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Strange Birthday Boy Dancing
by Carl Halling
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"Strange Birthday Boy Dancing" came into being on my 53rd birthday of the 7th of October 2008, after I shuffled the pieces of two previously published stories, "Strange Coldness Perplexing" and "Lone Birthday Boy Dancing", before creating an entirely new one from the results with a few additional corrections.

The Petrified Fool

In early 1990, I lost my position as a teacher of English as a foreign language in an Oxford Street language school where I'd spent almost two years, the last two of a decade somewhat redolent of the '20s and '60s in terms of its glamour and profligacy. It was a job I adored, for the social life it handed me on a plate, as well as sufficient money to finance the innumerous hours I spent each evening in the Champion public house in Wells Street. There, teacher and student alike would congregate some time after 7.30pm when the final class ended. At any given time it was almost impossible to extricate me from my circle of favourites who tended to come from, among other countries, Italy, Japan, Spain, Brazil, Poland, France etc.
Additionally I spent my spare cash on clothes, cassettes, books, as well as rent during the months I spent as a tenant in Ealing, west London. This was at a friend's house, or rather a friend of my father's, namely Robin Williams, a small, bearded Welsh violinist especially gifted at folk and Jazz. Robin was an existentially glamorous figure with a distinct wild side, and yet enormously warm and charming. Always immaculately yet casually dressed, he exuded a gentle, melancholy charisma that was irresistible, not least apparently to the fair sex with which he never ceased to be successful. Sadly he died in 2003, aged only 54. It was a pleasure knowing him; he was a one-off. And then there were the hundreds I spent on hypnotherapy sessions in Harley Street, where I hoped I might find a cure not just for my increasingly out of control drinking but the Obsessive Compulsive Disorder which was a partial cause of it.
The first piece, "My Hot/Cold Torment" dates from the 31st of March 2007, having been forged using notes relating to Callan's scrawled onto seven sides of an ancient now coverless notebook, possibly late at night following an evening’s carousal and in a state of serene intoxication. All punctuation was removed and extracts from the notes tacked together not randomly as in the so-called cut up technique but selectively and all but sequentially. It provides some indication of my emotional condition at the time, including a tendency as I see it to veer wildly between the conscious effusive affectionateness I aspired to, and sudden irrational involuntary lapses of affect, and bespeaks the intense devotion I manifested towards my favourite students and which was reciprocated by them with interest.
As I've said before, any bleakness of tone reflected by writings of mine whose origins lie in the '70s or '80s should be viewed with the utmost scepticism, given that for me sadness was the ultimate mark of artistic and emotional profundity, and I coveted it with all the passion of one who was by nature essentially happy. Indeed it may be that it was this very tendency of mine towards carefree frivolity that prevented me attaining primacy in my chosen field. It's not that I didn't fight, so much as I didn't fight hard enough, or with sufficient ferocity. I'm not trying to suggest that I didn't have my long dark nights of the soul, because of course I did, especially in the second half of the '80s and beyond. However, even these may have been at least partially attributable to my obsessive need to appear to others as a fascinating melancholiac. This I think it's fair to say I managed to do to a degree at least, for oh how madly in love was I with sorrow, madness and death in the manner of my beloved doomed poets. But looking back at my pre-Christian existence, the overwhelming impression I have is of a man whose primary emotional condition was one of utter exaltation and enraptured joy of life. But it was the joy of a fool...thrilling to the entire awful experience of tailspinning to his doom...

Strange Coldness Perplexing

the catholic nurse
all sensitive
caring noticing
what can she think
of my hot/cold torment

always near blowing it
living in the fast lane
so friendly kind
the girls
dewy eyed
wanda abandoned me
bolton is in my hands

and yet my coldness
the more emotional
they stay
trying to find a reason
for my ice-like suspicion
fish eyes
coldly indifferent eyes
suspect everything that moves

socialising just to be loud
compensate for cold
lack of essential trust
i love them
despite myself
my desire to love
is unconscious and gigantesque

i never know
when i’m going to miss someone
strange coldness perplexing
i've got to work to get devotion
but once i get it
i really get people on my side
there are carl people
who can survive
my shark-like coldness
and there are those
who want something
more personal
i can be very devoted to those
who can stay the course

my soul is aching
for an impartial love of people
i'm at war with myself…

A Cult of Nowness

My time at Callan's ended with the eighties, a decade which I see as the last in a triad of decades marked in the West by frenzied persistent social upheaval and artistic innovation, the latter taking place in particular within two late modern forms of creative expression in the shape of the cinema and Rock music. For me Rock is more than just a simple popular music derived from Rythym and Blues, Rockabilly, Boogie Woogie and so on. Rather it's an immensely influential international subculture of varying artistic and intellectual substance which some cultural theorists have even gone so far as to describe it as a religion.
It's possessed an intellectual dimension since the 1960s, and many would single the one-time Protest poet Bob Dylan out as the person who more than any other helped to invest mere Pop music with genuine artistic and intellectual substance. From Dylan onwards there have been Rock artists who’ve looked to past movements within the sphere of artistic modernism for inspiration, such as Romanticism, Symbolism, Dadaism, Surrealism, Beat, Situationism, and so on, as well as the zeitgeists which birthed them. In my opinion this was especially true of certain pioneers of the music of the 1970s and early ‘80s.
It could be said that Rock has been the principle repository of the avant garde impulse in the West since the late sixties, with its attendant rebelliousness and negativity. However, it would be false to insist that it's been uniformly negative, because much of it has been positive and uplifting, as well as artistically exalted. Still the fact remains that Rock has helped to disseminate a culture of instant gratification throughout the Western World in the last fifty years thereby significantly contributing to the alteration of its moral fabric.

Those who like myself were born in the mid 1950s, and so grew up in the sixties, were of necessity affected on a deep and perhaps largely subliminal level by the post-war socio-cultural revolution of which Rock was such an essential component. Some were more profoundly and negatively impacted than others, and I would consider myself among them. I maintain that from quitting formal education aged 16 to coming to faith some two decades thereafter, I was in thrall to a cult of instantaneity that has been growing progressively more powerful throughout the west since about 1955. If this weren't true, why would I not have countenanced a future for myself during those years? I mean in terms of establishing myself within a solid profession, starting a family, planning for middle age and beyond, and so on? Retrospect informs me that prior to my decision to forswear alcohol, I viewed these concerns with an indifference bordering on contempt and it hurts me deeply to realise the extent to which I sabotaged my life through such a worldview. Sometimes it seems to me that the only way I can deal with such bitter knowledge is to see myself as a social and professional misfit only by default.

The Petrified Fool

I begged for the return of my job...in person, through a friend, even by letter, but Callan's senior teachers refused to be swayed, and given my cavalier approach to punctuality, their firmness was more than justified. They'd been more than fair with me, and long-suffering.
So, reluctantly delivered after almost two years from the shackles of a job I genuinely loved, I briefly revived my acting career again thanks to the influence of my friend Astrid Hilne. She recommended me for the part of the Fool to the director Lesley Wake, who was staging a production of "Twelth Night" at the Jackson Lane theatre in north London. I wrote most of the music for the songs, which received a lot of praise. My acting did too, one woman even going so far as to tell me that I was the greatest Feste she'd ever witnessed. And she looked as if she knew what she was talking about. Once again, Feste had served me well.
In keeping with the spirit of the play, rehearsals and performances were followed and to a lesser extent accompanied by some pretty hard partying by myself and various members of the cast, and we were close for a time. In time, however, we dispersed, which was sad if inevitable.

As the final decade of the 20th Century dawned, I was finding my public image as much a source of terror as exhileration, and possibly to a greater extent than had ever been the case. However, such was my abiding need to be noticed that I stubbornly refused to moderate my image. To be fair though it was tame in comparison to what it had once been, and the recently departed 1980s had been a decade known for its sartorial flamboyance and lapses of good taste in the shape not just of the infamous mullet hairstyle, but frizzy perms, shoulder pads, leg warmers, ra-ra skirts, pixie boots and so on. Not that I wore any of these. But I did on occasion sport a bleached wedge of the type favoured by Princess Diana, George Michael and Green. As well as at various times, blue shoes, gold jeans, and turquoise earstuds. Instead, I began to anaesthetize myself as never before against what I saw as nocturnal London's ever-humming aura of menace, which may or may not have been more intense than a decade previously. For after all, I'd been attracting hostile attention for the way I looked since the early 1970s. What's more, years of hard living were almost certainly starting to take their toll on my nervous system. In addition to alcohol and nicotine, I'd been ingesting vast quantities of caffeine for years, although I may have stopped taking this in solid form by the onset of the nineties.

A Crazy Thrilling Time

In early autumn 1990, I began another PGCE course, this time at the West London Institute of Education, now part of the University of Brunel, becoming resident in Road in nearby Isleworth. I began quite promisingly, and fitted in well, making a lot of friends, and as might be expected, excelled in drama and physical education. I didn't drink during the day and on those rare occasions I did, it was just a question of a pint or so with lunch, and had mentally determined to complete the course. But as the following piece testifies, at night it was altogether another matter. It was first adapted earlier in that year from a letter typed to an old Westfield friend Georgina, now a successful photographer. When it was recovered, having never been finished, nor sent, it was as scrap paper, lost in a sea of miscellaneous mementos.

I haven't been in touch
for a long time.
The last time
I saw you
was in
St. Christopher's Place.
It was a lovely evening...
when I knocked
that chair over.
I am sorry.
Since then,
I've had not
a few accidents
of that kind.
Just three days ago,
I slipped out
in a garden
at a friend's house...
and keeled over,
not once,
not twice,
but three times,
like a log...
clonking my nut
so violently
that people heard me
in the sitting room.
What's more,
I can't remember
a single sentence
all evening.
The problem is...

My Teaching Practice was due to take place the following term but I was desperately behind in my work, so provisionally removed myself from the course in order to decide whether it was worth my carrying on or not. The authorities were in agreement with my decision. In the event I decided to quit, and met with the head of my course to discuss this, and she was very agreeable, making no effort to dissuade me. However, rather than immediately return to my parents' home I stayed on in Isleworth in order to rekindle my five-year old career as a deliverer of novelty telegrams. I also continued to work as a walk-on artist for the TV series "The Bill", based in the London suburb of Merton, Surrey.
Still in Isleworth, I became half of a musical partnership formed with Mark a wild young singer-songwriter from Manchester. I met him through an ad in the Stage newspaper advertising for acts for a movable variety club he was supervising at the time. A true Renaissance man, actor, comedian, songwriter, performer, writer, film maker and thinker, Mark and I remain close friends to this day. I wanted to call the band Venus Xtravaganza, but we settled for Mark's choice of The Unknowns...if we were ever called anything. Some three years together yielded some busking in Leicester Sqare, the occasional pup or restaurant gig, a rough demo recorded on a hired Portastudio, and countless hours of socialising that typically lasted well into the small hours. At this point I'd often crash at the small lower floor flat Mark shared with his girlfriend Babs in suburban east London. We all three became very close during a crazy, thrilling time of my life. Additionally I worked for a while with one novelty telegram firm from late 1990, and then for another a year or so later, and then still another towards the end of '92.

The Dark Glamour of Self-Destructive Genius

Winter 1991 was subarctic in a way I haven't known an English winter to be since. Not literally of course, but I can remember wearing several coats just in order to be able to bear a cold that doesn't exist any more in this country. I spent a sizable part of it of it in the seaside town of Hastings attempting to pass a course in TEFL, or Teaching English as Foreign Language.
How vividly I recall the thrill of seeing seagulls hovering over central Hastings soon after arriving at the station for my interview, which I passed, but I couldn't say it went well. I constantly avoided my interviewer's eyes until she virtually ordered me to look at her, then saying something like: "I said look at me, not stare". This as if to emphasize her belief that I didn't stand a snowball's chance in Hell of passing. I worked like a trojan but I was struggling terribly, tormented by OCD and its endless demands on my time and energies in the shape of rituals both physical and mental. I didn't drink at all during the day, but at night I was sometimes so stoned I was incoherent.
Predictably perhaps I failed, which was a terrible blow. I asked the authorities if they might reconsider, but they made it clear to me that their decision was final. And yet I'd loved my time in Hastings, a beautiful old town that could be threatening at night even then. This was my darkest, strangest time, and I was loved every second of it, even while continued to search for some kind of spiritual solution to my problems. I even visited a "church" in Claremont Road which was far from the kind of I was ultimately to seek out.
The piece below was taken from a letter my beloved mother wrote me while I was at Hastings, and serves as a harrowing indication of my psychological and spiritual condition at the time.

“…I had a chance to look at your library…I could not believe what I saw. These very strange books, beyond my comprehension, most of them, and I thought what a dissipation of a good mind that thought it right to read such matters…I feel very deeply that you have up to your present state, almost ruined your mind. Your happy, smiling face has left you, your humourous nature, ditto, your spirited state of mind, your cheerful, sunny, exuberant well-being, all gone. Too much thought given to the unhappiness and sad state of others (often those you can not help, in any way)…I’ve said recently that I am convinced that anyone can get oneself into a state of agitation or distress or anxiety by thinking or reading about, or witnessing unpleasant things, and the only thing to do is to, as much as possible, avoid such matters, to not let them get hold in the mind. Your fertile mind has led you astray. Why, and how?”

How many millions of mothers over the course of the centuries have asked this of offspring who’ve been inexplicably drawn to the shadowlands of life only to lose their way back to sanity? Only God knows. Most of course, succesfully make the journey back before settling into a normal mode of life, but the danger of becoming lost is always there, especially for those who remain in the shadows far beyond adolescence. Eternal adolescence is arguably one of the prime features of our era, facilitated by its exaltation of youth .
I recently read of a legendary Rock artist from the late seventies and early eighties born like me in the mid 1950s and about whom someone very close to him described as being obsessed by human suffering, both mental and physical despite being well into his twenties. His worldview, which also incorporated a preoccupation with the dark glamour of self-destructive genius, I see as remarkably akin to mine at the time I penned the words contained in the first paragraph of this piece, or when my mother wrote her impassioned letter to me. I was a puer eternus in my mid-thirties at the time, in thrall to the avant garde and its age-old love affair with antagonism and nihilism. It had already wreaked serious psychological damage, and physical and spiritual annihilation would surely have followed had I not been violently wrenched from its Svengali-like influence in time.
There are those who would insist that far fewer young people in the late ‘00s are enthralled by the time-honoured avant gardist exaltation of self-destructive genius than in previous Rock eras. How true this is it is difficult to say, but what is certain is that the worldview still exists. A year or so back, an angel-faced young Rock idol announced with apparent wistful regret that he’d destroyed beautiful things that were his for the keeping. Again I was reminded of the person I was a decade and a half ago, the eternal youth who romanticised self-destruction. He couldn't be more different from the person I am today, who treasures and honours the things he loves, which are to a significant extent the simple things that nurture and sustain the individual and society. I can only pray that salvation comes to him as it did to me....I can only pray for them all...all the lost children of sad mothers.

The following summer of 1992, I made another attempt at passing the TEFL course, this time at Regent's College in the beautiful north London park. But by this time I was drinking all day every day, and of course it was a disaster, even though I worked hard and even gave some good classes. I still have some video footage of myself giving a class and not for single second would anyone watching it believe that I was out of my head on booze.
It was a fabulous summer, and much of it I spent in a state of ecstatic hyperactivity. Looking back I wonder if I was in the grip of actual pathological mania. It is difficult to describe the thrill of walking in the evening sun to my local station with the Orb's eerie "Blue Room" throbbing in my head on my way to who knows where.
The decadent cavalier eighties were gone and it could be said that there was something puritanical about the techno-paganism that seemed to be so prevalent in those early years of the decade that followed. I wanted to visit as many clubs and venues as I could where it was being celebrated, but as things turned out I only ever went to one, CyberSeed in Covent Garden, which was poorly attended and only lasted a short time. However, had I not become a Christian, wild horses couldn't have prevented me from penetrating deeper and deeper into its recesses.
Then the following January I was attending yet another PGCE course, this time at University of Greenwich in south east London. At this stage a reader might be forgiven for believing that I was actually addicted to courses. This one, which took place at the University of Greenwich bore the suffix fe, meaning Further Education, which meant that I was training to teach pupils in sixth form colleges and other further education establishments. As if all this weren't enough, rehearsals for the play "Simples of the Moon" by Rosalind Scanlon had only recently begun. Again this was thanks to the kindness of my dear friend Astrid Hilne who was directing the play for the Lyric Studio, Hammersmith and through whom I had two small parts. I felt so free back then...constantly on the go from six or earlier in the morning until well into the small hours and loving every second of my thrilling but lethal lifestyle. The following title piece serves to evoke it, and there's a twilight mood to it, with the birthday boy performing his ecstatic solo dance in defiance of the ruin he's so flagrantly courting.

Lone Birthday Boy Dancing

Yesterday for my birthday,
I started off
with a bottle of wine...
I took the train
into town...
I had half a bitter
at the Cafe de Piaf
in Waterloo...
I went to work
for a couple of hours or so;
I had a pint after work;
I went for an audition;
after the audition,
I had another pint
and a half;
I had another half,
before meeting my mates,
for my b'day celebrations.

We had a pint together;
we went into
the night club,
where we had champagne
(I had three glasses);
I had a further
glass of vino,
by which time,
I was so gone
that I drew an audience
of about thirty
by performing a solo
dancing spot
in the middle of the disco floor...

We all piled off to the pub
after that,
where I had another drink
(I can't remember
what it was)...
I then made my way home,
took the bus from Surbiton,
but ended up
in the wilds of Surrey;
I took another bus home,
and watched some telly
and had something to eat
before crashing out...
I really, really enjoyed
the eve, but today,
I've been walking around
like a zomb.
I've had only one drink today,
an early morning
restorative effort;
I spent the day working,
then I went to a bookshop,
where, like a monk,
I go for a day's
drying out session...
Drying out is really awful;
you jump at every shadow;
you feel dizzy,
you notice everything;
very often, I don't follow through...

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Member Comments
Member Date
Carl Halling 14 Apr 2007
Hi Chrissy Thanks for your kind and encouraging comments. Yes, the little "i"s were intentional. I'm glad you enjoyed the piece...:o)


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