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Dreams of eating life with a big spoon in London

BOTSALO NTUANE
On a recent private trip to England, BOTSALO NTUANE viewed the sights, heard the sounds and joined his new favourite team Leicester City as they celebrated the most improbable league triumph in football history

The Mighty Have Fallen

My life changed the day I lost elections. I saw it coming. Back in June 2014, four months before the polls  I had a chat with  my missus and told her there is no way  we are winning and she must brace herself for the worst.

I just could not understand that  election. I have been politics my entire post teenage life and throughout  have been able to read the ebb and flow of political  sentiment in the country. But 2014 was just odd. I told everyone around  me to brace themselves for calamity. Calamity  comes in many ways, including flying cattle class.

 

Cattle Class/Thursday

As the years go by, my wanderlust grows.  And so here I am at OR Tambo about to check in to British Airways for departure. For the first time I am travelling cattle class, an ignominy  visited on me by the election outcome. It is such a strange feeling.  For my entire 10 years in Parliament, I travelled  business class on taxpayer-funded jaunts to exotic places like Rio De Janeiro, Geneva, Prague, Brussels, Port Moresby, Tunis and even nearby Kinshasa. In fact, before the 2008 recession we, the peoples’ representatives, flew first class.  What a life we had. The discriminatory thing about economy class  is that  before boarding, the privileged  class  are ushered ahead of everyone. During my first class days, I would swell with pride as I scored one over the business class passengers.  But when we downgraded to business, I felt jealous of those that took my place in the front. As for the plebeians in cattle section, they would stare at us with both envy  and hatred as we prepared ourselves, pampered and fussed over by the flight attendants, to settle in for the long flight. 

Tonight as we  board  for London the shoe is on the other foot. The tyranny of class manifests itself on long haul flights. And true to custom, they start by inviting business and first  class to come forward. Then the rest of us follow. And as  I am  herded to economy class, I glare at the pampered  as they  snuggle  in. This time there is no taxpayer to pay my fare to England, and I find myself squashed in a four-seat row.  The thing about  economy is that everyone is miserable. I never knew the feeling was so intense. We are sad little souls because life has dealt us a bad card  due to the fact that we are unable to fly anything better  on our own meagre resources.

 

On Board

Stuck right in the middle, I decide the best way to survive the 11-hour trip is to knock myself out with two sleeping tablets. I have no wish to watch movies on that tiny screen attached to the seat in front. In my past life when the taxpayer took good care of me, I was accustomed to the big foldable screens in the front part of the aircraft. As for the dreary dinner I pass. Why would I eat from the disposable containers with the toy plastic cutlery?  What are they suggesting; that if we are given a proper knife and fork we cannot be trusted not to stab each other? Neither  do they  provide  us  with any newspapers. Once upon a time, I had a choice of the best publications. For crying out loud, do they think everyone in this section is unlettered, hence the absence of papers?  None of my neighbours talk to one another. We are all glum.  I pass out in a most  uncomfortable posture I can remember.

 

London

We arrive in England.  It is just before summer, but it’s as overcast and cold  as I remember  this  country from  my first sojourn back in 2001. Then, I was enthusiastic, young(ish) and looking forward to life and study in a country that has always held some fascination for me.  In no hurry, after quickly processing immigration, I amble over to the newsstand.  The  titles are an embarrassment of riches and like a child in a sweet store, I scoop  up  more than I can read the entire day.  Many are complementary copies. I never cease to marvel how these  newspapers with great writing and layout are able to publish every single day. Of course I am travelling like a budget tourist.  A knapsack strapped on my shoulders is all I am carrying.  After a few trips during my business class days, I realised we Africans just loved carrying lots of  luggage. I had been to conferences where  fellow delegates would change twice a day and females even more.  I noticed that other races would actually bring  minimal attire and launder their clothing overnight.  For a weeklong trip, a man just needs two  suits  and the same number of shirts plus a single pair of shoes. I thus adopted the style and always carried hand luggage. On this trip it’s two pairs of jeans, a few t-shirts and jumper for me.  Very convenient.

 

Sights

Where to go in London?  For my itinerary, the first day is an open top bus ride.  Just like all tourists who  venture to this fabled city.  But first I find basic, but clean accommodation at an easyHotel out in Paddington.  After a shower and nap, I   get an all-day ticket and  hop on the original city sightseeing open top bus tour to  view the famous sights of London like Hyde Park, Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace, Big Ben, Westminster and others. I also take a ride on the panoramic London Eye and by this time I have  hooked up with a Filipino tourist and we take turns taking snaps of each other. I have never taken a selfie before and the friendly young man shows me how to adjust  the phone camera. All the way to London to learn how to shoot selfies!  I am fairly organised and have an idea  which tourist attractions I want to visit.  With a smartphone it’s easy to find directions. Although the city does not offer free internet,  almost every coffee shop or fast food outlet offers connectivity  and I make the most of it.  This is a tourist city.  There are so many of them from all over the world.  The open top buses clearly do brisk trade and I am reminded that I once tried to introduce a similar service  for Gaborone.  But the red tape and endless  documents  that have to be filled  eventually defeated the best  of intentions.  Ours  is not a facilitative culture.  It seems for new ideas those in charge are all too quick to  identify why the idea CAN’T work and not HOW to make it work.  

 

Motown: The Musical

I am not done after the bus  ride. The highlight of my evening is the West End where they have all the theatres and cinemas.  Quite a number of shows are  running and I pay 25 pounds  for a seat in the stalls to see Motown: The Musical that  has been playing to packed houses at the famous Shaftesbury Theatre.  The production is just  incredible and it is truly astounding how the performers are able to pull this off practically everyday of the  week.  It is a two-and-half-hour extravaganza of drama  and music from Motown as seen through the  narrative  of the founder of the music empire, Berry Gordy and his creative sidekick Smokey Robinson.  The band playing in the pit below the stage  is just superb.  Most memorable are the characters of Diana Ross, Marvin Gaye and little Michael Jackson. After the show, it is dinner at a Rodizio where the beef is soulless and not as juicy as ours at Riverwalk.  A black cab taxi ferries  me  back to the hotel.  Very  pleasant first day in London.

Day 2

It is a cruise on the Thames past all the riverside landmarks and other places of historic interest.  Am making  my way to the O2 Arena in Greenwich. This is  on the  outskirts of London.  I am  planning to visit the  exhibition Muhammed Ali: The Greatest,  which  has been on show for about three months now.  Trying to navigate my way, I walk through the University of Greenwich and  am pleasantly surprised  to  walk into a Nigerian wedding in the campus chapel.  It is  very colourful and certainly  not cheap with about two Rolls Royces and a stretch limousine waiting for the wedding party. Everyone looks chilled and at home. No furtive glances suggesting they are illegal immigrants.

These people have clearly put down roots in the city and evidently they are eating life with a big spoon, as they would say in Kenya.  I arrive at the O2 Arena. Being a Saturday, the exhibition closed at 5pm. London this season does not  fall  dark  before 9pm.  There is still time for a ride on the Emirates cable car across the Thames, which  provides a bird’s eye view  of many parts of the city. Knapsack still on shoulders,  tonight’s accommodation is at  the Holiday Inn, much more spacious and roomier than that tiny easyHotel cupboard  masquerading as a room. Besides newspapers, my  other big indulgence is television.  As a small time  producer of  content myself, I watch with an eye to gleaning ideas and  also checking for gaps in the market. On my second night after hours of channel surfing, I already have two  ideas for programmes that I am confident will diversify  the television offering in  London or even the UK.  My  head is spinning.  Should  my ideas ever come to life, I imagine myself rolling  with  those Nigerians I saw at the wedding, all prosperous and eating life with a big spoon in London.   

Champ Is Here. Where is Bundini and the Entourage?

The  Ali exhibition  is well-curated and documents the life of Champ in photos, video and other memorabilia from his career.  I never  saw Ali in his day because I was too young. But as a boxing fan, I  have religiously followed his life and times, and this exhibition just about does justice to the man and his place in the pantheon of  global icons.  My only gripe is that the focus seems exclusively on Champ and  omits the colourful entourage that travelled the world with Ali when he was the king of the world.  These are the  characters so poignantly portrayed in the 1988  article;  Ali And His Entourage: Life After The End Of The Greatest Show On Earth authored by Gary Smith.  Had  they also included exhibits on the lives of Gene Kilroy the flunky, Angelo Dundee the trainer, Ferdi Pachecho the doctor, Sarria the masseur who spoke only Spanish, Lana Shabazz the cook and of course  the inimitable Drew ‘Bundini’ Brown, the court  jester and Champ’s motivator, the exhibition would

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have ticked all the right boxes.

 

The Tube

Of the many inventions of the modern world, the  underground railway system or the Tube, as they call it in London, leaves me incredulous. Just how does someone think of digging tunnels  underground to run  innumerable trains that are always on time, ferrying  thousands of people below the feet of millions others strolling above?  From East Greenwich line to St Pancras International is about 20 stops  all  done  in between at breakneck speed.   It is at St Pancras where all the trains to all parts of the UK, including Leicester my next destination, are caught. 

 

Black People

In my few days in London, I am becoming something of an expert at distinguishing the  different kinds of black  people.  It is a nice little game to keep myself amused. The blacks from home in Africa try to make eye contact because they can tell  you are from home.  They tend to be friendlier even if it’s only a friendly glance.  They also have a tendency to greet just like in Africa where we greet complete strangers. In contrast, the blacks from England tend not to make eye contact the moment they can tell you are a black from Africa.  They also have some swagger like they want to rub it in you that hey mate,  this is home to some of us.  But the most  sorry looking are the blacks from home doing  menial  jobs such as street sweeping. They make eye contact, but then apologetically look away as if thinking you might  recognise  them and promptly tell the folks back in Africa that so and so does not work in an office, but is in fact, a street sweeper in London. However, the successful blacks from home, like the Nigerians at the Greenwich  wedding, look you straight in the eye, all beaming so that  if you happen to recognise them then they would be very  happy for you to report back to folks in Africa that so and so is doing well in the land of the Queen!

 

Leicester Beckoning

The East Midlands train to Leicester takes around an hour and I find myself back  where 15 years ago I studied for the Mass Communications Masters at the eponymously named university.  The city certainly looks less grimy  and more affluent.  This time everyone seems to be floating on cloud nine because in the preceding months, the disbelieving eyes of the sporting world have been glued here as its local team defied all expectations  to clinch the English Premier League title.  The windows and shop fronts are bedecked  in the colours of the team. Buntings have been unfurled  across the city in the team colours. During my studies here, Leicester City were just minnows that  could  not even dream the impossible dreams of underdogs.  I did not even support them. In Africa, I knew no one who cared for them.  But now I am back here to consummate my new affections for City.  Just like the usual suspects of Man U, Arsenal, Liverpool and Chelsea  it’s not as if they all started off enjoying massive support in Africa.  It is the explosion of satellite television, a growing middle-class and on-field success that generated  for those teams a following  on the continent.  The same will happen with Leicester City if it continues its run of success.  Already I count  as a supporter. There are tv cameras all over the place for the open top parade tomorrow  as  news crews search for quotes and stories.  On my way out of  the main shopping centre after merchandise shopping, I bump into  a tv crew from ITV Midlands and am soon doing an interview with the famous Sameena Ali Khan.

 

Memories

Kitted out in City scarf  like practically every second person, I wander around the city areas I remember from  back then.  There is the old age home I worked  at  for  a week before moving on to a sandwich factory which, though paying well, was utter torture with its freezing internal temperature. The process of packing mass-produced sandwiches put me off the stuff for years after  I returned home. I was not able to go to the part of town where I held a long-term job as a carer of autistic teenagers. I then made my way to my alma mater, which had not transformed much.  Taking pictures, I proudly informed some students I was here 15 years ago.  They looked at me aghast like I was an ancient relic  come to life.  My department  has  moved  from where it was. I locate the  new residence, but the only  professor who taught me from back then is  not in office. Surely, no one is going to remember me from all those years ago. 

 

Victory Parade/Monday

Back when I supported Arsenal, I read a rollicking book titled Fever Pitch by a tormented fan of the same team, a certain Nick Hornby. 

Today Leicester, the city,  is at fever pitch.  I can attest  that Monday May 16, 2016 is a day never witnessed  before in this neck of the woods.  Not in its …history.  By mid-morning the excitement was building up as fans gathered at various assembly points in their City finery.  By lunchtime just before the start of the parade, the pubs on London Road to Victoria Park were packed and this on a Monday, I tell you.  Children had been let off early from school and most people were on half-day,  if at all they went to work. 

Thousands followed  the four strong open top bus parade on giant screens and in pubs as it snaked its way towards the epicentre of Victoria Park. I was strategically positioned by the gates of the park as the buses rolled past and the delirium reached  its crescendo. Then the  team was introduced, individually to the crowd, which by now was in overdrive and estimated at around 200,000.  The biggest cheers  were reserved for star striker, Jamie Vardy,  dynamo mid-fielder,  Ngolo Konte,  captain, Wesley Morgan and coach, Claudio Ranieri.  It was a carnival atmosphere all right with music, street food and  drink enjoyed by all until just before midnight. What a day!

Back to London

Tuesday morning I take a long nostalgic look at the city of Leicester from my eighth floor room of the Premier Inn. I finally returned as I had long promised myself all those years ago, but it’s  goodbye again.

 

Checking out the Stones

In my day at boarding school  the  most popular types  of music were township disco, country and western, reggae and  rock.  Often we  listened to all of it.  But rock was not easy  to  come by and those who owned it enjoyed collector status.  Our fare was progressive rock such as Boston, U2, Dire Straits and for the more hardcore fans, the heavy metal sounds of Iron Maiden and Judas Priest.  But then at  national service in Ncojane, my friend Fawcus Thabiso introduced to me a rock genre so edgy  it blew me apart.  This was rock, but interspersed with blues and soul influences. 

This was the sound of The Rolling Stones, the greatest  band ever.  This Tuesday afternoon, immediately on arrival from Leicester I am in Sloane Square at the posh Saatchi Gallery to see Exhibitionism, the first international exhibition on the group.  Compared to  the Ali exhibition, the budget here is much bigger and the displays very elaborate and  comprehensive ranging from stage attire to instruments, artefacts, song lyrics, actual recording studio and other exhibits in nine thematic galleries.  No cameras or photography is allowed.  By the time  one completes the tour, they know more about The Rolling Stones  than any amount of reading  would give them.  But the climax of the exhibition  is  the simulated concert venue. Here you are given 3D glasses and for those of us who have never been to a Stones concert, you are transported  right into a fully-packed arena for a live performance of I Can’t   Get  No Satisfaction, a classic  from the band’s monumental songbook. Stunning.  The crystal sound hits you like a sledgehammer, and accompanied by incredible visuals, you  begin to understand why a Stones live outing should be on the bucket list of every  rock fan. Time is running out for Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Charlie Watts and Ronnie Wood.  Rocking hard  since 1962, born and bred in London, I suspect the day anyone of the four  dinosaurs keels over to join the big gig in the sky, the remaining Stones will stop rolling and call it a day.  There is no way I see them playing on should they lose any of the original founders of the group.

 

Next Trip

I must see The Rolling Stones  in concert before one of them kicks the bucket.  The smart money is on the deliciously wild Keith Richards to go first.  Without his lead guitar there will be no Stones.

 

Wednesday

I’m shocked.  Are white people serious?  How can it take less than a day to register a company in a city of 9,000,000 inhabitants?  In our parts of the world, it takes forever.  Thanks  to Debbie Smith and Starr Ngwenya of The Hamptons Jazz Festival fame, plus their pal Clarence, my new company which dreams of exploring exciting things is now  registered in the land of the Queen.  Will it lead to my eating life with a big spoon?  Dream on mate.  

 

Thursday

My whistle stop tour is  winding down.  Time to return and news comes through that an EgyptAir flight 804 from Paris to Cairo has  disappeared.  All 66 people on board are presumed dead. With this news I am certain some will be cancelling flights, but I have to return to the Republic of Botswana. Anyway, how many aeroplanes can crash in one day and yet thousands of cars are involved in fatal accidents every day, but people still drive.  I surmise that my odds are extremely high, I will reach home alive.

 

Back In Cattle Class

At Heathrow Airport, on cue  British Airways calls  business and first class to board.  Then, we of cattle class are summoned and we  gingerly tip-toe past the privileged in their luxury recliner seats, soft linen, big tv monitors, champagne and gourmet  meals  waiting to be laid out for their enjoyable flight.  I might be mistaken, but I think the voiceover the tannoy is softer and swooning when it calls the privileged classes and a bit rougher when it summons us the plebians.  It could be my ears playing tricks.

 

The Mighty Remain Fallen

Oh gosh.  I cannot get used to the misery in cattle class.  It is contagious.  I pop two sleeping pills and knock myself out for the return journey.  In my deep sleep I dream of eating life with a big spoon in London.



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