I first tried to write this book in 1985, just over a year after I had left South Africa, when I was still very young, at twenty-four, and clogged with emotion. The only way I could escape military conscription, without spending six years in jail, was to leave the country, seemingly forever. I arrived in England as a lost and lonely post-graduate student and, inbetween writing for the New Musical Express, I took an MA in International Journalism at City University in London. One of the tasks of that year-long course was to write a 10,000 word thesis – and I chose political exile as my uncertain subject.
My senior lecturer liked it enough to send it to Juliet Gardner – who was then an editor at Weidenfeld & Nicolson. She is now a respected historical writer and documentary maker. Juliet offered me a small advance to write a book about my experiences as a white South African boy growing up in suburbia before becoming a wayward English teacher in Soweto.
In those long-gone days before email, I used to write sample chapters on a small blue typewriter. I would then post them to Juliet.
At our third meeting she pointed out, quietly and gently, that I always wrote about "the book" in inverted commas. It was clear, as much to me as Juliet, that I didn't really believe in "the book". It was as much a mythical construct as an overblown exercise in confused writing.
She softened my disappointment by refusing my returned advance. I was allowed to keep the £750, which then represented 50% of my regal fee as a failed first-time author, and encouraged to keep writing.
"You'll write this book one day," Juliet promised me.
Under Our Skin, published twenty-seven years later, is about my father and me, and how he and my mother had done some heroic work against apartheid, in contrast to my melodramatic ravings. It is also about the detention of two doctors, Neil Aggett and Liz Floyd, which had affected me so much – especially when Neil became the only white South African to die in detention early in 1982. Finally, it is a book of departure, as I left my family home and South Africa forever.