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A Dandy at the Gates of Sultan
by Carl Halling
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In the mid 1970s, a previously unmotivated young Englishman by the name of Robert Halen got it into his head that he’d like to make his living as an officer and a gentleman, and so announced to his father that he’d like to attempt to pass what is known as the AIB or Admiralty Interview Board, with a view to qualifying as a Supply and Secretariat officer in the Royal Navy.
It involved his taking the train first from his suburban small town to the nearest big city of London, and then from London to the port of Gosport on the south coast of England, where he’d spend three days within the gates of HMS Sultan, the Royal Navy's shore-based specialist training centre, attending various examinations and interviews intended to assess his potential as a future naval officer.
His father was delighted at this turn of events, little suspecting that Robert had no intrinsic desire to become an officer within Her Majesty’s Navy beyond the wearing of a well-fitting uniform, and if this motivation sounds distinctly Wildean for a mid ‘70s youth, then this was no mere coincidence.
From about 1974, Robert, who’d never been anything other than a typical scruffy, sporty, ruffianly male until around his 17th birthday in October ’72, started to develop a fascination for those Modernist artists whose rebellion against the bourgeois values which more often than not they’d been raised to respect manifested itself as dandyism, or the affectation of an aristocratic tendency to overdress. This they invariably combined with that typical corollary of dandyism, decadence. They included such figures as Baudelaire, Cocteau and the aforesaid Oscar Wilde, Irish poet, playwright, wit and infamous dandy.
Thence, Robert arrived at HMS Sultan as an immaculate aesthete who even went so far as to wear foundation style make up and some blusher and eye shadow when most of the other candidates would have favoured standard issue jumbo collared shirt and billowing flared trousers. His foppish attire was compounded by a face that would have made him a perfect choice for a casting director scouting around for the perfect Dorian Gray in still another celluloid version of Wilde’s only novel; or he could have played Waugh’s Sebastian Flyte with no less facility…or Highsmith’s Dickie Greenleaf…or any number of similar idle worthless blond male beauties, fictional or otherwise. But the role of a naval officer was patently way beyond such a frivolous individual, and it wouldn’t be long before he’d provoked someone of a more serious cast of mind to intense irritation.
The “someone” in question turned out to be a northern lad with a little hint of a moustache who, finding Robert putting the final touches to his toilette before some assignment or another in front of a handy looking glass, felt moved to remind him:
“It’s not a fashion parade, mate…”
He wouldn’t be joining Robert that night to the disco, or any night for that matter, but you couldn’t fault his dedication, nor his powers of observation, for that matter.
Two guys eventually did agree to keep him company, but they didn't really seem all that keen. As things turned out, they left him alone at a Gosport disco to return to the Sultan for an early night. When asked what he was doing in Gosport by a young woman he befriended that night, he told her about the AIB and his fears of failing.
“Oh, you’ll pass, “ she told him with a reassuring smile.
But if she’d looked a little closer, she might not have spoken so confidently. After all, his wardrobe was so overdone, and so anachronous, with its college ties and silk scarves, and cotton flannels with their absurd knife edge press, that far from being bespeaking the confidence of the perpetual high achiever, it might well have been the disguise donned daily by a fragile and insecure personality, who’d tasted failure too many times for one of such tender years.
When Robert finally got back to HMS Sultan himself, he was shocked to discover that her main entrance had been locked and was now being manned by an armed guard.
As the young man set about trying to make contact with his superiors, he must have wondered what kind of person returns to base dressed to the nines after a night's disco dancing when he was supposed to be in the midst of three days of gruelling tests and interviews that were vital to his future career; but he gave no indication of it.
In time, though, his efforts were successful, and shortly afterwards, a sheepish Robert was forced to pass through an officer's mess, where he briefly exchanged pleasantries with its airily affable occupants, in order to reach his room. They must have had a laugh at his expense once he’d turned in:
“What kind of chap gets himself locked out of base when he’s supposed to be
taking his AIB?” one of them might have said.
“All very rum, did you catch the way he was dressed?”
“Yes, perhaps he was taking part in a Noel Coward look alike contest”.
“Let’s hope he won, ‘cos he ain’t gonna be winning no prizes here.”
“Ha ha ha ha ha ha!”
As might be expected, Robert failed in his noble attempt at passing the AIB, and never did get to wear a naval officer’s uniform, and in later years, he wondered whether he’d have stood a better chance if just for once he’d done the right thing and gone to bed early rather than rave it up at the disco in all his finery. Perhaps he would have done…but then again perhaps not. After all, few if any naval officers have been historically selected on the basis of how good they look in a well-cut uniform.
Like all dandies he could be said to have partaken to some degree of the nature of the infamous Biblical character Absalom, about whom it was said in 2 Samuel 14: 25:
“But in all Israel there was none to be so much praised as Absalom for his beauty: from the sole of his foot even to the crown of his head there was no blemish in him.”
And yet, Absalom’s flawless beauty was ill-matched by a vain and reckless character which ultimately secured his ruin. As to Robert Halen, despite exceptional artistic gifts, he would spend much of his early adult life trying to find a place for himself in the world with little real success. Moreover, on those occasions when those gifts came close to fulfilling his lifelong dreams of fame and glory, he recklessly and mysteriously sabotaged his chances.
It was as if despite his endless self-promotion, he felt that failure was all he deserved. And so, in the absence of moral fibre, of any real character, failure, as it had done for his spiritual model Absalom, became his tragic destiny.

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