The Enigma of Arrival

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!”

About Des

Being on the wrong side of 60, I've recently become more conscious than ever that I'm closer to the end than the beginning. I don't mean this in a macabre way. Our presence here, as far as I can discern, is transient, ephemeral - as fleeting like a passing cloud. It occurs to me too that we each have a unique take on our time on the planet and it would be a shame not to put it down for posterity. When I try to think about what my grand parents, leave alone my great-grand parents, did, what their aspirations, fears, joys, loves etc were, I have no answer. It's a blank. Call it vain-glory, if you like, but driven by this thought I feel I should put something down on paper so that should my grand children ever ask, "I wonder what Grandpa did in the olden days of the 20th and 21st centuries?" some record of it exists. Memoir seems the way to do it.
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7 Responses to The Enigma of Arrival

  1. Milestones says:

    Your account of your arrival from India to London brought back so many memories. A really amazing way to catch the core of British life, which you had absorbed, growing up outside Great Britain. Just your ‘list’ of famous people, both in real life, music, films and literature; products, events all packed in with no need for explanation, express the expectations you had on arrival.
    The reality that hit you quite soon, already at the airport, after the first euphoria of freshness and relative silence, was well expressed. Thanks for bringing all that to life with your words.

  2. Jude says:

    Loved the way you brought all the reader’s senses into the writing from the plane trip to the temperature and the airport staff. It is a very interesting look at arriving in London for the first time with your expectations. Really enjoyed reading it.

  3. Pikkewyn says:

    A captivating description of Great Britain defining the old and the new including the horrible weather that more often than not awaits you. Constructively I felt more definition of who you were and why you were uprooting yourself. What drove you to make this decision to find a brave new life?

    • Des says:

      Thanks Pikkewyn. You’re right about the need for more about myself and what prompted my move to Britain. I’m glad it piqued your interest to want to know more. That is a part of a chapter in the larger memoir, if it ever takes flight :). For the purposes of this exercise, however, I was hoping to contrast my arrival, carrying all the expectations a byproduct of empire might carry, with the reality that hits one; the contrast between reality and preconception.

      • ethroop710 says:

        I hope it takes flight! I enjoyed this piece.

        I felt like the end bits could benefit from a little detail, such as how your brother stated his welcome. Also, you left the terminal, but there was no transition from that to unloading your suitcase from the car. Did your brother pick you up? Did you take a taxi cab? You could add a very short sentence to one of the last two paragraphs for syntactical effect, as you’re building up in those portions and could further that building effect and take it to a greater level.

        Thanks for sharing, Des!

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