In late 1977, with the purpose of training to become a radio officer I joined the Merchant Navy College (in Greenhithe, Kent), the latter, no longer existent, having merged with the Thames Nautical Training College HMS Worcester in 1968. At the college, I formed several close friendships; but closest of all was with Jesse, a lovable live wire of about 18 with a thick London accent who’d been born into a longstanding Indian community in nearby Gravesend, part of south east London’s vast suburban sprawl. Young Asian men like Jesse whose real name was Jasbir had to know how to defend themselves should trouble arise. But he was kind and loyal at heart, and formed strong ties of friendship with those he liked such as myself, and so Jesse and I became inseparable. It was through Jesse I think that I started attending dances at Gravesend’s Woodville Hall where young people would regularly congregate in late ’77 clad in escapist fashions clearly influenced by Punk, suburban life in those days being free of such contemporary distractions as mobile phones, DVD players and the internet.
I used to harry Jesse to be more moderate in his manners in order that he not face expulsion, which was ironic as things turned out because it was I who was shown the door before he was, while he eventually left of his own volition. I begged one of my tutors to be allowed to stay and he did his best to intercede with the college authorities, but to no avail. I was not suited according to them to the career of a radio officer in the Merchant Navy. Thence, shortly after vacating my room on campus, I auditioned for a place on the three year drama course at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and much to my astonishment as I’d already failed two RADA auditions I was accepted. Despite the fact that I wasn’t due to start the course until the autumn of 1978, the success of my Guildhall audition was a source to me of the most intense exhileration imaginable.
I took Jesse to a party in fashionable west London on New Years Eve, and I can recall Craig, one of my closest friends from my days as Cadet Carl Halling RNR at Pangbourne College uttering the words: “I’m suitably impressed” following a solo display by Jesse of his formidable self-defence skills. Jesse was a good man to have on your team, and as I recall Craig, hardly a milksop himself, had a healthy respect for Jesse and his streetwise but sweet natured ways, and all three of us got on famously. He and I remained in contact until well into the 80s before sadly drifting apart.
Having been impressed by the hairstyle of one of a coterie of Punks I knew by sight from nights out in Dartford, a large suburban area near Greenhithe straddling Kent and southeast London, this same consisting of a halo of bright blond taking in the front of the head, sides and a strip at the back, I decided to emulate it. I have part of a photograph I took possibly towards the end of ’77, or the beginning of ’78, of myself sporting this style with a fringe at the front before it assumed the characteristic Punk spikes, although by the spring of ’78 it had been supplanted by a spartan crop. By this time I was a full-time Punk and rarely wore any kind of clothing other than Punkish attire which in my case consisted of such items as a shiny black tee-shirt with cropped sleeves, drainpipe jeans of black or green, worn with black studded belt festooned with silver chain, flourescent teddy boy socks, and white shoes with black laces; and it was a somewhat hazardous existence. Understandably so, given ’70s Punk’s culture of outrage, extreme even by the standards of post-war iconoclasm. At a Disco in the furthermost reaches of suburban south west London where as I recall I saw Surrey Punk band Sham 69 play prior to their becoming nationally famous, a friend of mine, a Teddy Boy I knew from my days as a ’50s aficionado was forced to persuade another Ted from starting trouble with me with the magical placatory words, “…’e’s a mate”. Another time he’d sought assurance that I hadn’t defected to the Punk camp, for Teds and Punks had become sworn enemies by the summer of ’77, and I’m ashamed to admit that I gave him my word I hadn’t.
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 Englishman I knew only vaguely. I was put up in an apartment; but the project never came to fruition. However, I stayed on in Fuengirola, eventually becoming lead singer of a band playing nightly at the Tam Tam night club. In time I became something of a local character the crop-haired English Punk “Coco” absurdly striking Rock star poses night at the Tam Tam despite my penury; returning to London in September 1978 to take my place at the Guildhall. By the summer of 1979, I was back in Spain, but not Fuengirola, even though my friends there had asked me to return to resume my duties as front man with the band, but the little former fishing village of Santiago de la Ribera overlooking the Mar Menor in the south eastern province of Murcia. I felt a deep sense of exhaustion as I stretched out in the sun on the balnaro overlooking the Mar, but I don’t recall being especially disappointed or disheartened by the knowledge that I would not be returning to the Guildhall as a student for the autumn term of 1979, so it may have been just the intense heat of the sun that left me so atypically enervated. But I’d saddened my beautiful friends in Fuengirola by choosing to escape to La Ribera rather than sing with a band that had shown so much promise in ’78, and been so close. Just prior to quitting Fuengirola towards the end of the summer of ’78 I’d been approached with an offer of concerts in the Canary Islands with the band, but turned them down as I was shortly due to begin as a drama student and so fulfill a dream come true. Who knows where they might have led; but then had I gone to the Canaries to sing I would not have attended the Guildhall through which many good things came to me, despite the disappointment I must have secretely felt in consequence of being asked to leave after a single blissful year as a would-be gilded youth at the Guildhall School.