Dak’s Long Road to Echo Base

Part 1: Have You Ever Acted?

Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin—with a verse of song from a Core World. Goes like this:

Marmite on the table I was fed.
Thought that I was born in the Chelsea Shed.
A football star is what I wanna be.
I don’t want no Pandas chasing me.

The Galactic Civil War was intensifying in this region of the Galaxy. It was the winter of 1974 in standard years. Revolution was in the air. For many months, class war had been raging between the striking miners and The Grocer. Short of coal to run the Battersea Power Station, Grocer Heath put us South Londoners on a three-day week and asked the country, “Who governs Britain?” In March, voters answered, “Not you, Ted.” Still—as in every age—we restless young had our dreams, had our ambitions and, yes, had our flaws and failures. But at our very best, we had ideals to realize by action.

At that precise time, Dak’s action was to go by Tube to north of the Thames to work in a precinct unconstrained by any three-day-week thing. In Soho, where the show must go on, it was six days a week, six hours a day—sometimes 12 with two shifts back-to-back when he could. And he would, all with the innocent, but hubristic assumption that he was well enough concealed from a Panda’s reach.

As some of you know, some years before, Dak had made his escape with a Rebel spy named Breg from a penal colony on Kalist VI, a small planet in the Outer Rim Territories. Breg had been gathering intelligence for the Alliance undercover by flying recon missions for the Imperial Surveying Corps. Busted for disobeying an order to transfer to the Imperial Navy, he got sent to Kalist VI. There he met Dak on a mine face. Still a teenager, Dak was then working as the head laser-drill operator in charge of a convict crew whose job was to blast away the ore that is the main constituent for transparisteel. Anyway, Breg would enlist the youth in a plan to hijack a prison barge and execute a hyperspace jump to Tierfon with its Rebel Outpost. If you don’t know the story, you’ll have to hear it another time. Right now, I mean to continue this thread from the point where Dak had made his jump to this region of the Galaxy.

See, once here, Dak put his thumb out on the road and found his way to 77 Dean Street by turning left at the London School of Economics. At the feet of his then-mentor, Ralph Miliband, he befriended an intensely cool and androgynous Scotsman named Robin Lang, who was into Floyd, The Dead, Poulantzas and Gramsci. Born on a tea plantation in what is now called Sri Lanka, Robin chucked it all in after getting his MSc. Failing to bring down the government and the country by direct action in ‘72, activist leaders had come to Houghton Street during the summer term. They told students to quit the streets. Echoing Red Rudi, they exhorted the longhairs to begin what they called the long march through the institutions.

So off Robin went with his Scots girlfriend, an opera singer in furs named Sheilagh MacDougal, an auburn-haired beauty with skin of pure alabaster, to work in strip clubs—one institution indeed. She to strip. He to stage-manage at Don Ward’s Nell Gwynn Club on Meard Street. At the outset, one would find him in the prompt corner, stage left with Political Power and Social Classes on his prompt table. In between set changes, he attempted to proselytise strippers on the quick as they passed on and off the stage. But in the end, it was he who was proselytised by the West Indian beauties—the truest of true believers. They led him from The Dead to Marley—prompting him to swap his Scottish brogue for a Jamaican accent. And so he took on a new identity as Black Robin. In Soho, all were concealing themselves from a Panda’s reach.

Notwithstanding these years of ferment and their effect on his ideals, Dak was anticipating some sort of political asylum in this London of exiles. But as a warrior rebel, forever on the run from the Empire, he was an illegal with his own past as a Kalist escapee and Tierfon Yellow Ace. To digress again, he was here because during one ill-considered attack on an Imperial freighter, several TIE fighters wounded his X-Wing and separated him from the rest of his squadron. Dak kicked in the hyperdrive and went into hyperspace on a course toward this region that he knew was populated by his mother’s people. He came out in a crash onto Clapham Common North Side which took out both his X-Wing and astromech. Thus out of action did he miss the assault on the Death Star. Grounded, his feet were now his only carriage. As both an idealistic student and former convict-miner himself, he was doubly drawn to the ramparts where students picketed with the striking miners. But when the men of the coal face returned to the pits, Dak remained into the new epoch, ABY (After the Battle of Yavin), until he was in a position to make the jump to Yavin 4, where ultimately he rejoined Luke, Wedge and what by then they were calling the Rogues.

***

There are born Londoners. And there are those who become Londoners. They do so to get ahead. Make money. Reinvent themselves. Join a conversation. From the benefit of hindsight, it can now be said that Dak was one who chose to follow Black Robin into Soho to join a conversation. But compared to the company he eventually found, he was untutored in the classics, an unpolished innocent from the Outer Rim who came to the party late, after the ball. Already, gifted late-20th century contemporaries of his generation had been eloquently responding to Pepys, Boswell, Dickens and the previous decade’s angry young men with their kitchen-sink dramas. Somehow they managed to earn a shot at privilege. These happy few went to Oxbridge. Coming down, they arrived in London as youthfully energetic and confidently entitled high-brows vested with assured access to the glittering prizes. In particular, I’m thinking of another Claphamite of the early seventies who lived a stone’s throw from Dak’s crash site on the North Side. Around the corner on The Chase, as I recall—yes, David Hare was one such with whom a number of times Dak would later work as a mere ruffian on the stair.

Before the year zero, a striving, still War-scarred London afforded low-brow rubes and ruffians like Dak the freedom—if they wished—to move in and out of Hogarthian worlds in hyperspace jumps. In today’s digital epoch, the high and low create avatars and click through virtual worlds. But in analog times, one navigated by the stars and three primary charts—the A to Z, Time Out and Alternative London—to take the everyman’s Grand Tour. And so consider, if we retrace one man’s jumps in the epoch BBY, how we might begin the weave for a rich tapestry representing a colourful part of the generation this side of The Pond that helped George Lucas bring Star Wars to life.

However we might romanticise upon reflection, the in-your-face focus for Dak was less on a game plan than the matter of survival. After the crash, he had made the initial clandestine connection with his Alderaanian cousins and louche conspirators in a series of night gatherings in Powis Square where, three years before, a lightsaber-wielding Turner famously sent his memo. In a cold, rundown Regency crash pad on Colville Terrace, to be exact, these thieves on the road, behind the moldy and crumbling stucco, nightly huddled round a double bed in the first floor sitting room. There reclined the wine-bibbing salonnière, Queenie by name, accompanied by attendants and her consort Will, her longhair publicist who forever wore a full-length coat of fur and dealt in contraband. Other members of this mob kipped in sleeping bags on safari cots insulated by wool sheep skins. They included the business manager of Time Out and one Frank Charles Hinsley—Dak’s connection—an LSE student and son of the Cambridge don and Bletchley Park cryptanalyst who wrote the official history of Albion’s intelligence services during the Big One, WW II. They taught him quickly to proceed softly, softly—to move among the people as a fish swims in the sea. But Dak arrived skint. In need of immediate lolly, he had to find his own hustle by bringing forth another side of his being. It was a time to believe that one could survive as an artiste, like those who glided in their Afghan coats by the stalls and head shops along the Portobello Road. After all, he had the example of another LSE veteran of a previous decade who left his studies to be the notorious front man for The Stones. Thus did Dak abandon Ralph Miliband to search perhaps for an alternate Cicerone to guide his first steps along the long road to Hoth.

And so the left turn was to Black Robin’s world. Dak’s intent was to make his way into the music business as a singer-songwriter of couplets, three chords and the truth. This turning was the first on a circuitous path of return, a step into a maze of Soho streets and onto a sporting board with more snakes than ladders. Without yet the benefit of an Ariadne to bestow upon this would-be troubadour a thread, Dak slid downward onto a shadowy stage of grime and grit where an unseen and unknowable director possessed of the Dark Side had blocked scene one to ensure that every player’s first position was at the very, very bottom.

Blocked—ah, there was a theatrical term with an altogether different meaning in the Soho of the day. Lisa—a clumsily coquettish stripper, at once vulnerable and rough, a teenage tease whom Dak fancied—used the term habitually. Fortified by a daily diet of whatever was going—white wine, uppers, downers—an unsteady Lisa by six o’clock was wont to cry, “God,” to Minos, or anyone around who bothered to listen, “I’m so blocked!” Was she playing a plea? Or a boast? The answer would depend on whether she ultimately escaped—or was devoured. One does not know. Anyway, for the rest of an evening until the last curtain-down at midnight, she would progressively confuse herself in her own frantic world. So much so she was entirely unreachable, as Dak was to find the night he asked her to join him between numbers for a quick drink at the corner pub.

In this nether-netherland, Dak was among players in a play with no subtlety. Unremittingly stark, Soho was a stage where the producers—especially the Maltese—understood that these players did not have to be there; nevertheless, they were—for whatever reason. And the pound of flesh producer demanded of performer was dearly bought. In truth, whatever Dak might tell himself about the whys, wherefores and when he really started in life, this down-and-out-in-Paris-and-London thing was it—at least on this planet.

Although his mother was an Alderaanian and like Mon Mothma spoke with a high-Imperial accent, Dak was born in captivity on Kalist where most spoke with the accents of Rebels. In London, his Rebel accent marked him. In those rare and nerve-wracking instances on the streets of The Smoke when cornered by a Panda, suspicious of his speech, demeanor and purloined donkey jacket as he studied Dak’s counterfeit green alien registration card, this alien human from south of the Thames would resourcefully employ a Jedi mind trick—learned from Breg (who was most definitely not a Jedi)—and thus pass for an off-duty stormtrooper in mufti.

You see, real identity is not always so obvious, despite what some suppose the milk-in-first indicators tell us. As they worked the face deep in that Kalist mine, Breg had well tutored him in a rough sort of way about fungible identities as the key means to survive in an uncertain, give-and-take world of turbulent change. Among other things, the rough-hewn Breg was a self-educated critical thinker, a Socratic. And in one memorable dialogue, he spoke to Dak of something he heard called the theory of the looking-glass self. Conspiratorially setting aside his laser drill, Breg whispered, “You are who you think I think you are.”

On his first day in Soho, Dak landed at the Sunset Strip, the Nell Gwynn’s down-market, street-level sister establishment on Dean Street, squeezed between the Quo Vadis restaurant and The Crown & Two Chairmen pub, right on the corner of Bateman Street. You must know it. Anyway, it was just after half-eleven in the morning. Curtain-up for the first show was at noon—every day but the Sabbath. Someone directed him to go downstairs to the theatre to meet with the board op and choreographer who were standing with another hire at the doorway to the lighting box. The club had two vacancies to fill: a second board op and stage manager. In short order, it was clear to all three that Dak was a South Londoner with little, if no experience—just the right qualification for stage manager. The other hire, on the other hand, was a professional theatrical. He was resting, at liberty, you know, in between gigs and drawing his dole money. But needing more, he wanted to work in Soho. Ergo as would become apparent, like many theatricals he had come to Soho to work on the lump. He got board op. Dak got stage manager.

That issue settled, the new hires had time to kill. Punters drifted past as they stood at the foot of the stair where the entrances to the lighting box and house intersected. Men in their sixties, retired clerks with furtive expressions, one dressed in ill-fitting tweed, another wearing a rumpled chalk-stripe and carrying a soiled bowler that he, like so many, would later clutch in his lap, and so on. In dribs and drabs, they descended the front stair and turned past the loitering pair to enter a dingy basement with its array of some 50 thread-bare, folding cinema seats pressed in four angled rows against a tiny thrust stage. There they sat, perversely proud of their bargain club memberships that entitled them to an unlimited number of shows through a subscription year, their sickly smiles and darting eyes lit by a couple of bare working lights. As two front-of-house spots, colour wheels rotating before their lenses, projected a light show that dressed the faded red house tabs, the Doors’ “Riders on the Storm” wafted from the sound system. Thusly mesmerised, each an automaton in a solitary bubble, a handful of stock-still punters here and there—but always three crouched together in the very front row, an arm’s reach to the foot lights across the knee—awaited the first show of the day, a two-hour set with perhaps a dozen strippers that repeated itself six times until midnight. Six days a week, the same show, for months on end.

Not long into this intermittent punter procession, the theatrical lit a cigarette and with a glance began to size Dak up. Dak did the same. It was a scene of two facing looking-glass selves reflecting men from different dream worlds into infinity. The theatrical, a thirty-something dressed in a tailored leather motorcycle jacket and tight jeans, his black hair closely cut and coiffed forward over his brow. And Dak—in his uniform of African sandals, jeans, chambray shirt, Levi jacket, batik bandana knotted against his throat, his blond hair tightly tied with a rubber band into a longish pony tail. Off-handedly this theatrical tossed Dak an impression, allowing that he did a bit of this, bit of that as an actor-writer-director. And how one regular gig was writing scripts for the well-established BBC Radio programme for children “Listen with Mother.” So what about you, Dak?

“I play guitar. I’m working in Soho to get some money together to go to France this summer to soundtrack a documentary film.” True…but only just.

Cocking his head and arching his eyebrows, the theatrical did respond, directing upward with his lower lip a smooth exhalation of cigarette smoke under his neatly trimmed moustache. Looking Dak straight in the eye, he asked, “Have you ever acted?”

So are you still sitting comfortably? ‘Cause I tell you true. If anyone ever asks you that question, always, the right answer is yes.

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