Opposite me on the tube this morning sat a young girl about sixteen or seventeen, who from the way she was dressed, could have been easily transported from 1997. Doc martens, purposefully scruffy jeans, black lace chocker, and finished off with a pair of marijuana leaf earrings and a tiny silver hoop nose ring. I had almost the exact wardrobe nearly 20 years ago (with the sullen expression to match), and although I have seen the trends for 60’s and 70’s fashion come and go, never did I think I’d see my teenage doppelgänger taking herself too seriously on the Jubilee line in 2014.
The shoes though. Those I can respect. My Doc Martens were hard-won. In 1995 they were the most coveted possession of my ‘friend’ Amy and my parents were having none of it. And they weren’t just any Docs that I wanted. ‘My Friend Amy’ had been to London and bought OX BLOOD TEN HOLES from the actual Doc Shop in Covent Garden. Amy wasn’t even that cool. She didn’t even know what she had, they were totally wasted on her and it was just NOT FAIR. Plus she had also visited London, which was somewhat taking away from my claim to fame of being one of the few of my peers who was ‘well-travelled’.
Growing up in the 80’s in South Africa, I spent a lot of time watching British films, and reading British writers. A throw back to colonial education systems, our canon is almost identical to the British, and with the Commonwealth link, a fair amount of 80s cultural iconography snuck through the notoriously tight Apartheid government’s strangle hold on radio and TV. But with the end of Apartheid rule in the 90s, a number of bands finally started touring, sanctions were removed and TV programs were aired. Finally we were catching up with the rest of the world. We got MacDonald’s.
As a result, my idea of London existed between a Sex Pistols 70’s punk backdrop populated by people with safety pins through their noses, and the dreaming spires of Oxford (which I thought was sort of London-ish). London was not a place, but rather a feeling that I cultivated, built up on the very limited first-hand experience and some Inspector Morse.
My first trip to the UK at 12 years of age it hadn’t occurred to me to buy Doc Martens. I was kicking myself. It was a whirlwind tour that included London, the South East, Bath, Wales and Scotland. I remembered that Wales had rabbits, you could get sunburnt playing tennis (Kent) and that Glasgow was damp but I learned to skim stones on Loch Lomond. We spent a lot of time trying to get our luggage to fit in the hire car. London itself was wax museums and trains. But I had seen a punk or two which was thrilling. No one had pink hair in Jo’burg.
But I carried that feeling of the place, a notion, which took on a life of its own in my imagination, only to meet all my expectations and more when I was lucky enough to visit again on a trip to Europe at sixteen.
At sixteen you are susceptible to falling in love. I fell hard. London was The Place. Everyone had brilliant accents and there was proper music and real super-star DJs and the possibility you could run into Damon Albarn (I chose Blur in the Brit Pop Wars). I had to mark this love affair and I was determined to get my nose pierced in Camden Town. Initially it had been Paris but I though the language barrier could equal me getting my lip severed so I passed on that. Camden still had all the kudos and ‘my friend Amy’ would never be able to beat that. I was scuppered by my mother who insisted it was a bad idea as our travel insurance wouldn’t cover an infected piercing disaster.
But that didn’t stop me getting as much of London into head as possible. By this point I had my worn in, drawn on, suitably scuffed Docs (worked and paid for by cooking dinner three times a week for about 6 months) and they stood me in great stead for marching around Soho, Camden and the West End. I ignored conventional directions and tube maps. Mainly, so I could smoke without being caught by the parents who had given me the directions, but also as I suspect I was secretly hoping to get so lost so that I wouldn’t have to go home (a wish which came true on many levels years later).
Having clubbed the Goth look to death I was now very predictably veering off into a fairly unhealthy relationship with dance music, trance first, then house (with a the beginnings of a flirtation with Garage). One afternoon I stumbled upon Cyber Dog, which blew my tiny mind and I resolved right then and there that South Africa knew NOTHING about anything worth knowing.
I was convinced London was where everything started. Jo’burg had to wait three of four years for the same trends and artists to get any air time. We were so behind. We weren’t even relevant. We didn’t have enough choice. Whereas in London there was almost too much.
My first trip to HMV on Oxford Street pretty much set up my musical taste for years to come. I bought Erykah Badu (she would later lead me to The Roots), and The Chemical Brothers (Surrender). I picked up Prodigy and a new Tori Amos. I spent hours listening to CDs of bands I had never heard of, anxious that I would never, ever find time to hear them all. I had a few days in London. It was not enough time.
And the book shops.
Waterstones Piccadilly left me bewildered in the best way. I couldn’t believe there were floors upon floors I could explore. They had books in stock of authors I had to order in when in SA. I spent almost all my holiday money in days. I bought beautiful journals too and wrote more awful poetry (which thankfully I can’t find)
I did save just enough for a pair of outrageous see-through knee-high leather mesh platform boots from Rome. They were hideous and spectacular and I raved in them for a good 4 years, drag queens in Jo’burg were practically ripping them from my feet. My Docs were forgotten after those bad girls came on the scene.
I went back to Jo’burg determined to get back there when I was a grown up, and listen to everything I missed, go to all the gigs. Read all the books.
So here sits this girl on the train opposite me. Looking like me in London back in ‘97. It’s a surreal moment. What would I say to me now? I have been to all sorts of gigs. She would be thrilled to hear I did get my nose pierced, and then removed it at 24, and weirdly I am thinking of doing it again. I happen to count an ex-manager of Cyber Dog as a good mate, a super star DJ once signed my stomach at a music festival (I had no paper). I have had actual real-life business meetings in Waterstones Piccadilly, and I’ve been involved in publishing books that get displayed in their wonderful windows.
But then equally I would be sad to tell her that HMV is a shadow of its former self and that I don’t get out to see as many live gigs as I used to. She’s be surprised to hear I now find I am desperate for music from South Africa. I attended a music trade gig when Freshly Ground were first breaking the UK and I had to leave the show half way through as I thought I may actually have a minor episode, a streaky mascara mess, shades on, choking back sobs on the train. Homesickness can be a visceral experience. But then how I stood at the front of the stage at LED festival and shouted all of Die Antwoord’s lyrics back at them, smug that unlike the Hackney hipsters behind me I actually knew what they meant. And how to pronounce them. Ridiculously proud of the band of misfits on stage cussing like only the South African can.
One thing though is consistent. I’m on the hunt for the perfect pair of Docs again. And I may even go Ox Blood this time. Or Cherry. Or both. Bet Amy would be spitting.