On Sunday, it was eleven years since Matt and I stepped off a plane and became Londoners. It hasn’t been an easy journey, and some years, especially the first few, were really hard, when we were lonely strangers in a very strange and foreign land. This is home now, and I wouldn’t change it for the world. Matt did 11 of his 13 years of education in the UK, and most people who meet him have no idea he was a little South African oke until he was 8. I met my wonderful Tom here in London, and of course our little Ted is a proper Londoner, born and bred. This is a beautiful and astonishing city, now full of familiar places, thousands of memories and wonderful friends, and my reasons for moving here, opportunity and breadth of experience for both me and Matt, still hold.
Nevertheless, I’m still a South African. I cheer for the Bokke and I cry when I hear Vusi Mahlasela sing, and I always will. And I still, like many London-based South Africans, will lose all reason when I visit one of the shops selling hilariously overpriced South African goodies in London. I’ll happily pay two quid for a stale Lunch Bar chocolate bar, or an out-of-date packet of NikNak crisps. You’ll find me weeping in a corner, clutching a can of Sparletta Creme Soda. I never drank the vile stuff when I lived in South Africa, but now it seems like a nostalgic, green, e-number-ridden hymn to my homeland. With bubbles. And then there’s biltong. I’ll shell out more than I would for an ounce of gold for a small greasy bag of dried, raw meat. None of my English friends understand, and they all look rather pale when I try to get them to try it.
But what I miss most about South Africa and South Africans is the language. There are so many words and phrases which simply don’t have an equivalent in English English. I’ve learned to censor my vocabulary to avoid uncomprehending stares and occasional ridicule. For example, South Africans, like Americans, use the words “underpants” and “pants” where the English would say “pants” and “trousers”. As a result, a South African in London will loudly tell the whole office that her pants are dirty – but just the once. Similarly (and non-South African readers, please don’t snigger too much), all South Africans refer to traffic lights as “robots”. It’s unthinking, universal slang and no one pauses to think how… well, small-town hick it makes us sound. Shortly after I moved to London, I went on a road-trip with a film crew to Bradford. Five minutes after we left my house, I told the driver to “turn left at the robot” to get onto the M1. “The what?” he said, and after I’d explained, the teasing began. Three film boys can think of a lot of robot jokes between London and Yorkshire, let me tell you.
When the sun is shining, but it’s still raining, South Africans call it a “monkey’s wedding”. The term apparently originates from a Zulu folktale. I know of no equivalent term for the phenomenon in English. A small pick-up truck, often for personal use, is a “bakkie” and all sneakers, trainer, plimsolls and tennis shoes are covered by the blanket term “tekkies”.
Afrikaans is a wonderfully pungent, onomatopoeic language, and many of South Africa’s best words come from there. Something that is rotten or overripe is “vrot” (pronounced froht”). A coward is a “papbroek”, which translates literally as “soggy pants”. Diarrhoea is accurately called “spuitpoep” (translation: “sprinkler fart”).
And finally, when someone really, really annoys you, (sensitive readers offended by bad language look away now), you may wish to administer a “running poesklap to the head”. Now “poes”, gentle reader, is a colloquial term for a ladygarden, and a klap is a slap. It’s not literal, you’re not going to slap someone IN their ladygarden, the word is merely there for its rudeness and for the wonderfully plosive sound it makes when you say it. In the entire lexicon of English I challenge you to find a phrase that matches the jowl-rattling, lip-flobbering satisfaction of “poesklap”. And the idea of someone taking a run-up to administer this blow to the side of the head… well, it just warms my heart.
How a poesklap is correctly delivered. Image courtesy Mr Robert Joseph.
At the age of 43, thirty-one years after I got my first typewriter, I am learning to type. Let me clarify. I’m learning to touch type, using all my fingers on the correct keys. Yes, here’s my confession. I am a terrible, inaccurate two-finger typist. I have sustained a 20-year career as a writer and written four novels ‘woodpeckering’ (my husband’s word) away at the keyboard with my two forefingers. It’s astonishing that I haven’t worn them down to little stubs.
It dates back to my school days, when at 12, I started to show an interest in writing and got a second-hand typewriter from a family friend. I tapped away at it, but didn't really have a clue what I was doing. I liked the ‘ting!’ when you yanked the carriage return and the faff of replacing the ribbon.
Then I went to secondary school. It was a good all-girls’ school, with a reasonably rigorous academic tradition, and like all schools, had its unwritten snobberies. At age 15, we had to select our six subjects for Matric (roughly equivalent to a Baccalaureate). For me, most of the choices were easy: English, Afrikaans, French, History and Biology. But the last choice was not so clear cut. I was quite academically able, and as far as my parents and teachers were concerned, there was no doubt I was going to take Mathematics. It was useful, I was told, and everybody needs maths. I already knew I wanted a career in the arts, and I hated maths. I was overruled, however, and I struggled with it through the last three years of my school career and scraped a pass. From the day of my last maths exam in 1985 to this day, I have never, ever had a single moment’s use for the stuff I learned. You can shove your pi right up your hypotenuse, as far as I’m concerned. I so, so wish I’d chosen something else, and with hindsight, I wish I’d chosen typing.
It was a potential subject choice, but, in my parents' view, typing was reserved for the less academically minded girls. In those days, computers were a rarity (we had one in the ‘Computer Science’ room. I never touched it in five years at the school). Even businesses didn't routinely have them. If things were going to be typed, they’d be typed by stenographers and secretaries, and that, my parents assumed, was the putative future for the girls in the typing class.
A chap called Ken Olson, who was president of a company called Digital Equipment Corp said in 1977, “There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.” And it’s hilarious how wrong he was. Fast forward ten years, and of course everyone needed to be able to type. Things have advanced so much in 2011 that there are schools in Indiana where handwriting is no longer taught – kids are just taught to type. My 18-year-old types faster than he can speak, and my
two-year-old can already point, click and use the scrolling wheel on a mouse.
Which leaves keyboard dinosaurs like me sadly trailing behind, muttering, swearing and hammering away at the backspace key. So why have I never fixed this gap in my skills before? I think there are two reasons. The first is what I call “The Chest at the Top of the Stairs Syndrome”. Imagine, if you will, that on the landing at the top of your stairs, there’s a wooden chest. Maybe you keep spare bedding in it, or photo albums. Its real purpose, however, is for you to whack your knee on it every time you get up to go to the loo in the dark. You have to do a half-sideways shuffle every time you walk past it, and people are always leaving piles of stuff on it. But the chest stays there for years, irritating you, because it just never occurs to you that you could shift it five feet into the spare room. We all have chests at the top of our stairs, real or metaphysical… a problem that’s actually quite easily solvable, but which we never give the time or thought to fixing. My typing is a bit like that. It annoys me profoundly that my fingers can’t keep up with my brain, but I’ve never done anything about it.
Secondly, to be frank, I thought it was too late. As it says on the corporate writing page of this website, I’ve written more than a million words in my life. I thought my fingers were too used to my old style to learn another way. But then a friend (thanks, Mr Cole) posted on facebook that he’d taught himself with a little free website, so I thought I’d give it a go. And do you know what? I think I might be on my way to pushing that chest into the spare room! I’ve only done a few lessons, and it’s going slowly, but
I can see that my fingers are beginning to get the idea.
I’m not anywhere up to speed yet, so this blog post was typed in the old woodpecker style. So far I can only touch type with eight keys in the middle row, plus e and i. Nevertheless, I’m keen to use my new skills, so if you’re looking for a copywriter who is able to type the words ‘falsified’, ‘dieselise’ and ‘eels’ with style and panache, I may just be your girl!
One monkey, one typewriter, seldom Hamlet.