From Firepool: Experiences in an Abnormal World.
‘Oh – you’re the one who wrote the Dictionary.’
I often get this, when I run into someone who went to my school, or his parents.
Yes, I wrote the Dictionary. I have copy in front of me now, not the original but a reissue. It is a photocopied A5 booklet that was put together by a well-meaning teacher, long after I had left the all-boys boarding school where I lived through my body’s 13th to 18th years. This was 1992 to 1997 in world-historical time, so an era of major political and hormonal transitions.
During my final year, I conscripted a team of juniors and sent them out with notepads into the various boarding houses like 19th-century anthropologists, telling them to bring back exotic words and help me type them up. Perhaps because of the school’s physical isolation in the foothills of the Drakensberg (I speculate in the Foreword), ‘a very large and colourful body of indigenous terms has developed amongst its pupils’. In my last week at Milton College, I printed off a few hundred copies on the sly and sold them. The reissue was produced (I was told) when the one remaining original in the school library fell to bits through being consulted so often.
It is a highly embarrassing document. Not just because the revised edition includes a picture of me (with centre parting) on the cover and several of my schoolboy poems. The Dictionary, which I have only mustered the courage to revisit in preparation for writing this piece, is a deep core drill into a world of shame, anxiety, embarrassment – with generous servings of sexism, homophobia and bigotry. Adolescence, in other words, but adolescence in a particular place, and at a particular time. And the fact that everyone can’t see how embarrassing it is makes the whole thing more embarrassing still. The only time I have raised the matter myself was when I ran into one of my assistants, years after school.
‘You mean 1001 words for homosexual?’ he said.
I let the subject drop. But now I am writing this to fill in everything between the entries that I so confidently recorded, thinking of myself only as the disinterested observer, when I was in it up to my neck.
Mainly, though, I want to write about skin.
Recently I saw a televised debate on whiteness during which a panellist (the daughter of a rich mining dynasty from Johannesburg) recited a poem called ‘Sorry for My Skin’. I want to take that title more literally, more clinically. I look at my skin and do feel genuinely sorry for it. Pity it, I mean: this organ that has clearly taken, and continues to take, such a beating from just being in the world. Flayed by the sun of course – sun is poison to white skin, if we are honest – but by all kinds of other traumas. For about ten years it felt like almost everything that could have gone wrong with my skin did go wrong. Call it a case of pityriasis, an embarrassing rash to go with all the others.
Eczema, dandruff, athlete’s foot – fairly common. But also: psoriasis, boils, seborrhoeic dermatitis. Scabies, from the Latin scabere: to scratch – nocturnal itchings caused by burrowing mites. Verrucae that I needed a general anaesthetic to have cut out of my heels. Even a real outlier like scombroid poisoning, caused by histamine that builds up in bad tuna, a food poisoning manifested not in the gut but in skin that is set aflame, redder than the worst sunburn. Sunburn, the worst, many times. Prickly heat, Dhobi’s itch, pruritis. More itching, ecstasies of itching, that self-worsening phenomenon that triggers the same neural pathways as chemical addiction. Writing some of the most important exams in my life with shoulders sunburned purple and ravenously itching thighs – it made something out of me. What? A materialist, I like to think, in a deep, philosophical sense. And then: acne.
But not just standard acne. ‘Cystic’ or ‘nodular’ or (even the terminology is unbearable) ‘conglobate’ acne. Acne conglobata. Acne vulgaris. A condition that, I contend, has not often been written about, a world-ending metamorphosis that has not found adequate literary expression.
At around age 14, trapped sebum and dead cells began to build underneath my skin, creating painful cysts. Not pustules or papules (though I had those too), but nodules. A pustule or papule offers the possibility of being squeezed and its contents voided from the skin. A nodule should not be squeezed: it is too deeply embedded. But at the same time, the longer it stays, the worse the scarring – irresolvable, Catch-22 acne. Acne that those who fret about lone pimples before a date (and isn’t most of the discourse around bad skin along these pseudo-Romantic lines?) just cannot understand.
‘Ah, I’m disgusting. Look at this big boy on my neck’, my dorm mates would say, fussing around with creams, trying to ‘Oxycute’ the offending zit, going to bed with toothpaste dotting their faces. I looked on stoically, enduring the roundabout insult. Please, I thought. No local or topical remedy for me; no cosmetics or concealer sticks would help. My acne was structural.
To live in your body, to be conscious of your body, to be ‘present’ in your body – this is a good thing, yoga teachers and life coaches tell us. Breathing, being aware of our strengthening backs, large muscle groups aching deliciously after exercise – who would argue? But the kind of consciousness of the body I want to evoke here is something else. It is looking at a fingernail clipping, or the pile of hair on the floor of the salon, or the yellow armpit of a white shirt and thinking: what has this got to do with me? What has this got to do with my lovely brain and my important thoughts?
One of the first nodules appeared right between my eyebrows. I didn’t want to touch it, but I touched it all the time – in Afrikaans, through Double Maths – trying to work out how big it was, this egg of pain that had announced my imminent demotion from boy-king to red-bearded adolescent. Was it as big as my fingertips told me (golf ball), or as big as what I could see in the one small square of dormitory mirror (olive pip) that I crept up to in secret?
But nothing could be in secret; this was a private school with no privacy.
‘Got a rhino horn going there? Are you a fucking rhino now?’
You were forced to live through your body’s changes in full view of everyone, forced to shower together in communal showers where you best keep your gaze above waist height, so as not to be accused of ‘cock-spying’.
‘And if you piss, you piss at the urinals, where we can see you. Not the toilets, understand?’
A difficult contradiction to navigate, given that 1) you (and your cock) should be invisible, because you (and it) were disgusting, but 2) you should also make yourself (and it) visible, available for inspection, at all times. There were many such paradoxes. In an institution like this – a strange confection of waspish Anglicanism, sports worship and lip service to academic excellence – trying to conform to one particular code would invariably bring you into violation of another. On the one hand, insistence on hard work, asceticism, community service; on the other, contempt for ‘braininess’, quasi-religious adoration of the rugby First XV, and, above all, the assumption not only that money and privilege are the things that matter, but also that it is better to inherit them than have to work for them.
I am stealing these insights from George Orwell’s essay ‘Such, Such Were the Joys’, in which he spends some 20 000 words analysing his schooldays in a tone of triumphant misery, with a real sense of relish, in fact. He was revising the memoir on his deathbed, as if at the end of a writing life tangled up with the greatest historical ructions of the 20th century – imperialism, fascism, totalitarianism – it was these school years that offered some of the most formative insights into power, with ‘Crossgates’ becoming a kind of petri dish in which its operations and cultures could be examined most closely.
In my first year at Milton College, seniors would wake us up in the middle of the night and force us to go swimming. While we were all obediently (and nakedly) treading water in the dark, they would alert our housemaster. The next morning they sat on benches in the Main Quad, watching as we each filed in for a beating – a nice night’s entertainment. I ran out and hid behind the saloon doors of a toilet cubicle. It wasn’t the pain but the intense shame that made me cry – a raging, scombroid blush that consumed my whole being.
Right down to its architecture and its lingo, Milton had been modelled on the English ‘public’ (i.e. private) schools of the 19th century. But while schools in England had modernised and evolved, ours remained in a time warp, trapped in the colonial lag. I registered this when I attended my father’s (and grandfather’s) old school in Sussex, one of the original prototypes, for a year of A-levels after finishing matric.
It had the same vaguely prison-like H-block of quadrangles, sacrosanct lawns and red-brick chapel, but in most other ways had been slowly reformed. It was coeducational, filled with students from around the world: Korea, Dubai, Argentina. No uniform, sports regarded as a bit of a joke, detailed anti-bullying protocols tacked up on the walls – and all rather dull. A bland place in which I found myself missing the cruel comedy and narrative fertility of my South African schooldays, and regarding myself as a man among boys. Though not among girls: it would take years before I learned how to speak to women.
With the uprooting and transplanting of such cultures to the colonies in the 19th century, the contradictions embedded in the English public school system ramified still further. In apartheid South Africa, these bastions of conservatism became the progressive option in some ways – at least for white families – since private institutions became multi-racial earlier than government schools, which remained segregated. So I had left a whites-only (but coed) state primary on the Highveld to attend a racially mixed (but single sex) private school. Most pupils arrived in Standard Seven, but I had come as a Standard Six – spending a first, academically undemanding year with a small cohort.
There were some ‘day boys’ in this initial year, but the full-time boarders with me were mainly from Zulu and Tswana families. Phila and Lesego, the tall football captains, already well into puberty, were heroic figures to us. There was Thabo, who got spotted as presenter for a new, multiracial kids programme on TV, and Sihle, who taught me how to change a duvet cover. And two Mphos: one who was friendly and one whom I fought with on the field one day – or at least he just lifted up my khaki shirt collar and then discarded me, not even bothering.
But that first year was more gentle, a late boyhood idyll before high school proper began. I was in thrall to long fantasy novels and spent afternoons staring at the lawns in front of the boarding house, imagining how various configurations of grass stalks, clover and kikuyu represented a world of different kingdoms and armies. In this epic trilogy, The Riftwar Saga, some kind of gap in space-time had opened up and violent, conquering races were streaming through from another world. Midway through the long afternoons, one of the kitchen ladies would wheel a juice trolley out onto the lawns. Bright orange juice with a sour, sherbety edge – good juice.
Nelson Mandela is free but I am living inside my head. I have escaped the mining town. I am so consumed by this trilogy that I wake up early and go to read alone in the dining hall. The housemaster sees me in his early rounds and smiles at ‘The Professor’. Another of those mornings, we are revising for exams and I remember Thabo explaining to me (on request) about masturbation, using a fineliner pen to demonstrate what one should do to get ‘the feeling’.
How green can one person be? My comrades laugh as they ask me what ‘erection’ means and I explain rather impatiently that it refers to the putting up or construction of something, like a building. Or the Cross, for that matter. I am paraded around, asked to trot out this definition: ‘He reads the dictionary for fun!’ Another time, Lesego beckons us into the moonlit toilets to see the spunk running out of his penis – the first pupil in our year to achieve this feat. We are jubilant.
The black pupils complain about the winter, and how it dries them out. They are forever rubbing in creams with great attention, lathering Vaseline Intensive Care into their skins. Or perhaps that is just how I remember it, since this ritual – this loving self-attention to keeping the epidermis moist – became a marker of strangeness and difference, something to joke and smirk about: ‘Leave that stupid cream of yours, man!’
This whole Vaseline Intensive discourse was a classic demonstration of how ideology works to create a reality that has little to do with the real. A superstructure of values and judgements had been erected whereby it was their skins that could have been seen as anomalous: the skins of the majority of the country’s population, the dark skins that had evolved under these skies, that age so much better than white skins.
‘The so-called white races are really pinko-grey,’ wrote EM Forster. Looking at my skin now, 37 years in, it also seems blue-grey, sometimes even grey-green. So endlessly pitted and pocked, creased a thousand ways, each pore triangulated to about six, seven, eight other of its fellows via a cracked mud pan of rivulets and wrinkles.
As with powerful telescopes, the more vision you train on a segment of this universe, the more you will see: galaxies of freckles and sunspots, the epidermal equivalent of new quasars or other deep sky objects. Scar gazing. Then those singularities, moles: points of dark foreboding poised between melanin and melanoma. Each one of them a potential double agent, a possible traitor; each one diligently photographed by my dermatologist. A ‘mole map’ is lodged on his hard drive: a deeply conservative landscape in which any shifting border may spell danger. But there are many skin marks that have no names, that go beyond the conceptual net of language. Raised, sandpapery patches that don’t quite seem to qualify as warts – what are they? Glassy speckles like microburns from a spatter of hot oil – mysterious. Then the quills of hair, thousands of them; sometimes the odd thicker, more wiry Morgellons-like fibre twisting out, as if a pubic strand were taking its chances elsewhere: shoulder, eyebrow, upper cheek. You rip it out and out it comes in its neat plastic sheath, its little bulb – a jolt of hot, satisfying skin pain.
‘Does it hurt?’
A year or two later and I am in the snake pit, skin going lumpy with painful cysts that very quickly revealed who was a saint and who was a devil.
‘I bet they hurt. Yoh.’
At the back of Double Maths, Thabang is taunting me under his breath, despite his own struggle with razor bumps (pseudofolliculitis barbae). We sit at a twin desk and nothing can deter him from these sotto voce sessions, not even my having memorised the whole of Biggie’s verse from ‘Notorious Thugs’ to try and impress him: ‘Been in this shit since ’92 / Look-at-all-the-bullshit I been through.
‘They hurt, don’t they? Yoh, yoh, yoh. They look sore.’
Acne, etymologically from the same Greek root as acme: highest or culminating point. Prime, zenith, flower of life; of a disease: crisis.
Turning to the entries on skin in my Dictionary quickly reveals the diabolical ingenuity of human communities as they beget insults, nicknames, neologisms. Given that our Standard Eight history teacher’s idea of teaching was simply to screen and rescreen episodes of Sir Laurence Olivier narrating The World at War, we all knew that Operation Barbarossa (Italian for ‘red beard’) was the code name for the Nazi invasion of Soviet Russia. And so the word attached itself to those suffering from the kind of acne that comes on like a red beard.
Bad enough, but it could be worse. This was a world in which you could have the concept of a zit or a chorb – the signified, the thing itself – named after you. Once there was a sufferer of terrible acne called David. In a process of horrifying transference (horrifying for him, hysterical for the rest of us), the word was knocked down from proper to common noun: ‘david’ came to refer to a particularly large facial pimple, viz: ‘I have a david on my nose.’ Another example: once there was an acne sufferer who was spotted surreptitiously feeding bits of his troubled skin into his mouth while on a school trip, and the whole bus took up the chant of ‘Padkos! Padkos!’ – the Afrikaans word meaning ‘food for the road’, the kind of picnic you would pack for a journey. And so within hours you could be said to have ‘a padkos’ on your face – in the sense that you were portaging edible goods.
These registers of experience are revolting, and seldom written about – or, at least, were very hard to find in print during the pre-Google era. I had to wait to discover the literary outlier Jean Genet before finding a rare expression of something that happened all the time at my school: ‘I bury myself beneath the covers and gather in my cupped hands my crushed farts, which I carry to my nose. They open to me hidden treasures of happiness. I inhale, I suck in.’ But (he goes on) ‘only the odour of my own farts delights me … Even the faintest doubt as to whether an odour comes from me or someone else is enough for me to stop relishing it.’ This literary avant-gardism was part of our daily experience: crushed farts were carried to noses all the time, mid-conversation, mid-meal in the dining halls.
Orwell, Genet: laureates of male revulsion, both drawn to smell. Both willing to plumb the depths of self-abasement and corruption; both, at the same time, profoundly liberating writers. This is, I suppose, why I am probing these, the limit zones of disgust: political disgust, personal disgust, but also the intimate and democratic rankness of bodily disgust – in the belief that such an investigation might be a prelude to true metamorphosis, acceptance, love.
Once a year we had compulsory school photographs. We lined up in our respective subgroups: the choir, the Toastmasters Society, the complex hierarchy of sports teams adding to that huge visual archive of maleness that goes back generations. Crossed rackets, crossed oars, crossed arms – trying to fluff up the biceps from below with the knuckles as we stood there in our string vests. When we dressed up in our smart uniforms for the House shot, there would be two versions: the ‘normal’ photo and the ‘fuck around’ photo. A clever attempt by the authorities to draw off the subversive potential that roiled around at such official moments, to fold the heterodox back into the orthodox.
Looking at one of them now, I see Johnno pulling a manic face while everyone else around him is being a model Milton boy. And then looking deadly serious while everyone else is hamming it up for the camera. There he is with brush cut and crinkly blue eyes: a joke with a time fuse.
Johnno was the son of the deputy headmaster, and so he attended the school for free. His family lived on the grounds, and I would often stay with them over holidays, when the place shifted from being savage feudal principality to a benign landscape of rolling hills, pine forests and dams speckled by falling mist or rising trout. Johnno was the insider trying to get out – the tearaway, the class madcap. I was the outsider trying to get in – the straight man to his slapstick. On stage we did impressions of those in authority – awarded the licence that izimbongi and court jesters have. Our friendship had been discussed in staff meetings, his mother (a Zulu teacher – the whole family was fluent) told us with a chuckle – they were trying to work out who was influencing who.
Beginning together we were both skinny – about 50 kilograms, like most 12-year-olds. But as I went into my dread metamorphosis, Johnno entered a bodybuilding phase. The swimming pool was next to the gym, and so while I broke the calm holiday surface and set the black lines snaking for some light crawl, he would be at work inside, lifting weights as slowly as possible, looking at every move in the mirror, loving it.
As time went on my dorm mates would arrive at the start of the next term having bulked up, with pecs and lats and six-packs, even that hulkish trapezoid of muscle beginning to show between neck and shoulder. It was something I experienced as a kind of obscure betrayal. Why did they think they had the right to change their bodies so easily? And why did I feel sentenced to mine, as if feeding it pre-workout and whey shakes would be bad form?
Johnno adored mirrors. He would inspect his muscle groups with great attention, talking me through what he hoped to achieve with his quads or glutes. I avoided any reflective surfaces (still can’t look myself in the eye at the barber) and only ever ventured into the gym under the cover of darkness. I would creep secretly through the chapel to avoid detection, then down to the gym showers and wash there alone – not prepared to show myself any more.
Johnno’s chest expanded out like a steadily inflating rubber ball; he took to walking around in tiny underpants whenever possible. I covered mine up more and more; it seemed to be sort of caving in.
‘Are you, like, deformed or something?’
So said one of the First Team as he pushed me out of the way in a corridor, shoving my chest and finding it lacking.
Now a dermatologist was examining me in the sanatorium, which had these mortifying educational charts showing cross-sections of blackheads and whiteheads, of plugged comedones and angry nodules.
‘I see you have a case of Pectus excavatum.’
So this dented chest of mine, this torso that made it terrible when we played touch rugby, one team shirts on, the other shirts off – this was an actual thing. A congenital abnormality of the rib cage and sternum. Pectus excavatum. The quiet violence of that label, though. It sounded like something one might intone over a corpse.
‘Let me tell you something.’
I clung to what Thabo had said once, having seen me walking many times to the showers with a T-shirt on, then putting it back on straight after towelling off, still damp. He put his hand on my shoulder:
‘If a woman loves you, she will love your body.’
I count them among the ten most important words ever spoken to me.
If my situation was a tight one, there were those in far worse predicaments. We had a classmate over whose face acne played like an angry red tide, a crust of infection that he endured with great dignity and God knows how much pain. When his case – the worst any of us had seen – was being dissected one day round the pool table, a visiting Canadian exchange student asked us:
‘Why mock him for something that’s not his fault?’
It was a like a pill of pure truth, the kind of insight that could only have been produced in a different society, a different institution. It struck me with surprise: I hadn’t even been able to have that thought myself. There is, after all, a large residue of magical thinking and taint that surrounds acne. Why else are people so keen to blurt out that ‘It’s a spider bite!’ when a skin blemish appears. As if that is more acceptable, less of a moral lapse than an overactive sebaceous gland, or an upwelling hair follicle full of white blood cells.
One of my tormentors along these lines was a well-meaning woman who ran the Laundry, to which us juniors had to lug sacks of our prefects’ sweat-hardened socks and chalky underwear. (A further paradox here: we were required perform menial labour in a system where the menial labour was done by other people, people with darker skins than ours. Hence the strange and intimate ritual of itemising an 18-year-old’s laundry, then carrying it somewhere for someone else to wash.) When I had hauled it uphill, I would come under the concerned gaze of Auntie Nair:
‘Are you eating monkey nuts? You like monkey nuts, hey?’
No, I wasn’t eating monkey nuts. I carried on ticking off my prefect’s shirts, then mine, their collars spotted with blood.
‘Or chocolate? You mustn’t touch, mustn’t touch the face. Shame, man.’
Even humanitarian concern was unbearable; in fact, it was somehow worse than outright abuse. I just wanted us all to agree not to notice my face plague, to preserve a conspiracy of silence while this unfortunate transition ran its course.
By now, my room had turned into a Medieval apothecary of salves and swabs – but nothing worked. In his memoir Self-Consciousness (another key text in the mini-bibliography of skin ailments that I have built up), John Updike writes about the medication prescribed for psoriasis in the 1940s:
Siroil was … a bottled preparation the consistency of pus, tar its effective ingredient and its drippy texture and bilious odour deeply involved with my shame. Yet, as with our own private odours, those of sweat and earwax and even of excrement, there was something satisfying about it, an intimate rankness that told me who I was.
Siroil, he recalls, softened the silvery scales but otherwise did very little: ‘Nor did abstaining from chocolate and “greasy” foods like potato chips and French fries do much visible good.’ Though, he goes on, ‘as with many palliations there was no knowing how much worse things would be otherwise’.
That was precisely it. You had a suspicion that it was the oily eggs in the dining hall that were exacerbating the problem; or the huge vats of milk that we filled our cups from; or the packs of greenish braai meat that we ate on sports awaydays. But there was no way of running clinical trials on yourself, or of getting accurate data. There was no control; the range of variables was too immense. My body was running as an entirely uncontrolled experiment that I wanted to be left alone with, me and my useless creams, the insinuating odour of TCP and tar-smelling shampoos and carbolic soap – sharp chemical stinks that told me who I was.
‘What the fuck are all these strange potions? God …’
The only person I could tolerate on the subject of my skin was Johnno. He didn’t go in for charity or concern, but he didn’t sugar any pills either. He was more than ready to talk about body issues when I wasn’t (but needed to), discoursing happily about his itching arse (‘Isn’t it gorgeous to scratch, though?’), or his paranoia that one pec had ended up bigger than the other, or the way he needed a whole sheet of newspaper to mop up after two-fiving, you know?  Who didn’t give rocks about ‘school spirit’ and the motto ‘Quit Ye Like Men’ and these other sacred phrases, because this was the place where he lived, and he saw it for what it was: an isolated rural community of alcoholics (Physics), ex-military personnel (Geography) and permaculture enthusiasts (Biology). 
‘You’re a siff creature, but I love you.’ 
Is it stretching it to read Kafka’s The Metamorphosis as an allegory for late-onset acne vulgaris? Sure, but when the unflappable cleaning lady refers to Gregor Samsa with rough affection as ‘You old dung beetle’ – the most humane moment in the whole story – that is the kind of tone Johnno took around me, and I loved him for it.
I would suggest that those who have undergone chronic skin complaints understand something beyond a simple mind/body split. Some kind of deep evolutionary awareness, as you see your skin for what it is: an ill-adjusted interface between self and world, a work in progress – or rather a work in regress. But this is getting too theoretical: having (had) bad skin also means that you are never too ready to engage in speculation that moves too far away from itching and pus and scabs and blood. The whole of analytic Western Philosophy – a closed book. Rather give me Coleridge and his journals full of haemorrhoids.
We can’t, I think, bear very much physiological reality. We can’t hold in mind the shockingly material basis of our existence for more than a nanosecond without blinking, psychically. The disgust turns us away, a mental flinch that keeps us safe from thinking about our dying bodies. But for the sufferer of severe acne who has worn that disgust on his or her face (and back, and chest), there is, I like to think, a deeper flicker of awareness. When I see a badly pockmarked face, I feel this person has special insights: a particular, hard-won consciousness into words made from flesh.
Would Charles Bukowski, one of his biographers asks, have become the cult writer that he did had he not suffered from such severe acne conglobata? In Ham on Rye, he describes a condition of cystic acne so bad that his ‘boils’ (not strictly accurate) are displayed as a medical curiosity and mercilessly drilled with hot electric needles. They explode on his shoulders during rifle practice and leak through his woollen shirts. Yet Bukowski also registers one of the stranger elements of the affliction, that it is bizarrely engrossing to watch all this happening to your body:
I got through the term but the boils got worse and worse. They were as large as walnuts and covered my face. I was very ashamed. Sometimes at home I would stand before the bathroom mirror and break one of the boils. Yellow pus would spurt and splatter on the mirror. And little white hard pits. In a horrible way it was fascinating that all that stuff was in there. But I knew how hard it was for other people to look at me
Pus: disgusting enough, but a fairly familiar concept. It is when we get to those ‘little white pits’ – these epidermal gallstones, these sesame seeds of God knows what – that a frisson of the shockingly alien body reasserts itself. The father figure in Bukowski’s cartoonish autofiction makes the son apply a brown, burning ointment, then insists that the boy leaves it on for much longer that the instructions advise. The procedure leaves him so badly burned that he has to sit on the edge of his bed rather than lie down in it. ‘That son-of-a-bitch doesn’t want to get well,’ his father shouts, ‘Why did I have to have a son like this?’
By contrast, my acne provided some of the most intimate and touching moments I ever had with my parents. As I lay on the couch in antibiotic languor, my mother once asked if she could rub cream into the spots on my back. It seemed almost biblical to me in its generosity, the equivalent of leper washing. Driving to Zoo Lake and the bus that would carry me from Johannesburg back to school, my father opened up about how painful were the boils that he suffered at school. He put his bad skin down to the fruit shortage after the war, when pupils at that Sussex school were given only one orange per week (the spider-bite argument). But underneath his words I could sense an epidermal solidarity, and a larger acknowledgment of genetic responsibility.
These were the last few years before the internet became woven into the fabric of daily life, and it is hard to remember how scarce information could be. Today there are countless acne support groups online, but back then I had to quilt together a self-help manual from much less abundant and more arbitrary sources. One day I came across a fashion magazine in which a female columnist reflected on how, for some reason, ‘old, healed-over acne, I mean like Richard Burton scarring, don’t ask me why – is super sexy!’ Just a throwaway line, but I meditated on it endlessly: one day I would emerge with a ruggedly handsome face, alchemically transformed into the acme of male sexiness.
From randomly culled bits and pieces I put together my own gospel of skin, a litany of satanic verses and self-help psalms that I kept returning to, holding them close to my chest. It was a Bible of scraps that guided my life in ways far more profound than the droning Anglican services that we were forced to sit through, conducted by a priest who (everyone liked to point out) had had his ears pinned back. Five hundred pairs of eyes were, you see, constantly searching over every body and face, looking for flaws, for points of entry.
A reading from the Book of David, Chapter One, verses two to five:
On the side of the devils:
Do they hurt? I bet they hurt.
Are you deformed or something?
You like monkey nuts, hey?
On the side of the angels:
Why mock him for something that’s not his fault?
Don’t ask me why, but old, healed-over acne is super sexy!
Come on, you old siffbag.
Thus spake Thabang of KwaMashu:
Yoh. They look sore.
Thus spake Thabo, the Mountain of Ga-Rankuwa:
If a woman loves you, she will love your body.
Lo! A miracle is at hand.
Let us pray:
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis
On 10 May 1994, with little sense of occasion, we were let out of class to watch the inauguration of President Nelson Mandela on TV. A majority of white pupils, a minority of black pupils and Indian pupils. Sons of ANC bigwigs, sons of sugar-cane farmers – all of us sitting stiffly in the day rooms of our respective boarding houses. One student stood up and shouted ‘Amandla!’; another said Mandela looked like a monkey. Liberal housemasters told us to quieten down and pay attention. The Geography teacher who had (it was rumoured) fought for white Rhodesia sneered from the back. 
Although I am in some ways perversely grateful for the amount of narrative and comedy that my school generated, there are certain things that I will never forgive it for. Chief among them is that while some institutions in the region made the historical events of the South African transition central to their curriculum, at Milton these were (as I remember it) regarded as something distant and rather embarrassing by most of the staff. The Codesa talks, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which the rest of the world was taking such an interest in – all part of the tedious and grubby world of politics that did, alas, still keep droning on beyond Main Quad and Far Meadows. The Afrikaner nationalists had mucked up the country; the African nationalists would doubtless do the same.
There was, in short, little sense that we were living through historic times. But, then again, South Africa rejoined the world community at a moment in history when history was said to be over, when the market had triumphed and economic globalisation was rolling across the world like an endlessly breaking wave. We became a new nation when the category meant less and less, when places were beginning to look and people starting to sound more and more like each other (in theory, anyway).
This version of transition we did experience; it saturated us. On every other (non-Mandela) day in the day room, matrics would sprawl like Caligula over six-seater couches and juniors would stand at the back as we all soaked up The Bold and the Beautiful. American soap operas and sitcoms and blockbusters were being beamed in from our rebranded national broadcaster, dissected with great relish as we ate our quarter loaves stuffed with NikNaks and drained huge quantities of Fresca, Fanta Grape or Sparletta Creme Soda.
If someone got hold of the VCR cabinet key, there would be late-night porn screenings. Apartheid censorship was gone; unstarred nipples and full penetration had arrived. Hustler magazines (SA version) were circulated samizdat, pored over, the letters in them read aloud by torch to the dormitory after lights out. One was set in a randy circus and climaxed with a dwarf having sex with a busty nympho trapeze artist and letting out ‘a loud cracking fart’ – what a scene, what a turn of phrase: it has stayed with me ever since.
Because my arms were skinny and could snake into people’s lockers, I stole the Hustler – a magnificent issue with two glossy blonde ‘lesbians’ on the cover – and spirited it away to the Butterfly Lab. The Butterfly Lab was a secret room that a progressive Biology teacher had given me and a few other high-achieving academics keys for: a life-saving place where we could escape from cricket-match scoring or cross-country in the long, drowsy afternoons. Tucked away upstairs, it was a teak-lined room filled with drawers of pinned insects behind glass, little piles of dust below them where the museum beetles had eaten the specimens hollow. There was a smell of chloroform from the killing jars, and hydrogen peroxide from the bleaching of small mammal bones for biology projects. All that plus this astonishing Hustler of airbrushed lesbians and farting dwarves and real penetration – some important afternoons unfolded there for me, hidden away.
Then one day Johnno had also won access to this secret lair, though (I felt) via corrupt means. The school had a recycling depot down near the dam, where you could use a machine rather like a huge garlic press to crush soft drink cans one at a time. For every hundred or so flattened you earned X amount of Merit Points, and so I would be there diligently crushing Cokes, Stoney Ginger Beers and Pine Nuts while Johnno lolled on the grass, bored. One afternoon he sauntered off and hailed the groundsman who was rolling the cricket pitch in the distance.
I heard Zulu carrying across the fields. Johnno was one of the few white people whom Zulu speakers seemed to want to speak with, since he knew the vernacular, while the rest of us pinko-greys never got past a series of elaborate courtly greetings. The cricket pitch tractor turned and began rumbling toward the depot. Johnno ran ahead of it, shouting to me: ‘Bring the cans! Bring the cans!’
He grabbed sacks of them and worked feverishly to lay out hundreds, thousands of cans in the path of the roller, which crunched over them like a tank, leaving a long trail of aluminium wafers in the dust.
This recycling coup had so entirely overloaded the school’s Merit Points system that the authorities had not known how to reward Johnno. So he had asked to join us boffs in our little tearoom, and soon he was there all the time, dominating the games of Risk and making us pay fresh attention to the bottled fetuses and tumours in the cupboards. He brought in hash brownies and CDs of B-sides by the Gallagher brothers, so weeks passed in a fug of us singing along to Liam’s nasal whine, while a big poster looked down from the wall: What Did You Do in the Britpop Wars?
One afternoon he convinced me to stay and bunk war-cry practice, a Friday-afternoon ritual when the whole school would assemble down on the rugby fields to drill for the big match the next day. Johnno regarded this with utter contempt, right down to the pidgin Zulu that we were all forced to chant. But someone had caught wind of our oasis. There was a violent banging at the door, and soon a group of bounty hunters were looking with disbelief at our little facility – the pickled embryos and chicken skeletons, the board games and powdery moths.
‘The Butterfly Lab, what the fuck? No, no – this ends right now.’
They were turning out the drawers and cabinets.
‘These fucking perverts have got porn in here. You disgusting man!’
‘You’re going to find the captain of the First Team and apologise to him. In front of the whole school. And I’ll ask him personally if you did.’
In silence, we made our way down to Far Meadows and peeped around the corner of the gym. The whole school was massed in ranks across the fields, letting out clipped barks as someone rapped a big stick up and down: ‘Red! … White! … Red! … White! … Dynamite!’
‘Look, I think if we just walk over very calmly, very casual,’ said Johnno, ‘Say we’ve been at a squash match or something, or representing the school at … provincial choir trials.’
But this time, I could read the situation better than him. I knew that traditions weren’t as malleable as he seemed to think. It was better to stay hidden, to reap the punishment later, in front of a smaller audience. He wouldn’t listen.
We began our walk of shame. For the first ten seconds, it went well. Then emerged a sound unlike any I ever heard before, or since. It was 500 people hissing under their breath: low, disbelieving, disgusted. Iyyyyyyyyyyyooooooooohhhhhhhhhhh …
At the end of these practices, it was traditional for juniors to run for their lives. The moment the last Shakan battle cry was ebbing through the evening mist, we would bolt like a herd of antelope, fanning out over the hallowed turf of the First Team rugby field. The rest of the school would pursue us like cavalry, running us to ground in a surge of adrenaline and time-honoured, meat-and-ale kind of violence enjoyed by all. But as Johnno and I stood there, arm in arm, already being kicked from behind and spat on as we did our best impression of devoted rugby supporters, we knew that this time the cavalry would be gunning for us and us alone.
I went down in a ruck of boots and kicks before I even made the 22-yard line, pleading that the maulers go gentle on my new glasses.
‘Your glasses are on your head, you cunt,’ shouted a thug who would not normally have laid a finger on the token intellectual, but now had been given free rein. What did he mean? None of it made sense. As my face hit the turf I glimpsed Johnno tearing away ahead of the pack, arms pumping high, doing his bull-necked run, head thrown back almost as if he were laughing – getting away with it.
‘Do you see that?’ said my mother to father when I came home, with stud marks having joined the cysts on my forehead: ‘He’s been bullied.’
And then told me she had made an appointment with the doctor to discuss a new skin treatment.
Midway through my Milton years, a great excitement began building in the school. Reports were filtering in from the clubs of Durban and Joburg, from the seniors above us who came back from weekends and half-terms as changed men. Rave culture had arrived in South Africa – a decade or two late, sure, but we were eager to make up for lost time. After a century in which a newspaper-wrapped stop of crumbly dagga was the only prohibited substance available to Miltonians, now recreational drugs were flooding into the country: acid, speed and Ecstasy.
On the bus journeys to and back from Johannesburg, the seniors in the year above us would commandeer the stereo system and start pumping out the tunes as soon as we pulled out of the gates. These six-, seven-hour journeys were unpredictable, liminal, even crazed experiences. The Mathura’s Transport buses carrying us through KwaZulu-Natal and up to the Highveld became temporary autonomous zones. In the process of leaving or returning to school, the official rulebook was no longer, or not quite yet, in force. You could be called to the back for interrogation at any point, or made to ‘babysit’ a two-litre plastic bottle of senior urine. If you fell asleep, Chicken Licken hot sauce would be meticulously spread on your bottom lip. You could be summoned to the front by the head sadist – a terrifying jock-raver hybrid named Brando – and made to watch the sex scenes from Sliver, sat right in front of the dropdown TV/VCR.
‘You getting hard? Are you sweating? He’s sweating. You’re dis-gusting, man!’
Sharon Stone and one of the Baldwins were cavorting in an eerie apartment block, watched on CCTV by some sinister voyeur. Video footage of humans having sex – which those porn barons with access to X-rated VHS tapes covertly termed ‘wildlife’ – was vanishingly rare. I did really want to see this, but not, you know, here, with Brando’s face pressed up against mine, making sure my eyes stayed locked on the screen. Again, there was no way to do right in these situations.
‘What? This isn’t turning you on? Are you gay? Are you a stubbs?’
Out of respect to those who truly did run the appalling homophobic gauntlet that such schools represented, I should not imply that I had it bad. In fact, most of the time I managed to evade individual humiliation by submitting diligently to collective punishment. The skin, after all, is also the organ that gives metaphors of camouflage and mimicry, of changing colour to match context – like a cuttlefish.
This was the great life skill I learned from my school: how to keep onside, using language to keep the bullies just far enough away. But now I was at a moment of perilous transition. There had been the war-cry incident, and now my skin had found me out: the acne could not be hidden. It did not respond to language; I had to wear it like a man. It pushed me more towards outsider status, and so made me clamour more fully for insider-hood, entering into the cruel comedy of those days, relishing and stoking the humiliation when it was directed anywhere but me.
The same Biology teacher who had given us the Butterfly Lab once hitched a ride back from Johannesburg at the end of school holidays, sitting at the back with his wife and two young children. We were barely out of the Zoo Lake parking lot before Brando smashed in a mix tape:
People’s arms went up; fingers prodded the air. We knew this one. Oh yeah.
It boomed out of the speakers just above our heads. It boomed out of the speakers just above the heads of Mr Clackworthy and his family.
‘PUT YOUR ASS ON MY FACE!’
But somehow he was no longer in charge here; somehow the journey was beyond his jurisdiction, and outright mutiny a real possibility. The Clackworthys continued to sit in dignified silence, subwoofers poised inches above their scalps – glorious.
Brando had taken nine Ecstasy tablets in a club over the half-term – this was the word going round the bus. He had collapsed in a stupor in the chillroom; people thought he was overs kadovers. But then he had risen like Lazarus and begun flailing and flinging and spiralling his limbs like a man possessed, dance moves that no one had seen before.
They began infiltrating the boarding houses, but in surreptitious and ambiguous ways. Hectic basslines and bpm’s behind a closed door: You gotta gotta gotta … SHOW-ME-LOVE! Then someone would emerge briefly into the corridor, skanking their arms like chicken wings, or throwing the dart, bouncing the ball, two-stepping, styling the air with their hands, checking themselves out in the bathroom mirror.
‘What you fucking looking at?’
But then it was gone: just another belligerent matric standing there with pumped-up pecs. All the sinuous movements hardened again into a jock stance, shoulders hunched like a bugger. The smell of Tiger Balm that lingered: was it for muscular strain sustained on the rugby field, or was it for sniffing ecstatically as DJ Eezy-E dropped another banger on the floor of E.S.P. on the early hours of a Sunday become Monday?
Us deputies, who would soon have to step into the senior role, were now confronted with another paradox. The highest ranks of the alpha males above us, the real bad boys, were going clubbing, were obsessed with it. This crew styled themselves as psychedelic voyagers coming back with tales of all the worlds they had never told you (us) about, us going about mid-term revision and swing band practice in our timeless fashion. FUMA began appearing scrawled on walls. What did it stand for? Nobody knew for sure. Some said it was the Fuck Up Milton Association, others suggested Fucked Up Morning After.
But clubbing involved dancing, i.e. moving the body in ways that could not altogether exclude the hips, those tense flanks where men hold so much of their anger. Or put it this way: while it was easy to be robotic and military out there under the strobes, the best dancers were those who could loosen up a little, could shimmy and snake, could allow something feminine through, who could be a little androgynous and still slay more chicks at the Second Hands’ social than anyone else.
Behind those closed doors, amid the throbbing loops of ‘Freed from Desire’ and ‘Renegade Master’, some kind of ideological restructuring was going on. You proved your manhood, your tight-lipped position at the apex of all these old-school hierarchies, by taking E. But Ecstasy made you into an ecstatic chatterbox, a touchy-feely, homosocial being with infinite disdain for this world’s arbitrary divisions and boundless helpings of empathy. Maybe even the creeping sensation that you wanted to nuzzle the neck of your best bro, maybe even take his tongue in your mouth. Suddenly a non-ageist, horizontal gift economy was in operation: head-tingling Orgasmatrons being deployed on matric scalps by precocious 14-year-old ravers-in-waiting. Grain-fed prop forwards from the Free State sharing round their supplies of Stimorol, suckers, Vicks VapoRub – and all of this happening with such generosity and tenderness across the years!
At least for a few hours. Then it was the comedown, the re-establishment of defences and the larger philosophical questions posed by the rave ethos. If an experience of brotherhood so precious is transmuted so utterly into its opposite by the morning after; if something so memorable could not (in the cases of those taking more than two or three Dolphins or Hitachis or Mitsubishis per night) even be remembered by anyone involved, then could it be said to have existed at all?
The salvation and utopias promised by drugs are illusory, we all know. But still, the anti-establishmentarian forces of 3,4-Methylenedioxymethamphetamine had begun to rewire our traditional circuitry, as happened in many other societies. Our brains had been shown those centres of pleasure and empathy; we could partly return there, trace some of the steps back to where the chemical interventions had led us. Wasn’t Ecstasy first prescribed by Californian psychotherapists to help patients unburden themselves? And didn’t we need that unburdening and then some? Suddenly there were concentrated bursts of talking cures happening behind closed doors and shouted into ears on dance floors. And when a received idea of masculinity had been so totally split open in those dark, thunderous rooms, it must have begun to filter back into the institution in some way. It must have begun to change that school, and others like it, so that when the young Old boys appear in my classes today, they seem more at ease in their skins than we ever were. Being a man was never quite the same.
A big rave was coming to the docks in Durban. Faithless and Carl Cox would be playing in the cavernous space of the sugar mills. Get ready for a night of Insomnia!!! said the posters, With Big Black Cox. The joller grapevine had been activated: plans were being laid, coded notes passing across classrooms and dining halls.  There were two rival dealers: one from Durbs, whom Johnno had put in an order with, along with most of the hardcore FUMA crew. The other was from Joburg, and I had happened to sit next to him on a bus journey. We had struck up an unlikely rapport, and so one week before Sugar Rush I found myself at a secret rendezvous behind the Tuck Shop, taking delivery of one E-Male from a strong, silent type called Darcus. He was known as someone concerned with his reputation for delivering quality product.
I was strangely moved by the exchange: the intellectual mascot being allowed into the scene by one of its gatekeepers, albeit on the quiet. I felt like I was being done a favour. Darcus was hardly upping his cred or turning big profits by selling one ecky to the Best Chorister. Johnno said that his order of no less than five disco biscuits plus some tabs for candy flipping would be delivered with all the others at the event. We set out for Durbs, descending into its humid suburbs and getting ready.
We pulled into a flat that a mutual friend, Bunny, was borrowing from an older sister. A game of strategy unfolded here as we got dressed. Along with his tight silver pants and tiny vest, Johnno had also procured a long-sleeve black top with a cryptic phrase printed on it: ONLY USERS LOSE DRUGS. Edgy wordplay, maximum body coverage: this was perfect for me. I craved this garment and, anyway, I had nothing else to wear. But Bunny (named for the Duracell adverts because of his copper hair) also had his eye on it, and as our accommodation provider had first dibs.
Here Johnno and I embarked on a subtle psychological campaign to convince our host that, actually, he looked far better in a low-cut, lime green luminous top that we had discovered in his sister’s cupboard.
‘Cool colour, and it’s going to pick up the UV big time.’
‘I wish I’d seen it first.’
In fact it looked absurd: a crêpe-paper garment with a loose and lacy, plunging neckline and even the bagginess where his sister’s breasts should have been.
‘He looks like a milkmaid,’ said Johnno as we chuckled in the background, ‘A monster raving lumo milkmaid.’
I got the black top, plus his wraparound Oakley shades. As a final touch, Johnno separated some egg whites from their yolks and styled my hair into Statue of Liberty spikes. The hold provided by the albumen was something astonishing.
We arrived at the sugar mills to find the FUMA crew milling around at the back, tense, waiting for their drug delivery. Johnno said I should wait until his E arrived before I dropped mine, and so we threw ourselves onto the dance floor. For an hour, then two, three, I applied myself to dancing with the kind of diligence that I brought to most extra-mural activities. But there was only so much energy that Red Bulls could give us, and only so many laughs that could be milked from pretending to milk a cow’s udder as we danced behind Bunny’s back. Johnno kept returning to where the bad boys were still waiting, but no dice, no can do, fresca.
The drugs never arrived, and now Johnno performed something akin to those conjuring tricks with three cups and a bean. I just needed to give him my E-male, he was going to swap it for some tabs, then trade those on to someone else to get two eckies so we would be sorted. I relinquished my precious little tablet and he disappeared for a long time, eventually returning with a much smaller pill for me, saying that we had upgraded. This was a Hyundai – new on the market, almost pure MDMA.
In fact, it was a slimming tablet, something he only confessed to years later.
‘Or maybe an anti-histamine. I had so many pills in my pockets in those days, like Smarties.’
As Faithless and Sister Bliss took the stage, I found myself yawning. People kept coming up and squinting at my chest, mouthing the words, then squinting at me, none the wiser. Eventually I fell asleep in the corner of a chillroom: ‘clubbing’ in a different sense of the word. During the night, Johnno’s expensive Oakleys were stolen off my face, and the fuggy heat of all the bodies slowly cooked my hairdo. Still buzzing, my co-pilot retrieved me at dawn and we somehow made our way to a swing band concert at our sister school, where his long, exploratory clarinet solo during ‘Take the “A” Train’ was widely acclaimed by the female audience.
This was the story of my first rave. I had fallen asleep in front of everyone and woken up with a frittata on my head. I wasn’t even a user, but had lost my drugs.
Though in fact, I was on far more powerful pills than all these winners, and had been for months. 
The miracle was here.
In the 1960s, during investigations into the treatment of skin cancers, Swiss researchers in the laboratories of Roche Pharmaceuticals isolated a drug called isotretinoin. This vitamin A derivative had a marked effect on sebum production, but was also found to be teratogenic (i.e. it caused birth defects), and so, in the wake of the thalidomide scandal, the research was discontinued. In 1975, the compound was independently discovered by scientists in the United States looking to treat forms of ichthyosis: rare and lethal conditions where babies are born with large fish-like scales, or emerge from the womb in the shiny, Vaseline-like coating of a second skin.
Further tests showed that 13-cis-retinoic acid was extremely effective in treating severe nodular acne. It was the only drug known to affect all the major pathogenic processes of the condition; it was antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory, also dramatically reducing oil and skin cell production deep within the epidermis. The exact mechanism of action was unclear, but studies suggested that it induced apoptosis (cell death) in various sites in the body: the hypothalamus, the hippocampus and the sebaceous glands.
Roche resumed research and, after years of clinical trials, released the drug under the brand name Accutane in the early 1980s. The company was repeatedly taken to court, but doctors testified to the drug’s 95 per cent success rate and life-changing effect on millions of acne sufferers. The Food and Drug Administration in the US ruled that it could not restrict professionals from prescribing isoretinoin, and so it entered the global market, arriving in South Africa under a slightly altered brand name.
‘Roaccutane – a perfect case for it,’ said the doctor my mother had found, the moment I took off my shirt.
‘We just need to check your liver function, see that it’s up to it. It hammers the liver. Dries the skin out, dry lips, makes you sun-sensitive. Your face will go red and there’ll be an acne flare – it might get worse before it gets better. But it will get better.’
In those few days I mustered my last remaining shreds of Christian faith and prayed that my liver would be up to it, this pill that had been spoken of in awed whispers at school. It was, and I began taking a dosage worked out in relation to my body weight: one milligram per kilogram per day.
‘Are you, like, on Roaccutane or something?’
This was a question that tormentors liked to pose to those with bad skin. At last, I could say yes, and defang the insult. Yes, I am like on Roaccutane, so fuck you. A whole lot of us were, short of breath and dry of mouth at the back of the 1500 metres, or lagging behind the ball, able to blame all our unfitness on the drug: ‘It’s the Roaccutane!’ we shouted to each other, affectionately.
This then was a final historical threshold crossed in those days, one in which severe, Bukowski-type acne became, like smallpox and the rinderpest, a thing of the past – at least for the middle classes who could afford it. Such an effective cure also performs a different, psychosocial function. It retrospectively redefines a condition as clinical, as no longer the result of moral failing or monkey nuts, but rather as a technical glitch, a malfunctioning part that can be 100 per cent fixed by (in this case) intervening in the body’s vitamin A cycle. After six months of redness, drowsiness, dry lips, aching bones and vivid Roaccutane dreams, my skin began to clear. And clear. Entirely. I emerged with unclouded brow and smooth, noble cheeks – cheeks people even seemed to want to touch to confirm it was true.
With my newfound matric confidence, I joined Johnno for one final return to the stage. We came out of retirement to play the comic duo of Stephano and Trinculo in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the tinpot colonists and drunken tormentors of Caliban who want to make money by displaying this ‘most delicate monster’ back in Naples.
Our drama teacher, succumbing to the age-old temptation to update the Bard, had decided to present the production as an exercise in New Age psychedelia. A ‘tempest’, that is, that was all in the mind, soundtracked by that trance-like, tear-jerking strain of 1990s house music: coruscatingly banal three-note melodies given the full symphonic treatment, long build-ups and epic, hand-raising breaks.
From the moment Johnno entered stage left, the entire centre of gravity of the play was wrenched off balance. Rather than being the tale of arch-magician Prospero, wrongfully deposed king or freedom fighter Caliban, rightful owner of the island, it became mainly about Stephano and Trinculo – and substance abuse. Prospero looked on annoyed at our hammed-up scenes of drunken brawling, of feeding Caliban booze until he worshipped us like gods: A most ridiculous monster, to make a wonder of a poor drunkard!
Somehow, the wedding masque of Act Four (a courtly dance of nymphs and sprites) was reimagined into a strobe-lit club scene of podium dancers – or rather, one podium and one dancer. All through rehearsals Johnno would be bending the sound guy’s ear, telling him to turn it up when that moment came, but, like, really turn it up.
When the smoke parted and the opening notes of Robert Miles’ ‘Dreamland’ tinkled forth, there he was: centre stage on a big black box, wearing nothing except what looked like his Standard Six underpants, weaving his arms like slow, copulating snakes as the music built and built, sticking out his buttocks, styling, spanking, swirling, crouching, cranking, working his way up from a down-and-dirty kwaito crouch until the snares rolled and the high pass filter fizzed like a filling bottle up and up and the bass finally, orgasmically, dropped.
It was the most extraordinary overcoming of bodily anxiety, the most flagrant and glorious throwing of caution to the wind that any of us had ever witnessed at that institution.
Today Johnno is a recovering addict, rehab counsellor and life coach who runs a support group called Man Kind. It is, he says, full of old boys from these ruinous private schools. But, for that moment, there he was, beckoning me from the wings onto the strobe-lit podium, beckoning us all, the audience who were also on their feet now, also raising their hands, entreating us, as if to say:
As you from crimes would pardon’d be,
Let your indulgence set me free.
In 2009, Roche discontinued its wonder drug, stating that there were now several generics on the market. But it was more likely due to the lawsuits brought against the company, and the millions that it had paid out in damages. Search the internet and Accutane’s history of adverse reactions spans everything from irritable bowel syndrome to colon cancer, from moodiness to suicide – though there is little hard evidence and lots of speculation.
I still marvel at it. Surely no drug can be that effective? Surely it was some kind of Faustian pact, with consequences that are still lying in wait? Nonetheless, the miracle of the 1990s, for me, was isotretinoin. To echo those on online forums: it saved my life.
For years afterwards I had Roaccutane panics, fears that this magical transformation would not last, that the acne would return, the nodules begin to form again on my shoulder blades and neck. I have been examining my skin very closely while working on this piece, expecting a sympathetic reaction transmitted like an itch or a yawn – as if the sebaceous glands will resume over-producing, turning into hard, septic little hazelnuts within my body again.
Today the vast communities of the web reveal that what seemed like a disgusting taboo is no such thing really. There are YouTube clips of people squeezing pustules and papules – ‘popping videos’ – that get millions of hits. The disgust has been democratised, alchemised into something else, something that links to the bodily humours, to being humane, or human, in a much fuller, more comic and chaotic sense.
Yet it seems almost more terrifying to live through the metamorphosis of adolescence now, during the final logic of the new world order that we saw arriving along with The Bold and the Beautiful. This was the promise that bodies could be reshaped, customised, troubleshot in every way. Teeth wrenched to order, chests filled out, skin magically cleared. Attention spans rewired, eyes lasered, trauma extracted. The limitless ability to improve the self, which began to reach into every cranny of our bodies, can come to feel like a war against the self.
Perhaps this essay is only superficially about skin, the skin part only skin deep. Perhaps it’s a veiled allegory for other things, miraculous transformations that weren’t so miraculous, or for the truly life-saving drugs that didn’t arrive in South Africa, the tragedy beginning to build under the surface of the Mandela years. Looking back, it sometimes feels as if a complex experiment, a one-off historical-clinical trial, was being run on us new members of the international community, but that its hypothesis was not easily discernible and its results inconclusive.
I often think to myself: imagine being sucked back in time now, and having to live through it all again, the youth you only get through because you are young enough to take it. So perhaps this is just to say: look at all the bullshit I’ve been through (been in this shit since ’92). But also to honour the secular gospel of literature – so unflinching, so forgiving, in that order – as well as the book of random kindness that saves some of us from the ultimate form of self-harm. Maybe you got out altogether too unscathed, accelerating away like Johnno over the fields, arms pumping high. Or maybe you never really understood the damage done, and never will.