Thursday, October 03, 2002

My younger brother was young enough not to notice the difference. My older brother loved all of the differences: running barefoot in the sun, playing rugby, and fishing and shooting and swimming. My older sister wanted to fit it immediately and had lost any traces of a British accent within months, becoming a real privileged white South African, in voice and mentality.

As for me: I didn't like the heat, didn't like the dust, didn't like the accents, didn't like the outdoor lifestyle, didn't like the fact there was no telly. I didn't like the fact we moved around so much, didn't make any friends. I didn't understand apartheid, but I didn't like it. I didn't like the schools, didn't like the bullies, the hatred. I didn't like the smell of fear, even if I didn't recognise it for what it was.

When we moved to SA, I was forced to repeat two-and-a-half years of schooling simply because I was too young. And after doing my O'Levels in Swaziland, I had to repeat the last year again, as O'Levels weren't recognised in SA. So by the time I did matric at the age of 18, I'd already done three-and-a-half years more schooling than other kids my age. I was sick of academia. The last thing I wanted was to go to university (and even if I had wanted to, my parents couldn't have afforded to send me there).

Had we stayed here, I would have finished my O'Levels at 15, and my A'Levels at 17. I probably would have gone to university, as - thanks to the education system here - it wouldn't have bankrupted my parents.

One of the consequences of moving around so much, and attending so many schools, was that I found it hard to make and keep friends. As soon as I got close to someone, we were whisked off to another school in another part of the country. I believe that as a result of this, I keep my guard up even today.

Had we stayed in England, perhaps I would have had the same friends throughout my school years. Perhaps I'd be more open, more trusting. Then again, perhaps I'd be just the same. Or worse off: I doubt the seventies were an ideal time up north for a sensitive wee thing.

Back in SA, my nomadic school life had given me a need for stability. Instead of ambition, I craved security. Because I didn't have a degree, I took a dead-end job. I became an apprentice in the government printing works.

In the UK, armed with a degree, the world would have been, as Frankie was bellowing, my oyster. I would perhaps have gone into something like advertising. On the other hand, perhaps I - like millions of other young people in the 80s - wouldn't have found a job at all. Maybe I'd be on the dole, using the system. At least the absence of a social security system in SA means I have a good work ethic, refusing to take hand-outs.

One of my greatest regrets, when I lived in South Africa, was that I could never get to see any of my favourite bands or singers. Only bland middle-of-the-road acts dared break the cultural boycott, and the sheer distance made South African tours economically impossible for the small indie acts I loved. It wasn't until I moved back to the UK that I finally got to attend a proper gig. In England, I would have spent the 80s and 90s seeing all the bands I could. I would have seen the Smiths at their peak, Depeche Mode when they were still playing clubs, I would have followed Marc Almond around the country. And abroad, of course, for I could have travelled extensively - something I couldn't do in South Africa. I would have backpacked around Europe when young, travel broadening the mind and all that.

The gay scene in Johannesburg wasn't bad - there were three or four bars and a pretty big club. I imagine it was like the scene in Bristol or Leeds. Or Stockholm. Johannesburg was certainly the city to live in if you were gay, and that was one of the reasons I moved there. Just as you can bet that if I'd been in England, I'd have moved to London as soon I could.

I look at myself now - a master of London's gay scene, with hundreds of friends in hundreds of bars, a thousand conquests in a thousand days - and I don't recognise the quiet, shy wallflower I was back in SA. But how much of my new-found confidence is due to geography, and how much is due to age and maturity? Perhaps I would have overcome much of my social ineptness by now even if I had stayed in SA.

And what if I had launched myself onto the London scene at 18? Would I have become caught up in a whirlwind of drugs and sex? Would I have become jaded and bitter at a young age? I would have entered the gay scene just as Aids was becoming front page headlines - perhaps I'd now be dead.

Who knows?

Who can say how much one's personality has to do with environment? It's the old nature-or-nurture dilemma. Maybe I would have a fabulous life: loads of friends, a successful career. Maybe I'd be lonely and jobless, living from giro to giro. Maybe I'd still have had a crisis of confidence at thirty, and would have moved to another country - South Africa perhaps. Or maybe I'd just be the same generally happy person I am now, with only the names and places changed.

Hey, maybe I'd now be writing a blog entry about how different my life could have been if my dad had dared to move us to South Africa the way he had always dreamed!

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