"Rescue of a Rock and Roll Child" is a memoir which I've elected to call an experiment in memoir composition in the form of a novella from which so many of my subsequent writings have arisen. And while it's been largely untouched since its initial "definitive" publication, modifications have been made, including the alteration of many personal and place names in the sacred name of privacy. I've tended to avoid the use of personal names, with the exception of deceased persons, as well as family members, and those I consider to be public figures.
Chapter One The Gambolling Baby Boomer
Birth of a Rock and Roll Child
I was born a Londoner at the tail end of a street to the west of
the city, a street called Goldhawk Road, and my first home was a
little Victorian cottage in the long-demolished Bulmer Place in
Notting Hill. You'll search in vain for this poky little street
in any London map, although you'll still be able to locate a
Bulmer Mews tucked away some yards away from the main road of
Notting Hill Gate.
On the day I was born, Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad, radical psychologist RD Laing, controversial war hero Colonel Oliver North, Laurel Canyon songstress Judee Sill, conservative activist Paul Weyrich, and Russian politician Vladimir Putin celebrated their 58th, 28th, 13th, 11th and 3rd birthdays respectively, while Beat poet Amiri Baraka, left-wing revolutionary Ulrike Meinhof, and Falklands War commander Major Julian Thompson all hit 21.
What's more, it was marked by an event which had a colossal if largely unrecognised influence on the evolution of our culture, one known as the Six Gallery reading, or Six Angels in the same Performance.
On the evening of the 7th of October 1955, about 150 people gathered at San Francisco's Six Gallery to witness readings of poems by Allen Ginsberg, Phillip Whalen, Phillip Lamantia, Michael McClure and Gary Snyder, all of whom went on to be leading lights of the Beat Generation. As to the future King of the Beats, Jack Kerouac, he attended but didn't read, preferring to cheerlead instead in a state of ecstatic inebriation. His "On the Road" published two years later, and dealing with his wanderings across America with his muse and friend Neal Cassady, remains Beat's most famous ever work.
After the Six Gallery reading, the Beat movement, which had existed in embryonic form since about 1944, left the underground to become an international craze. Thence, the Beatnik took his place as a universally recognised icon with his beret, goatee beard, turtle-neck sweater and sandals.
1955 was also the year in which Rock and Roll made its first major impact on the mainstream as a result of record successes by R&B artists such as Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry and Little Richard. However, it's "The Blackboard Jungle", which, released on the 20th of March, is widely with igniting the Rock and Roll revolution, indeed late 20th Century teenage rebellion as a whole. It did so by featuring Bill Haley & His Comets' cover of Sonny Dae and his Knights'"Rock Around the Clock" over the film's opening credits. Haley's version, which was remarkable for its earth-shaking sense of urgency, ensured the world would never be the same after it. Then in August, Sun Records released a long playing record entitled "Elvis Presley, Scotty and Bill", featuring a young truck driver from the small town of Tupelo, Mississippi. He went on to become Rock's single most influential figure apart from the Beatles.
On the 30th of September, James Dean died in hospital following a motor accident aged 23 after having made only three films, the greatest of which, Nicholas Ray's "Rebel Without a Cause" emerged about a month afterwards. It could be said to be the motion picture industry's defining elegy to the sensitivity and rebelliousness of youth, with Dean its most beautiful and tortured icon ever. As such, his image has never dated, nor been surpassed. The modern cult of youth was born in the mid 1950s.
Many theories exist as to how the staid conformist fifties could have yielded as if by magic to the wild Dionysian sixties, some convincing, others less so. For me, if a little leaven is present in a theory for me it leavens, or spoils, the entire lump, even when much of it may be sound. Far from being a sudden, unexpected event, the post-war cultural revolution has historical roots reaching at least as far back as the so-called Enlightenment, since which time the West has been consistently assailed by tendencies hostile to its Judeo-Christian moral fabric. That said, its true source was the Serpent's false promise to Eve that through defiance of the Creator she and Adam could be as gods, knowing good and evil, which is at the heart of all vain, humanistic philosophy.
What happened in the 1960s was simply the culmination of many decades of activity on the part of revolutionaries and avant-gardists, which had been especially intensive since the First World War. Even Rock, a music which the American evangelist John MacArthur once described as having a bombastic atonality and dissonance was foreshadowed at its most experimental by the so-called "emancipation of the dissonant" brought about by Classical composers of various Modernist schools.
Still, for all the change that raged around me in the sixties, my own little world of the leafy suburbs of outer West London was an idyllic one which had hardly changed from the day that I was born when the spirit of Victorian morality could be said to have been yet more or less intact in Britain.
My brother was born two and a half years later, by which time my parents had been able to afford their own house in Bedford Park in what was then the London Borough of Acton. Built by Norman Richard Shaw, Bedford Park was the world's first Garden Suburb. By the 1880s, it was a Bohemian centre for intellectuals and artistic free-thinkers its residents going on to include most famously the great Anglo-Irish poet WB Yeats. The painter Arthur Pinero was another resident; as was the actress Florence Farr, who like Yeats was deeply involved in mysticism and the occult.
Some time after the dawn of the next century, the area had declined to the extent that bus conductors would allegedly shout out "Poverty Park!" when their vehicles came to a halt at the local stop. However, the foundation, in 1963, of the Bedford Park Society led to the listing of 356 houses by the government, and so, much of the estate becoming part of the Bedford Park Conservation Area. During my boyhood it was still demographically mixed, yet well on the way to becoming completely gentrified.
Future Who front man Roger Daltry had relocated there from inner West London when he was 11 years old in 1955 or '56. A few years later, he formed a group in the Skiffle - or Jug Band - style called The Detours. Once it had shape-shifted into The Who, its furiously hedonistic music and philosophy would go on to make a permanent impression on the Western psyche and help fuel the British Invasion of America.
Tales of Tasmania and Manitoba
By the time we moved to Bedford Park, My father had been working
steadily as a Classical violinist for some years, and so was in a
position to ensure that my brother and I enjoy a far more stable
childhood than his had ever been.
He'd been born Patrick Clancy Halling in Rowella, Tasmania, and raised in Sydney as the son of a Danish father, Carl Christian Halling, and an English mother, whom we always knew as Mary, although she'd come into the world as Phyllis Mary Pinnock possibly in the Dulwich area of south London sometime around the turn of the 20th Century.
She grew into a lovely young woman, with dark almost black hair, green eyes, high cheekbones and a most delicately sculpted mouth; but with great beauty come great expectations, and also sometimes great sorrows too. They certainly did in the case of Phyllis, who lost the first love of her life in the First World War, who - evidently serving as an airman in what may have been the Royal Flying Corps - was shot down, possibly over France like so many others of his generation. However, she wasn't fated to remain single for long, for soon after losing her fiancé, she wed one Peter Robinson, an officer in the British Army, and they had two children in quick succession, Peter Bevan, and Suzanne, known as Dinny.
According to Mary's sister Joan, their maternal grandmother's maiden name had been Butler, which allegedly links the family to the Butlers of Ormonde, a dynasty of Old English nobles of Norman origin which had dominated the south east of Ireland since the Middle Ages, and so making it a lost or discarded branch. If Joan was right then I'm related by blood to many of the most prominent royal and aristocratic figures in history, perhaps even all of them. These would include her namesake Lady Joan FitzGerald, daughter of James Butler the first Earl of Ormonde, and alleged ancestress of Diana, Princess of Wales. Lady Joan herself was the granddaughter of Edward the 1st of the House of Plantagenet, who was not only the infamous "Hammer of the Scots", but the king who expelled all the Jews from England. Her mother, Eleanor de Bohun, was descended from Charlemagne, the greatest of all the Carolingian Kings, the Merovingians and Carolingians being two dynasties of Frankish rulers who supposedly upheld the divine right of kings. He may also have been Merovingian through his great-grandmother, Bertrada of Prum.
At some point between Peter's birth and that of his younger brother Patrick, she travelled with her husband to Ceylon - now Sri Lanka - in order that they might both work as planters on the famous Ceylonese plantations. There she met the aforesaid Carl Halling. What followed next I can't say for sure but I've been led to believe that at some point after becoming pregnant with her third child, Phyllis went to live with Carl on the island of Tasmania. There my father was born in the beautiful Tamar Valley near the capital city of Launceston. By this time, his parents were working as apple farmers; or so I can recall his telling me.
However, Pat was raised not in Tasmania but the great city of Sydney, New South Wales, which is where poor Carl contracted the terrible wasting disease of multiple sclerosis. After this, Phyllis made some kind of living as a journalist and teacher, variously writing for the Sydney Telegraph, and running her own elementary school. In the meantime, Carl underwent a desperate search for a miracle cure, which at one point led him to an involvement with the Christian Science movement. Sadly, his quest was unavailing, and he died just before the outbreak of World War II. According to his wishes, he was buried in his native Denmark.
All three children had earlier displayed considerable musical talent, Patrick as violinist, Peter as cellist and Suzanne as pianist. Pat has told me that he was only around nine years old, and a student at the Sydney Conservatorium, when he served on one occasion as soloist for the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, a pretty impressive feat for one so young.
Soon after Carl's burial, Mary set off for London with her three children in order that they might further develop their musical careers. Pat studied at both the Royal Academy of Music and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and joined the London Philharmonic Orchestra while still a teenager during the Blitz on London, serving in the Sea Cadets as a signaller, and seeing action as such on the hospital ships of the Thames River Emergency Service.
By this time, my mother, the former Miss Ann Watt, was already a highly accomplished and successful singer of both classical and light music, notably with Vancouver's legendary Theatre Under the Stars.
She'd been born Angela Jean Elisabeth Watt in the city of Brandon, Manitoba on the 13th of November 1915. However, while still an infant she'd moved with her parents and four siblings to the Grandview area of East Vancouver. Grandview's earliest settlers were usually tradesmen or shopkeepers, in shipping or construction work, and largely of British origin. My own grandfather James Watt, who worked variously as a builder and electrician, had been born in the little town of Castlederg in County Tyrone, Ireland, then part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.
Her mother, Elizabeth Hazeldine, was from the Springburn area of Glasgow, Scotland, having been born there to an English father from either Liverpool or Manchester, and a Scottish mother. She was the youngest of six siblings, and while she was alone among her immediate family not to have been born in Britain, she was also the only one to seek permanent residency in the mother country.
Within a short time of arriving, she met my father through their shared profession, and they married in the summer of 1948. Seven years later, they decided to have their first child, and so I was born a Londoner, Carl Robert Halling at 3.50 in the afternoon of Friday the 7th of October.
A Child's West London
I was an articulate and sociable kid from the word go, walking,
talking early just like my dad before me, but agitated, unable to
rest, what they might call hyperactive today.
My first school was a kind of nursery school held locally on a daily basis at the private residence of a lady named Miss Pearson, and then aged 4 years old, I joined the exclusive Lycée Français du Kensington du Sud, situated in the fabulously opulent West London area of South Kensington, where I was to become bilingual by the age of four or thereabouts.
Almost every race and nationality under the sun was to be found in the Lycée in those days... and among those who went on to be good pals of mine were kids of English, French, Jewish, American, Yugoslavian and Middle Eastern origin.
My father was far from wealthy, but he was determined that my brother and I enjoy the best and richest education imaginable, and we were dressed in lederhosen with our heads shorn like convicts, so that we be distinguished from the common run of British boys with their short back and sides, and to this end, he worked, toiled incessantly to ensure that we did.
At some stage in the early 1960s, I became a problem both at school and home, a disruptive influence in the class, and a trouble-maker in the streets, an eccentric loon full of madcap fun and half-deranged imaginativeness whose unusual physical appearance was enhanced by a striking thinness and enormous long-lashed blue eyes. Less charmingly, I was also the kind of deliberately malicious little hooligan who'd remove a paper from a neighbour's letter-box, and then mutilate it before re-posting it.
The era's famous social and sexual revolution was well under way, and yet for all that, seminal Pop groups such as the Searchers and the Dave Clark Five - even the Beatles themselves - were quaint and wholesome figures in a still innocent England. They fitted in well in a nation of Norman Wisdom pictures and the well-spoken presenters of the BBC Home or Light Service, of coppers, tanners and ten bob notes, sweet shops and tuppeny chews.
Beatlemania invaded my world in 1963, and I first announced my own status as a Beatlemaniac at the Lycée in that landmark year. It was the very year, I think, that I took an (apparently) intense dislike to an American kid called Raymond, who later became my friend. I used to attack him for no reason at all other than to assert my superiority over him. One day, he finally flipped and gave me a rabbit punch in the stomach, but he wasn't punished, perhaps because the teacher had a strong idea I'd started the trouble in the first place.
By the end of the year, a single new group had started threatening the Beatles' position as my favourite in the world. They were the Rolling Stones; although my initial reaction to what I saw as a rough and sullen performance of Buddy Holly's "Not Fade Away" on TV, was one of bitter disappointment. But before long, I'd become utterly entranced by these martyrs to the youth movement, and during a musical discussion I can remember having in about 1965 with some of the new breed of English roses, who may or may not have been flaunting mod girl fringes and kinky boots, I proudly announced my undying fealty. One of the girls was a Fab Four loyalist and had the requisite seraphic smile, while another preferred the Animals, and acted cooler than the rest of us, as if those Geordie bluesmen were somehow superior to mere Pop acts like the Beatles and the Stones.
During this golden era, I divided my time between the Lycée and my West London stomping ground, and from a very young age, took Judo classes in South Kensington. It was there that one of my teachers, a former British international who'd fought in the first ever World Judo championships in Japan, once despairingly said that he always knew it was Saturday once he'd heard my voice. Some of the other kids knew me as Alley Cat, and it was a pretty apt name for such a feral child.
Later, I took classes at a club in the somewhat rougher district of Hammersmith, but if I thought I was going to raise Cain there I had another thing coming, given that its owner was a one-time captain of the British international team who'd served as an air gunner with 83 squadron during World War II. He later held Judo classes in Stalag 383.
I went on to study Karate there in the early 1970s, and was still doing so as late as 1973, when I got it into my head that I no longer wished to have anything to do with anything martial, precious blooming aesthete that I was.
For all that, I was rarely happier than on those Wednesday evenings, when I attended the 20th Chiswick Wolf Cub pack and I was less of a menace there than pretty well anywhere else I can think of.
Memories such as the solemnity of my enrolment, and being helped up a tree by an older cub to secure my Athletics badge, stayed with me for many years afterwards, as did the times I won my first star, and my swimming badge, with its peculiar frog symbol, as well as the pomp and the seriousness of a mass meeting I attended, with its different coloured scarves, sweaters and hair, and the tears I shed afterwards, despite the kindness of the older cockney kids who were so eager to help me find my way back home to Chiswick High Road.
There was a point in the mid 1960s when I was dubbed "le Général" by a long-suffering form teacher at the Lycée in consequence of what she presumably perceived as my dominance in the playground with regard to a tight circle of friends, and my tongue-in-cheek superciliousness in the classroom. This typically saw me at the back of the class leaning against the wall pretending to smoke a fat cigar like a Chicago tough guy. One thing is certain is that I was not above organising elaborate playground deceptions.
One of these involved me pretending to banish one of my best friends, Bobby, from whatever activity we had going on at the time. He played along by putting on a superb display of water works, which had the desired effect of arousing the tender mercies of some of the girls. They duly rounded on me for my hard-heartedness, but I refused to budge. Of course it was all a big joke, and Bobby and I had never been closer.
I can remember going around to his house to lounge on his bed, watching "The Baron" or "Adam Adamant", before staying the night at the central London home he shared with his American father, a gentle melancholy widower who'd been very much in love with his English wife. In '67, he spent a week with me in the wilds of Wales as part of a course known as the Able Boys. This was a combination of a simple sailing school and what could be termed outward bound activities which involved us living in tents and cooking our own food under the supervision of "mates". I spent one week there with Bobby, and another with my cousin Rod.
If I was Le Général at the Lycée, back home I saw myself as the leader of the kids whose houses backed onto the dirty alley that ran parallel to our side of the Esmond Road in those days but has almost certainly vanished by now.
One fateful day, I crossed the road to announce a feud with the kids of the clean alley, so-called because unlike ours it was concreted over rather than being just a dirt track. It was to cost me dear. Soon after the feud had thawed I went over to pal around with some of the clean alley kids who I now saw as my allies, but there must have still been some bad blood because before long a scrap was under way and I was getting the worst of it. Finally I agreed to leave, and as I shamefully cycled off, one of the clean alley kids kicked my bike, which squeaked all the way home in unison with great heaving sobs.
If my good mate, local tough Paulie, had been with me on that afternoon in the clean alley, it's likely I would never have had to suffer as I did. Paulie lived virtually opposite us in Bedford Park, but he was from another dimension altogether. He was a skinny cockney kid with muscles like pure steel who seems to me today to have been born to wage war on the bomb sites of post-war London. For some reason, he became devoted to me; "Carly", he'd always cry when he wanted my attention, and he'd always be welcome at our house even though this brought my family some opprobrium within the neighbourhood. One of my mother's closest friends warned her of my association with Paulie as if genuinely concerned I might end up going to the bad, but he was a good kid at heart, and one of my dearest memories from my long gone days as a London alley cat.
When he made
his first personal appearance
in the dirty alley
on someone else's rusty bike,
in a cloud of dust
it rendered us all
speechless and motionless.
But I was amazed
that despite his grey-faced surliness,
he was very affable with us...
the bully with a naive
and sentimental heart.
He was so happy
to hear that I liked his dad
or that my mum liked him
and he was welcome
to come to tea
with us at five twenty five...
Our "adventures" were spectacular:
chasing after other bikesters,
screaming at the top
of our lungs
into blocks of flats
and then running
as our echoed waves of terror
blended with incoherent threats...
"I'll call the Police, I'll..."
This Glam Rock Nation
In September 1968, while still only 12 years old, I became the
youngest cadet at the Nautical College, Welbourne, a naval
college situated near a little Thameside village in the county of
Berkshire. This probably made me the youngest serving officer in
the entire Royal Navy at the time.
Founded in 1919, she was still known by her original title, but by 1969 this had been abbreviated to Welbourne College. However, the boys retained their officer status and spent much of their time in full naval officers' uniform. What's more, naval discipline continued to be enforced, with Welbourne providing the hardships both of a military college and a traditional English boarding school. In 1996, she became fully co-educational.
The Welbourne I knew had strong links to the Church of England, and so was marked by regular if not daily classes in what was known as Divinity, morning parade ground prayers, evening prayers, and compulsory chapel on Sunday morning. If you missed any of these you would have been punished.
I'm indebted to Welbourne for the values it instilled in me if only unconsciously. They were after all the same values that once made Britain strong and great; and yet, by the time I joined Welbourne, they were under siege as never before by the so-called Counterculture. While failing to fully understand the implications of the cultural revolution of the late 1960s, I passionately celebrated its consequences, and took to my heart many of its icons both artistic and political, and that's especially true of the Marxist revolutionary leader, Che Guevara.
In 1970, we moved from Bedford Park to a little industrial suburb close to the Surrey-London border. Our own street was quite gentrified, and several of my parents' closest friends were people from working class districts such as Shepherd's Bush and Notting Hill who'd made a success of their lives and so moved further out into the western suburban sprawl.
I finally left Welbourne in the summer of '72, and 1972 could be said to be the year in which the seventies really began as the excitement surrounding the alternative society and its happenings and be-ins and love-ins and free festivals and so on started to fade into recent history. For my part, I couldn't wait to get to grips with the dismal new decade even if for the first two years or so, I'd despised commercial chart Pop, being of the Hard and Progressive school, and so a recent devotee of Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, ELP, and Yes, et al. But I was changing, and for better or worse, this was going to be my era.
In late '72, I saw former Bubblegum band the Sweet on a long-forgotten teenage programme called "Lift off with Ayesha", and with all the passion of a former enemy, I became entranced by their hysterical brand of epicene heterosexuality; and especially bassist Steve Priest, who flirted with out and out cross-dressing...evidently as a means of taunting the audience.
Several months later, David Bowie appeared on the chat show Russell Harty Plus in January 1973 with his eyebrows shaved off and sporting a glittering chandelier earring, and my devotion to the strange culture taking over the land making even former skinheads want to grow their hair like the idol of Arsenal Charlie George became total.
So many of the popular songs of the era were like football chants set to a stomping Glam Rock beat. It was the golden age of the long-haired boot boy, and every street seemed to me to be pregnant with menace in this Glam Rock nation, as if the spirit of Weimar Berlin with its unholy mix of violence and decadence had been resurrected in stuffy old England. It was a terrible time to be young; but I of course loved it, lapped it up.
At the same time, I was launched by my dad on an intensive programme of self-improvement.
Through home study and with the help of local private tutors, I set about making up for the fact that I'd left school at 16 with only two GCE - General Certificate of Education - exams to my name, at ordinary level, of course, which is why they were called "O" levels.
I took Karate classes in Hammersmith, and among my fellow students were hard-looking young men - some of them flaunting classic '70s feather cuts - who may have been led to the dojo by the prevailing fashion for all things Eastern, such as the films of Bruce Lee, and the "Kung Fu" television series.
There were swimming lessons at the Walton Swimming Pool, where I fell hard for a beautiful elfin girl with a close crop hairstyle which made her look a little like a skinhead girl. I think she beckoned to me once to come and be with her but I just stood there as if frozen to the spot. My heart wasn't in the swimming though, and this soon became clear to one of the teachers who asked me why I was even bothering to turn up.
I was taught the basics of the Rock guitar solo by a shy middle-aged man whose old-fashioned short back and sides and baggy trousers belied a deep love of the rebel music of Rock and Roll. I probably learned more about music Rock from him than anyone alive or dead, with the possible exception of a Welbourne friend, whose songs I stole with their simple chord progressions, which went from C to A minor, and then to F and on to G and then back again to C and so on.
In late '72, I joined the Thames Division of the Royal Naval Reserve as an Ordinary Seaman, attending classes once a week on HMS Ministry on the Embankment, and not long afterwards, it became clear to me that I'd been singled out for my budding pretty boy looks. I think this came as a bit of a surprise, but I was flattered rather than offended, as if a seed of narcissism had somehow become implanted within me in late adolescence. I can only wonder what effect this had on my healthy development as a normal male human being.
It's not that I wasn't aware of being good-looking before '72, because there had been the occasional comment about my looks on the part of female friends of the family for some years, and I'd even been made aware of being handsome as a very young boy by some of the Lycée girls. However, none of this had ever really registered with me, because I'd always been a typical feisty ruffian of a boy in a lot of ways. Having said that though, I was dreamy and imaginative to an extreme degree, which points to what would today be termed a feminine side, and I'd never gone through a phase of finding girls drippy or whatever. In fact, from as far back as I can remember I'd been prone to falling hopelessly in love with them, especially if they were somehow unattainable to me.
What's more, I was a born romantic, cherishing a grossly sentimental streak all throughout my teens that placed me somewhat at odds with my peers. While still only about fifteen and pretty thuggish for the most part, I was yet susceptible to powerful tear-jerkers such as "South Pacific"…whose movie version I saw at the flicks at the tender age of 15.
British director John Schlesinger's screen adaptation of the uber-romantic Thomas Hardy novel, "Far from the Madding Crowd", was another film that affected me very deeply indeed…too deeply perhaps for an adolescent boy, and it may have been partly responsible for an obsession with lost love and high romantic tragedy that remains with me to this day.
I'd an almost mawkish side to my character even as an adolescent, and this must surely have exerted some kind of influence on the course of my life, but in no way was I a typical delicate sheltered milquetoast, far from it. For this reason, to realise that I was perceived by certain other men as a pretty boy genuinely took me back, and I hadn't seen it coming, although - and I can't emphasise this enough - it was a source of fascination to me, not shame.
The cult of androgyny was a powerful force in Britain in the early '70s, having been incubated first by Mod and then Flower Child culture, as well as Rock acts such as the Stones, the Kinks, Alice Cooper, T. Rex and David Bowie. Furthermore, it was reinforced in the cinema by several movies featuring angelically beautiful men. And yet, I think it's fair to say you still took your life into your own hands if you chose to parade around like a Glam Rock star in the mean streets of London or any other major British city - to say nothing of the countryside - and therefore few did.
One of my big heroes as a boy had been all-American actor Steve McQueen, who incarnated an uncompromising tough guy cool. And yet in '73, several of my new idols could be said to have been "prettier than most chicks", as T. Rex kingpin Marc Bolan once described himself. I can only wonder what effect this had on my healthy development as a normal male human being.
I fantasised about fame and adulation as a Rock and Roll or movie star as never before throughout the Glam era, and built an image based on David Bowie, spiking my hair like him, and even peroxiding it at some point. Not surprisingly then, I didn't fit in in new home town as well as my brother, who was far more suited to the area than me with his strong cockney accent and laddish ways. He wasted little time in becoming part of a local youth scene centred mainly around football, traditional sport of the British working classes.
For my part, I came into my own in Spain, or rather the Mar Menor, a large coastal lake of warm saltwater off Murcia's Costa Calida in southeastern Spain, where the family had been vacationing since about 1968. I think it was towards the end of my summer '73 holiday that I finally started to be noticed in a big way by the local youth, most from either Murcia or Madrid, and so la Ribera became vital to me in terms of my becoming a social being among members of both sexes. A large ever-evolving group of us became very close and remained so for four summers running. Spain was such a sweet and friendly nation back then in the relatively innocent early seventies, and the youth of La Ribera as happy and carefree as I imagine southern Californians would have been in the pre-Beatles sixties.
What a time it was, a time of constant, frenetic change when everything seemed to be mine for the knowing and the tasting in the wake of a social revolution that had been all but bloodlessly waged on my behalf only a few years before; but there was a high price to be paid for all that gambolling.
Chapter Two The Triumph of Decadence
Sad Loves of a Seafaring Man
In late summer 1973, the minesweeper HMS Thamesis set out for
Bordeaux in Gironde in the south west of France. It was my first
voyage as an Ordinary Deckhand with the RNR, and I was just
seventeen years old.
During the trip I made my best ever RNR friend in the shape of a fellow OD called Kevin "Lofty" O'Shea…who called me only a few years ago from his East London home in point of fact. We talked about the time we became trapped by a gang of mangy-looking stray dogs late one night in the French city of la Rochelle in 1975, after having gotten lost on the way back from a wild night spent with locals. That tale is yet to be written.
I also became quite friendly with the most unlikely pair of bosom buddies I ever came across in the RNR or anywhere else. One half was Mickey, a tough-talking working class ladies' man of about 23, who was rumoured to be a permanent year long resident of HMS Thamesis. He took me under his wing with a certain intimidating affection, once telling me me he'd "make a ruffy tuffy sailor" out of me yet, even though we both knew that that I'd never be anything other than the most useless mariner in the civilised world. The other was an older man, possibly in his mid thirties, but just as much of a lad as Mick, even though he boasted the patrician manner of a City of London stockbroker or merchant banker.
To make it clear just how much of a lubber I was, there was one occasion when, during some kind of conference being held below deck, I was asked by an officer what I thought of minesweeping, and I replied it was a gas. On another, after the ship had been prepared for a major manoeuvre, and every hand was in their respective allotted position, I was found wandering about on deck in a daze, only to casually announce I was taking a stroll. Incidents like these made me the object of good-humoured banter onboard the Thamesis, where I served as a kind of latter-day Billy Budd, but without the seamanship.
Its crew spent its final night in a club in the southern port of Portsmouth, though it might just as easily have been Plymouth. The main event was a hyperactive drag artiste who tried desperately to keep us entertained with cabaret style numbers sung in a high woman's voice, and bawdy jokes told in a deep manly baritone, but the poor man was way out of his depth, and he was fiercely heckled for his pains. At one point - perhaps in the hope of seeing a friendly face - he turned towards me, and trilled something along the lines of "Ooh...you look pretty, what's your name?", at which point some of the sailors bellowed back, "Skin!", as in "a nice bit of skin", which was possibly some kind of slang term for an attractive youth. A little while later, the tar with the beard I'd been sitting next to all night asked me to hold the mike for him while he performed Rossini's "William Tell Overture" on his facial cheeks. He ended up passed out on the table in front of him after having collapsed face down with an almighty crash; by no means the only one to suffer such a fate that night.
Back onshore, I resumed my growing passion for all that was louche, bizarre and decadent in music, art and culture.
However, increasingly from 1974 onwards, I turned away from what I now saw as the old hat tackiness of Glam Rock, convinced that Modernist outrage had nowhere left to go. Instead, I turned my devotion to the more refined corruption of the golden age of Modernism of ca. 1890-1930, and especially to its leading cities, in terms of their being beacons of revolutionary art, as well as luxury and dissolution. They included the London of the Yellow Decade, Belle Époque Paris, Jazz Age New York, and most of all Weimar Republic Berlin.
At some point in '74, I started using hair cream to slick my hair back in the style of F. Scott Fitzgerald, sometimes parting it in the centre just as my idol had done, and to build up a new retro wardrobe.
These went on to include a Gatsby style tab collar, which I wore either with striped collegiate tie, or cravat or neck scarf. Over this, I might wear a short-sleeved Fair Isle sweater, a navy blue blazer from Meakers, and a belted fawn raincoat straight out of a forties film noir. My grey flannel trousers from Simpsons of Piccadilly typically flopped over a pair of two-tone correspondent shoes.
There were those cutting edge artists who appeared to share my love affair with the languid café and cabaret culture of the continent's immediate past. Among these were established acts, such as David Bowie and Roxy Music, and newer stars such as Steve Harley of Cockney Rebel; and Ron and Russell Mael of strikingly original L.A. Band, Sparks. Some of Roxy's followers even went so far as to sport the kind of nostalgic apparel favoured by Ferry himself, but they were rare creatures indeed in mid-seventies London.
As for me, I wore my bizarre outdated costumes in arrogant defiance of the continuing ubiquity of shoulder-length hair and flared denim jeans. In 1975, I even had the gall to go to a concert at West London's Queen's Park football stadium dressed in striped boating blazer and white trousers, only to find myself surrounded by hirsute Rock fans. The headliners were my one-time favourites Yes, whose "Relayer" album I'd bought the year before; but my passion for Progressive Rock was a thing of the past. I'd moved on since '71, towards a far deeper love of darkness and loss of innocence.
There was nothing even remotely dark, however, about the time I fell in love with Dutch beauty Marianna while sitting Spanish "O" level in June 1974 in Gower Street, Central London. She didn't look Dutch; in fact, with her tanned complexion and long dark brown hair, she was Mediterranean in appearance. It was probably she who approached me, because I was so unconfident around girls in those days that I'd have never made the first move, and in all the time I knew her, I didn't have the guts to tell her how I felt. So, once we'd completed our final paper, I allowed her to walk away from me forever with a casual "I might see you around", or some other cliché of that kind.
For about a week, I took the train into London and spent the days wandering around the city centre in the truly desperate hope of bumping into her. One time I could have sworn I saw her staring coolly back at me from an underground train, possibly at South Kensington or Notting Hill Gate, just as the doors were closing. Typically though, I was powerless to act, and simply stood there like a lovesick fool as the train drew away from the station. In time, my infatuation faded, but even to this day certain songs - such as "Just Don't Want to be Lonely" by The Main Ingredient, and "Natural High" by Bloodstone - will recall for me those few weeks in the summer of '74 that I spent in hopeless pursuit of a woman I didn't even know.
Later on in the year, and fully recovered from this absurd unspoken passion, I found myself once again in La Ribera in south eastern Spain.
The summer of '74 was one of the most blissful I ever spent there, and there were a good few of those. Each afternoon, a gang of us would meet up on the jetty facing our apartment on the Mar Menor, which was more or less deserted after lunch. There, we'd listen to Bowie on cassette, or on a portable phonograph, Donny singing "Puppy Love", and talk and swim and laugh and generally enjoy being young and carefree in a decade of endless possibilities. To some youthful Spanish eyes back in '74-'76, I must have seemed an almost impossibly exotic figure from what was then the most radical and daring city in Europe, and I played my image up to the hilt. In truth, though, I was barely less sheltered and innocent than they, and how wonderful it was to bask in their soft Mediterranean loveliness for a few brief seasons.
However, there was a change that came over Spain with Franco's passing, and the birth of the so-called "Movida", which could be said to be the Spanish equivalent of London's Swinging Sixties revolution. Perhaps it didn't happen right away, but by my last vacation in La Ribera in the summer of '84, it was I who was in awe of the local youth rather than the other way around. They seemed so cool to me, dancing their strange jerky chicken wing dance. By then, of course, most of my old friends had vanished into their young adult lives, and my time as Charly, the undisputed English prince of La Ribera, had long passed.
I returned to London in late summer '74 with a deep tan and my long hair bleached bright yellow by the sun.
Only days afterwards I found myself on HMS Ministry, moored then as today on the Thames Embankment near Temple. This involved my passing through Waterloo mainline station, which wasn't tourist-friendly as it is today, with its cafés and baguette bars, but a dingy intimidating place complete with pub and old-style barber. There I was approached by a former sailor who kept going on about how good looking I was. He even told me that he loved me; but he was no predator, just a sweet lonely old Scotsman who wanted someone to talk to for a few minutes, and I was happy to do that. I even went so far as to agree to a meeting with him the same time the following week, not that I had any intention of keeping it. Besides, it wasn't long before HMS Thamesis was on its way to Hamburg, second largest city of Germany and its principle port.
Once we'd arrived, one of the CPOs warned me not to wander around Hamburg alone, and I duly joined up with a group of about three or four other ratings on my first night ashore, and of course we headed straight for the Reeperbahn of Beatle renown. There, in the red light district of St Pauli, sights awaited me I don't think I'd even suspected existed up until that point. It was all so different from the quiet outer suburbs, where an organised coach trip took us to us to, possibly a day later.
We ended up in a park where I had my picture taken on a bridge by a reporter for the Surrey Comet, before a group of breathless giggling schoolgirls asked me to be in some photos with them, and I of course obliged, flattered by their attentions. On the way back to the ship, one of the sailors announced I'd been quite a hit with the Hamburg teenyboppers. Another wryly opined it was due to my appearance, the blond hair and blue eyes of the classic Teuton. Whatever the truth, there was something so touching about those sweet suburban girls and their simple unaffected joy of life, especially in the light of what girls barely older than they were subjecting themselves to a mere matter of miles away.
The Triumph of Decadence
Sometime in 1975, I became a student at Prestlands Technical
College which lay then as now on the fringes of Weybridge, an
affluent outer suburb of south west London. In semi-pastoral
Prestlands, as in my beloved La Ribera, I learned to be a social
being after years of near-seclusion, first at Welbourne and then
as a home student. So, attention came to be a potent narcotic for
me in the mid 1970s. However, despite constant displays of
flamboyant self-confidence, those who tried to get to know to
know me on an intimate level found themselves confronted with a
desperately diffident and inhibited individual.
The regular Prestlands Disco was a special event for me. On one occasion early on in a Disco night I got up in front of what seemed like the whole college and delivered a solo dance performance to a fiery Glam tune by Bebop Deluxe, possibly with white silk scarf flailing in the air to frenzied cheers and applause. I just blew everyone away.
On another, a trio of roughs who I suspect may have gate crashed the Disco only to see in me the worst possible example of the feckless wastrel student strutting and posturing in unmanly white took me aside at the end of the night. Doubtless, they were intent on a touch of the old ultra-violence; but I stood my ground, insisting that despite what they may have thought about me, I was just as straight as they. Apparently convinced of this, they vanished into the departing crowds after muttering a few dark threats, leaving my cherubic face intact.
'75 again, and my music, swimming and Martial Arts sessions were no more, but the private lessons continued; and among my tutors from that era was a young academic called Mark who lived alone but for several black cats in the sophisticated West London suburb of Richmond-on-Thames. He was a quiet slim young man with long darkish curly hair who, as well as being a private tutor, was a successful session musician who went on to play drums for a prestigious British Folk Rock band.
Mark, who specialised in the French Symbolist poets, exerted a strong influence on me in terms of my growing passion for European literature and Modernist culture. However, it was the less known literature of Spain that we studied together, from the anonymous picaresque novel "Lazarillo de Tormes" (1554) onwards, and embracing Quevedo, Galdós, Machado, Lorca, and others.
He was also an early encourager of my writing, a lifelong passion that was ultimately to degenerate into a chronic case of cacoethes scribendi, or the irresistible compulsion to write. As a result of this, I became incapable of finishing a single cohesive piece of writing until well into the eighties when I managed to complete a short story and a novel both of which have since been destroyed but for a few fragments.
It was largely through Mark that I came under the spell of the Berlin of the Weimar Republic of 1919 to 1933:
After I'd expressed interest in a copy of one of Christopher Isherwood's Berlin novels, "Mr Norris Changes Trains", conspicuously placed in front of me on his desk, he told me in animated tones that it had inspired the 1972 movie version of the Kander and Ebb musical, "Cabaret". In fact, while a work of art in its own right written for the screen by Jay Allen, and directed by former dancer Bob Fosse, "Cabaret" had been largely informed by Isherwood's only other Berlin story, "Goodbye to Berlin".
Seeing "Cabaret" later on that year was a life-transforming experience for me, one of only a handful brought about by a film, and the beginning of a near-obsessive preoccupation with the Berlin of the Weimar era, which has been likened by some cultural critics to the contemporary West; and it could be said that much of what's happened to the West since the end of the second world war was to some degree foreshadowed by the still horrifying decadence of post-war Berlin, which surely provokes the question, why?
Part of the reason may lie in the fact that more than any other nation of the late 18th and early 19th Century, the blessed cradle of the Reformation had played host to a school of Biblical exegesis known as Higher Criticism, which flagrantly, not to say blasphemously, attacked the authenticity of the Scriptures. What's more, late 19th century Europe had witnessed a major occult revival which significantly impacted several of its great nations including Britain, France...and Germany.
These two vital factors surely contributed to the terribly debilitated condition of Christianity in Germany in the years leading up to, and including the implementation of, the Third Reich in 1933.
By the onset of the '20s, crushed by war debt and blighted by urban violence between mutually hostile right and left wing factions, Germany stood on the precipice of disaster. However, some kind of reprieve came with an increase of affluence in 1923, at which point Berlin's Golden Age began, and she became the undisputed world epicentre of artistic and intellectual foment. Under her auspices, great artistic freedom thrived in the shape of, among other phenomena, the painters of the Neue Sachlichkeit movement such as Beckmann, Dix and Grosz, Berg's ground-breaking opera "Wozzek", as well as the staccato cabaret-style music of Kurt Weill, Fritz Lang's dystopian "Metropolis", the provocative dancing of Cabaret Queen Anita Berber and so on.
However, Weimar Berlin remains best known for its notorious sexual liberalism, as seen in pictorial and photographic depictions of the cabarets and night clubs in which license and intoxication flourished unabated which still have the power to shock. Given that several other Western cities in the twenties were hardly less hysterically dissolute than Berlin, it's little wonder that this key Modernist decade has been described by some critics as the beginning of the end of Western civilisation. In its wake came the Second World War, the collapse of the greatest empire in history, and the rise of the Rock and Roll youth and drug culture, which could be said to be the very triumph of Western decadence.
The Tears of a Woman
I made no less than three sea voyages in 1975, two as a civilian
and one with the RNR, as well as spending a week with them docked
at the Pool of London. The first of these was to Amsterdam, via
Edinburgh and St. Malo, on a three-masted topsail schooner TS Sir
Francis Drake of the Society for the Training of Young Seafarers,
founded in 1956 for the character development of young people
aged 16 to 25 through the crewing of traditional tall
Among my shipmates were my 17 year old brother, several young men from Scotland and the north of England, some recent recruits to the RN, and a handful of older Mates who'd been given authority over the rank and file of we deck hands. In overall authority was the elegant, distinguished Ship's Captain, who also happened to be an alumnus of my own alma mater of Welbourne.
It was an all-male crew, and I was quite well-liked at first although my popularity cooled in time. I kept a few pals though. One guy in particular stayed a good friend after we'd tried to impress a couple of girls together during our brief stay in St Malo. He was a small cherubic southerner with long dark hair worn shoulder length like the young Jack Wilde. I got on OK with a few of the others, and some were merely indifferent, but 'Jack' was Drake's true prince.
He helped me out on one occasion when I desperately needed him to, bless his baby-faced soul. I'd fallen hard for one of the girls, and was wandering around in a mournful daze after having failed to pluck up the courage to ask her for her address, when Jack handed me a piece of paper with it on. It transpired she'd scrawled it down just before leaving us, and I was drunk with relief at the news, just walking on air, because there was the danger of me coming down with a serious case of lovesickness had she become lost to me forever. Jack saved my hide.
Life on the Sir Francis Drake was no luxury cruise. There were heavy storms, and on more than one occasion, we were ordered out of our hammocks in the middle of the night to help trim the sails. I never took any part in this, although I did climb the rigging, just once, before we came into the port of Amsterdam. Dozens of us manned the yard arms, attached to these by our safety belts alone. I was determined to do it, even though the experience terrified me so much my legs shook throughout.
The Dutch capital was marked by the same kind of open sexual licence I'd witnessed only the year before in Hamburg, although it seemed to me to lack the German city's sinister vibrancy. Then - doubtless just as today - the sad De Wallen red-light district was filled to the brim with hundreds of little illuminated one-room apartments, each with a single woman sitting in clear view of onlookers plying her lonely trade.
As for Edinburgh, just before setting foot in the city for the first time, one of the lads, dressed to the nines himself in the trendiest seventies gear, all flared slacks and stack-heeled shoes no doubt, warned me not to go strutting about Edinburgh town centre in a flashy boating blazer. Of course, I completely ignored his advice, and, waltzing some time later into an inner city pub in broad daylight wearing said blazer and blue jeans tucked into long white socks, a grinning hard man with long reddish curly hair asked me if I was from Oxford. Perhaps he was aware of the Oxonian reputation for producing flaming aesthetes, but I doubt it. I think he just took one look at my jacket and thought: "Who's thus flash ponce askin' tae ge' hus heed kecked in?", or worse. It may have been touch and go for a while as to whether he was going to inflict some serious damage on my angelic English face, but in the end he left me be. He may even have liked me. The unlikeliest people did in those days.
Within a few weeks of returning to London by train from Edinburgh, my brother and I were setting off again, this time as part of what is known as the Mariners' Club of Great Britain.
We set sail towards the Baltic coast of Denmark by way of Germany's famous Kiel Canal, and while we were once more supervised by Mates under the command of a Ship's Captain, the OYC was more like a cruise than a trial by water, utilising modern yachts rather than traditional tall ships. The captain himself was a lovable bearded larger than life true character with a weakness for freaking out to John Kongos' "He's Gonna Step on You Again", which we both did on at least once occasion as I recall.
My brother and I were quick to recruit a nice young guy called Cy as our best pal and confidante for the trip. It turned out we'd actually met him some ten years previously while passing through Calpe, Spain, either on our way to or from my grandmother's home on the Costa Brava. Soon after setting foot on Danish soil we got talking to a couple of girls who, as might be expected, had natural golden blonde hair. Our efforts at romance were wholly innocuous, despite the reputation Scandinavia had for progressive sexual attitudes.
A less pleasant romantic episode took place towards the end of the trip, which saw me in pursuit of a pretty German girl called Ulrike. I was crazy for her, and she made it pretty clear she liked me too, and yet I'd senselessly dumped her for the sake of a night of drunken idiocy with my brother and Cy, perhaps expecting her to run after me or something. Suddenly, overtaken by sickly pangs of remorse, I set out to find her, and at some point during my search, while walking along some kind of wooden pontoon, I lost my footing and fell fully clothed into the waters of what must have been the Kiel Canal.
I wrote to Ulrike, but she never replied, and I can't say I blame her. To this day I can't understand what possessed me to ignore her so callously, just in order to tie one on with the boys, which I could have done any night of the week. Self-sabotage was fast becoming a speciality of mine.
It was in this same year of '75 that I attempted 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. This involved my taking the train down to HMS Stirling, the Royal Navy's specialist training centre in Gosport, Hampshire, where I spent three days attending various examinations and interviews intended to assess my potential as a future naval officer.
On one occasion, early on in the long weekend just before one assignment or another, I was putting the final touches to my toilette in front of a handy mirror when one of the guys I was sharing a dorm with felt it necessary to remind me that I wasn't at a fashion show. He wasn't going to be coming along with me that night to the disco, or any night for that matter, but you couldn't fault his dedication.
Two guys eventually did agree to keep me company on one of the nights we spent at Stirling, but they didn't really seem all that keen. As things turned out, they left me alone at a Gosport disco to return to the Sultan for an early night. When I got back myself, I was shocked to discover that Stirling's main entrance had been locked and was now being manned by an armed guard.
If the young man nervously trying to reach someone in authority within the training centre on a walkie talkie was wondering exactly 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, then he gave no indication of it. He did however eventually make contact with someone in authority, and I can remember passing through an officer's mess soon afterwards and briefly exchanging pleasantries with its airily affable occupants. English gentlemen of the old school, they of course kept their actual opinions of me to themselves.
It may just be me, but I can't help thinking that had I returned to Stirling that night before being locked out, I might have been in with a better chance of passing the AIB, that is, as opposed to failing it, which I perhaps rather predictably did. Ay, every inch the superstar.
One of the last notable incidents of the year took place in December, when dressed in all-white with a fawn raincoat I took my friend Norma, one of the Thames Division Wrens, but originally from the north of England, to a dinner dance at London's Walford Hilton Hotel. We were joined there by a couple of Norma's close friends, a fair, bearded man in a suit, and his dark, extrovert wife. The husband was one of those deeply gentle men I came across from time to time in the 1970s. They weren't all bearded; but I can think of some who were, such as the madcap ship's captain described earlier. What united them was that they behaved with special protectiveness and affection towards me, and I've never forgotten them for it.
Early on in the evening, Norma became incensed when a group of older seamen started teasing me from their table, which didn't bother me at all because I knew these guys, and they meant no harm. Military life after all, is fuelled by this kind of raillery, but she insisted that their attitude stemmed from the fact that I was better "than what they are," as she put it, possibly in imitation of their pronounced London accents. It was kind of her to say so, but I think her judgement was way off the mark, bless her soul, because with them, what you saw is what you got, and if it wasn't always pretty, at least it was honest.