For two years I'd slavishly followed those artists who'd either predated Modernism or been part of its banquet years and beyond but in '76 a new decade, that of Brando, Monroe, Presley, Dean, and the first stirrings of the Rock-youth revolution, started to influence me with regard to my appearance and behaviour, so for much of the year I dressed down in a workmanlike uniform of red windcheater, white tee-shirt and cuffed jeans as worn by Dean in Nicholas Ray's "Rebel Without a Cause".
Dean'd died a week to the day before I was born in late 1955 - seen by many as the Year Zero of the Rock'n' Roll era - and the 20th anniversary of his death influenced rising Pop stars such as John Miles and Slik's Midge Ure to adopt what could be called the '50s rebel look, in spite of the fact that Punk was poised to destroy the final vestiges of Glam escapism forever. Not that this actually happened of course, as Glam returned stronger than ever in the '80s, especially in America.
But there were still times I reverted to the old romantic escapist image...the one I'd adopted in defiance of what I saw as the leaden drabness of the post-hippie age, while immersing myself in an alternative world fashioned entirely out of the past and specifically the golden age of Modernism of ca. 1830-1930, and effectively discovering Modernist giants as Baudelaire, Wilde, Rimbaud, Gide, Cocteau (as well as many lesser poets, dandies and decadents from the same period) for the first time.
One of these occasions came during the dying days of the long hot summer of '76, when I wore top hat and tails and my fingernails painted bright red like some kind of hellish vision from Weimar Berlin to a party hosted by a friend from Brooklands. It was mid-September, and I know that to be a fact because I was supposed to have been at sea at the time on the minesweeper HMS Fittleton. HMS Fittleton had been accepted into the RN in January 1955, although she wasn't actually named Fittleton (after the Wiltshire village) until almost exactly 21 years later.
I think it was only a couple of days afterwards that Fittleton capsized and sank to the bottom of the North Sea following a tragic accident involving another larger ship, the frigate HMS Mermaid. It resulted in the loss of twelve men most of whom I knew personally, given that only weeks earlier I'd spent a few dayson Fittleton with more or less exactly the same crew.
She'd set sail from Shoreham in Sussex on the 11th of September 1976 with the intention of reaching the port of Hamburg on the 21st of that month for a three day Official Visit, but never arrived. On the 20th she took part in the NATO exercise "Teamwork" 80 miles off the Dutch coast in the North Sea, after which she was ordered to undergo a Replenishment at Sea with the 2500 ton frigate HMS Mermaid, and it was during this exercise that the bow waves of the frigate inter-reacted with those of the sweeper to cause the two to collide.
For some reason I'd earlier decided to opt out of the trip by pleading sickness. It was a decision that came to haunt me...despite the fact that had I taken part in the RAS manoeuvre I'd almost certainly have been assigned what was known as Tiller Flat duty, as had been the case on many previous occasions during exercises of this kind. This would have put me below deck, making escape difficult although not impossible. In other words,I may or may not have survived the accident.
Of the twelve who didn't survive I knew three quite well, and they were all men of remarkable generosity of spirit and sweetness of disposition, what I'd call natural gentlemen, and it broke my heart to think of what happened to them. I so wanted to comfort my shipmates for their loss, to bond with them and be part of what they were going through. I wanted to have survived like them. I went over it all again and again in my mind, until I drove myself almost insane with regret and grief. Once more I'd taken the easy way out, but this time it wouldn't be so easy for me to forget or explain away.
Looking myopically back, the landmark year of 1977 was in many ways a far darker one than those coming just before it. It was after all marked by the violent irruption into the British musical and cultural mainstream of Punk Rock, which could be said to have fatally disabled Rock's uneven progress as an art form with its savage DIY ethic and brutally rudimentary three-chord music. Fused with an extreme and often horrifying sartorial eccentricity, these elements produced something utterly unique even by the outlandish standards of the time. From its London axis, and yet with roots in the US, it spread like a raging plague throughout the year even infecting the most genteel suburbs.
For this not so genteel suburbanite '77 was a year of non-stop partying as one after the other of my old Pangbourne pals celebrated their 21st in houses and apartments in various corners of trendy west and central London. Of all of them I was perhaps closest with Craig, a future plutocrat of devastating style and charisma who yet still hardly more worldly-wise than me. One of his best friends was a blindingly cool young fashion designer from the north of England who forged cutting edge images for some of the most powerful trendsetters in Rock music and we went with him a couple of times to his favourite hang-out of Maunkberrys in Jermyn Street. Apart from the Sombrero in Kensington High Street, it was the classiest club I'd ever seen.
Soon after the start of the year, Craig'd traded in his tired old velvet jacket and flares combo for tight drainpipe jeans and black cuban heeled winklepickers. I followed suit with a pair of cream-coloured brogues...black slip-ons with gold sidebuckles...sham crocodile skin shoes with squared off toes...and a pair of black Chelsea boots, all perilously pointed. By about the spring of '78 I'd junked the lot for the sake of white shoes with black laces, something I'd seen on a member of London Punk band 999.
Being the naif I was, I thought the style that dominated London's clubland was somehow related to Punk, but I was way off the mark. Like Punk it was the antithesis of the hippie-student look that was still widespread throughout the UK, but deployed for posing and dancing to the sweetest Soul music rather than as an act of violent social dissent. It was the property of the Soul Boys...flash white working class kids with a love of black dance music much like the Mods and Skins before them, although I was not to discover this until later in the year when I was at Merchant Navy College in Kent. It was through one of the college guys in fact that I found out about the Global Village night club under the Arches near Charing Cross that was a magnet for Soul Boys throughout '77, as well as a handful of Punks. Its key elements were the wedge haircut, which could be worn with blond, red or even green streaks, brightly coloured peg-top trousers or straight leg jeans, and the obligatory winklepickers...or for a time, beach sandals.
The wedge was taken up at some point in the late 1970s by a faction of Liverpool football fans known as Casuals who'd developed a taste for European designer sportswear while travelling on the continent for away matches. A passion for designer sportswear exists to this day among British working class youth, being visible in every high street and shopping centre in the land, although the Casual subculture has long been extinct.
For most of '77, I looked more like a Soul Boy than a Punk, not that I knew the difference, even though while strolling along the Kings Road in what I think may've been January, I was assaulted for the first time by the monstrous varieties of dress being adopted by Punks about that time, and it'd only be a matter of time before I too hoped to astound others the way they'd done me. Sure enough, by the end of the year, I'd become a full-time Punk and stayed that way until the Mod Revival started drawing me away around the summer of '79. But that's another story.
The Restless and the Riotous
By the summer I was working as a sailing instructor in Palamos on Spain's Costa Brava. For a time I was joined by my dad and my cousin Rod and his girl friend Lucy, and my brother stopped by for a few weeks, but mostly I was alone. Rod and his sister Kris, together with my uncle and aunt Peter and Marge, had lived more or less opposite us in Bedford Park in the sixties, and we'd holidayed together at my grandmothers' house near Montroig for many years. A spellbinding guitarist while still in his teens as part of '70s Prog collective Rococo, Rod now plays for Zero Point Force.
After a few months I lost my job, but stayed on in Palamos for several months afterwards, parading around town by day, while spending most evenings at the Disco where my favourite was Donna Summer and where each lost or shattered affair left me feeling empty and disconsolate. One of these saw me trying to track a girl down all the way to the campsite I knew she was staying at, but having all but deliberately alienated her one horrible night at the disco, she was nowhere to be found.
Perhaps this obsession with what lay just beyond my grasp bore some relation to the ferocious thirst for fame that'd afflicted me even since as far back as I can remember. I mean...I was hardly suited for it. Granted, I had the pretty boy looks, but very few actors, or even musicians, become truly successful on the strength of looks alone, and this was especially true of the seventies, an age without MP3s or MySpace or endless TV talent showcases. I'd not yet appeared in a single play, except for a handful at Pangbourne.
My roles there included two elderly women, and one of these cross-dressing bit parts had me standing onstage for a few brief minutes without uttering a single word and then spending the rest of the play - Max Frisch's "The Fire Raisers"- offstage. The other was as a maid in a one-act play by George Bernard Shaw called "Passion, Poison and Petrifaction". Clomping around in a dress with studded military boots speaking in a hysterical high- pitched voice, I can remember bringing the house down with that one. I also played a society beauty engaged in some kind of illicit relationship with my mate Simon, but the name of the play escapes me. My only male role was in "The Rats", a little known Agatha Christie one-acter, and my perfomance as a camp psychopath called Alex showed real promise if the praise of the college nurse was anything to go by. But when all's said and done, I was hardly a National Youth Theatre wunderkind.
In terms of my other "talents", I'd written a few simple songs on the guitar, but I still only knew a few chords. I wasn't a natural born genius like my cousin Rod. Although to be fair, I did go on to become a pretty good songwriter with my own playing style. My singing voice was good though, and already quite versatile. As a would-be writer, I'd filled countless pages with verbose scribblings, but there was nothing tangible to show for it all. It could hardly be said then that my future positively glittered before me.
My final voyage with the RNR came towards the end of the summer. My best RNR pal Colin was sadly not onboard, but I had other mates to raise Hell with such as Adam, a tall red-head of about 26 who looked a little like the actor Edward Fox with a trace perhaps of Damian Lewis, or at least that's how I see him in hindsight.
Like me Adam loved music and fashion and clubbing - I think he was a regular at Pantiles in Bagshot - and we hit it off from our very first meeting back at President. He later confided in me about his early life which'd been marked by one tragedy after the other, and his quiet and courteous manner masked a troubled inner life which he didn't like to flaunt any more than he did an ability to look after himself in any situation no matter how violent. I can remember one night in a south coast bar when for some reason a drunken sailor took a dislike to me and obviously wanted to smash my face in, and Adam stepped in to save me from what might've been a vicious beating. This was typical of him, and you overestimated his poshness at your peril.
I can imagine though that there were those who wondered how he ended up serving as a rating, as they would've done me. I'm thinking in particular of some of the young guys of a certain RNR Division liaising with us to and from the port of Ostend in Belgium in that year of my final spell as a military man. There was one incident when some of these hard young seamen were gathering in an Ostend street for a scrap with some locals who'd offended them in some way. Adam and I made it clear we'd no intention of joining in, and one of their number, a waiflike young sailor of about 16 or 17, previously something of a pal of ours, turned to us with a look of utter confusion on his beardless face and said: "What's wrong with youse guys?", before joining his rampaging mates.
Adam just didn't see the point of fighting for the sake of it but he was no coward as I've already made quite clear. This secret inner strength of his would eventually see him being commissioned as an officer in the Royal Navy, which'd been his destiny all along. But not mine. My time with the London Division, RNR came to an end in late 1977 with a surprisingly positive character report, which I was very grateful for. The RNR did all right by me and I honour them for it, and if military life had never been for me, it's a part of who I am whether I like it or not. My life story would be all the poorer without it.
Even later in the summer I joined the former Merchant Navy College in Greenhithe, Kent, which'd merged with the Thames Nautical Training College HMS Worcester nine years earlier, as a trainee Radio Officer.
I formed several close friendships there; but closest of all was with Jasbir, or Jesse, a lovable hard nut of about 18 with a thick London accent who'd been born into nearby Gravesend's large Asian community. Tough as he was he was loyal and kind-hearted towards those he liked and trusted, and for a time we were pretty well inseparable. I used to endlessly nag about his attitude, not that there was anything wrong with it...he was one of the kindest guys I've ever known...but he had a habit of talking tough which intimidated some people, including me at times. As things turned out, I was the one who quit college first, even if he did follow me soon afterwards, which caused Jesse to wonder why I'd taken what seemed to him like the moral high ground in the first place. I couldn't answer.
It was through Jesse I think that I started going to discos at Gravesend's Woodville Hall, subject of the versified piece below, which was based on an unfinished short story written in '78 or '79. Pretty well every week for a while, a gang of us from the college would head out to the Woodville Hall, where we were treated like visiting royalty. Mainly white and Asian, the kids of Woodville Hall would dress themselves up in outlandish outfits which stood out in striking contrast to the industrial bleakness of their surroundings.
English suburban life in those days didn't include mobile phones or DVD players, personal computers or the world wide web, so was a fertile breeding ground for wild and eccentric youth cults such as Punk, New Romanticism, Goth et al. These last two were still in the future, but their seeds had been sown during the heydey of Punk, whose influence pervaded the Hall together with the Soul Boy look which was similar, although a lot less threatening. And these Soul Boys knew how to dance like you wouldn't believe...anybody'd think they were students of Jazz ballet or something, but they were just ordinary working class kids, who became stars once they took to the dance floor.
Woodville Hall Soul Boys
Soon after I'd paid
0r seventy pence,
I found myself
In what I thought
Was a minitiure London.
I saw girls
In chandelier earrings,
In stilleto heels,
Which contrasted with
0r bleach blonde,
With flashes of
Some wore large
Their school ties
The boys all had
Wore mohair sweaters,
And winklepicker shoes.
A band playing
Raw street rock
At a frantic speed
Came to a sudden,
Was now beginning
To fill the hall,
With another group
0f short-haired youths...
Smoother, more elegant,
Than the previous ones.
Wore well-pressed pegs
0f red or blue...
Pirhouetted and posed.
Farewell Gilded Youth
Soon after returning from the Merchant Navy College in December '77, I auditioned for a place on the three year drama course at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in the City of London, which was really what I'd wanted to do in the first place.
Incredibly, as I'd already failed two earlier auditions for RADA, Guildhall accepted me for the course beginning in autumn 1978. I was exhilerated; but that didn't stop me sinking further into the nihilistic Punk lifestyle. Having been blown away by the hairstyle of one of a small gang of Punks I knew by sight from nights out in Dartford in late '77, I decided to imitate it a few weeks later. It was spiked in classic Punk style, with a kind of a halo of bright blond taking in the front of the head, both sides, and a strip at the nape of the neck. I've part of a photograph of myself wearing this style with a long Soul Boy fringe at the front, before I eventually had it cut into the spikes. By the spring of 1978, I'd shorn it all off and looked like a skinhead.
It was genuinely dangerous being a Punk in the late '70s, and you lived in constant fear of attack or abuse if you chose to dress like one. After all, Punk's culture of insolence and outrage was extreme even by the standards of previous British youth cults such as the Teds, the Rockers, the Mods, the Greasers, the Skins, the Suedeheads and the Smoothies.
Britain in those days was a country still dominated to some degree by pre-war moral values, which were Victorian in essence, and a cultural war was being fought for the soul of the nation. It could be said therefore that Punks were the avant garde of the new Britain in a way that would be impossible today. This explains the incredible hostility Punks attracted from some members of the general public.
Close by to where I shared a house with my parents in the furthermost reaches of south west London where suburbia meets country I saw Hersham Punk band Sham '69 shortly before they became nationally famous. I already knew their lead singer Jimmy Pursey by sight; at least I think it was him I saw miming to Chris Spedding's "Motorbiking" at a Walton disco one night.
This gig took place in a poky hall above a pub in the centre of a large bleak industrial estate, itself surrounded by drab housing estates and endless rows of council houses. I was often there on a Sunday in the late 70s, usually with my brother and friends, but sometimes alone.
On one occasion that I remember, the Soul gave way to Punk which saw the tiny dance space being invaded by deranged pogo-dancers. On another, a Ted revivalist, a follower of classic Rock'n'Roll who favoured flashy fifties-style clothing, tried to start some trouble with me in the toilet. At this point, another Ted who'd befriended me about a year previously when I looked like an extra from "American Graffiti" or some similar '50s movie - I think his name was Steve - stepped in with the magical words: "He's a mate!". His intervention may have saved me from a hiding that night because Teds had a loathing of Punks informed by their essential conservatism. To them, Punks probably seemed to have no respect for anything. Later, or it may have been before I can't remember, he asked me whether I was really into "this Punk lark" or whatever he called it, and I assured him I wasn't. I may even have added that I still loved the fifties, which was actually the truth to an extent, not that that was the point. The fact is that I lied to him to look good in his eyes, which was a pretty low thing to do to a friend.
On New Years Eve, Jesse and I went to a party in London's swanky West End. It was one of the last, perhaps even the very last, in a long series of celebrations I'd gone to throughout '77 mainly as a result of friends from Pangbourne reaching the landmark age of 21. It was also one of the last times I ever saw Jesse. We stayed in touch until about 1983, meeting only once, before eventually losing contact altogether. It was my fault; Jesse did all he could to keep the friendship alive.
Before arriving, Jesse and I met up as arranged with budding oil magnate Craig, an especially close friend from my days as Cadet C.R. Halling 173. Introductions over, Jesse saw fit to impress Craig and I with a terrifying solo display of his lethal street fighting skills. "I'm suitably impressed", said Craig, and he looked it, and Craig was no wimp despite his upper class accent. An unlikely trio, we got on like a house on fire that insane night which at one point saw pouring a full glass of beer over my head.
What the beautiful dancer I'd spent most of the evening with thought of a nice guy like me doing a thing like that she didn't say. In the late '70s, I met so many people who might have done anything for me, and yet my one true passion appeared to be the creation of endless drunken scenes, and a party wasn't a party for me in those days unless I'd caused one, after which I simply moved on. Well, I've got plenty of time to myself to reflect on it all now..and the sheer waste of youth, of life, of love, life sometimes makes me weep.
In the spring of 1978, I arrived in the famous Costa del Sol town of Fuengirola near Marbella, with the intention of helping to set up a sailing school with a young English guy of about 30 I knew only very slightly. He put me up in an apartment, which was decent of him, but as things turned out the project came to nothing. However, I stayed on in Fuengirola, living first in a hotel, and then rent-free thanks to an American friend I made in town in her own apartment.
I became pretty well known locally as Coco, one of only two Punks in Fuengirola, and front man for a Hard Rock band playing nightly at the city's Tam Tam nightclub...with a Punk Rock frontman! How wierd that must've seemed. It was my first year as a full-time Punk in fact, and among the clothes I favoured were a black wet-look tee-shirt with cropped sleeves, drainpipe jeans of black or green, worn with black studded belt festooned with silver chain kept in place by safety pins, flourescent teddy boy socks, and white shoes with black laces etc. I even had a safety pin, anaesthetized by being dipped into an alcoholic drink, forced through my left ear lobe by a friend. But I removed it once it'd started to cause my whole lug to throb.
I was always short of money, but I could order what I wanted at the Tam Tam, and when I was flat broke I was bought toasted cheese sandwiches and bottles of cold Spanish beer or whatever else I wished for by someone who's still one of my favourite people ever. We went clubbing a lot, and it was such a thrill to sit there with her when the evening was still young. We spent time at Lew Hoad's Campo de Tenis, at Mijas, Marbella, Torremolinos...one night the legend that was British racing driver James Hunt called to her from out of the darkness of a balmy Andalusian night, before vanishing as suddenly as he'd arrived. It was that magical a summer. But I had to return to London to take my place at the Guildhall once it was over. After all, I was going to be a star wasn't I.
A year later I was back...but not in Fuengirola, although my close friends from the band had wanted me to return as front man, no...I'd chosen to go with my parents to La Ribera instead. But it'd been three years since I was there for any length of time, and everything had changed beyond all recognition. I felt a deep and overwhelming sense of exhaustion during my first few days in the town, but I don't recall being especially disappointed by the fact that only recently I'd been told by the Guildhall authorities that they thought it'd be best if I left...or rather strike out on my own in the acting world. I was resigned to it, even though my dream of being a gilded youth at the Guildhall had barely lasted a year. It must have been the Costa Calida sun that made me feel so burned out.
Just before quitting Fuengirola the previous summer of '78 I'd been approached with an offer of singing in the Canary Islands, which I turned down for the sake of the Guildhall. Who knows where it might have led, but then it would have been a shame to have missed out on the Guildhall. So many incredible experiences came out of my year at that reverenced place of learning and culture that it'd take an entire separate volume to list them all. So I won't.
What I will say is that at the Guildhall I was involved with a string of Rock and Pop bands, and that with one after the other of these I performed at the occasional Folk Night as it was called whereby a crowd of students gathered after classes to perform songs or whatever they chose at the nearby Lauderdale Tower.
Through one of them, Rockets, I was talent-scouted as lead singer for a guitarist of genius who was hoping to form a band at the Guildhall, and clearly thought I'd cut it as a front man, but for some reason, the band was never formed. He went on to play and write for one of the world's leading Rock superstars, something he's done for nearly twenty years now.
At one point he'd briefly joined a Guildhall-based Jazz-Funk band with another friend of mine Mike, which was destined to become one of the most successful acts of the eighties, chalking up one hit after the other in a Britain in which Jazzy dance music was favoured by flash boys in white socks and tasselled loafers. Mike'd even invited me to an early rehearsal, and my mother made a note of this in green ink after speaking to him about it on the phone. Perhaps they could've done with a singer at that point.
Through another of my groups, Narcissus, I found only disgrace. It was the second version of the band, and I'd formed it with Mike, the drummer from Rockets, and another close friend Robin, but our one and only gig was a disaster. I slapped on the make-up, and Robin and Mike had followed suit, but being relatively untainted by personal vanity, the results were unsettling. Sweet-natured Robin painted his Botticellian features like an ancient pagan warrior, while gentle giant Mike saw fit to smother his with military-style camouflage paint. Understandably, our set was accompanied by a riot of good-natured heckling. But I finally lost my rag and ended up throwing a plectrum into the audience with a sarcastic "Here's to all my loving fans!", or something equally pathetic.
I can't help thinking that this childish outburst did no end of harm to my reputation, because the chutzpah of the natural leader who demands and gets attention and respect through the sheer force of his personality was never among my gifts. Rather I was blessed with the seductive charm of the social climber for whom alpha status comes through the unceasing exercise of exquisite manners. In this respect I was perhaps a little like Julien Sorel, anti-hero of Stendhal's "The Scarlet and the Black" who despite humble origins, succeeds in ascending to the very top of the social ladder only to allow a single act of madness to destroy his life.
My final band was the '50s revivalist act Z Cars, which even won a tiny fanbase for itself. I was Carl Cool, lead singer and songwriter with a tattoo painted onto my shoulder. My close friend Rob was Robert Fitzroy-Square, the boy next door with the Buddy Holly glasses, who provided most of the comedy. Punky Dave was Dave Dean the hard man of the band. Richard was Little Ricky Ticky, the baby at only 18 who could've been a heart throb had things worked out for us. But they didn't. First Dave left, and after we'd replaced him with Ian, we tried to deviate from our usual three-chord doo-wop or Rock with a tightly arranged version of Arthur Crudup's "That's All Right Mama" but we weren't up to it musically and the band collapsed soon afterwards.
Ian, Rob and I were also involved in the production of a musical comedy based on the Scottish play, "Mac and Beth", which survived my time at Guildhall, if only for a single performance. It was rewritten several times. I wrote a long version myself about ten years ago, only to come to the conclusion that it was too dark and violent before trashing all but a few pages of it. Somewhere, however, there's a VHS copy of one of a handful of Guildhall performances of the play.
There were emotional scenes at my farewell party held in the depths of the Barbican Estate's Lauderdale Tower and some cried openly because I was leaving. During the evening, my dear friend Gill - who'd played Beth to my Mack in the previously mentioned "Mac and Beth" - told me to contact a near-legendary London-based impresario and agent well-known for offering young actors their very first positions within the entertainment industry. Her own brother, who'd recently starred in a TV comedy series had received his first break through this flamboyant and warm-hearted man. True to form, he gave me my very first paid job in the business a matter of months afterwards. So just before Christmas, I was doubling as Christian the Chorus Boy and Joey the Teddy Bear complete with furry costume in the pantomime "Sleeping Beauty" that began its run in Ealing in west London, culminating at the Buxton Opera House in Derbyshire.
Then early on in the new year, theatre director Richard Cottrell offered me the part of Mustardseed in "A Midsummer Night's Dream" at the Bristol Old Vic. Maybe leaving the Guildhall when I did had been the right thing to do after all. But oh the indescribable bliss of passing that summer's audition...
If you died today, are you absolutely certain that you would go to heaven? You can be! TRUST JESUS NOW
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Well done, and more interesting detail on a very diverse and fascinating life. I'd like to have seen you in your Punk getup!
Can't help thinking your absence fron the ship that went down was God's doing, and that He has great things for you ahead.