Whilst in Hong Kong, I had the opportunity to speak with Peter Wood, author of the book ‘Mud Between Your Toes’, in which he writes about what it was like growing up during the Rhodesian Bush War. With an amazing sense of humour and some next level story telling skills, he led me through the maze of his youth, including the struggles that he had to endure whilst living on their farm as well as dealing with his sexuality in the 1970’s.
Why did you decide to turn your experiences into a book?
Well, I wasn’t going to for years. I kept telling stories about my past and everyone kept on saying ‘you have to write about it’. But you don’t and you don’t and then after my parents lost the farm, after Mugabe’s war veterans took it, it certainly became more poignant and more important. I actually had these diaries which I’d written from 1975 to 1979 and I had an incredible time. Bit of a strange child writing a diary. I hadn’t seen these diaries for years, and I never read them after writing them and for some reason they were in the safekeeping of a man called David Fox. David had them all boxed up with a few other things, and on the box was written ‘Pete Wood’s Life’. And every time he got sent on an assignment with his job, to Nairobi, Brussels, London, Chicago, even when he went on a stint for 2 years, the whole time he took along this bloody box.
Why did he value it so much?
He knew that there were diaries inside there. But every time he opened the box and threw out a few things. After a while, he put another label on the box saying ‘Pete Wood’s diminishing life’. Eventually all that was left were the five diaries. He came through Hong Kong, dumped them and said he didn’t want the responsibility, that I should do something about it. So I had a writer friend who started reading them – at that stage I still couldn’t bring myself to read them. My friend said, look, this is really good shit. You need to look at how life has changed between then and now, how teenagers have changed. I was gay, but there was also a civil war going on. There was an entry where I went to three funerals in one day – friends of mine, killed in separate incidents.
How old were you at the time?
I was 16. I can remember the funerals more for their wakes than the actual funeral now, whether it was a good party or wasn’t a good party. They were very emotional, yet nobody sat you down and asked if you were okay or if you were going to go and cut your wrists. Now, maybe, you would get that help but you didn’t get it then – let alone the whole sexuality thing, forget about that.
How did you deal with your sexuality in that environment?
I was quite a rugged thing, I dealt with it by swearing and becoming more rugged. My poor mum was trying to turn me into something which I wasn’t – she sent me to elocution lessons at the girl’s school so of course I got bullied even more. No one who was English back then wanted to have a really posh accent, because the English were putting sanctions on us. The Harold Wilson government, not the people in England, but the government were very persona non grata and they took it out on you if you didn’t have that South African accent. I spoke absolutely beautifully – and got beaten up for it. So I started building a Zimbabwe accent and became more rugged. Reading my diaries, I can’t believe I did any schoolwork. I seemed to be bunking off the whole time and getting drunk.
As soon as the opportunity did arise… we went on holiday to the Seychelles. An Australian submarine came into port. I was only 15 and a half, not yet 16. I was with my parents, and all these big burly sailors were at the bar, with big moustaches. My mother was particularly glamorous in the ‘70’s and they were all giving her attention, and then I noticed one looking at me. He asked ‘would you like to come to my chalet and have a beer?’ I thought, why, I already have one – and then the penny dropped. I said yes, and didn’t even think. In front of my parents I disappeared for three hours.
Did you go for it?
Oh, I did everything. Very uncomfortable! I can’t remember enjoying it, but it was a learning experience. I had never even been French kissed. He used a lot of amber solaire as lubricant and whenever I go to the beach and someone gets it out I go a bit faint. Ooh, I recognise that smell!
My parents being parents of the 1970’s, they screamed at me at first – I didn’t admit to anything – and then they bottled it up, until two years later. By then the civil war was absolutely at its height with people being killed every day.
In 1979 we were driving back at night, which we shouldn’t have been, and my friend in the back – as straight as they come – had a little bottle of perfume which was the perfume du jour.They had been giving out free samples and my brother had the bottle in his hand and we were smelling it in the back of the car. My father slammed on his breaks, we thought we had been ambushed, came to a silent deathly halt. Absolute silence. And then this hand reaches up and grabs the perfume. He said ‘what the fucking hell’s wrong with you? Why can’t you smell like a man? Why can’t you smell like life, boy? And another thing – what the fuck did happen that night in the Seychelles?’ I never told him. One day, after I left, when my dad was at the country club, in 1985, he was talking to a woman called Amanda, who I saw about a year ago. She said you know what, your father knew all along. He came up to me at the club and said ‘everyone thinks I’m so bloody stupid. I know that Pete’s gay.’ It was up to me to say something.
If people don’t understand it, then why rub their noses in it. I wanted to tell him on his deathbed. But the family said absolutely not. When I went to England, I was amazed how the average person in the street completely accepted gay people.
Why didn’t you leave South Africa?
If you left, you left as a pauper. You couldn’t take money out of the country, so we weren’t prepared to be refugees. We really believed we could fight for what we had, we didn’t think we would lose at that stage. My great-grandparents went out there and helped open up the country. And yeah, they took the land from the people who were there. I have arguments about that as well, but we had the farm for over 50 years. It was an absolute bush when my father got it and he took the trees out, it was beautiful and wild right up until I left – leopards and antelopes, a stunning farm. It was scary during the war, the farms were being attacked. They were the Achilles heel in that respect, the guerrillas were coming in and attacking them. The farmers gave as much as they got but it was hard, there were landmines on the road.
Where does the book start and end?
It starts in 1975 and ends in 1980, when I left the army. It does go back to 1880 when my ancestors moved out there, and comes back to the future here in Hong Kong. A few years ago when Zimbabwe was collapsing, going into hyperinflation – you couldn’t buy anything, you needed a suitcase of money to buy a loaf of bread – I decided to become a Chinese national. So I’m actually Chinese. My name is Mr. Wu not Mr. Wood! And they said to me at immigration in Hong Kong that I couldn’t get a passport because I wasn’t Chinese. I said, well, I’ll become Chinese. So racist! You can have ethnic Chinese who are British or Australian, but it doesn’t work the other way around. I asked who makes the decision, and they said it was the five of them in the room. The little guy I was talking to was quite cute and had a very nice uniform on, with lovely shiny clips on his shoulders.
It was like in slow motion, I put my hand on his hand, looked into his eyes, and said ‘do you know, you have a beautiful uniform.’ I knew I had it then. As I was leaving, he said ‘Mr. Wood, would you like to have lunch sometime.’ Never did, obviously got cold feet. Thank God, because when he stood up he was the same height as when sat down. I guess I could have rested a beer on his head. I was meant to come back for a second interview and do it in Chinese. I didn’t have to, so I think he pulled a few strings.
Peter’s book will be released on Amazon worldwide soon (https://www.facebook.com/MudBetweenYourToes/?fref=ts)
Interview by Alex Howlett