The worst of times: Life after apartheid: snot and tears: Deborah Levy talks to Danny Danziger

FOR years, my father was a political prisoner in South Africa, because he was a member of the African National Congress, which was then a banned organisation. During that time, which seemed a lifetime to a young child deprived of her father, he was just an image, a framed photograph which sat on the table in the hall.

He came out of prison looking quite different from that photo. He was much thinner, and he was wearing a suit that was years out of date. It was shocking.

After prison, he was put under house arrest, which made it difficult to find work - he was an academic, a historian. And like many people in that period of apartheid, the only thing to do was to leave the country.

And so we came to England. We made the journey on an ocean liner called the Edinburgh Castle. I was nine years old, I had my father back. We were a family again, and we were coming to a new country on a large ship. To me and my brother, it seemed tremendously exciting.

We got to Southampton in July 1968, one of the hottest summers on record. There had been a big shop before we left South Africa, and we were decked out in hats and vests, so we were sweltering. I remember on the coach journey from Southampton to London, there seemed to be people shedding clothes everywhere, and sunning themselves on pavements and rooftops, and any available bit of green. I remember thinking how close the houses were together, and how narrow the streets were, while we sat and baked on this coach. There weren't pubs in South Africa, and when my father saw Courage written on the side of buildings, he thought it was a sign left over from the war.

Wembley Park was the drabbest London suburb you could imagine. In the house that was to be our home, there was a menswear shop downstairs where my father had agreed to work. In exchange for his labour, we had the use of a small flat upstairs, which was very dreary.

After the initial excitement of arriving in the summer, it wasn't long before winter struck. We had grown up outdoors, but suddenly it got dark at four o'clock, and I remember my brother and I walking down to the local park, quite depressed, picking blackberries by the railway sidings, until suddenly it was dark and we would have to find our way home.

I never wore summer dresses again, it always seemed to be cold, and my blonde hair was turning dark in the English winter, so it was almost like another person was emerging.

Downstairs, in the shop, my mother and father were having to get to know each other again. They were not getting on well at all. It was shocking to discover that when we were a family again, instead of this happy family of my dreams, it was tense, there were rows - it was awful.

My mother also worked in the menswear shop. There was an air of gloom about her, she was very down. She smoked cigarettes with a cigarette holder, and when men came in to buy underwear and socks, they must have wondered what on earth had happened to this glamorous, depressed woman, why she had come to this cold country, to this shop in Wembley Park.

The world of men's clothing was fascinating to a nine-year- old girl. I would sit for hours, invisible behind the curtain that divided the front of the shop from the back, trying to put faces to the voices of the men who came in.

Outside the Sixties were happening. For many people, this was a great new world, a swinging, promiscuous, joyful time. It certainly didn't feel like that in Wembley Park. The clothes in our shop didn't reflect the swinging Sixties one bit, they were for train-spotters, while all around us was the incredible spectacle of London at that time. People wore extraordinary clothes. There were Afghan coats and flares, wild make-up and long hair. I had never seen men with long hair before, it was strange, it was exciting.

My parents stayed together for another six years. They divorced when I was 15, and that was a tremendous relief for all of us, because it was obvious that they were two people who wanted to live life very differently.

I suppose I realised by then that there was never going to be the perfect family, a perfect place, a perfect anything, that in many ways the real world was very disappointing. And I remember deciding at the end of that first year in England, when I was 10, that that was enough snot and tears for a lifetime.

Deborah Levy is a novelist and playwright.

(Photograph omitted)

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