An upside-down Christmas; Kiwi Christmas in London

Christchurch Press, 16 December 2000

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On Christmas Eve the sun will be setting in London around 4pm. By 10.30pm the pubs will be closed and the streets deserted except for drunk Kiwis and other Christmas orphans. In a crowded South Kensington basement, young New Zealanders are sleeping rough, living hard, and determined to bring some warmth to a cold London Christmas.

South Kensington is elegant. It is 20 minutes walk to the most prestigious address in the world, Eaton Square, and five minutes to Highgate, where flowers are still piled outside Princess Diana's mansion. The houses there are three storeys high, gorgeous white plaster with columned entrances and wide steps.

In a three-bedroom basement flat live 19 Kiwis. At least they think there are 19. Sometimes it's hard to tell and, anyway, numbers fluctuate.

Daniel and Luke are the flat bosses because, after six months, they have been there the longest. They sleep in bunk beds in the best room. They have wide, homemade-looking wooden beds, and huge cupboards to store their dormant backpacks and Hawaiian shirts. Another two guys sleep in a spooky little freezing room out back, which makes you have strange dreams. The third room has two bunk beds and a single bed, and is strung with washing and piles of fish- patterned duvets and clothes.

So that makes seven people paying about 50 pounds stg (just under NZ$200) each per bed. The counting problem comes at night. They reckon 19 is a record, up on the previous 16.

The dossers, who sleep on the floor, pay 30 pounds stg a week. The money pays for the stereo, which softly plays a soundtrack from The Gathering -- the annual New Year dance party on a mountain top near Nelson -- and the enormous television for watching the rugby. This money also covers the video and all the kitchen gadgets.

The lounge windows are edged with Tui Beer stickers. A New Zealand flag hangs next to maps of New Zealand and the world, crowned by a pair of Lion Red underpants and cap. A Hawaiian lei and the flat slogan, Battling, cut from a newspaper headline, are pinned on a dart board.

Each of the two worn, three-seater couches carries a sleeping body, and mattresses spread across the floor take an estimated five, wrapped up in sleeping bags. It looks like more Kiwis are rolled up in the shadows around the edges.

Bruce says he used to sleep under a picnic table in the corner, because that meant no-one would step on him. One night, however, someone stepped on his legs. He sat up, bashed his head on the table's underside, and knocked himself out.

Chris is asleep on a mattress in the hallway and you have to walk along the edge of his sheet to get into the lounge or one of the bedrooms.

These guys and two girls are having enormous fun living in such a jumble; the time of their lives, in fact. They're all young, aged between 20 and 28, and fresh from New Zealand.

Possibly the first time they will have pangs of homesickness will come about December 25.

They'll be hanging out, a herd of maybe 30, cooking a vast roast dinner, making the place like home with decorations and a tree, and consuming staggering quantities of booze.

At about 2pm the phone will start ringing from New Zealand and they will try not to slur.

Everyone has to bring a 5 present that is put in a sack and handed out.

Megan, who has been in England for 20 months and has returned to South Kensington briefly to doss down after travelling, spent last Christmas in the flat. Actually, she arrived later in the morning, having been in hospital getting a cast on her arm after falling over outside a pub the night before.

"You have no family here so all your friends are your family. I thought I was going to be homesick, but in the end no-one thought about their families."

But you can't replace the sun. Or the beach. Their tongues linger over the words, as if warming their mouths.

London is increasingly cold and dank. By Christmas, the sun will set about 4pm. It won't rise until after 8am. Temperatures are diving and, if you want a festive barbecue, you will have to wear gloves, hats, and giant coats, and stand in the rain.

The strangest thing about Christmas in London hits, in fact, on Christmas Eve.

In New Zealand that is one of the busiest nights of the year. Everyone goes home to Invercargill and Mangatanoka and Wanganui, and they all meet up with mates and get home towards dawn, despite yet again having promised Mum they would not have hangovers on Christmas Day.

But in London, the pubs shut early on Christmas Eve. About 10.30pm there is nowhere to go and the streets are silent but for drunk Antipodeans and other Christmas orphans.

On Christmas Day public transport shuts down so, in a city where many have no car, you are stranded.

Wade, once a chef at the Boatshed restaurant in Christchurch, now works at the upmarket Royal Horseguards Hotel where Jenny Shipley and the English rugby team stay when they're in town.

He will have to sleep at the five-star hotel so he can work on Christmas and Boxing Day, to his overwhelming joy. "I get a room to myself, and sheets. And a shower any time."

Quite a few are heading north to Edinburgh. Last year, a bunch hit Andorra. It's cheap and the wine is plentiful.

And, yes, they will all be together.

You have to keep asking why they would live like this. They share a bathroom with 10 toothbrushes, peeling walls, and a pink toilet and sink. Their flat has a narrow, dark corridor with holes in the carpets, and bikes and an ironing board against the wall. The tiny kitchen has enormous pots and pans, and Marmite in the cupboards.

They are probably earning the most money they have ever had.

Chippies get about 100 pounds stg a day, most of the others get about 60 pounds stg. Information technology people command 18 pounds stg an hour, and Warren, who works in data entry in a bank, pulled in 350 pounds stg last week, but that included a lot of overtime.

It all seems to come down to having such a great time with so many people. You're never short of a friend or a drinking buddy, or mates for wild adventures - or Christmas.

"It's just what you do in London," says Luke. He and Daniel had brothers or sisters who came before them so they knew what to expect.

"You come here with aspirations. You think you're going to get a real job and you're not going to get dragged down into this student-type life. But then you meet people who live here, and it's fun and cheap and you have more money for travelling," another says.

They meet travelling or working in pubs.

Chris, who is saving money and sending it home to pay off his mortgage in Christchurch, got to London nine months ago knowing just two people, one of whom he saw for the first time a few weeks back. The other has gone home. He started working in a bar at night because he never met anyone while he worked as a plumber during the day, and got in with the South Kensington crew.

Two weeks ago they hired two vans, drove to Manchester, parked around the corner from a pub, and eventually slept in the back.

There was also the time they went on a pub crawl, and after 11 or 12 establishments stumbled across a rather hang-dog looking Hugh Grant. The lounge wall is festooned with a million snaps of boozing, unconciousness, pashing, and groups in pubs and on beaches. Others record the time the boys ran with the bulls in Pamplona and discovered you had to watch out for police batons instead of the ambling, unexpectedly peaceful bulls. There are postcards from Paris, Argentina, and Iowa.

Having so many people in the flat, they have to be organised.

Daniel keeps a book that records who owes what. He makes sure the 310 pounds stg rent is paid and sorts out complaints - mainly about people not pulling their weight. He makes sure shopping is done on Mondays, with everyone's 10 pounds stg weekly contribution. He also makes sure that someone, usually a dosser, cooks for everyone. They concentrate on bulky foods, and baked beans, which cost 5p an economy can, and spaghetti for 9p a can. On Mondays they usually have bangers and mash - speedy and cheap.

It used to be spag bog, but everyone got sick of it.

The chippies - there are seven of them - wait their turn to shower at night. Another three, who work in offices or nurse, shower in the mornings. Most of the guys leave the door open so other people can come in and brush their teeth. You just can't be modest here.

And if someone wants a bit of loving they get home early, shut the door in an obvious manner, and make it quick. Everyone usually knows who has scored anyway, so they either sleep in the lounge or wait a while and then knock loudly before going into their communal bedroom.

This flat is relatively conservative. You hear about the flat in Acton where one guy sleeps in a 1.2m cuboard under the stairs, below a live circuit board. For one party, the Kiwi and Aussie hosts knocked out the roof panes of the conservatory, lit a fire, and roasted a pig.

No-one is in a hurry to go home. When the visa runs out they will move to Ireland and work for a year. Then they might go to France, or Holland, where everyone in Amsterdam speaks English anyway, so it's easy.

Eventually, however, they will cross the world again.

The Kiwi butcher around the corner, who has lived in London for maybe 20 years, had built up a fine little business delivering meat to restaurants and caterers. He was married with a child, but left suddenly a few months back.

He had taken his daughter to a London park and made her take off her shoes to walk on the grass. She complained it felt nasty.

He pondered the child's upbringing, packed up, and went back to New Zealand where children are used to bare feet on the grass, clean air, and Christmas in summer.


Caption: London, Big Ben AL NISBET

Elinore Wellwood, Christchurch Press, 16 December 2000

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