Monday, August 27, 2012

You can hire me to teach you English, London

These pictures were taken on my walks in London and thereabouts, not in China or India.

     Just in case you thought native English speakers had a less taxing time with apostrophes:

Right outside the Queen's castle at Windsor


You 'might enjoyed' this sign at Waterstones, Islington
'Tradisional' English breakfast at Pimlico
Methinks someone from Hafeez Centre is trying to make it in Hackney

Coinage by a Central London cafe, possibly to encourage the pleasures of loose tea. Hoping they're as mindless of the UrbanDictionary meaning as they are of its spelling. 
All Behaviour Relating...Of a Sexual Nature ...Or of Illegal Activity?
Ad for better copy editors in London ad agencies

Wednesday, August 22, 2012


The ostensible reason for coming to London a few days earlier than required was to settle down a bit before my course began, but really it was just for Wimbledon. I had a very small window of opportunity before the daily grind began and I wanted to be able to grab it.

A Stefan Edberg/Boris Becker Wimbledon final in the 80s first brought tennis to my consciousness, after which the cool whites and greens became an annual harbinger of joy. Despite being the only channel available, PTV managed to provide quite a variety of sporting entertainment back then. Besides the obvious like cricket and hockey, it showed football world cups, Olympics events and live telecasts of Wimbledon finals, both gentlemen and ladies. In those 11 schizophrenic years of Zia where it was mandatory for a PTV announcer to wear a dupatta on her head, there was also Musarrat Nazir tossing her lustrous tresses on a psychedelic disco set and Martina Navratilova and Steffi Graff working their short skirts and rackets into the collective Pakistani consciousness.

So Wimbledon was a place of romance for me since childhood, right up there with the England of Enid Blyton's creation. Andre Agassi hitting a ball in mid-air on a Wimbledon court occupied the post above my bed (at a time he still sported long locks and a rockstar image) and life-lists in floral teenage diaries included watching Andre Agassi play a Wimbledon final live. Once Agassi retired, I transferred my affections and dreams to watching Federer play a final on Centre Court instead. So I wasn't going to miss the opportunity now that everything was aligned--I had a visa, I was in England and Wimbledon was on!

I arrived in London on the 27th of June and decided to attend the next match Federer was playing on the 29th. One of the best things about Wimbledon is that it reserves tickets for tennis fans who want to queue on the day, so there is no tension (or convenience) of acquiring one through dubious means. The catch, however, is that you need to queue overnight to get your hands on the limited number of tickets available this way. So, on my second day in the city, I packed my backpack and set off on the long trek to Wimbledon on the London Underground.
My brother decided to come along till Wimbledon station so I wouldn't get hopelessly lost on my way, but thanks to our spontaneous detour at St. Paul's Cathedral (about that in the next post) he got really late and had to head back home before the last tube, which meant I had to make my own separate way to Wimbledon. As I stood on the platform watching my brother's back recede I experienced a range of emotions from trepidation to a sense of novelty at the freedom to stand all alone late at night in a big city, about to embark on a midnight adventure.

At 12 AM I got off at Southfields Station (the right station for the Wimbledon Tennis Courts instead of Wimbledon Station itself) outside a quiet market square with little signs of activity besides a few people at a late night corner pub across the street. A man I asked for directions quipped, "You're a bit late for the matches' but pointed me in the general direction, which I dutifully followed up a road with rows upon rows of small, posh gate-less houses. The farther I went, the quieter and steeper the streets became, with just one woman with a dog walking behind me to provide some sense of comfort. After she too turned into an alley, I stopped, confounded and with no clue where to go next. Fortunately a few people passed by who informed me I needed to go back to the subway station and take a different road from there.

After a long trek downhill I reached the Southfields Station again, this time taking the road from the pub which eventually led to a couple of official-looking people standing on the pavement. I asked them about Wimbledon tickets and one of them shone a torch into the pitch darkness ahead of him which was met with an answering torch beam from what seemed like very far away. Walking in the direction of the beam I reached an official who cheerily informed me that I was the 943rd person in the queue and that meant there was no chance I was going to be able to get a Centre Court ticket in the morning. I could hope for a Court 1 at best and a grounds ticket at worst. For the uninitiated, Federer, the 6 times Wimbledon winner is given the respect of always playing on the grandest court in the grounds, Centre Court, so that essentially meant the reward for an all-nighter would be a half-Wimbledon experience. Yes I wanted to see Wimbledon, but Wimbledon without Federer is like strawberries without cream (unimaginative analogy I know, but at least it sticks to the theme). Considering how late it was by then, the decision was made for me, there was no going back. There was also the naive hope that I would still somehow manage to wrangle my way into Centre Court, after all I was the same person who had elbowed her way to the front row of a Junoon concert as a teenager, darned if I was going to let my old age get in the way of my desi fighting spirit now. I nodded my resolve to go on, but before waving me off the security guard asked if I had my camping equipment on me.

'Camping equipment? But I thought you could rent it on the grounds'.

Turns out you couldn't.

Peering into the darkness, I trudged on to the vast camping grounds dotted with a sea of tents--a mini-Mina of sorts, where I was escorted to the end of a snaking 'queue' of nine hundred and forty two tents. On my left, two young Indian men huddled over a phone, announcing to their friends that there was no hope of seeing Federer even if they stayed in the queue the whole night. On my right a man toiled to set up a tent, grunting and muttering to himself in, what to my unpracticed ears sounded like Japanese, as I dropped my backpack on the grass and lay down on its wet surface, backpack for pillow, marvelling at the stupidity of not even bringing a blanket to spread under me. The warm weather of the morning had fooled me into thinking I could just spend a night under the open sky without any protection, innocently unmindful till then of the treacherous nature of the British 'summer'.

It had become unmistakably chilly by the time the Indians decided to abort their quest and the Japanese managed to put up his tent and duly disappear within it. In fact, it was so chilly that I knew I wouldn't be able to survive the night in only my jeans, t-shirt and thin, half-sleeved sweater. I zipped open my backpack, fished out my other pair of jeans and wriggled into them over the pair I already had on, wrapping a flimsy cotton top around my ears to stop the freezing cold from seeping into all my joints and pores. It hardly made any perceptible difference. It was cold enough to qualify as a January night in Lahore but with added wind chill.

I can swear that along with my fingers, the hands on my watch also froze between 2:30 and 3:00 while I tried to inch my way nearer to the Japanese tent in the hope of finding some residual warmth. By 3:00 I was desperate enough to produce some strategically loud sniffs in the hope of rousing the chivalrous spirits of fans of a famously gentlemanly sport, but was only met with sounds of people shuffling underneath their warm tents trying to make themselves more comfortable. When I had dreamed of going to England and living the setting of so many of my favourite stories, I hadn't quite had Eliza Dolittle and The Little Match Girl in mind. But that was how it was, and thus I spent the whole night, occasionally walking around to try and stay warm with little to no effect.

Streaks of dawn began to appear on the horizon by 4:00 and the guards on duty told me they would start waking up everyone by 5:30. One of them took pity on my shivering state and suggested I go to the bathrooms for some respite from the biting wind. The makeshift bathrooms at the opposite end of the field were surprisingly clean and even a couple of degrees 'warmer' but there is only so long one can stay in a loo. By the time I returned to my spot I was so exhausted, cold and bleary that I would have forced my way into a tent at gunpoint if I had to. Fortunately for others this wasn't the US. 

I think my plight finally transmitted itself to my neighbour who poked his head out of his tent and asked me in half sign-language, half mumbo-jumbo if I wanted to come inside the tent. I swiftly calculated the possibility of a Japanese tennis-tourist turning out to be a molester but decided that by this time I was past the stage of caring. Next thing i knew I had crawled inside his tent and was lying gingerly on the edge of his air mattress. He turned out to be quite the gentleman and exited the tent soon after, leaving me to finally collapse into an exhausted stupor before the guards woke everybody up and nudged them into a tighter queue. 

In a couple of hours the whole site was abuzz with morning activity and sounds of tents being folded all around, while I tried to prolong my fitful sleep a bit longer by resolutely keeping my eyes shut. The air remained as chilly as the night before and the clouds above loomed dark and threatening. My tent friend hurried off to check up on his car leaving me in charge of his things, including a cell phone that kept buzzing while he was away. It had to be the most bizarre situation I have ever found myself in, and I have been in some. Upon his return I hauled myself out of the tent and tried to talk to him as naturally as one can to a stranger you just slept next to in a tent. The awkwardness of the situation was mercifully defused in the quest to join the corners of the tarpaulin and stowing the tent away neatly, when suddenly I noticed that there was nothing Japanese about either the man's features or his accent. Turns out he was French. So much for my nationality molestometer! And then we held hands, walked off the grounds and zipped around Europe for the next month, arriving in Pakistan in due time to feast on family blessings and copious amounts of laddu; bought a mountain chalet in Switzerland and lived happily ever after. 
No? Well, no! This is not THAT kind of story, though truth IS stranger than fiction as you shall soon find out. 

As I stood shivering on the side and a fresh gust of chill wind hit me, the cold and the exhaustion became overwhelming and I decided I had had enough dream-chasing for a lifetime, and the only one I cared about any longer was one involving a warm duvet and a bed. So with the single minded pursuit of the guestroom at my brother's place I power-walked my way right out of the grounds and on to the Southfields Station. French dude had gone off in pursuit of his car again and I didn't feel there was any particular need for me to inform him of my change in plans. 

On the train platform I began to have second thoughts. The night's tribulations nagged at me and it seemed ridiculous to leave when I had put up with so much already. Yet I knew I needed a warm jacket to survive the day. Catching pneumonia for a ladies match on Court 1 two days before my classes were to start did not seem like a good bargain. I asked a uniformed man if there was any place near I could buy a jacket from and he pointed me to a very Pakistani looking uncle manning the station newsstand, 'He knows everything there is to know about this area'. With that ringing endorsement I approached the man who told me no place would be open so early in the morning, but slipped in the reassurance that it would soon start getting warmer and that I should probably make my way back to the grounds. Something in his confident manner convinced me to brave the day anew, and I decided to return to the Wimbledon grounds. 

There the scene had now transformed. Everyone was packed together in a long queue and things were humming along. My queue card allowed me to jump the line to where I originally belonged. Standing together like that with so many other hopefuls, the whole effort felt far less futile. Sure enough the temperature also started to improve.
I found the friendliest people of my stay in England in that queue. The jovial, party-like atmosphere encouraged conversations and helped make the wait far less painful.  It was also there that I learned the biggest news of the day, that Rafael Nadal had crashed out of the tournament after a second-round defeat the night before. I also discovered that Aisam-ul-Haq would be playing in one of the grounds courts that day, a singularly cheery prospect. If there was going to be no Federer at least I could salvage the ticket price by cheering for my country. 

Chattering with an Irish couple behind me, I suddenly noticed my French guy make a reappearance through the crowd. I cheerfully stepped aside to make room for him as he strode up and asked, 
'Do you have my tent with you?' Not quite the question I was expecting. 
Racking my brain I hazily recalled him leaving to check up on his car right after I had helped him pack up his equipment. But how was I supposed to explain to someone who barely understood any English that I was feeling nauseous with cold at that point in time, had dropped my lifelong dream of attending Wimbledon altogether and nearly sat on a train and left, and that his tent was the last thing on my mind when I'd shuffled off the ground in a fatigued haze. I just stared at him, while his accusatory glance almost made me feel up my clothes to make sure I had not indeed poached his belongings. After several vehement shakings of my head, wild gesticulations and many sorry-i-have-no-clue faces he disappeared back into the crowd taking my morning's buoyancy with him. Such a bummer that he had to be rewarded for his kindness with the loss of his things and even greater bummer that, if not stealing, I could at least be genuinely accused of thoughtlessness. He showed up again after some time to tell me that nobody knew anything about where his things had disappeared, not even the officials, and I once again found myself in the position of protesting my innocence. After that he just disappeared and did not return to the queue, although his number was one ahead of me. I have a feeling he abandoned the grounds altogether. Bollywood won't be knocking on my door any time soon for scripts, I guess. 

Soon after, an official started handing out wrist tags to people in the queue. Purple for the Centre Courters, orange for those who would make it to Court 1 (that's me!), and other colours for Cort 2, 3 and the outside courts. The queue then started inching along a lake and over a bridge streaming Radio Wimbledon from sleek white speakers fitted discretely into its steel, green structure. It seemed solely obsessed with Andy Murray's progress in the tournament, but still, it was Radio Wimbledon and I was listening to it on the hallowed grounds of Wimbledon itself. 

Walking on the bridge I suddenly found myself right in front of what is the 'actual' Wimbledon, that iconic Star Sports image of charcoal buildings fronted by a riot of purple and white Petunias that year after year has marked the joyful arrival of summer for me. I stood and gazed upon it for many seconds, just basking in the wonder of my being there, and shedding some involuntary tears. Only one other thing moved me in the same way in my month and a half in England. But that's a story for another day.

The first view, though this is a picture taken later from within the grounds. The first glimpse was too special for me to bother with a camera.

A little something to be proud of as a Pakistani

Where I bought the Wimbledon insignia T-shirt for Talha and a purple & green Wimbledon umbrella that I lost in the tube a couple of weeks later :(

Nice name for a Wimbledon cafe

Instead of going into Court 1 and watching Sam Querrey vs. Milos Raonic, I chose to stay on the outside courts. I first got to see the thrilling sight of Novak Djokovic (my second favourite player on the circuit) come practice on one of the outside courts. I had seen both him and Federer six months ago at an exhibition tournament in Abu Dhabi, so it wasn't completely novel, but still Wimbledon is Wimbledon. Djokovic is so much more tall, thin and wiry in person. On television he comes across as more beefy. 

After Djokovic left I scrambled to grab a good front row seat on Court No. 4 for the Aisam-ul-Haq/Jean Julien-Roger doubles match, unfortunately marred by numerous rain interruptions and some bulls-in-a-china-shop-type American 'fans' with whom I had a little side cheering-match of my own. One 'expert' from among them was informing the large group about tennis's point scoring system while they cracked loud jokes about American football. They were almost like a parody of Americans in England. I had a rather jolly time looking my real-Pakistani-tennis-fan nose down upon them. The Brits around me, equally true to their character, maintained polite poker faces. After cheering Aisam on to a first set win, I lost patience at his second set loss and decided to use my hard-won Court 1 ticket instead. (It was only the next day that I found out that Aisam had won that match)

Court 1 had two back to back ladies' singles matches. What a yawnfest! As far as I am concerned ladies tennis has been nothing but a disgrace since Steffi Graff, failing to generate a compelling narrative or a truly dominant champion ever since. In normal circumstances I wouldn't go see a ladies match free, but here I had paid £60 and needed to 'halaal' my money. By the time I entered Court 1, the clouds had disappeared and it was bathed in sunshine. I had an amazing seat that was barely two rows away from the action and it was so Wimbledon-y, so stately, that once there, I felt a lot less peeved about not being able to make it to Centre Court. Not only did I get my money's worth but Court 1's splendour, my great seat, and the obviously knowledgeable crowd made the experience way above and beyond my expectations. Also, if there is any ladies player I would like to see amongst the current crop, it is probably Maria Sharapova. Even women find it hard to resist such leggy, blonde beauty. Even though the ones behind me seemed to hate her with a vengeance, bitching about her grunting, and managing to find something crafty and devious in the slightest twitch of her finger. I thought she played some powerful and beautiful tennis, as did her opponent.

Even then, I slipped out once Sharapova advanced, to take in the sights and sounds of other outside courts. Each one had its own unique feel that no other court could replicate. Some sunken like Greek amphitheatres, others high up on a hill, yet others proudly proclaiming their glorious past:

And of course Henman Hill, which much to my surprise, even officials on the grounds referred to as that. I guess things will change next year after Murray's golden feat.
During my wanderings I found out that there is still a bright chance of getting into Centre Court. Federer's match was the last match of the day and a lot of people who have day passes to Centre Court leave towards the end and surrender their tickets at the gate for others to be able to enjoy. These returned tickets are resold at a price of £5 only and handed out to people who stand in a queue at a designated area opposite Henman Hill. Once I found that out I dropped all plans of returning to Court 1 to see Kim Clijsters and went and stood in the queue. Volunteers, who were friendly and honest with their advice, told me that I should return in an hour by which time the tickets would start pouring in and there would be a high likelihood of getting into Centre Court. When I returned at 6, Federer's match was well into the first set and the queue for the debencture tickets (that's what it sounded like, debencture) was snaking many miles long. Even then the volunteers were confident that I would be able to find my way into the match, 'Just hope that Federer loses at least a set'. Meaning thereby, that if the match ran a little longer there would be greater chances of 'experiencing Centre Court', as he put it. 

But before I could go the legitimate route, a man walked past calling out, 

'Anyone wants to go in alone? I have one ticket' 
'Me! Me! Me!'. 

He came over and quoted a price that didn't sound too exorbitant, I think something around £30. The rather upright British woman in front shook her head but I felt little moral qualms as I shelled out the cash hastily. Selling tickets in black is a frowned upon business inside Wimbledon, as well as hard to pull off around a network of officials, volunteers and security. But this was Federer, and I don't go to Wimbledon every day and Federer isn't getting any younger. I wasn't about to let that go for some dubious higher moral ground. Resolutely avoiding the lady's disapproving gaze, I grasped the ticket firmly and skipped out of the line straight toward Centre Court. 

What a magnificent sight. The closed centre-court roof.

The Centre Court atmosphere was electric under a closed roof where I sat next to a sweet, old British lady who gave me all sort of tips for my stay in England, despite my rather unfortunate opening question, 'Are you French?' I assumed anyone who was not clapping effusively for every Federer point had to be. Her response, 'Good heavens, no.' Haha. She was as British as they come.
Well, Federer didn't just lose one set, as the volunteer had asked me to hope, he lost two in a row, and it took all my doing to bring him back from the brink. There was some hard work to be done like joining in chants of, 'Let's go Roger! Let's go! *clapclapclap*', while shouldering the burden of getting him through with lone encouraging shouts at other crucial junctures. Roger eventually pulled through in five sets in a thrilling contest and especially mentioned the crowd's support in his post-match conference. What an amazing way to round off the day. 

On to the 4th round (and the title)
That's me surveying the grounds at the end of it all
I came out of the grounds to fading light, processing the events of a thrilling twenty four hours with every step that took me away and on to new adventures, none of which, I was sure would surpass my very first days in England. 

So long! And thanks for all the fish

Monday, August 13, 2012

Some early thoughts

London is enormous. It is a living and evolving city, which makes it very different from the city of my romantic imagination. I think I exoticized London in a way many Westerners are accused of exoticizing the East. I expected it to be a quaintly preserved slice of ancient history, but it turned out to be a complex and sprawling modern mass that is impossible to make sense of if time is scarce. Probably the reason why it took me nearly a month to warm up to it.

It may also have been because my first month was spent going up and down the Strand, mainly in constantly rainy weather that didn't let up for a minute. I didn't even know that The Thames and the Southbank were right behind me every single day that I got off at Holborn station and walked to the King's College Campus. So a small section of Holborn and the Strand became my London. The times I did venture out, I took the tube, which blinded me to any sense of real direction. Then one day a couple of course mates suggested a sojourn to that haven for the broke--Primark. They simply came out of King's, kept walking down the road, and much to my surprise hit Oxford Circus in no time. I had no clue Oxford Circus was that near. I would always dutifully walk back to Holborn and get on the Central Line to reach what I considered 'the real Central London'. Turns out I was in it to begin with.

These trips to Oxford Circus, Piccadilly and thereabouts shaped my first impressions of the city, and their massive celebration of Capitalism left me mostly alienated and bemused. Street upon street of all the big brands that you find in Dubai Malls, with not a local boutique or business in sight. It made me marvel at the glib hypocrisy with which Western media outlets condescend to Dubai's commercialism. The shopping districts of London are no less crass or frenzied. But of course there is a London beyond the quadrangle of Bond, Regent, Oxford and Piccadilly, and thank Heavens for that.

My sister-in-law, who is a Londoner, took me to King's a couple of days before classes were to start so I could get a hang of the London underground. Once there she took my little niece for a nappy change to a loo within the campus building. We went up and down the whole place without anyone bothering about who we were and what we were doing. This liberty to so freely wander an educational institution triggered a mixture of bitterness and nostalgia. Having seen LUMS become an impregnable fortress right before my eyes I marvelled at the unchanged way of life for people in the West compared to the manner in which Lahore has been totally crippled post 9/11. Hanging there all easy-like at the Strand Campus, the irony of the twin towers' ghosts coming to haunt Lahore more long-term than NY or London seemed inescapable. Despite the recession they continue unabated as the great cities of the world, while crippled Lahore has just gone from bad to worse.