West Of The Fields Long Gone
Posted by Carl Halling, 06 July 2012 · 229 views
Work Book Project Memoir Autobiography Life Story
Children of the Brightest Sun
Among those who appeared in the Richard Cottrell production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" at the Bristol Old Vic in early 1980 were legendary method genius and future Hollywood superstar Daniel Day Lewis, and superb character actor, Nickolas Grace, still perhaps best known for playing Anthony Blanche - allegedly based in part on the poet and aesthete Brian Howard - in the 1981 TV production of “Brideshead Revisited”.
However, the cast as a whole was incredibly gifted and charismatic, and on what I think was the eve of the first night, I was lucky enough to see a BOV production of one of my favourite ever musicals, Frank Loesser’s “Guys and Dolls” featuring Clive Wood as Sky Masterson and Pete Postlethwaite as Nathan Detroit. And it may have provided me with more unalloyed pleasure than any other show I've seen, before or since.
After resuming my role as Mustardeed in the summer at the London Old Vic, my next acting job came early the following year courtesy of an old family friend, Howell Jones.
Howell had been at both RADA and the Royal Academy of Music with my dad, and he just happened to be the Company Stage Manager at the famous Phoenix Theatre in Charing X Road at the time. As I recall, a production of "Satyricon" was already under way and they wanted me as a last minute Assistant Stage Manager, in charge of preparing the cast’s costumes. I’d also be the show’s percussionist, and my primal thrumming rhythms would open the show, and punctuate the action throughout, although in time the director kindly offered me a small non-speaking role.
“Satyricon”, one of only two surviving examples of a novel from the early part of the Roman Empire, is believed to have been written during the reign of the emperor Nero by one Petronius, an imperial courtier specialising in fashion, known as an arbiter elegantarium.
According to its testimony, as well as Petronius’ own accounts of Nero’s depravity written shortly before his death in 66AD, imperial Rome's infamous decadence was already firmly in place long before her final fall in the third century. Not that she ever died in a spiritual sense according to many Christians holding to the pre-millennial view of prophecy. They believe she’ll be fully revived in the last days before the Second Coming, with the Antichrist at her head.
Also in '81, I became a kind of part-time member of an initially nameless youth movement whose origins lay in the late 1970s, largely among discontented ex-Punks, but who were eventually dubbed Futurists; and then New Romantics. Their music of preference included the kind of synthesized Art Rock pioneered by German collectives such as Kraftwerk and Can, as well as the highbrow Glam of David Bowie and Roxy Music. All of these elements went on to inform the music of Spandau Ballet and Visage, who emerged from the original scene at the Blitz Club in Covent Garden, and Ultravox, a former Punk band of some renown whose fortunes revived with the coming of the New Romantics.
The name arose as a result of their impassioned devotion to past eras perceived to be romantic, whether relatively recent ones such as the ‘20s or ‘40s, or more distant historical ones such as the Medieval or Elizabethan. Ruffs, veils, frills, kilts and so on were common among them, but then so were demob suits.
Several of the cult's more outlandish trendsetters went on to become famous names within the worlds of art and fashion. They stood in some contrast to more harder-edged young dandies such as the Kemp Brothers from working class Islington. Their Spandau Ballet began life as the hippest band in London, famously introduced as such at the Scala cinema by writer and broadcaster Robert Elms in May 1980. In time, though, they mutated into a chart-friendly band with a penchant for soulful Pop songs such as the international smash hit, “True”.
I attended New Romantic nights at Le Kilt and Le Beat Route among other swishy night spots, and was even snapped at one of these by the legendary London photographer David Bailey, but I was never a true New Romantic so much as a lone fellow traveller keen to experience first hand the last truly original London music and fashion cult before it imploded as all others had done before it.
Yet, despite its florid decadence, it was always far more mainstream than several other musical movements which arose at the same time in the wake of Punk, such as Post-Punk and Goth. For this reason, several of its keys acts went on to become part of the New Wave, whose mixture of complex tunes and telegenic Glam image partly inspired the Second British Invasion of the American charts. This occurred thanks largely to a desperate need on the part of the newly arrived Music Television for striking videos, and went on to exert a colossal influence on the development of music and fashion throughout the eighties.
As '81 wore on, my acting career lost momentum, with the result that some kind of family decision was reached to the effect that I should return to my studies with a view to eventually qualifying as a teacher. Thence, I went on to pass interviews for both the University of Exeter, and Leftfield College, London, scraping in with two very average "A" level passes at B and C, thanks to the infinite generosity of one of my soon to be tutors, the brilliant and enchanting Dr Mia Pastor.
I wanted to stay in London, so as to keep the possibility of picking up some acting work in my spare time open, so in the autumn I started a four-year BA degree course in French and Drama mainly at Leftfield - but also partly at the nearby Central School of Speech and Drama - while staying in a small room on campus.
At first, I was so discontented at finding myself a student again at 25 that in an attempt to escape my situation, I auditioned for work as an acting Assistant Stage Manager, but I wasn’t taken on…so I simply resigned myself to my fate.
A short time later, though, while sauntering around at night close by to the Central School, I was ambushed by a group of my fellow drama students who may have seemed to me to incarnate the sheer carefree rapturous vitality and joy of life of youth, and because of them and those like them, I came to love my time at Leftfield, which just happened to coincide with the first half of the last of a triad of decades in the West of unceasing artistic and social change and experimentation…
Indeed, the Playboy philosophy which exploded in the 1960s could be said to have reached its full flowering in the crazy eighties, even if the vast majority of people whose salad days fell within its boundaries ultimately forged respectable lives following a brief season as outsiders.
For my part, though, I profoundly regret the shallow narcissism that once caused me to scorn the trappings of status, security and respectability I now pine for with all the fathomless anguish of a long abandoned lover.
It’s the very selfsame kind of short-sighted sensation-seeking that's been tirelessly promoted in the West for over half a century now, not least through the medium of Rock culture; and when I think of the society it’s created, I’m reminded of the workings of the flesh that corrupted the antediluvian world, and which survived the Flood to be disseminated throughout the nations to spell the end of one empire after the other, the Babylonian, the Medo-Persian, the Greek, the Roman…
I had no excuse to embrace it myself, having been blessed by every great gift a young man could possibly hope for, but did so anyway, which points to an appalling want of character on my part.
Our most treasured qualities…such as wealth, intelligence, beauty, charm, talent, are uniquely lethal unless submitted in toto to Christ; for the gifted are phenomenally visible…and therefore susceptible to more temptations than most. Thence, they all too likely to fall prey to Luciferian pride and Luciferian rebellion, like David's favourite son Absalom, who was physically flawless yet morally bankrupt. Little wonder, then, that so many of them are drawn to the power offered by art, and especially music, the writer of the first song Lamech having been in the line of Cain. Indeed, there are those Christians who believe that the Cainites were the first pagan people, and that they corrupted the Godly line of Seth through a sensual and wicked music not unlike much contemporary Rock.
Of course not all Rock music is flagrantly wicked, far from it. Much of it is melodically lovely. While in terms of its lyrics, its finest songs display the most delicate poetic sensibility. The fact remains, however, that no art form has been quite so associated as Rock with rebellion, transgression, licentiousness, intoxication and death-worship, nor been so influential as such.
To think I once desperately sought fame as a Rock and Roll star myself, and if not as Rock artist, then actor, or writer, and it was surely a good thing I never gained this pagan form of immortality because had I done so, I'd almost certainly have been used for the furtherance of the kingdom of darkness. Once I'd served my purpose I may well have died a solitary premature death as an addict, as has been the fate of so many men and women briefly animated by the charismatic superstar spirit before being cruelly discarded by the Enemy of Souls.
Ferocity of an Enfant Terrible
As I mentioned earlier, at first I fiercely resented being at Leftfield, perhaps because I viewed being back in full-time education at 26 as a giant step backwards in terms of my acting career, but before long I'd embarked on one of the happiest periods of my entire life.
Leftfield in the early '80s was a hotbed of talent and creativity which provided me with almost unlimited opportunities for acting and performance.
Within days I'd made a close friend of a fellow French and Drama student by the name of Seb. He was a slim, good-looking, dark-haired charmer from the north east of England who, despite a solid private school background and rugby player's powerful wiry frame, dressed like a Rock star with his left ear pierced like one of his idols electric bass genius Mick Karn, and favouring skin-tight trousers typically worn with black pointed boots, and together we went on to feature in Brecht and Weill's's "The Threepenny Opera". I had two small roles, the most challenging being that of petty street thief Filch, who'd been played by the actor and writer Antonin Artaud in one of two film versions of the play directed by G.W. Pabst in 1931. I came to be so very proud of this fact because Artaud was an example of the avant garde faith in extremis, which made beloved in my deluded eyes.
Through this production I went on to play jive-talking disc jockey Galactic Jack in the musical play "The Tooth of Crime", its director having been impressed by myself and Seb in "The Threepenny Opera", and so cast us as Jack and the lead role of Hoss respectively. Writer Sam Shepard has spoken of being influenced by the aforesaid Artaud in his own work, which is no coincidence, as Artaud's concept of a Theatre of Cruelty has proved prophetic of much of the theatre of the post-war years, indeed art as a whole, with its emphasis on assailing the senses, and in some cases also the sensibilities, of the public through every available means.
Before long, I was channelling every inch of my will to perform into one play after the other at Leftfield, a long vanished college which became my whole world for two glorious years, while any real ambition to succeed as an actor receded far into the background.
When it came to my French studies, in my essay writing I often flaunted an insolent outspokenness perhaps partly influenced by my favourite accursed artists but also reflecting my own exhibitionistic need to shock, and while some of my tutors may have viewed these efforts with a jaundiced eye, one came to thrill to them and await them with the sort of impatience normally accorded a favourite TV or radio series. This was the wonderful Dr Elizabeth Lang, more of whom later.
How close this love of scandalising by way of the written word brought me to a seared conscience I can't say; but one thing is certain, my compassion started to recede. This didn't happen right away of course. Yet, even during those first two golden years, some of those who were drawn to me on a deep emotional level betrayed a certain unease with their words, and I was variously described as intense, inscrutable, mysterious, disabused and sad.
So, why didn't I cross the line beyond which it becomes impossible for a person to respond to the Holy Spirit? After all, from about 1983, I started to decline as a human being. Perhaps it was something to do with the prayers of believing friends and relatives, so that something precious was kept alive within me during those dark years. Certainly, I never fully stopped being a caring person, and I can recall being outraged by those avant-gardists who advocated actual cruelty or the harming of innocents. How then did I square this with my adoration of certain favoured artists who thrived on verbal violence and scenes of madness and destruction? The fact is I couldn't, hypocrite that I was. This love affair with destruction kept company with a savage fury towards what I perceived as social injustice, the chief targets of this high and mighty dudgeon being dictators on the right wing of the political spectrum, indeed the political right as a whole, but when it came to left-wing oppression, I was no less indignant.
The 1980s was a decade of protest and riot in the UK, and all through its years of raging discontent, I allied myself with one radical lobby after the other, including Amnesty International, Animal Aid, Greenpeace, CND and the Anti-Apartheid Movement. I marched against the nuclear threat in London and Paris, lectured for Amnesty while blind drunk to a roomful of middle-aged Rotarians, had a letter published in the newspaper of the AAM, and was a remorseless disseminator of radical rants, tracts, pamphlets and so on.
Mine was the righteous fury that is rooted in a false notion of the perfectibility of Man, and that fails to recognise that oppression stems from the sin we all share, that has no real satisfying motive other than its own existence. In time, it started to turn inwards, and to eat away at the reserves of tenderness that meant so much to me, its malignity enhanced by alcohol and dissolute living, and an addiction to astrology and other occult topics, and scandalous art and philosophy. My soul effectively (or rather could be said to have) started to cave in, and while it was ultimately saved from terminal ruin, I don't think it's ever fully recovered from the damage I inflicted on it. Such is my own "thorn in the flesh"...
This first remnant from my Leftfield diaries, "Some Sad Dark Secret" testifies to some extent to a former tendency to mental vehemence. It was based on notes contained within a single piece of scrap paper which I unearthed some years ago, and probably dating from 1982 or '83. The first three sections contain words of advice offered me by my sometime mentor Dr Elizabeth Lang, the fourth and fifth, further words offered me by another of my tutors, and which served to upbraid me for what he saw as a didacticism reminiscent of Rousseau. He was of course referring not to the painter Henri, but the Swiss-born author, philosopher and composer, who was not just one of the chief inspirers of the French Revolution, but through the emphasis he placed on subjectivity in his writings, the great Romantic movement in the arts.
His assertion that Man is born free while being everywhere in chains, which stemmed from his belief in the essential goodness of Man, has assured him a place of honour in the history of the Left, of which I was definitely part in the mid 1980s and beyond.
And were I to have survived into old age still convinced of the perfectibility of Man under certain social conditions, the outcome may have been bitter disillusion, because it’s only through the regeneration of the heart that a person can be changed. I learned this truth the hard way.
Some Sad Dark Secret
Dr Lang said:
You should have
On which to
The tone of some
Of my work
A little dubious,
That I’m hiding
Some sad and dark
From the world.
She told me
Not to rhapsodise,
That it would be
For me to
“Don’t push People,”
Dr H. said:
“By the third page,
I felt I’d been
I can almost see
You’re telling us
What to do.
You seem to
Into such an
Capacity for lists.”
The Leftfield Players
In the summer, a faction of us - mostly culled from the Drama department - took Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” to the internationally famous Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and in our production, Shakespeare's Illyria was transformed into a Hippie paradise, with myself playing Feste as a Dylanesque minstrel strumming dirge-like folk songs with a voice like sand and glue.
Most of the Leftfield players’ male contingent couldn't have deviated more from the politely liberal norm found nightly at the Fringe Club on Chambers Street if they’d tried. Among the wildest were Vinny, a dashing Britalian of passionately held humanitarian convictions who played Sir Toby Belch, myself, the anarchic product of multiple social and educational influences, and Jez, a tough but tender Scouser with slicked back rockabilly hair, who played Malvolio in a mesmerisingly understated manner. He was a fascinating, charismatic guy with a hilariously dark sense of humour who I think had been in a band in the early '80s at the legendary Liverpool Post-Punk club, Eric’s. He and his girlfriend Gill, who'd designed the flowing Hippie costumes, and was also a very dear friend, never stopped encouraging me nor believing in me.
We were all so close despite sharing a single house, albeit a large one, on what I think was Princes Street, and there was barely a cross word spoken for the entire fortnight we were its occupants.
During my second year I lived in an upper floor apartment in Powis Gardens, Golders Green, with my close friends from the French department, Seb, a former Sedbergh School alumnus, and fellow northerner Stephen, whose alma mater was Sedbergh’s age-old rivals, Ampleforth, a Catholic college largely run by Benedictine monks.
Steve was an incredibly gifted pianist and guitarist who despite a somewhat misleadingly serious demeanour was a warm, affectionate, witty, eccentric character who endlessly buzzed with the nervous energy of near-genius. He might not have wanted to ape the way his flatmates dressed and behaved, but he was fiercely protective of us despite our social butterfly ways.
Soon after moving in, I decorated the walls of my room with various provocative images including reproductions of Symbolist and Decadent paintings, and icons of popular culture and the avant-garde. I was determined to live like an aesthete, even if it meant doing so on a shoestring in a cramped little flat in suburban north London, and to this end I organised a salon, which although well-attended didn't survive beyond a single meeting. We were a pretty shoddy imitation of the new Brideshead generation that was thriving in Oxford in the wake of the TV series.
We drove our effusive landlady half-crazy at times through heavy-footedness and other crimes of upper floor thoughtlessness, although I don't remember her complaining all that much despite the fact that we weren't averse to drink-fuelled discussions extending well into the night. In common with most of my friends I tended to drink heavily at night, but almost never during the day. The truth is that self-doubt wasn't an issue for me in the early eighties and I was a truly happy person, in fact so much so that I may have exaggerated my capacity for depth and melancholia as a means of making myself more interesting to others. In the final analysis though, what possible reason was there for me to be discontented, given that my first two Leftfield years were fabulous...an unceasing cycle of plays, shows, concerts, discos, parties set in one of the most beautiful and bucolic areas of London?
My second year drama project was centred on the one-act play "Playing with Fire" written by Swedish (so-called) poète maudit, August Strindberg. I was allotted the task of supplying the music for the production as well as the leading role. This was Knut, a sardonic Bohemian painter forced to endure the adulterous behaviour of a friend Alex who following an invitation to stay with him at the house of his upper middle class parents for a few days, embarks on a torrid affair with his wife Kerstin. Alex was played by budding playwright Paul, while lovable Czech madcap Karel played Knut's hated bourgeois father. We performed the play a total of three times over the course of a couple of days.
Later in the year, I was asked by Paul to appear in a short play of his, “Wild Life”, in which I played a violent young psychopath. It was just one of a succession of plays or shows I appeared in during that heady second year at Leftfield, the others including “Twelfth Night”, with the Edinburgh cast more or less intact, Lorca’s “Blood Wedding”, with me miscast as the fiancé, and a Rice-Lloyd Webber showcase in which I played my former idol Che.
The piece below was adapted from notes I made during this time frame, with the first verse actually containing references to "Twelfth Night". It captures the blissful spirit of my first two years at Leftfield, a college then in its twilight time for it was incorporated into another in 1989, as well as the unquenchable desire for attention, affection and approval that was typical of me, and the way it affected some of those who cared for me most.
It was my evening, that’s
For sure -
At last I’m good
At something -
27 years old
I may be, but…
“It’s your aura, Carl…”
“When are you going
To be a superstar?”
A few days ago -
That seemed to be
On everyone’s lips.
“You got Feste perfectly,
Just how I envisaged it”
“…Not only when
but off too!”
At last, at last, at last
I’m good at something…
And so the party…Zoe
called me...I listened…
…To her problems…
To my “innocent face”…
“Sally seems Elusive
But is in fact,
You’re the opposite -
You give to everyone
But are incapable
Of giving in particular.”
Madeleine was comparing me
To June Miller…
Descriptions by Nin:
“She does not dare
To be herself…”
Everything I’d always
Wanted to be, I now am…
On the reflections
Of herself in the eyes
There is no June
To grasp and know…”
I kept getting up to dance…
Sally said: “I’m afraid…
You’re not just
Of the spells of calm
And the hysterical
Then anxious elation...
An Omnipresent Sadness
After the second year ended in the summer of 1983, I had a few months to spare before travelling to Paris to work as an English language assistant in the department of Essonne.
This spelled my exile from the old drama clique, and I'd not be joining them in their final year celebrations, and the knowledge of this must surely have affected me. I was, after all, severing myself from a vast network of gifted friends of whom I was deeply fond, and so losing an opportunity of growing as an artist in tandem with like-minded spirits. I could have opted for just a few weeks in France, but did I really want to be deprived of the chance of spending more than six months in the city I’d long worshipped as the only true home of an artist?
Earlier in the year, my close friend Madeleine, a brilliant dynamic woman of North African Jewish ancestry had told me something to the effect that while many were drawn to me, they sensed “la mort” in me. The fact that she was in thrall to the intellectual worldview, and familiar with the works of the great psychologist Freud, who identified a death drive subsequently dubbed thanatos, may have had something to do with this observation.
Precisely what she meant by death I can’t say, but she may have identified some kind of will to destruction - and specifically self-destruction - in me. As things turned out she was right, although this was barely embryonic in the early '80s if it existed at all. I’d attribute its existence to a cocktail of intoxicants, each one potentially fatal to the human spirit, these being alcohol, astrology and the occult, and intellectualism. All of these exerted a terribly negative effect on my development as a human being in my view.
While intellectualism is not evil in itself, of course, it's my contention that intellectuals are more tempted than most by pride, rebellion and sensuality. The same could be said of those blessed with great wealth, great beauty, and great talent.
Intellectuals have been among the most powerful men and women in history, and the Modern World has been significantly shaped by the wildly inspired views of geniuses such as Rousseau, Darwin, Marx, Nietzsche and Freud. Their theories - and especially those of Marx and Freud and their apostles both orthodox and schismatic - fanned the flames of a largely bloodless revolution in the 1960s. While this had been largely quenched by 1972, the philosophies that inspired it, far from fading themselves, set about infiltrating the cultural mainstream where they became more extreme than ever. Thence, they entered the realm of the Post-Modern, while remaining the ultimate consequence of centuries of Modernist influence on the Judeo-Christian fabric of Western civilisation.
However, I was never a true scholar like Madeleine, so much as someone who was both troubled and fascinated by the idea of hyper-intellectuality. Reading Colin Wilson's "The Outsider" in the early '80s, I especially identified with those intellectuals who were tortured by their own excesses of consciousness such as T.E. Lawrence, who wrote of his nature as being “thought-riddled”.
As a child I was extrovert to the point of hyperactivity but by the time of my late adolescence, I found myself becoming subject to rival drives of equal intensity. One of these was towards seclusion and introspection, the other, attention and approbation. It seems this duality is common among sensitive artists and intellectuals, and may help to explain why so many of them have sought some form of escape from the complexities of their inner nature, even to the point of madness.
In my own quest for renown, I subjected my body, the creation I tendered so lovingly at times, to a ruthless almost derisive work ethic. It couldn't have differed more from the noble impulse first identified by the German social philosopher Max Weber, and which he dubbed the Protestant Work Ethic. For Weber, the latter didn't so much give birth to Capitalism, which of course it didn't, as facilitate its growth in those nations in which the Reformation had been most successful. If the work ethic beloved of the Calvinist Pilgrims who forged the first American colonies was intended for the glorification of God, mine was a decadent late variant entirely given over to the promotion of the self.
To this end, I consumed a variety of intoxicants, not just because I enjoyed doing so but because they enabled the constant socialising that brought me the attention, affirmation and approval I so craved…a narcissistic supply perhaps. How else to explain the sheer demented fervour of my endless self-exaltation?
That’s not to say that I wasn't a loving person, because I was; but precisely what kind of love was it that I spread so generously about me? One thing it wasn’t was agape, the perfect, selfless love described in 1 Corinthians 13. In fact, it was a form so unacceptable to God that it would have seen me damned and in Hell had I actually managed to drink myself to death.
I was hardly less heartless towards my mind than my body, treating it as an object of research and experimentation. Little wonder then that I turned to drink as a means of pacifying it, although alcohol still wasn't a serious problem for me in the early '80s, when my exhausting daily regimen tended to be fuelled instead by massive quantities of caffeine tablets. That said, Madeleine didn't like it when I drank to excess as if she'd already singled me out as someone who'd go on to develop a drink problem. In this as in other things she showed remarkable insight.
The piece below first existed as a series of scrawled notes based on several conversations I enjoyed with Madeleine in 1982 or '83. One of these resulted from an incident in which I'd made a fool of myself by storming off during a gig after having broken a guitar string. After a period spent apparently wandering aimlessly around Golders Green, I bumped into Madeleine, who'd come looking for me...
She Dear One Who Followed Me
It was she, bless her,
who followed me...
she'd been crying...
she's too good for me,
that's for sure...
are too good to you...
it makes me sick
to see them...
you don't really give...
you indulge in conversation,
but your mind
is always elsewhere,
You could hurt me,
You are a Don Juan,
Like him, you have
I think you have
There's something so...so...
in your look.
It's not that
but that there is
an omnipresent sadness
about you, a fatality..."