Regular readers will remember my stage fright in prep school drama productions, and how I managed to get lines cut simply by being too scared to say them. At Goffs, drama productions mostly involve sixth formers, so for my first few years here, I have not faced the challenge again.
Goffs School plays are directed by Basil Edwards, the Head of English, of whom more later. After my spectacular successes on skis and in canoes, I am coming out of my shell a bit, widening my circle of friends and getting a bit more confident. So when Basil (we always called him Basil, except to his face) suggests I might like to be in the next production, I actually feel up for it. No idea whether I can act, but I’ll give it a go!
The play is Molière’s The Imaginary Invalid, a comedy (his last). I am full of admiration for several of my fellow players, including the lead actor C– who is hilarious as the hypochondriac Monsieur Argan. I play Monsieur Bonnefoy, Argan’s notary who is also romantically interested in his wife. I have a single scene, just before the interval I think, and at the end I am on stage alone with her and my romantic intentions are revealed. I get a laugh from the audience each night. Audience laughter is one hell of a narcotic, I discover. I quickly become very interested in acting indeed.
However because I am so short, I only ever get character roles for which height is immaterial, such as Lepidus (doddery old goat of a politician) in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, although I do have the lead once when, at Basil’s urging, a group of us perform a short scene at a school open day taken almost verbatim from the novel Catch-22. I enjoy doing that (although I am somewhat over the top I suspect), and enjoy putting as much into my small roles as I possibly can – Lepidus has a drunken scene which I milk for all it’s worth. A small point of trivia – the school hires some wigs for the production from a theatrical company and I discover a label stitched in mine showing it had previously been used for the BBC’s (then recent) production of I, Claudius. My false hair has been on the telly – a rather odd brush with fame.
I discover what many other people have discovered – that I am able to be much more confident pretending to be another person on stage than I am while being ‘myself’. I become interested in the idea of a performing career, although the idea of drama school terrifies me. The conviction that everyone in any setting is normal apart from me, repeatedly inhibits me. How can I take control of life, career etc when I have this dreadful, weird secret?
By now most of us have discovered the joys of teenage drinking – although the beer made by the local brewer McMullens, is a weedy and flavourless pint. You can still get drunk on it though. A little while after the Molière production, I am in the pub with friends, sitting next to F– who played Argan’s wife. Late in the evening, she turns to me out of the blue, leans over and gives me a long, deep kiss. This is a different kind of kiss from the chaste peck on the cheek of the Lyme Regis redhead, delightful though that was. This is a proper kiss. Then she gives me another proper kiss, and another …
I like the kisses very much indeed, which tends to reinforce my emerging idea at the time that I am a boy who likes girls (regardless of my feminine leanings). They are bloody good kisses. Before the pub closes I have some more. However I am not at all attracted to the girl giving them to me.
Over the weekend, I ponder the kisses, and do some appalling, caveman reasoning. Bear with me – this is then, not now OK? I am not attracted to F–. She appears to be attracted to me. However I am also of the strong conviction that I am not attractive as you know. It never occurs to me that she might find me attractive. I just think along the lines of … I’m unattractive, I don’t find her attractive, here are two not attractive people “settling” for each other. She phones me over the weekend. She tells me she loves me. I mumble inconclusive responses over the phone, in the manner of someone trying to extricate themselves from the propositions of a particularly insistent insurance salesman. In due course she figures out I’m not interested and moves on. She is actually more mature than me (that much I realize even at the time), and found me attractive as a person. I though, am incredibly immature, and can’t imagine someone liking me for myself. I handle the whole thing terribly, and don’t treat her at all well, although I’m not rude, just brainless. For the two years of the sixth form (although there will be a free bonus third year, bargain fans!) that incident is the extent of my romantic encounters, apart from occasionally pouncing on unsuspecting girls at parties and discos without warning, to their general irritation. I attempt to ingratiate myself with some in S–‘s circle of friends, without success.
I am, by this time, developing some sexual feelings. As I know now, my testosterone is always abnormally low, and puberty starts late, proceeds slowly, and involves both facial hair and breast development. In fact, weirdly, by the Sixth Form my ability to grow facial hair is spectacular given the low-level of testosterone. I am soon able to grow luxuriant beards with ease, and outside term-time I generally do. This is partly because real musicians have beards man (just before punk, this is) and I am getting into music in a big way; partly to hide what I regard as my ugly face, and partly (I think) to keep the girl inside in check, to make extra sure she can never emerge and be seen.
Basil Edwards is a very good English teacher. I love having him for A-level. He is a bit of a scary chap, with a volatile temper, but he is hugely intellectually provocative and exposes us to all sorts of challenging stuff, not just the A-level set books. He starts a “Cinema Club”. The school Film Society shows mainstream movies, but he shows us foreign films. He also runs weekends away to watch more films at nearby Hitchin Priory, which nowadays seems to be a commercial venue. He shows us Seven Samurai, Spirit of the Beehive, the Russian movie of Hamlet, Ivan the Terrible, Onibaba. All consciousness-widening stuff, all good films (although I never quite warm to Ivan – suggest you watch Battleship Potemkin instead). I won’t do web links for all of those, except Onibaba which is not so well-known. It’s a wonderful, subtle Japanese horror movie. Do tick it off your list.
Buoyed by the success of my outdoor pursuits week at the end of the Fifth Form, I join a school group which regularly goes on walking holidays, staying at youth hostels. We have trips to Yorkshire, the Peak District, North Wales, Cumbria, the Isle of Skye. Nigel often comes along, as does S–. One one memorably snowy trip to Cumbria in Easter, Nigel narrowly avoids falling to his death when we all find ourselves in a very dangerous spot. In retrospect I don’t think the teacher should have taken us up there that day, but he always was a bit low on common-sense.
Academically I go a bit off the rails again. English is fine – my top subject. Maths turns out to be a spectacular mistake, I just can’t cope with it at that level. But it never occurs to me to switch subjects. I screw up Music too. To take the A-level you need to have passed a Grade 5 practical exam in a musical instrument. I have been learning piano for years – am OK at it but lazy. But then my teacher retires, so in order to sit Grade 5 I start having lessons with a teacher at the school, who I hate and who tells me flatly that I have the worst technique she’s ever seen. Some people just don’t understand what “teach” means in the job title “teacher”.
At the beginning of the Upper Sixth (final year) several of us (including me) are put forward for the Oxford University Entrance Exam. Most of us don’t get in (I don’t) but expectations are high that we will still go to a good University. But I just give up on piano and it all unravels. I don’t sit the Grade 5 Exam, so I am unable to take the Music A-level. When my results come through, I get an A for English, and scrape an E for Maths, and that’s it. I don’t have the grades for University. My closest friends have all succeeded in getting places, but I haven’t. They will all be going away in September, and I will be stuck in bloody Cuffley, living with my now almost endlessly arguing parents. And with barely a friend to call my own. Except for an unlicensed drug called music, that is …