tracks, it’s too hot so the trains have to run slowly, an animal on the track, a trespasser on the track, and, my personal favourite ‘an earlier disruptive passenger’. To that last excuse, I always wonder ‘earlier than whom’?

So, while the train runs slowly into or out of my working day, I’ll often while away the time eavesdropping. Sometimes I’ll read my book but it’s often far more entertaining to listen to what’s going on around me. The other evening I sat near two loud young guys in suits who had had one fizzy drink too many before boarding the train. Not only had the alcohol loosened their tongues and their ties, but it also caused their gelled hair to droop ever so slightly. They seemed not to hear each other so yelled their conversation. After some screamed banter, they decided to compare the quality of sound of their respective earphones and that meant they had to yell even louder.

“Try these noise cancellation earphones!”

“What?”

“These are ****in’ amazin’, bruv. They block out all the noise!”

“Wha’? I can’t hear you cos a’ these noise cancellation earphones.”

Listening to ‘awesome choons’, they then ran through the specs of each set of earphones – seemingly for the benefit of commuters on all eight coaches chugging eastwards. They left the train a few stations before mine, still shouting “Wha’?” at each other after every sentence.

The other evening I got on the train and sat near a tattooed and multiply-pierced young man who was engaged in conversation with anyone who would listen. A young guy and his girlfriend sat opposite him, and he noted the guy’s footwear.

“Nice trainers, bruv. You just been for a run, yeah? No? You look like you just been for a run, wearing them clothes and then them trainers, yeah?”

“I haven’t been for a run, mate. I work in a trainers store.”

“Wha’? You work in a trainers store. I bet them ones was expensive. You there with your daughter, ‘n all.”

“She’s not my daughter, she’s my girlfriend.”

“Yeah right.”

Pause.

“So where do you and your daughter come from, bruv?”

“Windsor.”

“Wha’ – Windsor on Thames?”

“Yes.”

“Yeah? Or as we like to call it these days, Windsor in Thames. Yeah?”

He then proceeded to talk about all the places across London that could conceivably have drowned under the current rainfall and give them the suffix ‘in Thames’. He then looked at the guy to his left and asked, “So where do you live, ‘n all?”

“Chadwell Heath,” he said.

“Chadwell Heath, yeah?”

After thinking for a bit, he said, “Well, you can’t really make no joke about Chadwell Heath, now canya?”

He then looked to me and nodded, “Y’all right, young lady? Yeah?”

I nodded, and passed the baton on to my neighbour who said, “Yeah, I’m all right. And I don’t have no name.”

Mr Chatty-man moved on to the subject of supper.

“Yeah, gonna get me some chicken nuggets with chips and curry sauce. Me, I like me chips like I like me women: spi-cy. I bet you like spicy food, till you can’t feel your lips no more, yeah?” he asked the Asian guy opposite him, who politely begged to differ.

This was a good time to change tack.

“Heard about the guy who bought twelve tubs of Tippex? Big mistake.”

He delved further into his repertoire of jokes before asking his giggling neighbour what the time was, as he realised, “I should’ve taken me antibiotics hours ago.”

When the train pulled into his station, he stood up to leave and said fond goodbyes to anyone who would offer him eye contact. Most of us were cringeing and squirming in our seats, some of us were giggling and all of us were just plain looking elsewhere.

“Heard about the earlier disruptive passenger, bruv?”

“Wha’?”

Sunshine signing off for today!

Days like this

Brighton is incurably cool and quirky. In the matter of half an hour on Tuesday we saw a unicyclist, a banjo-playing busker, a sulking angel, a blue-mohicaned Doc Martens-booted guy taking out the trash from a coffee shop called Lucky beach, and a pug called Gertie. In the weak winter sunlight, against a dramatically beautiful sunset, we soaked in the sea air and the cheery atmosphere that this unique seaside town offers for free. When we saw Van Morrison in concert at the Brighton Dome later that evening, it seemed he had done the same.

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It’s no secret that I adore the musical genius that is Van. I have a list as long as the phone directory of my favourite Van songs and, to be honest, he could sing the phone directory and I’d be clapping and whooping along with the rest of them. Having seen him three times in concert so far, I’ll declare it’s not his stage presence that keeps me buying tickets. But honestly, on Tuesday night at Brighton Dome, Van not only interacted with the audience, but he actually cracked a joke. I kid you not. Let me tell you: an all-singing and slightly-talking Van in action was a sight to behold.

His daughter, Shana Morrison, opened the show with three numbers. Apologising after her first number No more Mrs Nice Girl that she wasn’t going to take up any of our ‘Van time’, she told us she was ‘just  singing while [we] all got seated’. After Ten Thousand Things and Rainy Day, she stepped aside as “Mr Van Morrison!” took to the stage.

In trademark brown fedora, cool shades, a dark grey suit and playing the sax, he walked on to the stage to joyful applause, bringing with him the sounds of Celtic swing. With appreciative shouts of ‘yeah!’ to his lead guitarist, he took us through Close enough for jazz, followed by Higher than the world. As Rough god goes riding’s lyrics faded (Riding on in, riding on in, riding on in, riding on in) so began the first of his interactions. ‘Vanter’, if you will.

“Just like Jesse James. Just like John Wayne, just like Billy the Kid!”

Shana joined in, “Just like Van Morrison!”

Van replied, “No! Just like Clint Eastwood; he just mosies along. He looks extremely bored and he says, ‘Howdy ma’am! Go ahead and have a nice day!’”

Picking up a mouth organ, Van led us through Back on top. As the audience responded to the opening bars of So quiet in here, he said “Thank you” and took us through a cracking version of this hauntingly beautiful number.

As he sat down and strapped on his ukulele for Keep it simple, he told us a story. Deadpan and actively  unsmiling, he said:

“Apparently I’m a comedian. A friend of mine who knows Billy Connolly said Billy Connolly had said ‘Van Morrison is very, very, very funny.’ So this is a platform now.”

The jokes didn’t follow, but the music that did was outstanding: Queen of the slipstream, Keep mediocrity at bay (with Van at the piano), and Benediction, which he introduced by acknowledging it was written by his friend Mose Allison.

Shana joined him for Whenever God shines His light, and then he introduced his friend Chris Farlowe who joined him on stage to ensure we had ‘rhythm and blues’. Together, like two great buddies, they took us through the rocking sounds of Early in the morning/Rock me, in which Van got the audience clapping and he thanked us for that afterwards, Hoochie coochie man and a crazy bluesy Stormy Monday, and Born to sing. Van and Chris had so much fun!

To enthusiastic and appreciative applause, Chris left the stage and Van, at the keyboard, took us through a beautiful alternative version of Have I told you lately (joined ably by Shana), followed by Old black magic and Brown-eyed girl.

A few times through the evening, Van implored us to “give it up for the band”. They were outrageously talented: keyboard/Hammond organ/trumpet player, trombonist, trumpet/sax player, drummer, percussionist, bass guitar/double bass player and lead guitarist. They reacted to Van’s twirling fingers and swinging arms and fashioned and fine-tuned the music to mandatory Van-perfection.

Chris joined him again for Stand by me before a predictably rousing, rocking and crazy loud drum-soloed finale in the form of Gloria. Joking, chirping and ‘vanter’ aside, there was still not going to be an encore. The lights went up and Van left the building.

Brighton had delivered, and I’d put money on it: we weren’t the only ones who’d seriously enjoyed the gig.

Sunshine signing off for today.

Sulking and singing

This evening, I boarded a London bus whose driver was deeply sombre and morose. I thought back to this delightful soul whom we encountered a few years back, and thought I’d share the story with you again:

“I’ve never really thought of a red London bus as a chariot. But that’s exactly what we travelled in yesterday. Our bus driver told us so. Well, actually, he sang it so.

Travelling back from Greenwich to our home yesterday, our bus driver sang “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” at the top of his lungs, with all his heart and to the joy, horror and entertainment of his travelling charges. Some cynical commuters wondered if he was p***ed drunk, some didn’t notice, some smiled coyly and two people alighted earlier than planned.

The self-confessed “drunken bum” next to my niece and me was endlessly entertained. The proud owner of approximately two teeth, he chattered constantly and laughed like a drain. If he could stand up, he’d have been a stand-up comedian. But his seated banter broadened our smiles all the way home, and the driver’s singing warmed my heart.

“He’s quite religious, I think. He’s trying to save you. Not me; I’m just a drunken bum. But he thinks he can save you. I don’t think he can, but that’s what he’s trying to do,” our toothless neighbour offered.

Thank you, Mr Bus Driver, for keeping my joy alive yesterday with your delight-filled noise and for carrying us home in style. Keep singing and may your musical dreams find their chance to break out of that dreary uniform; you never know who may be listening.”

Sunshine signing off for today.

Queue, The Musical

As Great Britain holds its breath in hopeful anticipation that This Year, This Afternoon, a British player will win Wimbledon, I thought I’d share with you my own little experience of Wimbledon.

Having lived in London for almost four years, one thing I’ve been longing to do is go to Wimbledon, or SW19, as it’s affectionately known in London. That changed for me this week.

It’s really difficult to get tickets for Wimbledon if you’re an ordinary punter like I am. As I understand it, the options are few: if you belong to a tennis club, you might be able to get a ticket through the club; if you own a debenture – price tag of around £25k for five years – you have access to events (I would want to own at least one court at Wimbledon too, for that price), or you can enter The Ballot, (Wimbledon loves titles) which I have entered in the past and been Unsuccessful. The final option is to join The Queue.

After watching (live and in person) The Qualifiers at the Bank of England Sports Club in Roehampton the week before Wimbledon, and after seeing some of those qualifiers go on to do incredible things at Wimbledon, I just had to go and see some of it for myself. I took an afternoon off from work, grit my teeth and, after doing some research and gathering some encouragement and tips from colleagues, I travelled to Wimbledon to join The Queue.  You can join The Queue for ground admission tickets either before 7.30am for when the gates open at 10.30am, or you can join in the early afternoon for when people start leaving the grounds after the first few matches. Be prepared for four or five hours of queuing. Just saying.

As the Southwest train pulled into Wimbledon station, the guy standing next to me at the train door asked me if I was going to the tennis. I flung my arms in the air with a dramatic flourish and jazz hands, threw my head back and shouted ‘Yes! Yes! Yes!’ (I might have been doing that only in my mind.) He asked if I wanted to share a cab, so I said ‘Sure’.

As we walked out of the station, he asked which court I had tickets for, as he had Court One tickets. I told him I didn’t have a ticket but was going to chance The Queue. He looked at me a bit askance, and then broke the awkwardness to tell me about all the fabulous tennis he’d ever seen at Wimbledon. Live. Fortunately, green is Wimbledon’s official colour so my undisguised envy was fully on-brand.

We got outside the station to discover a ‘gaartjie’ (they don’t call them that here, but in South Africa each minibus taxi has a ‘gaartjie’ to help him/her fill the taxi – a wingman, if you will) was organising all the taxis heading for Wimbledon and filling each, neatly, with five people. So my new taxi mate turned into four new taxi mates and the ride cost us each a wonderful £2.50. The conversation in the taxi inevitably turned to, ‘So who are you going to see?’ One couple had tickets to CENTRE COURT (capitals my own – CENTRE COURT already – sheesh!)

Another had a grounds admission ticket but was going to meet with parents-in-law to swop their tickets for CENTRE COURT tickets, and then there was my new-found train friend with his Court One tickets. After gushing about how amazing their day of tennis was going to be, and just before anyone got to ask me The Question, my new-found friend said, ‘And this lady doesn’t have a ticket at all, and is taking her chances in The Queue.’ They all looked down their noses at me (the taxi driver didn’t, thankfully, although I don’t think he was listening) and then one of them said, ‘Oh! Do people actually queue?’ I wished I’d got into a taxi with Ordinary People.

My new-found friend broke the awkwardness again with a little conversation about his outfit. He said, ‘I know I’m all summery [he was wearing a straw hat, a cream suit and pale blue shirt – summery? Where I come from, summery would mean a T-shirt and shorts], but I am prepared for all weather,’ and went on to describe the contents of his leather travel bag.

The taxi driver asked us to sort out the money between us, dropped us off near the main gates and we all parted company. I said, ‘Enjoy the tennis!’ They all said, ‘Good luck!’ And so I began my 20-minute walk to join The Queue, prompted by regular reminders of which way ‘Non-ticket holders’ needed to go. The walk felt interminable, and as I got nearer to my destination, I caught glimpses of people already in The Queue. My heart sank a little.

I got to the field where The Queue begins and was handed my Queue Card. It was numbered 09840 and dated Day 7, Monday 1st July.

In the first of my 240 minutes in The Queue, not one single person was behind me. That changed within a few minutes, and then as time progressed, people were envious that my Queue Card was numbered a mere 09840.

The Queue moved in fits and starts. Sometimes we would shuffle forward two steps, sometimes ten. People picnicked, talked, played hand-clapping games, whinged, moaned, checked the tennis results or played games on their phones, argued, drank water, read books, sang and occasionally chatted to strangers. I had seasoned Queuers standing behind me, who were super-friendly and told me what to expect of the afternoon’s line-standing. They also said The Queue wasn’t a bad one.

After about half an hour, we moved through an archway and this sign welcomed and encouraged us.Wimbledon awaits

I also found this sign amusing. As if.

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I joined The Queue just after 1pm and between 3.30pm and 4.30pm, The Queue stood still. Many people went to sit in the sunshine next to The Queue area. The three hooray henrys in front of me, who had whinged, moaned, argued and panicked non-stop since they arrived, went to sit somewhere and never came back. Ever. As 5pm loomed, a steward encouraged us that things would change at 5pm, and invited everyone back into The Queue. He was right – we soon moved forward at a great pace. As we approached the security check area, foreboding signs warned us that ‘No thermos flasks’ were allowed in the hallowed tennis grounds. Ooh. Scary. We went through a security check like you would go through at an airport, walked over a bridge and along a kind of cattle walk towards The Grounds and only then, once we went through all of that, did I get to buy a ticket. I bought a ‘Grounds Only’ ticket for £14, which means you are free to go and watch tennis anywhere apart from the show courts (Centre Court, Court One and Court Two), enjoy the restaurants, shops and picnic areas anywhere. There is a booth that re-sells show court tickets, but you need to queue for those …

I was a bit star-struck. I’ve grown up with tennis. My mother was a brilliant tennis-player and we grew up spending weekends at sports clubs and alongside tennis courts at weird and wonderful places around southern Africa. I’ve grown up watching and loving Wimbledon tennis on television; the men’s final has always fallen on or around my birthday, and has always held a special place in my heart. To be standing in the hallowed grounds of SW19 was at times a little overwhelming for me.

I wandered around a bit lost and spoilt for choice. I found my way to Court 18 and watched this amazingly exciting match:

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The duo who won this five-setter, Dodig and Melo (they beat Mirnyi and Tecau), went right through to the final yesterday where they were halted by the outrageously talented, chest-bumping twins from the US. Fair enough. The match I watched was ridiculously fast and impressive. I couldn’t quite believe I was sitting in the third row on Court 18 watching a match that I would have been glued to watching on TV. When a front-rower was struck on the forehead by a wayward, faster-than-the-speed-of-light return of serve, I do think the cameras moved our way as the umpire asked the gentleman if he was all right. With a bright-red, throbbing bump on his forehead, he graciously waved the umpire away with an embarrassed ‘Yes’.

The view across to the other outer courts, Court One to the left and Centre Court ahead of me, in the early evening light, was just glorious. I still couldn’t quite believe I was there.

View from Court 18

I wasn’t the only one watching.

Bobbies on the Wimbledon beat

I wandered around the grounds and watched a few glimpses of brilliant junior matches, sat on Henman Hill (a large mound of grass behind Court One where you can sit and watch the main matches on a big screen) for a while to watch some of the Berdych v Tomic match, and the start of Djokovic’s annihilation of Tommy Haas. I then found my way to Court 17 and a front row seat to watch a personal favourite player – James Blake – in this mixed doubles match, which he and Vekic went on to lose to Srebotnik and Zimonjic.

Blake in action

A little before 9pm, I left Wimbledon, climbed into a taxi with four other Queuers, and made my way home, exhilarated, exhausted and quietly, magically, entranced by the much written-about atmosphere of SW19. It was everything that I had hoped it would be, and even more beautiful. I will definitely go back.

Today, in 30 degree sunshine, I have no doubt that The Queue will be the longest it’s been in the past fortnight. People have camped overnight to join The Queue, hopeful along with the rest of Britain that Andy Murray will break the 77-year dearth of a British winner in the men’s singles at Wimbledon. The rest of the world will be quietly confident that Novak Djokovic will continue to play unstoppable tennis. Whatever happens, we can be sure of watching an outstandingly brilliant display of tennis in this afternoon’s men’s final. For hardened tennis fans, the long wait in The Queue will definitely be worth it. And the newly-renamed Murray Mound (formerly Henman Hill) will be Heaving.

Sunshine signing off for today!

A shining star from the east end

She warmed up a chilly Southend evening like a golden shimmery ray of sunshine. Her soulful sounds mixed with her charming east London banter made for a fabulous evening out. Thank you, Paloma Faith; we’re big fans.

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The beautiful young red-haired woman from Hackney came on to the stage in theatrical style. Wearing a glittery golden dress and carrying two oversized fans, Paloma opened her show with a surprisingly understated Let your love walk in. Singing alongside her three extraordinarily talented backing singers, with lead guitarist and grand pianist, she drew the song to a quiet close. As she sang Beauty of the end, the stage curtains opened to reveal a dramatic set of palm fronds and mirrored glass, and the rest of her outstanding band, all tuxedoed in black and white: keyboard player/bass guitarist, drummer and keyboard player/percussionist.

The haunting  When you’re gone showcased more of Paloma’s theatrical instincts, each wave of her arms creating another beautiful silhouette. The rousing cover version of Inxs’ Never tear us apart  brought the audience to their feet, and the lead guitarist to his knees. Paloma then greeted the audience with an enthusiastically east end, “Hello Saafend!”

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With a hint of an apology for her Hackney accent, she quickly added, “Saafend, I fink you lot are even worse!”

She then went on to say, “It’s very arty; and then she talks. But you can still be clever and talk like this!”

At this point, she said we ‘clever clogs’ should be cheering her on. She reminded us she’d been nominated for two Brit Awards and then went on to say, “Who would have thought? Not me; coming from Hackney.”

Paloma told us the rules for the evening:  ”Sing along, if you know the words. Otherwise, you might as well be listening to the album at home, and listening in a lonely way.”

The audience needed little encouragement to join in with the fabulous Thirty minute love affair followed by a dazzlingly dance version of Blood, sweat and tears. She then introduced her first album Do you want the truth or something beautiful and then suggested that anyone who’d not bought that album, might want to go and have a cigarette break.

Before starting her first album set, she said she didn’t know how Tina Turner does it, singing Simply the best over and over. “I’ve only been in the game since 2009, and already I’m sick to the teeth of Stone, cold sober!”

With no hint of ennui , she belted out the number to screams and whistles from the packed house. She followed with Do you want the truth or something beautiful? and then introduced her band members as each soloed their way through the delightfully Parisian-sounding Upside down.  As she sang her wildly popular New York she got down off the stage to walk and among her fans in the mosh pit.

Back to the stage and to her second album, Fall to grace, she sat on the grand piano for the sublimely harmonised Just be. As the audience sang along gently with her, she curled up on the piano, before moving on to the appropriate Let me down easy. Streets of glory followed, and then the dramatic Agony, and a demonstration of Paloma’s contemporary dance training. For Freedom she stood on the piano, before inviting the audience to visit her merchandise store (‘even though my mum said it’s probably closed by now, but I’ll promote it anyway’) and avail themselves of ‘Topshop-worthy clobber. You’ll find no sticky transfers – our  T-shirts have the image embedded in the thread’.

Introducing her second last number, she said, “If you don’t know the next song, you’re definitely here as someone’s guest.” A fabulously stirring  Picking up the pieces followed, before she closed the show with a golden confetti shower over Black and blue.

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A final mention of her band members, our leading light closed the show with, “And I’m Paloma Faith” before bowing, blowing a kiss and waving us goodbye. What a great show, and what a sparkling star; Hackney, Paloma’s done you well proud.

Sunshine signing off for today!

Why I’m still grateful for today

A repost from November 2010.

There are so many factors that shape who I am. And who I am constantly becoming. Life, my family, relationships, circumstances, choices, my faith, my personality, decisions, events. Today marks the anniversary of a pivotal event in my life.

November 12 fell on a Friday in 1999. It was a normal working day in Cape Town for me. I was the PR manager for an NGO that trained unemployed people to start their own small businesses. My work took me all over the Peninsula to visit training centres and fledgling enterprises. Trainees learnt business skills to run spaza shops (small retail businesses from their homes), or skills such as sewing, leatherwork, knitting or butchery, to run a business from home. It was rewarding work, and I loved my job.

On this Friday 11 [now 13] years ago, I had an appointment to go and meet up with a new entrepreneur in his home in Guguletu, to hear about his new business. I had been given directions to get there, although road names didn’t feature too strongly: “Turn left at the other school and go down and when you get to that station turn right.” I had a good idea where I needed to go, as I was familiar with the area, and I double-checked with the new entrepreneur’s trainer where I needed to go, and off I went.

I took the main route off the highway, Duinefontein Road, that heads through Manenburg and on towards Guguletu. Manenburg is notorious in the Western Cape for gang activity, and I always drove through the area with due vigilance and caution. As I headed towards Guguletu I couldn’t find any of the landmarks, and it was no longer clear to me where I needed to go. After going backwards and forwards a few times, and nearly running out of road, I chose not to venture into the unknown. I decided to go back to the office to get better directions and reschedule my meeting.

I drove back along Duinefontein Road. Cape Town had recently been hit by a freak tornado, Manenburg being the area most acutely affected by its brief appearance. Many houses had been destroyed, three people had been killed and a number had been left homeless. There were a few makeshift, tented camps where people lived until their homes were rebuilt. One such camp was on the grounds of a school that I drove past.

I looked at the brown tents and felt sad that people had lost their homes. I was also aware that there were hundreds of school children pouring out of the school and across the road. I wondered why they were finishing so early (it was mid-morning), I was concerned that many were crossing the road without checking what traffic was coming and going. It was in the middle of those thoughts that I heard a gunshot. And then a sound I can’t describe – perhaps a thwang – as a bullet hit my windscreen and I was showered with shavings of glass.

The bullet ricocheted off my windscreen without penetrating it. The trademark spiderweb left by the bullet on my windscreen was in line with my head. I thought, “I’ve been shot at. And God’s protected me. Perhaps I should go to the police station.”

I didn’t look to see where the shot had come from, I didn’t stop or slow down or speed up, I just carried on driving and thinking logically what I needed to do next. I knew the police station was just down the road and to the right. As I approached the intersection, I felt it would be unsafe to turn down that road. So I continued on to Guguletu to go to the police station there.

All the while, I felt calm and just kept thinking, “God’s protected me. And I need to report this.”

I turned down the road to go to Guguletu police station, and when I was about to park my car, it suddenly hit me, “I’VE BEEN SHOT AT AND I’M TERRIFIED AND I DON’T KNOW WHAT TO DO OR WHO TO SPEAK TO. AND I’M SO SCARED.” I began to shake and sob and my face and cheeks wobbled beyond control.

I turned my car around, and decided to drive back to my office. By now, my legs were shaking too and I don’t know how I managed to drive, or see through the tears.

I still felt the need to report this to the police, so I went to Mowbray police station, near my office. I cried all over the front desk, I could hardly get the words out, and the kind and patient officer took my statement and gave me a case number. I asked her if she wanted to see my car, and she said no. I felt sad for the state of Cape Town, and that more attention would have been paid to this in a more peaceful world.

I drove quietly back to my office, my colleagues and friends were astounded and open-mouthed and didn’t really know what to say. Then hugs and words of comfort abounded.

As an amusing aside, one of my colleagues told me to drink sugar water.

“It’s good for the shock. My mother’s sister-in-law’s aunty’s nephew took sugar water after a cupboard fell on him, and he’s never had nightmares.”

I was able to chuckle at that, as I called my husband to tell him what had happened. I had stopped crying, but started again when I spoke to him. He came to me right away. And then I went and fetched my boys and went home. My boys were so shocked, but were just glad I was fine. Thank the Lord children don’t agonise over what if – I was there and I was fine. And that’s all that mattered.

It was a strange and scary and surreal experience telling people about what had happened, dealing with my own reaction but wanting to protect everyone else from feeling sad. Or anxious.

My husband, as a trained trauma counsellor, insisted on debriefing me that evening. We sat, cross-legged and facing each other on our bed, as he talked me through what had happened and asked me strategic questions about how I’d felt and what I’d thought. I know, without doubt, that that session was just exactly right. I’ve never had flashbacks, or nightmares, and I honestly haven’t relived that moment with anything but gratitude. My body had its own reaction six months later, when I experienced a series of panic attacks, but they were short-lived and I guess my body needed to vent.

Oh, and I didn’t ever do that interview. I just couldn’t.

In the weekend papers the next day, we read of an off-duty policewoman who was shot at – and injured – in her car in the vicinity of my event. It was attributed to a gang initiation ritual. Perhaps that was the purpose of the bullet that hit my car. I don’t know where it came from, I don’t know if I was caught in cross-fire or if the bullet was meant for me. All I do know, and am forever grateful for, is that the bullet didn’t have my name on it.

Sunshine signing off, with gratitude for today.

George Michael’s back on song

So there he stood, purple-suited and dapper, at the top of a staircase dividing the Symphonica Orchestra in two. Arms outstretched, eyes to the skies, I feel good came belting straight out from his heart. George Michael finished his rousing anthem to renewal, waved goodbye to an adoring audience and left me, and the other 20,000 fans, breathless and screaming for more.

We filled Earl’s Court last night for the final night of George Michael’s Symphonica tour, and we danced, sang and screamed through two and a half hours of pure magic, George style. We waited 45 minutes for the show to start and as soon as we saw the familiar, shiny suited silhouette behind the red curtains, and heard that voice begin to sing Through, all was forgiven. He reminded us, in the most lyrical way, that boy, he can sing.

Looking sharp and sounding fine, he kept us close for the entire show. I read a Huffington Post  review  that described George Michael as a ‘star reborn’. It went on to describe George as a ‘changed man. George Michael has been looking after himself, and it shows.’ I overheard some older ladies at the interval sharing a similar sentiment: “He’s really handsome. I know he’s gay and all, but when he looks at you, it really does something to you. Doesn’t it?”

After an emotional opening number, he got us all up on our feet for My baby just cares for me before taking us on a journey to the 80s and 90s with Father Figure and Cowboys and Angels. A fun Star people moved him on to a cover of Rufus Wainwright’s Going to a town, which he sang in tribute to ‘my gay boys’. He dedicated You have been loved to his mother, and ‘for all of you who’ve lost someone since this song was written’.

Wild is the wind got the audience to its feet and him boogying his trademark jive at the front of the stage before he took us to the 1920s with his outrageously fabulous version of Brother, can you spare a dime? I screamed in delight as the song reached its beautiful brass-filled crescendo. On the final note our star left the stage, triumphant.

The short interval over, the purple-suited star returned to the stage with You can’t always get what you want. He introduced his sincere and gentle performance of John and Elvis are dead as a song ‘written by my best friend, David Austin’ before moving on to Sting’s Roxanne. A weird, autotuned rendition of New Order’s True faith followed, about the nature of addiction, which George said he had ‘no clue’ about. He mixed poignant with rousing through my favourite A different corner, Rihanna’s Russian Roulette and the supremely moving Praying for time.

Whether sitting and crooning or striding and jiving, George’s energy and sincerity shine through. His hands move expressively and you believe every word that he sings. When he left the stage after his final number – significantly, I feel good – we screamed and we whistled, we stamped our feet and clapped our hands till he returned, waving to and applauding his appreciative audience.

“London, you’ve made my last night f***ing perfect!”

After introducing his band, and inviting the sublime Symphonica Orchestra to take a bow, George took us on a loud and thrilling journey through Amazing, I’m your man and Freedom. He apologised for making us wait a year [he cancelled his tour last December when he fell seriously ill] and hoped it had been worth the wait. A second emotional departure from the stage left the audience screaming for more. George again obliged with a final, gentle I remember you.

“Thank you, London. I love you. See you soon,” he screamed as he left the stage.

We hope so, George. We sure hope so.

Diamonds and dust

Yesterday’s Diamond Jubilee river pageant was an extravagant spectacle to commemorate Queen Elizabeth II’s sixty years on the British throne. In March 1995, on Human Right’s Day in South Africa, the Queen commemorated something similarly historic, with slightly less pomp and ceremony, in a dusty township in South Africa. The occasion was no less grand.

In May 1994, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was sworn in as President of the newly-democratic South Africa. I remember voting in those historic elections and feeling an overwhelming sense of being part of something special. In March 1995, the Queen and Prince Philip paid their first official visit to the newly-free country.

Photo courtesy of mirror.co.uk

Queen Elizabeth II with South African President Nelson Mandela on an official visit to the newly-democratic country in March 1995

At that time, I worked for a non-government organisation that received funding from the British government. Ours was selected as one of two beneficiary organisations in Cape Town that would receive a royal visit.

Planning began in earnest about four months ahead of the visit. The Queen’s time was limited, so we two beneficiaries set up a ‘visit site’ at the other organisation’s premises in Khayelitsha. Their premises proved bigger and more adaptable for the visit than our premises, which were mostly in church halls and community centres.

Khayelitsha is an informal township on the Cape Flats in Cape Town, South Africa. The Xhosa name means ‘new home’ and it is reputed to be the biggest and fastest growing township in the country. Our organisation worked in that community, among other similar communities, to train unemployed people to start their own small businesses.

Being the project manager for the visit, I met three or four times with the royal team of Private Secretary to the Queen, press and police secretaries, as they made regular scoping trips to the country. We faxed letters to each other regularly. Information was paramount, planning was detailed, timing was precise. We learnt that when the Queen drives through residential streets lined with people, she drives at 4mph. She always gets out of her car on the right hand side. She needed verified information about each person she would meet and those people got information about meeting the Queen.

The day dawned: Tuesday 21 March 1995. Human Rights Day in South Africa. We all travelled together to the Khayelitsha venue to get ready for the visit. Everyone was dressed to the nines, ready with their own story to tell the Queen. We were excited; animated. The royal entourage arrived on the dot of their expected time and began to make their way through the itinerary we so painstakingly put together.

I remember seeing the Queen up close and personal and thinking she looked radiant. She had soft, smooth skin and shining blue eyes. She took an interest in each person she met, asked beautifully well-briefed questions and graciously listened to each person’s story. Prince Philip broke away from the entourage and typically adopted a more spontaneous approach. We got wonderful images of him, head back and laughing loudly as he chatted to my colleagues. The Queen, gentle and genial, proved photogenic as always.

I don’t think even the most strident of cynics would have criticised that visit to dusty Khayelitsha in 1995. I’m not an ardent royalist myself, but I was glad to be part of a visit that was truly special, relatively and appropriately ordinary and supremely intimate. And most importantly, it took place away from the glare of the media.

For us, months of planning bottlenecked into a ten minute visit that will stay with each one of us always. The weather was never going to disappoint. It was windy that day, and the sun shone as it always does. Not only was it a royal seal of approval for the micro-enterprise development work that our organisation did, but, more broadly, it was one way of welcoming South Africa back into the international community.  No number of boats could have done that quite as perfectly.

Sunshine signing off for today!

Disco fever at the London Sevens

Record crowds of more than 100,000 over two days. Sixteen teams from around the world. Two series’ cup finals. Two streakers and far too many men wearing floral sundresses. It could only be the 2012 London Sevens rugby series at Twickenham.

Twickenham in the sunshine

We were there last weekend to witness it all. Nestled in the north stand in weak sunshine on a chilly May weekend, it was difficult at first to know where to focus our attention. The rugby was fantastic, but the spectacle that is the London Sevens was hard to resist. Every series has a colourful theme; this year’s was ‘70s disco fever’.

Play that funky music, white boy

I have come to realise that English fans of rugby sevens love to dress up. Most keep to the theme but many seem to keep a fancy-dress outfit at home to suit all occasions. Take the two guys dressed as nuns. They must have thought, “What can we wear for a 70s disco fever theme? I know; our habits. Ace.”

To make it even better, one of the nuns carried a scarecrow with him, who interviewed people as they walked around the stadium on Saturday afternoon. Seventies disco? Bang on.

As we watched the pool games on Saturday, we also saw a team of dancing penguins, a Roman gladiator, two men in kilts, cowboys, doctors, tigers, Eeyores, leprechauns, beachballs, someone wearing a T-shirt that said I heart Will Young and an over-abundance of men dressed in pretty frocks.

Tigers and penguins dance down the aisles

As I said, way too many men in floral sundresses

The rugby continued regardless, with league leaders New Zealand, Fiji, England and Samoa showing their brilliance. Sadly for us, the South African team felt the loss of their injured star players and barely glimmered in front of an unforgiving crowd. I have noticed that English fans support England, the underdog, and any other country that is not Australia or France.

Naturally biased, fans filled the stands each time the England team came on to play, and the players were heralded on to the field by flag-bearing disco dancers. Equally, after each England game, fans poured out of the stadium. In the England v Australia game, the announcers welcomed each of the English players by name and then, almost begrudgingly added, “And Australia”. For each England try, the fans jumped to their feet, swung their forearms up and down to the annoying tune of ‘do-do-do-do’ – looking around as if to say ‘Did you see that? Did you just see that?’

The dying strains of the victory ‘arm shuffle’

When Australia played Portugal, it was clear the home fans would support their European brothers. Australia stood no chance. When one Aussie player broke the line and sprinted for the try line, in the midst booing from around the stadium someone behind us shouted, “No-one likes you!”

Those who kept on-brand with the 70s disco fever theme included the entire cast of Anchorman, complete with a microphone-carrying Ron Burgundy. We saw the Village People everywhere, as well as Kiss, an abundance of large colourful Afro wigs, Saturday Night Fever suits, John McEnroe look-alikes and plenty of headbands, scarves, platform shoes, chest hair, wide lapels and shiny, large-collared shirts.

Mid-afternoon saw a man dressed as a chicken evade security and run an entire lap of the field. When he got to the poles in front of us, he did a forward somersault on the grass before handing himself over to the stadium’s security personnel who tackled him to the ground. Three of them escorted him off the field.

Later in the afternoon, two men broke through security to run along the top of the western stand. One of them was dressed as a banana and the other had taken his kit off entirely. Security personnel closed in on them before running at them and tackling them both to the ground before walking them out of the stadium.

Saturday’s train journey home was epic. We shuffled on to a crowded train in the middle of loud, rowdy and worryingly wobbly fans, including a young woman pushing crisps into her mouth with unfocused concentration. A group of energetic youngsters decided to have a ‘burpy’ competition on the train. They cleared as much space as they could in the standing area and cheered each other on as they dropped to the ground to do press-ups followed by squats and wobbly jumps to their feet.

This soon became difficult, so the competition turned to pole-dancing. Game candidates jumped on to the poles and success was measured according to the number of times they swung around the pole before hitting the ground. Some managed five, others slid roundly to the floor immediately. Three young men dressed as boy scouts strong-armed their way through the crowds to the train’s exits. Banter ensued. The competition organiser told one of them, “You’re the reason I never wanted to be a scout.” The scout retorted with, “Well, with an attitude like that, you’ll never get your pole-dancing badge.”

Sunday’s crowd was subdued. The rugby became serious and hopes of winning cups, shields, bowls and plates were dashed or kept alive. As teams were knocked out, they each did a gracious and well-received lap of honour around the field. Fans clambered for autographs and photographs and the rugby heroes cheerfully obliged. I did notice some players taking off their shorts or socks and handing them over to adoring fans. Seriously.

The sun sank lower in the sky and the play-offs continued in earnest. We had the bonus of watching the final of the Women’s Sevens series between England and Netherlands. It was an excellent match won convincingly by the home side.

The England women’s team warms up ahead of series’ victory

During half-time in one of the last matches, a female streaker broke through security and ran the length of the field. She, too, stopped in front of the poles and did a cartwheel, to the roaring amusement of the crowd. She walked towards the inevitably approaching security personnel and raised her hands, before side-stepping and running away from them. She was hotly pursued and carefully tackled to the ground before being blanketed in a couple of high-visibility jackets and escorted roughly off the field.

Fiji met Samoa in the cup final and provided one of the most outstanding games of rugby I’ve ever witnessed. Two sides of strong, fast and skilful players entertained the crowd with speedy action, numerous tries and a popular win for a world-class Fiji.

The tired crowd left the stadium and headed, with jaded banter, to a less crowded station than the evening before. We stepped over fake sideburns and moustaches abandoned on the road, and walked alongside a 70s-suited punter who sang flatly as he downed his beer, “Down, down, down, down into my belly!” All around us were filthy bell-bottomed trousers, floppy Afro wigs, faded Smurfs, and floral sundresses tucked into trousers. It was clear the London Sevens of 2012 had come to an end.

Sunshine signing off for today!