It was July 1983 when I set off on the 18,327 kilometre journey to the Motherland. Off on my OE. London bound. I cried half the way. An outpouring of watery grief at what I was leaving behind and benign wonderment at what I might be in search of. I was 18.
My English grandfather and Scottish great-grandfather might have had similar misgivings when they made the journey in the opposite direction at 16 and 17 respectively. Although they travelled steerage, on sailing ships, not Singapore Airlines. $1259. One way. They weren’t five pound poms, but young men leaving their families to seek work and love and life at the very bottom of the world. I was on my way to the top.
I’d studied advertising and marketing at AUT then ended up taking a French paper at Uni and cleaning urinals in a nightclub in Symonds Street. When a sleepy flatmate inadvertently dobbed me into the dole folks it was timely I split.
I’ll pay for your ticket, said my Paris based father. No, I will. I went home to Waipukurau. My hands grew large at the freezing works in Takapau and my asymmetrical Auckland haircut grew out. Robert Muldoon was PM. Wages for unskilled labour were lofty. I did 5am starts and overtime and saved $1128 after four weeks.
The term OE, it’s thought, was coined by cartoonist and columnist Tom Scott. But I wasn’t headed to an Earls Court flat of token Con Tiki Tours and the Munich Beer Fest, to clutch onto ingrained kiwi colonial ties that had kept London on its capital-of-the-world pedestal for generations. To do my obligatory TIME then slope back home. I wasn’t going to pull warm pints in a pub. Or get pissed at The Church on Sundays. I planned to blend in. Best of British.
I attended Queens Secretarial College, South Kensington. Me the antipodean punk-ette, fashioned by Saturday walks along the Kings road, nail scissors and Elnett, sat amongst the sweet Olivias and Camillas in Next shirt dresses, fresh from reading English and politics. Together we formed tight friendships over milky coffees and Kit Kats in the low-ceilinged basement canteen with its squeaky red linoleum. Queens was our finishing school, thanks to Daddies wanting daughters to have necessary life skills. One being. Touch typing.
I lived on a barge near Battersea Bridge with a bunch of poms. We smelt of gas heating and shared clothes. Sweet Dreams are Made of This, sang new wave duo, The Eurythmics, at the Hammersmith Odeon. And Paralyzed, droned post-punk legends, Gang of Four, at the Lyceum. Friends from NZ wrote letters of envy. You’re so lucky. Yet still I dreamt of the sun on the Hauraki Gulf and blissed out drives to west coast beaches, of sparkly wide oceans on those gloomy London days. Kiwi girl lost.
We took dictation with Miss Potts after lunches of gin and tonics and pork scratchings. She was a kindly woman who secured her side parting with a bobby pin and her bosom with the waistband of her plaid skirt. She enunciated every word clearly as she gripped her Pitman New Era Shorthand firmly, ‘Dear Sir…’.
We practiced typing, a jarring clickety-clack percussion orchestra of twenty. But no matter how carefully I bashed at those Olivetti keys, I couldn’t get above 35 words per minute. Meanwhile, my weight fell to an androgynous-size thanks to the endorphin induced high from eating virtually nothing. I’d taken control of being in a foreign land. As had a new habit. Chocolate laxatives.
I perfected a Sloane Ranger accent and graduated with my Secretarial Diploma meal ticket. Soon after moving into an ugly flat, oddly named Regina Court, I turned 20. I said goodbye to my punk self at the Vidal Sassoon Hairdressing School. Hello urchin and hello temp work thank goodness. I was down to my last 25 quid. I splattered Twink over expensive letterhead at R. H Owen Rolls Royce Dealers and The Imperial War Museum and deciphered spicy penciled address coupons in the BBC’s Bengali section.
I had rent money and Lager money and London. I went to a Cure concert and sang along with khohled-eyed crazy haired Robert Smith. Boys Don’t Cry. I received mixed tapes of The Chills, The Clean, The Spines and The Wastrals. And couldn’t decide whose music was better. Edgier. Like the ID magazines I read and punks who rode the tube with pet pink rats on their shoulders. I went to 21st parties in the country, plays in the West End and Camden market on Sundays. Queen's old girls got married in Picadilly and Jersey. I got punched in the head by a drunk at the Nottinghill Carnival. London had it all.
I bluffed my way into a full-time job at design consultancy Fitch and Co. I bashed out site reports for my designers on my IBM Golfball, oftentimes smoking a B & H with my feet resting on the desk. Work lunches were long and liquid at wine bars in Soho Square. Our Xmas party took over the Hippodrome. One big hard working happy family. We were.
I grew plump on Holstein pills and the late night chippie. My blood pressure rose and chloasma formed on my upper lip and cheeks thanks to six monthly trips to the Margaret Pyke Centre and the high dose estrogen pill they prescribed. The economy was booming and Aids hadn’t arrived. Remaining infertile a matter of course.
Whoever I’d gone to the other side of the world to find was quickly disappearing. I loathed my burgeoning body and hid it under Joe Casely-Hayford shirts. On winter weekends, I walked for miles. Over Lambeth bridge, along the Thames, past Big Ben along Birdcage walk, up Constitution Walk to Hyde park and back. Hungover from the grey of it all. I sprayed my hair with Sun-in. There was no sun. My OE stripes well and truly earned.
‘Are you ever coming back?’my Mum asked.
My sister turned up after a year in South America in knitted leather. She said I looked like something out of Harper’s Bazaar and was scary I was so posh and different. We escaped our Paris parents for the Algarve. A reunion over cheap red wine, olives and cuttlefish. By the sea. Our skin browned on topless beaches, our hair bleached itself back to kiwi-sun-kissed. Then it was back to London. My job. Her chance to have her fix. Twisted sisters. Out clubbing or dancing in our flat to, Talking Heads’ concert movie Stop Making Sense.
We finally went home for Christmas 1985. Two and half years later. With return tickets. Never used.
‘I don’t know how anyone who talks like that can have any fun?’ They said. And, ‘Cor you’ve put on a bit of beef.’
Within weeks, I seduced my future husband in a skin tight orange dress in club Brat on Nelson Street. Then I starved myself with the help of Duromine from a Parnel health collective. A clinic not dissimilar to the Harley Street doctors where I’d paid through the nose for diet pills and a diuretic shot through my sternum, in the desperate hope of returning as I’d left. I exercised at night. Running on dark Devonport streets over a wet Auckland winter. Re-emerging that summer, when the sun glistened on whitecaps on Auckland Harbour, lighter and free of my cultured accent and wanderlust.