LIFE IN LONDON – Part 6:‘Boxed up’ and shivering in the cold!
Posted on December 14th, 2012

Dr.Tilak Fernando

As I came out of the controlled area of the Heathrow airport, after going through immigration and baggage clearance, it was a great relief to see Sam waving at me from a distance, the only Sri Lankan face I could spot from the crowd waiting at passenger arrival gate. After proceeding to Victoria by coach, I was taken to a house at Hither Green in South London where temporary accommodation had been arranged for me at a Sri Lankan professional who had been in the UK for some time.

I was thankful to the landlord even though it was a tiny “ƒ”¹…”box room’ with hardly any space to move about when a single bed occupied most of the area (without any other furniture) and having to use my suitcase as a ward robe stuck under the bed.

There was only one washroom for the house, and that was also in a corner of the kitchen downstairs “ƒ”¹…”partitioned’ with a plastic shower curtain with no proper door! Their pet, a huge Alsatian dog, often put his head through the shower curtain to sniff at, while I was in the tub making me half naked and exposed to the cold.

Bathroom had no shower unit but only a tub with a hand shower attached to a mixer tap. To activate hot water from a geyser 25p worth of coins had to be slotted in, which was sufficient only to have a “ƒ”¹…”cat wash’.

Being a student and new to the country with limited funds it was impossible to relax in a warm-foam-hot-water-bath to heart’s content because the moment the 25p ran out, so did the pilot light of the geyser, which gave me two choices – to shiver in the cold or walk out of the bath with a lathered up body! Being pampered at home and now thrown into a proverbial deep end of a life abroad I was beginning to feel homesick and wanted to take the next available flight back, but there was a purpose in my going to England – to study – as such, I had to bear all inconveniences and treat every challenge as a new experience.

Similar to British action in the plantation sector in the old Ceylon during the Colonial era, British had “ƒ”¹…”imported’ cheap labour from Africa and the West Indies to England, and by the time we landed in London a second generation of “ƒ”¹…”coloured immigrants’ had begun to increase.

Original African and West Indian labour was utilized to run British Railways, buses and for manual work in Borough councils. They all wore uniforms like the English, with shirt, collar and tie and jackets (and a hat sometimes). While they were fluent in English but had inherited their own peculiar accent which was difficult to understand till one’s ears got familiarised with their verbal communication.

London being a highly cosmopolitan town many people spoke English with different accents which could be painful to someone used to “ƒ”¹…”BBC English’! Irish had a strong brogue which was impossible to follow until one associated with an Irishman. East Londoners spoke with a “ƒ”¹…”cockney’ accent (they pronounced the word “ƒ”¹…”Blade’ as Blaied and “ƒ”¹…”take’ as Tyke); Scottish rolled their tongue to vibrate the letter “ƒ”¹…”R’ inside their mouth, similar to some South Indians. West Indians always pronounced the word “ƒ”¹…”the ‘ as “ƒ”¹…”DE’ and of course the educated type spoke typical “ƒ”¹…”BBC English’ with clarity at a slower pace so that the listener could follow. One thing that always confused me was to understand the blue collar workers’ language. When they spoke of “ƒ”¹…”dinner’ they meant lunch, which made no sense to me at all in the beginning! On the topic of accents, it takes me back to an incident much later when my elder brother (MR) who was at the time the Director of Highways visited London and I went to pick him up at the Gatwick Airport in Surrey. As he was coming out of the “ƒ”¹…”arrivals’ I noticed the “ƒ”¹…”poor man’, who hadn’t lifted a finger at home struggling to push a trolley loaded with bags. I quickly rushed forward and took over the wheeled cart from him and engaged a porter for the job.

Halfway to the car park the porter wanted to start a conversation with my brother. In a strong cockney accent he blabbered something which my brother could not make head or tail out of it. Then with a shy grin, he turned towards me and said in Sinhala: “What is this bugger trying to say? I can’t understand a word of it”! Perplexed porter turned towards me and said: “Ay mite, doesn’t this fella speak English””¦”¦? We had to control our laughter but I thought to myself, “ƒ”¹…” “¦..if only this porter knew the position he held in Sri Lanka’!

Another incident which tickled us was about a brawl between an Englishman and his old West Indian neighbour ending up in a magistrate’s court. It could perhaps be a yarn, but not impossible at all.

The Englishman apparently had cut off a branch of a tree that spread out from the West Indian’s garden due to leaves falling and littering his neatly kept garden. After many arguments about it, things had taken a turn towards worse until it ended up in a magistrate’s court.

When the old West Indian walked into the witness box, the judge (English) looking at his frail constitution sympathised with the guy and put some words literally into his mouth with a view to clear him out of the muddle.

Magistrate: Now”¦ Mr. Thompson”¦”¦ did you hit Eric, your next door neighbour, purely for self- defence””¦..?

Thomson: “Ya”¦ maan”¦.! I hit him on “¦ DE FACE”¦. and he went over DE”¦ FENCE!. The magistrate cleverly interpreting it as an act of self-defence acquitted the old guy! At the time we landed in England things were not rosy for coloured immigrants. We soon found out that it was much easier for someone with a pet (cat or dog) to seek accommodation but not with a child! This was during the latter part of 1968 when the original immigration act went through another phase of metamorphosis since 1900.

From our own experience we learnt that despite many advertisements which appeared on shop windows for accommodation the standard polite answer, when an immigrant responded, was, “ƒ”¹…”Sorry Love, it’s gone already’. Sam too had been in England only just three months prior to my arrival and barely knew what was happening in the country, but soon we opened our eyes to the level of racial discrimination that existed among the common folk.

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One Response to “LIFE IN LONDON – Part 6:‘Boxed up’ and shivering in the cold!”

  1. Fran Diaz Says:

    Good read here, Dr Fernando ! Brought back memories of my work & study tour.
    We had similar experiences when in old Blighty in the late 1960’s. However, at that time, we were young enough to go through it all with great enjoyment !
    Our favored eating places were the Indian restaurants and the Students Centre cafeteria (I think it was called Ceylon Students Centre), where a generously heaped rice & curry platter was served out cheap to suit our lean purses. I even managed to tour most of Europe on a lean budget together with some friends, and found food to be very expensive all over Europe compared to the U.K. France was the most expensive at that time.
    What fun we had visiting the famous spots and wonderful shops (walk through & look at stuff only, as we had no money to make purchases !). Watching the tv serial stories there was a treat.
    As you say, heating up a room was a great problem if short of the 25 p. coins in mid-winter – that was a real spot of
    trouble ! I used to wear a thinnish winter coat which I had acquired in Sri Lanka even in the bed room when I ran out of coins.

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