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 centre of everything."
Alas, we’d also have London's cost of living, and the world is a sphere without a centre. So as the months wore on the fantasy of international conquer gradually got pared down to a few weekend trips (one on Eurostar, one on Easyjet). Or, also popular: an initial debauched journey to Oktoberfest, care of a credit card, followed by 11 months and 20 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 popularised to describe a certain kind of South African, and I guess what I’m getting at is I had some part in that.
The deal with this visa was that you weren’t allowed to work in a field in which you had a qualification. It made sense to go before you had such inhibiting abilities. I went at 18. By this age, having just completed high school, I’d managed to distinguish myself in absenteeism and drama. Because of these inclinations, when I set off for London it was variously suggested that I check out The Stage newspaper, with its listings for theatrical jobs and casting calls.
I had many encounters brought to me by this publication, but I will mention only three. First: whispering the lines of an erotic novel into an answering machine, as an audition to be a phone-sex operator. (I didn’t get this job, which has left me with a certain self-consciousness about my accent ever since). Second: an interview to be a tequila promo girl in which I was presented with a black leather holster belt and told to demonstrate to three suited PR men in a fluorescently-lit office how I’d force patrons to buy a shot they didn’t want, by pure power of flirtatious insistence. (You weren’t paid, per se, as a tequila promo girl but you earned “commission” by consistently under-pouring). I didn’t get this either. And finally, a small boxy advert; simple front, simple illustration: “Do you want to be a star, and earn a thousand pounds a week?”
I did. But something about this promise of wealth and stardom in the prostitution classifieds which The Stage had quickly revealed itself to be made me want to ask some preliminary questions. I called the number, and was immediately invited for an interview. It was nothing sleazy, the man on the phone assured me: this was for a cooking show.
So in a few days I was sitting opposite star-makers 1 & 2 in a pub in South London where, curiously, they were holding the initial round of interviews. When our chatting was over, and they’d said a bit more about what they were now calling “food presenting,” they told me that I’d been selected for the next round of interviews. Thereafter I was selected for “preliminary training,” which I must’ve excelled at because I was shuffled along to training proper. So distracted was I by the dinky ladder they were setting up—indoctrinated by all my years in the schooling system into wanting only to progress consecutive rounds at the discretion of arbitrary authority figures—that the question of what I was training for remained mysterious.
By the time I realised, some five days later, that the 1000 pounds of weekly stardom (slash cooking show) was in fact “food presenting,” and that the “food presenting” was in fact food sales, and that the food sales was in fact door-to-door sales of large boxes of frozen fish-- well, by the time I realised all this, I’d already known everyone for a week, and they’d put all this effort into training me. It seemed so ungrateful to quit.
And so, at last, I had my first adult job.
“Hello! I’m a fishman!”
“A fishman! Wait, I’ll show you!”
That was our script. The exclamations were mandatory. The reason they advertised in The Stage, the bosses later said, was because they wanted people who could stick to a script, not people who thought they were sales aficionados. “Fishman” isn’t a thing, really, which was the whole trick. Confusion bought time; time sold fish. After our second line, our would-be customer standing dazed in their doorframe, the February weather tearing into their living room, we would run to the bottom of the block where our fishvan was parked, take as many fishboxes as we could carry, and stagger back to the house beneath this load. This little scene was supposed to make the customer feel so guilty about all your effort that they were compelled to let you finish up: shakily opening boxes of frozen fish fillets, crooning over their would-be flavour, and tantalising future served up just beyond the threshold at which you were now so disgracefully stooped.
I had my doubts about this script, but lacking any independent sales acumen I did as I was told. No door-to-door salesman forgets their first knock, and I have not forgotten mine.
“Hello! I’m um fishman?”
A nice-seeming woman with dark curly hair had opened the door.
“Um. Wait I’ll show you?”
My bosses, who were lingering expectantly on the corner, accompanied me to the van and loaded up my arms with fishman produce. I shuffled back to the woman who waited in her doorway still, with her stubborn kindness, which would endure all the way through my first couple of boxes on her welcome mat—repeating the rest of my script about how the fish are frozen upon their last breath via some miracle technology—and past when she told me I should rather come inside because I looked so cold, and then continued on, saint-like, all the way through my subsequent “food demonstration.”
The house turned out to be a digs of sorts—tie-dye cloths displayed on the walls, as if beautiful tapestries—and once I’d done my lame little show, this mysterious blessing of a woman said: “I’ll take some; I’ll have a dinner party.” She bought two boxes: beef wellingtons and king prawns. (Don’t feel alarmed or misled by the sudden inclusion of beef on the offerings. While fish was a mainstay there were experiments with other foodstuffs). Outside my bosses saw me two boxes lighter and slapped each other on the back. “I knew it!’’ Boss 1 said to Boss 2. “I knew it would work!”
I never figured out what “it" was. At the time, in the vanity induced by my sales endorphin rush, I speculated that while I didn’t have the aesthetic makings of a tequila promo girl—those echelons!—I was relatively fetching in the fishman industry. A pale 18-year-old with dyed blonde hair, who had tried her best to get into soft-core sex work and failed. Maybe that was “it.” The brown-haired woman had certainly handled me with the kind of deferential tenderness usually displayed by celebrity ambassadors to whatever-the-cause.
In the years since I have often wondered about that first door. She was so young and I have no idea how she could afford to spend a hundred pounds on beef wellingtons and king prawns just like that. Maybe she had just sold a tech start up? More likely she was stoned. Sometimes I think about her surf and turf dinner party, with all her kind friends gathered around in her tie-dye cavern. For her sake alone, I hope this food was as good as I was saying.
I say “alone” because, naturally, I never sold again. The rest of 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. Doors who would tell me at length what a rip-off it was. Doors who didn’t need this right now. Doors that shut the moment they’d opened. Doors with no space in their freezers, and a few niche doors, ahead of their time, who didn’t even have freezers, and revelled in saying, presumably to anyone who’d listen, “we only eat fresh, seasonal produce.”
It was like so, in a frigid reiteration of frustration, rejection and expulsion, that I saw the most pleasant neighbourhoods of London and their unpleasant residents. I knocked Hampstead and Battersea, I walked Chelsea and Notting Hill. Winter was as cruel as promised, the nights falling at 4:30pm, and myself under-dressed in the manner that only a teenage girl can endure; a loyal disciple of the infinite-regress of low-waisted pants decreed, at the turn of the century, by the Holy Trinity of Spears, Simpson and Aguilera.
In time, the dreadful non-delivery of my initial promise became clear to Bosses 1 and 2, as they gradually realised that whatever “it” was wasn’t working after all. Now instead of being the treasured possessor of “it,” I was the annoying perpetuator of “that.”
“Show us what you’re doing.”
“Hello, I’m a fishman.”
“Not like that.”
“Hello, I’m a fishman.”
“Not that. Listen to me: ‘Hello! I’m a FISHMAN.’ Now say it..”
“Hello! I’m a FISHMAN.”
By the time I realised that with 6 pounds commission per box sold, and no basic wage, I would only be approximating my promised 1000 pounds if I sold over 166 boxes a week, or 33 boxes a day, which would require that in the course of a working day, every 15 minutes someone would have to request this frozen fish in a swift transaction so that the next desperate fish-acquiring soul could have their fifteen minutes thereafter. All queuing up, week after week, into eternity. Well by the time I realised all this I had already been on the street with these fishpeople for a fortnight, and I’d come to like them. We’d drive around in duos, weaving through neighbourhoods, filled with failure and its freedoms. We fishmanned from the afternoon into the night, when people were most likely to be home. Dusk is a romantic time, even in the feeble days of mid-winter. When we got too cold we’d duck into one of those hovels that builders frequent, which serve sugary tea in chipped mugs and plates of beans on toast. Here our digits would stingingly recall themselves, no one would rush us; we could stay as long as we needed at our grimy table, the grimy proprietor elsewhere, and us her grimy clientele.
O London. You shit hole. This was 2004. I preceded hipsterdom which came like an anti-depressant, adjusting the serotonin of the city, making it quaint and finicky; shifting the hegemonic script from Comic Sans to Helvetica. Or if I didn’t precede it, then I didn’t see it. I was elsewhere, where everything smelled like stale Burger King. And on the few occasions when I caught glimpses of that other world, my empathy and imagination just collapsed: it seemed impossible to me that any of those people, in their clean twinkly cafes with their friends and their credit card debt and daddy issues and heritable diseases, could have any problems whatsoever. Not if they could eat a pastry if they felt like it, not when they could decide to only buy “fresh, seasonal produce.” I remember watching Closer during that year and being utterly unable to sympathise with Julia Roberts’ plight. She had this nice linen, and it seemed so absurd that you could have such nice linen and then also believe that you have pain.
I’ve been assured London’s changed limitlessly in the last decade, or maybe that I have, and more and more of my friends and family have moved there: studying impressive degrees, working serious jobs, Instagramming. But I keep resisting going back. It’s partly petulance, and partly the new strict visa regulations for South African visitors. It’s also a way of preserving something I’ve come to cherish. All cities can become somewhat the same when you’re able to contrive an old comfort zone in a new place, but each city is distinct, and distinctly hostile, when you’re on the outside of those zones, staring in. I know nothing about London, and yet sometimes I think it is the only city I have known at all.
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 making a purchase, which had been a major issue while fishmanning. 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 dialled.
“Hi! I’m calling on behalf of Orange, about your mobile phone.” This “on behalf of” was legally necessitated because naturally we had nothing to do with Orange (which was then one of the major mobile networks). But even this semblance of corporate legitimacy was a dream, as opposed to “a-what?-a-fishman.” Everyone knew about Orange! Some were even confused about why you were calling. Confusion bought time; time sold unnecessary mobile contracts to pensioners.
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 McDonalds, and the telesales veterans would complain about the “data,” saying it was all wrong; that we’d never get decent commissions off this miserable 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, we were forced into corporate attire; a 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 an enormous sales quota: this bonus was presented as incentive enough for all of us, implying that he occupied some subjective realm in which everyone was on his side. His life must have been bewildering as a result.
The elected leader of our pack, on the other hand, was a pro teleseller, who was the natural nemesis to the tyrant: i.e. wry, likeable and anti-authoritarian. He spent lunches plotting a revenge coup, and we all laughed along. But lo: he would eventually lead the whole team to quit en masse in a great synchronized no-show. All of us needed the money—I was still aglow at how much my lot had improved since my first sales job—and 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. 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.
There is something important that has been left out: I was 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 til you’re living there, and not just visiting? Is it three months? Six? How long til you’re a “Londoner”? Is it five years? Seven? Or do you have to be from there? I attempted rampant assimilation. Our most primal form of learning is mimicry, and selves are such a vexed work in progress that it’s easy to fall under the old anxiety of influence, even with this most basic and urgent of projects. 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 belonging when I could publicly cling to a paper coffee cup. Later on in life you can become hostile towards depictions of your world, or attempts to define your “type.” But that is only because you have forgotten the strange grief of being pre-type. Of having all of it so exhaustingly undetermined. What the hell am I? What’s going to be my thing? Who are going to be my people?
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, centre-of-everything, discover-the-world. I met her at an over-ground train station; I was waiting on a bench wearing dark glasses, drinking filter coffee, listening to music. “I hardly recognised you!” she said, vouching for my triumphant transformation. From then on we began a constant conversation that I still regard as one of the best talks of my life. 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 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 import 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 fill out a new form where it slipped someone’s mind to complete it. In fact what we were mainly doing, for the first two months, was just filling out a load of forms which had slipped people’s minds. For this task we were given an array of different coloured 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 we could get these bags of chocolate-filled doughnuts for 1 pound. What I’m saying—if you can picture someone well-slept, scoffing bulk confection and conjuring new handwritings—is that it was a pleasure to commit what was, with retrospect, almost certainly audit fraud.
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—where such schools churn out boets, for the most part, instead of toffs—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 pack—all very young, very Afrikaans, very religious and very married—that 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. Lucinda, uniquely, with her tongue-ring and proclaimed interest in saving money and constant odour of Apple Sourz, was torn between the various worlds.
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 passport—well worth having in case the revolution comes, et cetera. None of these options applied to me, which makes me somewhat hazy on the details, but they all involved demonstrating how some long-lost ancestor of yours was living it up in the UK, being indisputably of there in a manner so concentrated that it would trickle down all the way through several generations, many thousands of kilometres, a few emphatic declarations of national independence, and still somehow apply to your travel documents.
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 at the corner pub on Fridays between 5 and 9pm by whether or not you could prove 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 peculiar undeserved favour 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 UK working holiday sojourn became totally passé. In general, a wake of passé follows 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 grey city, catching three modes of transport each way 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 microwave meals from Tesco and working 9 to 6, 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 the thing that happens quite 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” til 10 and be asleep by 11, 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 recognise myself: I look that happy.
A version of this essay was first published in the Winter 2017 Issue of The Threepenny Review, and subsequently in Issue 12 of Prufrock ("Nostalgia").