Dancing Bare

by Rigby Taylor

Chapter 25

Muddling on

Through the models' grapevine I found work sitting for professional artists in a studio run by Martha, a robust woman who usually wore a technicolour tent decorated with tiny mirrors. There were armies of commercial artists in those days who, with great talent and skill, painted all the signs, decorated shop windows with gold leaf and beautiful drawings, turned concrete pillars into marble, wrote price tags with wondrous flourishes, created advertisements – all by hand. If they needed a drawing of a man digging, or a woman wearing a bra in front of a mirror, they used models.

Life drawing was an essential exercise to maintain skills. It is a great tragedy that fifteen years later their astonishing creative and technical proficiency was no longer required. Pattern books and Letraset required no expertise. Then they in turn were dumped in favour of computers. Virtually all practical human skills have disappeared from western civilization over the last half century, from shoe-making to chair-seat weaving – to be replaced by the depressing competence of the unimaginative machine.

The artists, a dozen or so men and women ranging in age from thirty to sixty, were very friendly (a characteristic of life drawing classes) and left it to me to take up poses – merely offering vague ideas such as stretching, dressing, searching… One evening someone suggested 'thrusting masculinity'. Someone else failed to stifle a giggle. What could she mean?

I settled for hands on thrusting hips, staring aggressively ahead. Seconds later the familiar rushing of blood to loins had me glancing nervously down at six and a half firm inches, then across at Martha, whose eyes, like everyone else's were looking everywhere except there, and I understood what it must be like to have a deformity. This thrilling proof that my impotence wasn't permanent sent even more blood pulsing, but the scratching of charcoal on paper remained the sole sound. Suddenly Martha boomed, "Miriam! The title is thrusting manhood, not wizened worm! Don't insult the model!" The room erupted in laughter.

Artists needing private models used a warren of well-appointed studios upstairs in the huge Edwardian terrace in Baron's Court, for which Martha charged ten shillings per hour-long session. Whether I was being drawn or photographed, it was money, and more fun than my next experience as an 'extra' for a film.

I never discovered what the title was. Dressed in cloth caps and workingmen's clothes, half a dozen of us waited in the cold at Pinewood Studios for hours before running several times down a fake street screaming 'Fire!" I hung around to watch a few scenes being shot. With no audience, apart from the crew and director, it must be next to impossible to gauge one's performance. Film actors, I realised, are just the director's puppets; reliant on him to tell them how to act, performing scenes out of order and context, never seeing the whole production until all the 'takes' have been edited and joined. Frequently not even knowing the whole story unless they go to the cinema.

In a theatre it's the audience that 'instructs' the actors. The director suggests, but it's up to the actor to interpret and constantly adjust his performance as he goes along. That's why every presentation of the same play is different and exciting. An actor's reward at the end of every show is applause. Film and TV actors receive no applause. They never know if their work is good until it's screened, sometimes months or years afterwards, and then it's too late to change anything. And that's why they are so media hungry. Why they're constantly seeking public attention; needing to be 'seen' here, there, and everywhere, causing scandals, going to every opening, award ceremony, divorcing, remarrying, joining odd religious sects… in a vain attempt to find the acclaim and satisfaction that performing for a camera can never give.

What pleasure is there in knowing ten million people are watching you on a screen somewhere if you aren't there to see their reactions and receive their applause? A stage play is a living, mutating organism that breathes life into the actors as much as they breathe life into it; and that's what gives satisfaction, and why stage actors remain sane, more or less private people, while film stars go insane.

Between dances at the Overseas Visitors' Club I checked the notice board. An Australian and New Zealand ex-pat social badminton group wanted players. I said I was from the Seychelles – no one knew where it was, so they didn't ask questions. They'd arrived with mates for their obligatory 'overseas experience', working in jobs arranged from home. After two years and a 'grand tour' of Europe, they'd return to their old jobs, marriage, two kids and a mortgage.

They'd temporarily left a country they loved and admired – I'd fled in fear and despair. They didn't budget, relying on top-ups from parents. My independence was too precious to jeopardise. They were impatient to return home. I suffered recurring nightmares that I'd been whisked back and couldn't return to Europe. Their lives were planned; I scarcely knew what I'd be doing the following week.

They were Barry McKenzie's clones – binge boozing on weekends, chundering and hung-over for days; nurturing beer bellies and lung cancer while bragging about the sheilas they were going to lay; although from what I could gather, bragging was usually as near as they got. All hope that I'd discover commonality with my countrymen evaporated – instead, the gulf widened.

Charlie, the boyfriend of Jennifer, the only Englishman in the group, asked me to join them for two weeks of sun and sea in Ibiza at the end of June. I couldn't resist. Alwyn had booked the company for a season at Brightlingsea – a seaside resort on the north bank of the Thames estuary, starting in the second week of July, so, promising I'd meet them there in plenty of time, I joined Jennifer at the Heathrow BEA terminal, waiting for Charlie and a standby midnight flight – the cheapest – to Barcelona. There were two British airlines then, BEA for European flights and BOAC for the rest of the world.

Jennifer was called to the information desk. Charlie wasn't coming. She shrugged and said they'd had a bust-up the previous night. You'd think Paris would have taught me a lesson! A sleepless night followed by a day tramping the hot and humid streets of Barcelona, followed by another sleepless night on the deck of a pitching ferry, left us both exhausted and ill tempered, but it was worth it.

The sun rose over the ochreous fortress city of Ibiza floating above a turquoise sea, looking much the same as it had for thousands of years to Phoenicians and Romans and all the other seafaring marauders who used it as a base for pirating or defence. Leaving our bags in Los Pasageros, a neat, clean, cheap albergo in the old part of town, we explored the ancient walled city on its hill. But what I really wanted, was reached via a long subterranean passageway beneath it – the sea, sunshine, and the rocks from which you could dive into sparkling clear blue water. Perfection!

Jennifer couldn't swim so didn't like rocks and deep water. She took the ferry across the harbour each day to the sandy beach, returning lobster red and ugly. I spent my days swimming, snorkelling, and fending off females.

Queers were going to Île du Levant, not Ibiza, I discovered too late. Jennifer and I met only briefly each day at the albergo where the water was turned off for several hours – always when she wanted a shower. She wanted to be fucked, so, ever the gentleman, I tried, managing an exact replay of the Scottish and Chinese affairs.

On a hired pushbike I toured the island alone. Olive groves, vineyards, ancient haciendas with subterranean cisterns, donkeys, pomegranates to die for… A sandy beach at the eastern end was occupied by French tourists staying in a three-storey white apartment block that defiled the pristine beauty and local architecture.

An American took me to a hacienda in the centre of the island that he and six others had rented for the summer. No electricity or running water, a solid-fuel stove, and oil lamps. Arcadia. But the ancient house with its heavily beamed low ceiling, cool shutters, patio shaded by grape vines was doomed. A year or so later, it was bulldozed along with scores of others to make way for an international airport where dozens of screaming jets now land and take off daily throughout the summer, providing thousands of coarse, boozy, drunken, loutish, packaged tourists from the U.K. and elsewhere to stay in hundreds of faceless high-rise holiday apartments so they can destroy their ears, lungs, and livers in noisy night-clubs; take drugs, fuck, gorge themselves, shout, and vomit.

In the evenings, Jennifer sat in cafés and drank and sulked. I star-gazed, dreamed of romance, wandered the ramparts and discovered a night market next to the cemetery. A handsome local led me among the shadowy tombstones and said in an enchanting accent, "I want to put my cock in your bum." This somewhat direct approach, I later discovered, is the opening gambit of many queer young Mediterranean males. Their holy books instruct them not to play the part of a woman and this statement establishes that they will not be doing so; therefore, whatever they do next is not sinning and they remain a proud male. I didn't allow him entry so he took off in a huff.

Too soon, Jennifer and I endured another exhausting night on the ferry, a gruelling day stomping around Barcelona, and a midnight flight back to the drear grey skies of London, where a train took me to Colchester, and a bus to Brightlingsea, just in time to learn my parts for a couple of forgettable drawing room comedies and a thriller, and the sad discovery that my impotence had returned; confirming it was the subconscious effect of punitive British laws on my psyche that was the problem, not my body.

Brightlingsea. A flat expanse of cold, windswept, Thames estuary mud, peopled by meagre, dead-white bodies. A nightmare. It would have cost them less to fly for two weeks to Spain or Greece than to spend a fortnight in this godforsaken stretch of bleakness, entertained each night by our less than enthralling plays… but they didn't dare. They are a timid race, the Brits, opting for what they know over a bit of a risk. Stodgy and predictable like their cooking. I was repelled, and my love affair with the Sceptred Isle continued to crumble.

We toured Yorkshire and Wales until Christmas. Cold and windy. A season of Sweeney and Apollo in Bradford saw my gilded bum in the paper captioned "Theatrical Grin and Bare It" or some such, so we played to good houses. Valerie and I received roughly equal numbers of admirers who wanted to spend time with us. I refused from depression triggered by exhaustion and impotence; she refused because her father had died of syphilis.

The Yorkshire moors are bleakly beautiful and school audiences were polite and attentive. We crossed the Pennines on a narrow winding road in a storm – disturbingly desolate, lonely, isolated, magnificent. The Lake District was not as enchanting as Wordsworth had led me to believe, perhaps because the trees and hills were bare.

In Cardiff, William decided he was in love with me. A delicate situation when sharing beds and rooms for weeks on end. He took rejection better than Edgar, who was still plaintively proposing we flee to the colonies and start a touring theatrical company. London on our return was covered in soft white snow, encrusted with soot.

I escaped the gloom via a cheap fortnight over Christmas and New Year, skiing in Westendorf – a tiny village in Austria. It was one of the best holidays I've ever had, despite having to share a large feather bed in a warm, double-glazed room in the local shoemaker's house with a Canadian and a South African. The days were full of clean, crisp, sun-filled air on the slopes, the nights dancing in the nightclub with Maureen, a fun lesbian Australian who, a few months later, wisely refused my offer of marriage. I put on a humorous skit at the nightclub with a handsome New Zealand ski instructor, who had led me higher up the mountain than I'd have dared on my own, then let me feel his taut bronzed abs before the precipitous descent.

One evening while drinking mulled wine in the café at the top of the ski lift (Dutch courage before a toboggan ride back to the village) a flamboyantly wealthy, title-hunting American woman suffering from the delusion that I was an English aristocrat (having had that thought implanted by Maureen for a joke), proposed a liaison leading to marriage if I proved 'satisfactory'.

All I'd done was share a few jokes and dance with her out of pity because she was older than most of us and seemed sad. "What's your family name?" she whispered coyly, eyes glistening with social climbing lust, only to recoil in horror when the dread name was pronounced. "Then.... then you're common!"

When I stated politely that although I was a commoner, I certainly wasn't common, she stomped off to the ski-lift and we never saw her again.

They reckon if you stand in Piccadilly Circus long enough you'll see everyone you know. As anonymity is the garment that best suits me, I never hang around, so it was a shock one evening to see my cousin striding purposefully towards me. Being chief mechanic for Bruce McLaren meant he was always travelling, but I never expected to run into him. We got along well enough at home, but I wasn't at home and had never been the person he thought I was.

As he hadn't actually seen me, rather than revert to my closet I turned and raced into Circlarama, the latest cinematic experience – a dark, circular room in which a dozen cameras projected film onto screens, giving a 360° experience. It was funny to see everyone staggering to right and left as the racing car or speedboat swerved etc. but standing up for half an hour was irksome, so the backers lost their cash.

The next four months sped by in much the same fashion as the previous, with no major upheavals and suddenly it was the end of May and spring was bursting out all over, as they say in Oklahoma. I was visiting the Tate Gallery for a Turner retrospective and the extraordinary flamboyance and daring of the works triggered a sudden insight.... I was in a rut!

Manics tend to treat complete strangers as if they're old friends. Unwary recipients of my uninvited chatter usually eye me with alarm and quickly make excuses to flee. But sometimes they welcome the chance to discuss the exhibition, the state of the universe, or something equally portentous. The balding, well-tailored, middle-aged gentleman standing before Turner's Great Fire of London, responded to my enthusiasm by inviting me to share a pot of tea in the cafeteria.

He was Director of Education for Clackmannanshire in Scotland, and upon learning I was a Shakespearian actor with tertiary education, asked if I'd like to organise and run drama courses at his shire's month-long residential schools. This is not as bizarre as it might seem – his purpose in visiting London was to recruit colonial teachers for these camps, and he'd been interviewing applicants at The Overseas Visitors Club for the last week.

He who hesitates misses out, so I gave my details, which he noted in a ledger he carried in a briefcase, we shook hands and I promised to arrive in Alloa in time for lunch on the second Friday of September. It was convenient because the company would be in Edinburgh with our version of Macbeth for the Fringe Festival at the beginning of that month, and I was to play the lead.

As always, I needed to top up the treasury, having spent most of my nest egg on the winter holiday in Austria, theatre tickets, and weekends away like the trip to Stonehenge with André. That was amazing – no fences, no charge, and we were the only people wandering around. Today there are never fewer than twenty tour busses pumping diesel into the air, and ticket prices are astronomical.

Near a post-card village called Chipping Sudbury we had stayed in a four-hundred-year-old thatched farm house owned by a jolly farmer and his wife who served lashings of bacon and eggs for breakfast. Stuff of dreams.

Prostitution no longer appealed, and no matter how cute, you can only strip or model half a dozen times before audiences and artists demand new talent. I didn't fancy clubs because of the drugs and crime, so tried out as a barman; but I couldn't stand the smoke and missing out on eight or nine hours uninterrupted sleep. I paid a visit to Martha's studio and she referred me to a mail-order catalogue photographer. Suits, shirts, underpants, swimwear, pyjamas. The money was good although wearing clothes before a camera felt slightly perverted.

After the catalogue, I was referred to a fellow in Richmond who specialised in 'odd underwear' photos for the back pages of Men Only, Picture Post and other cheap very soft-core sexy magazines. 'G' strings, backless briefs and so on. From there I was passed on to a fellow who made black and white, Super 8 movies for 'underground' distribution. I didn't like the atmosphere, the types, or the offer of drugs, so gracefully backed out. Sex is fun – sleaze isn't.

The scale of remuneration reflected society's values; being photographed in sexy briefs paid twice as much as wearing a suit; naked and alone paid four times as much; and performing naked with others would have rewarded me with ten times as much as standing in pyjamas.

There are thousands of "must-see" spots in Europe such as the Eiffel Tower, Nazaré in Portugal, the Colosseum, Hadrian's Villa, Jungfrau railway, Copenhagen's Tivoli Gardens… and it is profoundly demoralising to be condescendingly informed by other 'globetrotters' that if you haven't seen this or that significant cultural icon, then you haven't really travelled. Eventually, I decided to make the effort and check them all out in one go by responding to an advertisement for a sixth man to share the costs of touring for three months through fourteen countries, visiting every 'important site' in Europe.

Anthony, a pale and wan New Zealander who had organised everything from minivan to tents, green cards, and maps, explained that I would be replacing a chap who'd died when the gas cylinder heating his shower water had exploded. Sixty pounds covered all food and travel, and as I'd arrived so late on the scene, there would be nothing for me to do except be ready in three days' time, on the first Saturday in June with my international driver's licence, sleeping bag, and clothes.

Sickeningly certain I was burning my boats and making a dreadful mistake in quitting a job I loved so much, I handed over the cash.

I'd been spending evenings at home where Alwyn was always a stimulating and amusing font of disillusion, giving vent to philosophies that echoed my own. Like Dr. Rieux in Albert Camus's 'The Plague', he was "…a man who was sick and tired of the world he lived in – though he had much liking for his fellow men."

I like some individuals enormously but have never found much to admire in humanity in general. After reading Two Hours to Doom, the book on which Stanley Kubrick based Dr. Strangelove, I remember thinking that if I was in charge of a button that could kill every human on the planet instantly and painlessly, while leaving the rest of nature unaffected, then I would probably press it. Today, I almost certainly would, out of pity for the hopelessly oppressed and, more importantly, for the rest of nature.

When I told Alwyn I'd be leaving in three days - four weeks before the end of term - to tour Europe, but I still desperately wanted to play Macbeth in Edinburgh, and after that I'd be teaching in Scotland, he merely grunted and said he was surprised I'd stayed so long, not being dedicated enough to cope with the insecurity, or make the sacrifices of time and money that were inevitable if one chose to be a full-time actor. He also said he'd miss me – which was nice, and Edgar got a bit teary.

I wasn't leaving them in the lurch; good actors were two a penny by that time as work dried up, so they easily found a replacement, a twenty-three-year-old South African of pleasant but not handsome mien, who could also take over as driver. With a lump in my throat I promised to be word perfect for Macbeth, and to arrive in Edinburgh in plenty of time to rehearse properly.

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