After the novelty of flying in a Boeing 747 had worn off and Stevie Wonder’s looped singing of ‘Isn’t She Lovely’ on the piped music channel, I was rapidly losing the will to live. An infant two seats away yelled incessantly. The combination of this, the nauseating whiff of baby sick, food and poo was driving me to the edge. So, when the chief flight steward announced that we would soon be making our descent into London’s grey and wet welcome, I rejoiced at the news.
Everything seemed to have the glow of the new. Everything smelt fresh and clean. One was struck by the relative silence after the cacophony of Bombay, struck by the order and the absence of sweltering heat. There were neatly parked luggage trolleys which you helped yourself to – not a coolie in sight. We walked silently pushing our trolleys through long corridors with conveyor belts while beeping ‘golf-karts’ ferried the disabled to and fro. It had a touch of the surreal.
I was bursting with optimism. I’d left the familiar chaos of India; a brave new life awaited me, full of gleaming opportunities, I thought. The rest of life beckoned; after 25 years of remotely imbibing the cultural products of this society – the centre of Empire – here I was in the capital of the ‘first world’ – the land of the Beatles, Bertrand Russell, Julian Bream, The Virgin Queen, Bobby Charlton & Stanley Matthews, Lorna Doon, JM Keynes, Adam Smith, Winston Churchill, Emmeline Pankhurst, Charlie Chaplin, Geoffrey Boycott, Bevan and, of course, Shakespeare. The land of Blue Band margarine, of Eno’s fruit salts, Shell, ICI, the BBC World Service, the Austin, the Ford Anglia, the Zephyr and the Land Rover. Let’s not forget Florence Nightingale. Oh, and HP sauce, Tower Bridge, Buckingham Palace,Imperial Leather and Pears soap, 10 Downing Street, the bustling London docks, of Test Cricket and of Queen Elizabeth II. The Queen Mother – yes, we’d been out on the streets in Kampala waving little Union Jacks in our little hands as the Queen Mother motorcaded passed us in an open limousine, hadn’t we? Wasn’t she nice? wasn’t it wonderful how she smiled at us and waved with her regal, white, gloved hand? The land of The Beano, The Beezer, The Dandy, of Oliver Twist, of George Orwell and Shaw. Here I was, on life’s threshold.
Ahead of me in the immigration queue was a young man, an English man I presumed, not the Englishman of literature, of the public school with a bowler hat and coat tails. No. This Englishman wore a magnificent, long peroxide red, spiky erect fan of hair from the top of his forehead to the back, like a Mohawk Indian. The rest of his head was clean shaven. He wore a black, studded, leather jacket and, oddly, red and black tartan trousers. There were chains looping from his belt, the purpose of which I was unable to fathom. Desperate Dan, the wild west character in the British comic, Dandy, would have been dead proud of those boots – they were enormous and steel toed. I remembered enjoying a cartoon in Punch magazine I’d bought in the bazar in Bombay which showed a group of boys all dressed just like this young man with one of them saying, “They’ll never catch me in a uniform!’
As we approached the immigration officer, the one at the neighbouring desk was attending to a withered old Gujarati woman in a sari. She spoke no English. He took a sponsorship letter from her and, laughing, called to his colleague, “Oi John….get this…it says: Mrs Jantilal is my sister ….in brackets…(real)……” . I laughed too. The man in the Mohican turned around. He has a safety pin in his upper lip. I smiled at him.
“Wot you f****n’ smilin’ at, Paki?” he blurted venomously.
As I left the terminal, I saw a huge hording saying “Labour’s Not Working”. Driving through the city I saw buildings with neon signs that said TAKE COURAGE. What did these signs mean? There must be a national crisis of some sort, I thought, and how nice of the government to urge its people to be brave. Perhaps this had something to do with that Winter of Discontent, I had heard of on the World Service.
Outside, although it was summer, I felt cold. Confusion started to creep into my mind like some foul miasma.
Unloading my suitcase from the car, my brother said: “Welcome to Great Britain!”