Random musings of a composer in London
Today, on the 25th April 2020, I have arrived at a particularly significant milestone. As of around 9:30am this morning, I’ve been a resident of the UK for a full eighteen years, meaning that I’ve now lived in England for longer than I ever lived in South Africa. To put it another, more mind-boggling way - if I’d fathered a child when I arrived in the UK, that child would now be the same age as I was when I landed here (not to mention there’d have been some rather alarming things going on in my personal life).
The fact that I’ve now spent more years in England than South Africa is a bizarre thought, and one that I couldn’t even have imagined when I stepped off that Virgin Atlantic flight in April 2002. Back then, it was all about living from moment to moment, sucking up the experiences around me like a recently unblocked plughole, overwhelming myself wilfully with the sights, sounds and experiences of a culture so similar, and yet so fundamentally alien to my own. I was most certainly a foreigner. A tourist even. I had a strong sense of being overseas, away from home. A sense that, as long and free-ranging as my chain was, the anchor to which it was attached still lay firmly in the serene folds of the Drakensberg mountains in South Africa.
Of course, today I’m still essentially that same person, albeit now with the clichéd paradigms of less hair and more wisdom (the two apparently being inversely proportional). But there’s one fundamental aspect of my personality which has come into question more as the years have rolled by, and that’s the matter of that anchor. These days, although the weight of it still remains wedged in place back in South Africa, the chain by which I’m attached to it has gradually been corroding away in the salty waters of my life experience, to the point now that if I tugged on it, I'm not sure it would still hold. If for some reason I were forced to choose between British or South African citizenship tomorrow, I think it would be a pretty easy decision to make.
The thing is, while superficially I still consider myself to be “South African” (mainly because my British life still hasn’t quite succeeded in removing the saffa tint from my voice), the reality is these days I bear only a passing resemblance to the residents of my birthplace. I am missing nearly two decades of popular culture, I have forgotten much of the language, rules and customs, and despite my best attempts to keep myself in the loop, I also know precious little about my country's current affairs or politics. Were I to pack up my belongings and move back there tomorrow, I would find it just as bewildering as I found the UK when I first arrived here. And doesn't that say a lot.
But, here's the rub - I don't really feel like I'm British either. Instead, it feels rather as though I've turned on the TV part-way through a movie - early enough for me to get to grips with the characters and figure out the storyline, but far enough along that I've missed a few important scenes at the beginning. No matter how involved I become with the plot, no matter how many tears I shed at the end when the protagonist's dog dies, I will still always be missing a few final pieces of the puzzle. Of course, I can still find out what happened at the beginning by asking someone who watched the whole thing, but even so, I will still always have that nagging feeling of having missed a bit.
And so, if I’m neither South African nor British, what precisely am I? Well, a hybrid, really. Britafrican. And in fact, that’s something I've become quite proud of over the years. After all, hybrids are almost always an improvement - they combine the best of two individual concepts into something new and unique which surpasses the originals. In the same way that the diverse gene inheritance of multiracial people means they are stronger and less susceptible to disease, my Saffa/Brit cultural inheritance gives me some advantages over my mono-national contemporaries. On one hand, I've retained many of my South African cultural mannerisms - my unique accent, my proficiency with a 'braai' (barbecue), my love and experience of outdoor activities like hiking or camping, and my useful local knowledge when talking about or showing people around my homeland. On the other hand, I have a British passport, a solid knowledge of UK history, geography and politics, and a bank account with some nice solid pounds sterling in it (well, relatively solid anyway - thanks, Brexit). I’m as proud of my Britishness as I am of my South-Africanishness, even though neither one defines me completely.
Being a hybrid also grants me a unique perspective on life in both countries. I’ve noticed, for instance, that many Brits have a tendency to bemoan the shortcomings of their country - the government, the transport, the weather and even their own culture. As an immigrant though I subconsciously compare every aspect of my British life to that in my country of origin. I’m not stewing over the five-minute delay on the tube so much as marvelling at the convenience of its very existence. I’m not grumbling about the continual dampness so much as celebrating our abundance of water. Likewise, when I’m in South Africa I can now appreciate the raw, visceral beauty of the country, its culture and its people, just as a tourist would, without becoming bogged down by its day-to-day fears and frustrations.
So, after eighteen years in England, I'm in the arguably enviable position of being able to consciously pick-and-mix the best bits from both of my homelands with which to furnish my personality, like a sort of cultural Ikea. It’s a rare gift, and one which can only really be obtained with the perspective gained from experiencing life for an extended period in more than one country. Sure, these days anyone with a passport and a credit card can travel to far-off lands and experience foreign culture. But it’s only once you immerse yourself in that culture for long enough to assimilate some of it into your own personality that you really become permanently richer for the experience.
Afrikaans people in South Africa have a word for a white colonial of British descent: "Soutpiel" (pronounced “sowt-peel”), which roughly translates as "Salty Penis". The rather droll joke being that they have one foot in Africa and one foot back in England, leaving their privates dangling in the sea between the two. It’s intended to be demeaning - the inference being that us “Souties” can never truly be South African because we can’t let go of our European roots. And certainly, I would concur that am the definitive (if not literal) personification of a Soutpiel.
Nevertheless, as far as I’m concerned, the joke is on them. Sure, I may have roots in Europe, but I also have roots in Africa, and from them both I extract a rich cultural nourishment which includes both the dry red soil of the African plains and the damp white chalk of the British downs. And that can only serve to make me stronger and more culturally diverse, after all.
To another eighteen years!