Published 14 Sep 2018
It all began with a birthday present. For his 60th birthday, Jeff presented Mark with a poignant gift that would alter everything. The release of the 1911 census gave Jeff the perfect opening to find Mark’s long-lost father and uncover a bloodline shrouded in mystery.
Five years and some careful detective work later, Jeff presented Mark with the first draft of Dear John: The Road to Pelindaba. We met with Jeff to hear about the events that led him to tell this story, and why he felt he was the right person to narrate it.
We arrive at Poole Harbour to find Jeff tinkering with his sailboat. Jumping aboard, he tells us his memories of Mark, their childhood together and their strong companionship. Their camaraderie is clear and Jeff takes great delight in poking fun at Mark’s eccentricities, explaining why a journalist may have struggled to capture his complex life in the same way:
“Mark isn’t easy to interview, because after five minutes he’s already looking out the window and talking about some species of bird. He’s a notorious rambler, so it would have taken an awful lot for a journalist to gather the same information.”
Jeff describes himself as a “witness to Mark’s life”, explaining how throughout their lives they have always gravitated back to one another: “We’ve been close for a very long time - we went to school together, journeyed to london and shared a flat together and met our girlfriends at the same time, who then became our wives. Even when we moved back to Dorset we ended up in the same town, in the same block of flats.”
Of course, writing your best friend’s biography doesn’t come without anxieties. Jeff explains that there were aspects of Mark’s life that he had to treat with sensitivity, such as relatives who were still alive, abandonment issues, and a difficult relationship with his stepfather.
Their friendship is touching, and when describing the moment he presented Mark with photographs and detailed information about his family, Jeff does so with a sense of responsibility: “I knew it would be an emotional experience for him and I deliberately wanted him to have plenty of time. We started at eight o’clock and it was midnight before we got to the final question. The final question didn’t even need asking, Mark knew that if I found all these photographs then I must know something about his father.”
A combination of Jeff’s “photographic memory”, his meticulous collection of records, marriage certificates and photographs helps to bring to life this moving story. Much of which was only revealed to Mark six years ago. Jeff explains that Mark didn’t own many photographs from his childhood, remarking: “When I handed Mark a photo of him as a seven year old boy standing to attention in his school uniform, the colour drained from his face. It isn’t easy to render Mark speechless, but he was.”
Jeff diligently draws parallels between the sliding doors moments in the book and how these events have shaped Mark’s identity. Despite their close bond, even Jeff admits that he learnt a lot about Mark while writing this story: “I started the book as a search for Mark’s father, but realised part way through that much of the book was about his relationship with his grandmother. He was brought up by her almost exclusively for ten years and was this angelic choir boy who would do anything for his grandmother and she would do anything for him. I realised that when that all changed it was a major catalyst in his life.”
You don’t need to know Mark in order to enjoy this book - Jeff describes it as a ”biography wrapped in a detective story.” It unfolds a little like an episode of Who Do You Think You Are, but Jeff’s honest accounts give it depth and humour. The book takes readers on a journey, showing Mark’s roots, connections and motivations. And although we’re given an insight into how Mark shaped his career in cosmetics, Jeff does not sugar coat the efforts it has taken him to get there:
“I didn’t want to show a perfect person. He has his flaws like the rest of us and his business has had its ups and downs. But I wanted to show people that he’s not just someone who got rich and decided to campaign for different things, he’s always done it. He was a hippy tree hugger back in the 70s, we went on marches together and in the 80s he was helping develop tests to stop animal testing.”
Not only is this emotionally charged story a testament to Jeff and Mark’s long lasting friendship, it explores the importance of family and what these connections mean. Above all, it questions how much power we have to shape our own destinies. One thing is for sure, this compelling account will make you look at your own path very differently.
Dear John: The Road to Pelindaba will be exclusively launching at the Lush Showcase on 23rd September and will be available to purchase online, and in stores, from the 24th September 2018.