In Conversation with Peter Wood
By Andrew Ashley
“This isn’t a coming out story as such. It’s just a book about a boy growing up. I hope that people will read it and think ‘I know him. That could be me.’” Peter Wood was talking about his new book Mud Between Your Toes: A Rhodesian Farm, based on the diaries he kept as a boy in the 1970s.
Boarding school in Rhodesia “was oozing with tradition, all boaters and blazers ... I was desperate not to be seen as gay so I was always trying to be tougher and rowdier than anyone else, smoking and drinking more – and constantly having to bend over for yet another lashing by the headmaster.”
The boy in question was growing up on a 13,000 acre farm in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), where leopards and hippos, snakes and crocodiles were regular visitors and the vicious Rhodesian Bush War was an ever-present background to daily life. But Peter was absolutely right. Despite the exotic setting, the cast of larger than life characters and the frequent tragedies of an unforgiving civil war, Mud Between Your Toes is a growing up story par excellence, with many themes common to such stories – confusion, concealment, a struggle for identity and, not least, raging hormones. It’s keenly observed, self aware and wholly absorbing.
But back to the conversation. Peter had begun by talking about the tragic events at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, which had taken place a couple of days previously. “What a horrific thing. Both the attack itself and the consequences it’s bound to have. Gay people need places where they can feel at home, know that they’re safe. That’s so important.”
He recalled how he first experienced this sense of security. “As soon as the war was over and sanctions were lifted, I fled Rhodesia, along with so many others. I settled in London and immediately felt very much at home.”
This was the London of the early ’80s: it was little more than a decade since homosexual activity had been decriminalised in the UK and there was a hectic party atmosphere. “It was fantastic. I immersed myself in the bar and club scene, knew all the drag queens, spent hours in the piano bars in Soho.” But Peter’s reminiscences had a serious point. “I had a lot of fun but it also made me appreciate the value of a solid, vibrant gay community. I’d never had anything like that in Rhodesia and I started to realise what I’d been missing. I’m worried we’re losing it now, as bars become more mixed and technology offers other ways of hooking up. Both positive developments but I miss the old gay scene.”
Peter’s elegiac tone didn’t last long, however. Talking about his book, he was soon back in the turbulent world of Rhodesia in the ’70s, giving a flavour of what makes the book so fascinating.
“My father was an exceptionally hard man – very Edwardian in his outlook. He was the fourth generation of his family in Rhodesia, the descendant of tough pioneers from Scotland who had helped open up the country. Anyway, my siblings and I were terrified of him.” But this forbidding portrait was followed by affectionate anecdotes, such as the daily ritual of five-year-old Peter lighting his father’s cigarette and inhaling the smoke as their battered Land Rover bounced around the farm. Or the family car being crammed with elephant tusks, cigarettes and other contraband to be smuggled over the border to Mozambique, in a (usually failed) effort to pay for vacations on Indian Ocean beaches, where the young Peter lusted after sexy Portuguese surfers.
This childhood life of freedom in the wilds of southern Africa was interrupted when Peter was sent away to the much more regimented existence of a boarder at the prestigious Prince Edward School in Salisbury, as the capital, now Harare, was then known.
“It was oozing with tradition, all boaters and blazers,” Peter recalled. “I was desperate not to be seen as gay so I was always trying to be tougher and rowdier than anyone else, smoking and drinking more – and constantly having to bend over for yet another lashing by the headmaster.” The strategy didn’t work. “I was still bullied and the anti-establishment behaviour became ever wilder until the headmaster made it perfectly clear that I was no longer wanted at Prince Edward.”
There had been interesting interludes though. “I fell in love with John, a cross-country runner. It was more than a schoolboy crush but there was nothing I could do about it.” Nothing, that is, until Peter finally wrote his book. “John is now the head of a well-known private school in Sydney and I felt I wanted to confess so I wrote to him and sent a copy of the book. He’d never suspected but he found it hilarious.”
Then there was the vacation in the Seychelles, when a Royal Australian Navy submarine came into port. Fifteen-year-old Peter left his parents in the bar to follow Arnie, an Aussie sailor, to his chalet. “Arnie was tough, rough, and had a certain amount of louche charm. In the next three hours he taught me everything there is to know. And then the holiday was over and everything was bottled up again.”
After leaving school, with no idea of what he wanted to do with his life, Peter spent a year in the Rhodesian Light Infantry. As he memorably summed it up, “It was a really tough unit but I loved the uniform.” The closing chapters of the book include some highly entertaining stories of military life, given added poignancy by the constant presence of the brutal struggle for Rhodesia.
Peter’s new life of freedom in London was the end of the diaries and he did nothing with them for more than thirty years, when Lachlan Colquhoun, a journalist and close friend, read them. “Lachlan tried to persuade me to write this book,” said Peter. “I really didn’t want to. When we come out, we create the person we want to be. I went through all that when I left Rhodesia and for a long time I didn’t want to revisit the bastard I was then. Now I’m glad I’ve told my story.” A feeling that will be shared by everyone at the upcoming TLG meeting and all readers of Mud Between Your Toes