"The Trials of a Teetotaller" was originally published at the Blogster.com website as "Release, Relapse and Restoration" on the 9th of November 2006. In September 2007, a definitive version was published with corrections at the Faithwriters.com website.
A Teacher's Release
In the early part of 1994, I embarked upon the final stages of the Post Graduate Certificate of Education, FE, or Further Education, that I’d been working on since the autumn of ’92, and whose passing would have permitted me to teach French in further education establishments throughout the UK. As extensively detailed elsewhere, its progress however had been significantly hampered by my alcohol and prescription drug problems, which resulted in my postponing Teaching Practise, scheduled to have been completed in 1993, until the following year.
My own history includes three unsuccessful attempts at the PGCE. The first, mentioned in "A Cambridge Lament", took place at Homerton College, Cambridge, the second at the former West London Institute of Higher Education (1990), and the last at the University of Greenwich (1992-1994). I quit both Homerton and the West London Institute immediately prior to TP. With regard to Homerton, TP had been due to begin in a secondary school in a deprived inner city area of Cambridge where I had received a near-hysterical reception from the kids. There was a time when I would have gladly attempted to live up to this incredibly positive first impression, but at 30, I was already in thrall to the deep jadedness and self-suspicion of a man calloused by knowledge and experience despite my still angelically youthful countenance.
My second attempt would have taken place in Hounslow, west London, close by to WLIE itself. This was based on two campuses in the suburbs of Isleworth, where I briefly shared a house, and east Twickenham. Both formed part of the University of London prior to the Institute’s merging with Brunel University. The Twickenham campus where I did most of my studying was recently sold off to property developers.
I finally completed a full TP early in 1994 at Esher College, a higher education school in the little village suburb of Thames Ditton, but had neglected to demonstrate sufficient authority in the classroom or something of the sort, according to the report I was given at my request. This understandably went on to jeopardise my final mark. As a result, despite my having passed every one of the requisite exams except the TP component, I failed the course as a whole. To be fair, my Greenwich tutors offered me the opportunity of retaking the section of the course I botched, but I chose to turn them down.
Flashes of Black Humour
The exact duration of the mood of disappointment to which I was undoubtedly subject, if only fleetingly, as a result of bungling a course which had cost me so much not just in financial terms but by way of time and effort I cannot say for certain. What is sure, however, is that within a short period of time of being informed of my fail, I successfully auditioned for a newly formed fringe theatre group known as Grip, based at the Rose and Crown public house in Kingston, Surrey. I did so for the main part of Roote in a relatively obscure play by Harold Pinter, the monumentally successful London-born dramatist, screenwriter, director, actor and poet. “The Hothouse” is perhaps not among Pinter’s greatest plays, but it is a superb piece nonetheless, and supremely Pinteresque, with its almost high poetic verbal virtuosity and inventiveness and dark surreal humour laced with a constant sense of impending violence. Penned in 1958, it was not performed until 1980, when it was directed by Pinter himself for London’s Hampstead and Ambassador Theatres.
From the auditions onwards, I established a strong connection with the easy-going American director, Tim Williams. Tim was very much an actor’s director, which I would define as one who delights in establishing close relationships with actors, out of a deep respect and affection for their art. As soon he informed me that the part was mine, I was genuinely excited about the prospect of working with him in interpreting Roote, the director of an unnamed government psychiatric hospital, the “Hothouse” of the title. My success rate when it came to auditions for the London fringe theatre had always been low, perhaps because so many of those I’d attended had involved me reciting pieces I'd memorised before what seemed to me to be an offputtingly impassive panel of observers, which was why I felt so grateful to Tim. As an auditioner, he differed from the common run insofar as he had us reading in small groups from the play while inter-reacting with fellow auditionees. This system enables the actors involved to attain a basic feel for whichever character they might be interpreting at any given time, in other words to actually act for an audition.
Tim demanded from me an interpretation of Roote which was distinctly at variance with my usual highly Method-oriented, subtle, intense, introspective and yet somehow also emotionally hyper-vehement approach to acting, but his directorial instincts were immaculate. The pompous and eccentric windbag with the potential for sudden arbitrary brutality which he coaxed out of me was arguably the most successful role of my uneven career. It garnered glowing reviews not just in the local press, but also the London version of the celebrated international listings magazine “Time Out”, in which Kate Stratton described my performance as “flawlessly accurate” and “lit by flashes of black humour”, adding that the production faltered whenever I left the stage. This review created a real aura of excitement about the production, and especially its lead actor who for all the world looked set to capitalize on this unexpected success and become something of a West End star or something akin. One agent went out of her way to ask me to ensure my details reached her, And yet, having attempted to do just that, I never heard from her again. To this day I am uncertain precisely why, but it may have been something to do with my CV, which was not of a sufficient standard of professionalism.
Trials of a Teetotaller
Although I was nearly 40 years old at the time of "The Hothouse", I feel safe in saying that I barely looked more than 25, 30 at the very most, and so possibly struck others as an ingenous young man at the start of a brilliant career, rather than one with some decade and a half of experience under his tightly knotted belt. It could be sad then that I was a kind of a Dorian Gray figure, and yet I was no curator of a once perfect portrait corroding in an attic in tandem with its subject’s increasing depravation, not I, for I was still filled with the naively fervent desire for holiness that is so characteristic of those known as "baby Christians".
Still, despite the aura of carefree youthfulness I projected, I was suffering within, sorely missing the escape alcohol once offered me, and the revels extending deep into the night that once used to follow my acting perfomances, and during which I’d throw my youth and affections about like some kind of maniacal delinquent gambler squandering his life’s savings at the poker table in the face of imminent insolvency. Years later, on the other hand, I had to make do with a sickly sweet soft drink to facilitate the socialising process in the vain hope that it would serve as a mild euphoriant. To further complicate matters, I started being subject during the run of “The Hothouse” to heavy spiritual problems related to my thought life, possibly connected to my pre-Christian existence which after all had only recently ceased to be. Within a year I would actively seek refuge in what is known in Pentecostal-Charismatic Christian circles as Healing Ministry, in consequence of these and other torments.
Qualms of a Christian Actor
My faith didn’t violently clash with the contents of “The Hothouse”, although its unremitting sombreness of tone certainly caused me some qualms. Still, I had a high regard for the work’s artistic merits, and its unsavoury elements didn’t provoke revulsion in me, unlike certain plays I considered in the mid 1990s. I mention this to make it clear that fame as an actor, indeed as an artist or entertainer in general, was no longer the obsession it had once been for me. With regard to this, a person very close to me told me back in the late '80s or early '90s that it is possible to want something too much, perhaps implying that my thirst for renown or notoriety prior to my becoming a Christian was of such a pathological degree of intensity that it ultimately set about devouring me. Whether such a theory has any real basis in truth I cannot say. What is certain is that since coming to faith, my priorities had drastically shifted, and I viewed worldly acclaim with a far more dubious eye than before. Perhaps that's why I failed to take fuller advantage of a late-flowering opportunity for success within my chosen craft than I should have done. Although I was pretty calm about this at the time, I now realise that if an opportunity carries within it the potential for future professional and social status, it should be unhesitatingly seized upon. To do otherwise is to risk a legacy of shame and remorse.
My First Relapse
Within a short time of “The Hothouse” reaching the end of its two week run, Grip’s easy-going artistic director Martin Richards asked me if I’d like to audition for his forthcoming production of “Two” by the playwright Jim Cartwright, best known for the play and film “Little Voice”, to be directed by Martin, and produced by his fiancée Chantal. "Two", as the name suggests, is a two-handed play in which all the male characters are played by one actor, and all the female by another.
I of course answered in the affirmative and auditioned succesfully, with the result that I found myself playing opposite the superb character actress Jane Gelardi for a fortnight...and by the end of the run the houses were so packed that people were sitting on the side of the stage at my feet. In other words, the production was an unqualified triumph, gaining uniformly enthusiastic reviews, although sadly only in the local press. Still, while working alongside Martin, Jane and Chantal on "Two" was an unalloyed pleasure, I dreaded the end of each performance, seeking only to distance myself from the audiences who came nightly to see me do what I did best as soon as it was possible to do so without giving any great offence.
Sweet release from a prison of sobriety presented itself while I was attending some unrelated function at the Rose and Crown some days following “Two"’s final performance. What happened was a tall, bearded man I was casually chatting to offered to buy me a drink, at which point rather than the soft drink I normally opted for, I hazarded a single glass of wine. It was the first alcohol to pass my lips since January 1993, that is, without taking into account an incident at my parents’ house when I took a large gulp of what I thought was water but which turned out to be vodka, or gin. Far from having an adverse effect, however, the wine made me feel wonderful, its intoxicating properties doubtless enhanced by the purity of my system . Cycling home that night I felt perfectly blissful, emancipated at long last, or so I thought, from the torturous shackles of sobriety.
From this single glass of red wine, my drinking escalated by degrees over the next few weeks, only to culminate in an evening in a Twickenham pub with an old university friend during which I boozed and smoked with all my old ardour. Cycling home afterwards, I came off my bike as I passed a bus shelter near Hampton Wick in Kingston, and dashed my head against it before falling flat on my back. I deserved to die there where I lay, and might have done had it not been for the mercy of God. He picked me up from the ground where I lay, abject and stinking of drink, and soon I was shakily resumed my journey home. However, weeks of controlled drinking, as well as one massive binge, possibly combined with the adverse effects of violently smashing my head against a bus shelter, resulted in my becoming ill and incapacitated for what might have been as long as as a fortnight. As I remember, there were times during this awful period When I'd awake in a frantic state, sickly pale and in a deathly faint, close to blacking out, fearful of death, but each time I felt God came to my rescue just when my situation seemed hopeless. All I could do was lie around, waiting, praying to get better, but it seemed to take an eternity, and yet once again, the Lord was with me at all times, and I eventually made a return to full health, before resuming the life He saved me for...
Photo: 1993. Taken by Jane Whitton.
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