An initial draft of "Gilded Youth at the Guildhall School" was published at the Blogster.com website on the 1st of July 2006, since which time it's undergone considerable modification. The inclusion of the second versified section of "Woodville Hall" first published separately and in longer form at Blogster on the 18th of February '06, is a fairly recent development. It had been based on the bare essentials of an autobiographical short story written in 1978 or '79 while I was a student at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. A definitive version of "Gilded Youth" was published at the FaithWriters.com website in December 2007.
The Woodville Hall escapists
In late 1977 I joined the former Merchant Navy College in Greenhithe, Kent, which had 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, a lovable hard nut of about 18 with a thick London accent who'd been born into nearby Gravesend's large Asian community. Jesse as he was known certainly knew how to handle himself, but he was loyal and soft-hearted towards those he liked and trusted, and for a time we were inseparable.
It was through Jesse I think that I started going to discos at Gravesend's Woodville Hall, depicted in the piece below. There young Punk and Soul Kids would meet every week or so in late '77 dressed in escapist fashions which stood out in such bizarre contrast with the drabness of their surroundings. English suburban life in those days didn't include such modern day distractions as mobile phones, DVD players and the world wide web, and was dismally uninspiring as a result. Little wonder therefore that it gave birth to Punk and other outlandish youth cults, most of which are still in existence to some degree to this day.
I used to nag Jesse to be nicer, not that he wasn't...he was one of the kindest guys I've ever known...but he had a habit of talking tough which intimidated some people. As things turned out, I was the one who quit college first, even if he did follow me not long afterwards, which caused Jesse to wonder I'd been such a prig in the first place. I didn't have an answer...
Soon after I'd paid
or 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
or bleach blonde,
With flashes of
Some wore large
Their school ties
The boys all had
Wore mohair sweaters,
And winklepicker shoes.
A band playing
At a frantic speed
Came to a sudden,
Was now beginning
To fill the hall,
With another group
of short-haired youths...
Smoother, more elegant,
than the previous ones.
Wore well-pressed pegs
of red or blue...
they pirhouetted and posed...
West Suburban Story
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 bewitched 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 predictably spiked, 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 have 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 spikes. By the spring of 1978, I'd shorn it all off into a skinhead.
It was genuinely dangerous being a Punk in 77-78 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 extraordinary hostility Punks attracted.
Close by to where I shared a house with my parents in the furthermost reachers of south west London where suburbia meets countryside 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 the 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 friends, looking for romance, or just dancing to my beloved Soul. On one occasion that I remember, the Soul gave way to Punk which saw the tiny dance space being invaded by deranged pogo-dancers. I just stood back and watched. I was still a Soul Boy at heart.
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 before when I dressed like an extra from "The Blackboard Jungle"...I think his name was Steve... stepped in with the magical words: "He's a mate!". Steve's 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, I took Jesse to a party in swanky west central London. It was one of the last, perhaps even the very last, in a long series of parties I'd gone to throughout '77 thanks to my old Pangbourne buddies, so many of whom were now based in and around the capital.
Before arriving at the host's house or apartment, Jesse and I met up as agreed 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 with a terrifying solo display of his lethal street fighting skills. "I'm suitably impressed", said Craig, and he was, and Craig was no cissy. We all got on well that insane night which saw me pouring a full glass of beer over my head at one point in circumstances I'd rather keep to myself. What the beautiful student of dance 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 overwhelming passion appeared to be the creation of 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, to the next party, the next scandal. It makes me weep to think of the waste of it all.
Jesse and I stayed in touch until about 1983, and it was because of me that we eventually lost contact. I had a bad habit of doing that in those days. I hope I'm making that point clear.
Costa del Punk
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 kindly put me up in an apartment, 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 a friend I made in town in her own apartment.
Shortly after that, I was offered the position of front man in a Hard Rock band playing nightly at the Tam Tam night club. I became something of a town character, Coco the Punk as I was known, one of only two Punks in Fuengirola, most of the kids who became my close friends being still in thrall to the Hippie sixties. '78 was my first year as a full-time Punk in fact, and among the objects of my excess 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. I removed it once it had started to cause my whole ear to throb.
For the most part, it was a summer of love and leisure, of endless lotus eating mostly spent in the town itself, but also at the legendary Campo del Tenis, or nearby Mijas...and even on one occasion each as I remember it, in Marbella, Torremolinos, Puert Banus. 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 a very dear friend. One night the charismatic 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. Yes, it was that incredible a summer.
I returned to London in September 1978 to take my place at the Guildhall, but by following summer, I was back in Spain; not to Fuengirola though, despite the fact that my friends from the band had wanted me to carry on with them as lead singer throughout '79. I feel bad to this day at having let them down so badly; we were so close as a band. There was something about the Spanish character that resonated with me; I can't say exactly what, but I always got on so well with the Spanish.
In my wisdom I'd chosen instead to to go to La Ribera, the little former fishing village in the south eastern province of Murcia.
I felt a deep and overwhelming sense of exhaustion as I stretched out on the wooden balnario overlooking the Mar Menor, but I don't recall being especially disappointed by the knowledge that I wouldn't be returning to the Guildhall for the autumn term of 1979. It may have been just the Costa Calida sun that made me feel so burned out. I must have felt pretty let down though, even if only unconsciously. After all, my dream of being a gilded youth at the Guildhall School had only lasted a year before I was asked to leave with no possibility of return.
Farewell Lauderdale Tower
Just before quitting Fuengirola the previous summer of '78 I'd been approached with an offer of singing in the Canary Islands, but I'd turned it down. Who knows where it might have led; but then had I travelled to the Canaries with the band, I wouldn't have gone to Guildhall through which so many incredible experiences came. It would take an entire separate volume to list them all.
What I will say is that at Guildhall I was involved with an almost unbroken succession of Rock and Pop bands. Through one of them, Rockets, I was offered the position of lead singer for a guitar player of genius who's played with one of the world's leading Rock superstars since 1990. Through another, Narcissus, which I formed with my mates Robin and Mike, I found only disgrace when our bizarre image resulted in a cacaphony of heckling. For the most part, I was the sweetest and most mannerly of guys of guys, but I had a nasty habit of shooting myself in the foot at the worst possible moments, or shooting my mouth off, one of the two. It was as almost as if I was returning to type, the suburban loser, waster, clown, position after all from which it's impossible to fall.
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, Rob was Robert Fitzroy-Square the boy next door with the Buddy Holly glasses, who provided most of the comedy, Dave was Dave Dean, the punk kid with the don't mess with me stare, and Richard was Little Ricky Ticky, the baby of the band at only 18. I think it was Dave who left first, and for a time, the charismatic actor-writer Ian Puleston-Davies came onboard. 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. There was a version by Michael Praed of "Robin of Sherwood" fame; and another which I wrote only a few years ago, only to come to the conclusion that it was too dark and violent. Most of it ended up in the trash. 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 many cried openly because I was leaving. During the evening, a close friend Gill told me to contact the impresario Barrie Stacey, owner of the legendary As You Like It club on Monmouth Street at the start of the sixties. Barrie was 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 Barrie. 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 moreover, the famed 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 had been the right thing to do after all.
From the Vic era, I offer the following relic from an unfinished tale which I went on to edit and versify. I rescued it last year from a battered notebook I was in the habit of scribbling in during spare moments offstage while dressed in my costume and covered in blue body make-up and silver glitter. While doing so, some of this glitter was transferred from the pages with which they were stained more than twenty six years ago onto my hands. It was an eerie experience.
Along Whiteladies Road
I remember the grey
The jocular driver
As I boarded the bus
At Temple Meads,
And the friendly lady
Who told me
When we had arrived
At the city centre.
the little pub
on King Street,
With its quiet
And the first readthrough.
I remember tramping
Along Park Street,
And Blackboy Hill,
My arms and hands
Aching from my bags
To the little cottage
Where I had decided to stay
In beween rehearsals,
Listening to music.
I remember my landlady,
Tall, timid and beautiful...
© Copyright 2017 Carl Halling. All rights reserved.
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