If you read Peter Robinson’s Inspector Banks series, you know that Banks has eclectic tastes in music and huge libraries of vinyl and electronic recordings for his home, car, and personal player. Some fans have assembled playlists to accompany a few of the 24 books that comprise this series of police procedurals.
In Robinson’s latest Banks mystery, Sleeping in the Ground , the opening chapter describes the murders which his investigation will solve. Each book in the series also adds to our knowledge of the character of Alan Banks.
This time we find Banks leaving the crematorium after the funeral of his first serious girlfriend, claimed by cancer. It has been many years since the two had been in touch, — and of their summer of love in college back in 1972. But the song that his lost love chose for the consignment of her body to the flames, “Starman,” is unsurprising to Banks, and he plays it repeatedly as the train takes him home to the Yorkshire dales.
Throughout the book he reflects on their romance; he remembers their shared joy at seeing David Bowie playing as Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.
Finally, after the case has concluded and several members of his team return to his cottage, a somber Alan Banks slips away to his back porch, where one of his youngest detectives finds him listening to something that sounds a little bit like the Bowie albums her father once listened to.
Banks tells her she’s right. It is Bowie. He’s listening to Blackstar. Perhaps, he says, he’ll play it for her some day.
This second “Plying Favorites” is just that – play, possibly of entertainment to no one but myself, a variation of Six Degrees of Separation.
Anthony Powell is the author of a novel in twelve volumes, A Dance to the Music of Time, which I believe is primarily about how our minds make narratives of our lives, but is more generally spoken of as being about British society from 1920s to early 1970s. It’s far better known in the UK than the US.
I had to laugh when I reached page 215 of Hilary Spurling’s biography Anthony Powell when she describes Powell’s last attempt to write for Warner Brother’s Teddington Film Studios:
The last treatment he worked on –‘ like the final labour imposed by an enchanter into whose power one has fallen through imprudent search for hidden treasure — was a biopic about the nineteenth-century philanthropist Dr. Thomas Barnardo, who founded a chain of homes for destitute and abandoned children.
David Bowie’s father, Haywood Stenton Jones,* worked as a publicist for St. Barnardo’s for 35 years, after failing to succeed as an entrepreneur in theatrical production. Remote and meaningless, but amusing, nonetheless.
There is another “six degrees” path, this time through Mustique. A number of members of the Tennant family are mentioned in Spurling’s biography. Anthony and Lady Violet Powell were friends of the 2nd Baron Glenconner, father to Colin Tennant, the 3rd Baron, who bought the island of Mustique in the Caribbean, which became a retreat for stars and royalty and the site of heavy partying in the 1980s. This is where Bowie once had his Balinese styled house, Mandalay.
I had wondered if Spurling would link Anthony Powell to Stephen Tennant, but she does not. He certainly knew of Stephen**, and Spurling suggests it was through their friendship with Christopher Tennant, 2nd Baron Glenconner and his wife that V.S. Naipaul came to Christopher’s uncle Stephen’s Wiltshire estate.
*Intriguing family history on Time Detectives’ blog, but lacks citations. The first paternal ancestor of Bowie’s to learn to read and write, his great-grandfather, was born in 1851, the son of a farm worker.
**Powell is cited in Philip Hoare’s Serious Pleasures as saying Edith Sitwell referred to Stephen Tennant and Siegfired Sasson as “The Old Earl and Little Lord Fauntleroy” (132).
Other than being two of my favorites, David Bowie and novelist Philip Pullman (His Dark Materials, The Book of Dust) have nothing much in common beyond having been born in post-war England within a few months of each other (1/47; 10/46). That, and having interesting minds and reading widely.
Now I find that BBC One, which I cannot watch in the US, has aired a new documentary by Alan Yentob, Angels and Daemons featuring Philip Pullman. While he seems to have had a busy career in the UK these past 43 years, most of the Bowie community will, I expect, agree that Yentob’s supreme accomplishment is Cracked Actor, during which he accompanies Bowie at his most vulnerable during the Aladdin Sane tour. When he watched Cracked Actor, Nicolas Roeg knew that he had found his star for The Man Who Fell to Earth, in spite of Bowie’s meager film experience totaling a few minutes of screen time. The Bowie that Yentob captured seemed himself an alien visitor.
Perhaps the best scene, one of the strangest in a strange filmscape, is Bowie singing along with Areatha Franklin’s “Natural Woman,” remarking on a fly in his milk, and questioning the wisdom of placing a wax museum in the desert. Start at around 5:17 in this clip. If the limo and chauffeur look familiar, it is because Roeg used them in his film, too.
In 1997, on the occasion of Bowie’s 50th birthday, Yentob interviewed him again. He’s a good interviewer, asking interesting questions and not interrupting his subject. I hope that Angels and Daemons will find a way into the US market.
Pullman and Bowie share one other thing: a respect for children and young people struggling against the totalitarian drive for power of mind and soul crushing adults. In recent weeks, with the emergence of high school activists against automatic rifles, Bowie has been quoted a lot (“And these children that you spit on/As they try to change their worlds/Are immune to your consultations/They’re quite aware of what they’re going through).
Pullman’s child heroes are certainly “quite aware of what they’re going through.”
With Bowie, his support for children and young people isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. But I have seen more than a few, some public figures, many not, say that the sheer existence of Bowie made it possible to get through their teens. As Bowie entered his 50s and onwards, he became a patron to young visual and musical artists. For his first return to the stage, and one of his last public performances following his heart attack in 2004, he was the youngest person on stage by roughly 30 years when he appeared with Arcade Fire. See “Wake Up,” always a pleasure to return to.
David Bowie was an islander, born in England, died in Manhattan, his ashes scattered off the island of Bali. He had a lifelong interest in another island nation, Japan, and homes in Australia, Mustique, and Bermuda. Like Thomas Jerome Newton, his avocation could easily be described as Traveler; his moniker on his website was Sailor; at the Secret Roseland Concert for Bowienetters (2000), he wore a sailor’s blouse with ribbons and triangular placket and loose bell bottoms; on the Isolar tours, a white sailor’s or captain’s hat; and during the Mick Rock Aladdin Sane photo shoot, his face was adorned with an anchor, as shown on the last page of RisingTideFallingStar.
For 20 years, and when he made Lodger, the album most dominated by terrestrial rootlessness, Bowie lodged in Berlin and lived in Switzerland, where “the vaults” may still be; the mountains provide a level of physical and psychological security not to be found in coastal regions, certainly not along the coast of southern California, in spite of the imperious tone of “Station to Station’s” “Tall in this room overlooking the ocean.”
RisingTideFallingStar is about people who by birth or choice live on the coast, where land ends and sea begins and there is nowhere left to go but back. Hoare grew up in Southampton, England. Southampton was for embarkation; south Florida, where I was raised, final arrival. Once he settled in Manhattan, Bowie could see Liberty Island, where the Statue of Liberty stands, very near to Ellis Island, through which so many poor came, many who began their journeys in Southampton, who would never again see their homelands.
Mine was quite a different coast. Miami was a city in its infancy when my grandparents arrived, my maternal great-grandmother and her daughters coming east from far west Texas, and my father’s people from Ohio; they were lured into a malarial swamp by advertisements for a better future. I have looked at the 1930 census for my father’s block, and no head of household had been born in Miami. They were what Hoare calls “washashores,” (34) referring to the fulltime residents of Provincetown, Massachussetts: “No one arrives here accidentally, unless they do. It is not on the way to anywhere else, except to the sea” (41).
Last spring I went to the Outer Banks of North Carolina, which I imagine to be geographically similar to Provincetown on Cape Cod, where much of RisingTideFallungStar takes place. It too is a can’t-get-there-from-here sort of place. One road connects these islands, and there is one bridge to the mainland. Otherwise access is by ferries and air (Kill Devil Hawks, where the Wright Brothers first flew, is on the Outer Banks). It is shifting so much now that Cape Hatteras Lighthouse had to be moved inland in 1999.
The Outer Banks are the closest part of the US mainland to Bermuda, the island that well could have been the model for Prospero’s in The Tempest, a glimpse of the coming New World. David Bowie had a home there, between worlds. The Tempest is a character, at least an informing force, in RisingTideFallungStar. The first mention of the “starman” is Derek Jarman’s fancy that Bowie would sing Ariel’s song in his version of the play . From Shakespeare’s Ariel, Hoare goes by easy stages to Percy Bysshe Shelley, described by a contemporary as the “image of some heavenly spirit come down to earth by mistake” (185), and said by another to have drawn pentacles and seen demons, never eating much or sitting still (190).
Then there’s the Phoenician sailor in Eliot’s The Wasteland, Melville’s Billy Budd and Moby Dick, Jack London’s Martin Eden, Keats (“Here lies one whose name was writ in water.” ), Stephen Tennant’s Lascars (337), and Wilfred Owen, pictured as a child in his Edwardian sailor suit and later as a WWI captain, who drowned in poison gas, in murky muck and mangled landscapes. Selkies and mermen.
There are so many more: Hoare’s family, who lost their connection to their native country of Ireland (369) as I assume did Bowie’s mother; there is no mention of his retracing her family’s path from Ireland to Kent.
But I will end, as I began: Read RisingTideFallingStar.
Some Random Thoughts:
Hoare notes Shelley had a flooded house in Italy and that John Lily developed one in Bimini in the 1960s to study dolphins (203). There is a wonderful novel about this experiment, Ted Mooney’s Easy Travel to Other Planets.
Brixton and Bromley, London, where Bowie grew up, are much closer to the Thames Estuary and North Sea than is metro Houston to the Gulf of Mexico, but whether London is considered coastal, I don’t know. Considering whales have swum up the Thames, I”m inclined to say if is. (I lived a few years in Houston, but there I was aware of its geography only if hurricanes threatened. Its metro area is considered the largest coastal city along the Gulf of Mexico, but it doesn’t have a coastal feel. I began reading RisingTideFallungStar just before Harvey hit Houston and had to put it aside when Irma came across Florida.)
Warren Ellis has a very fine essay, “A Compendium of Tides” on the shapeshifting qualities of the Thames Estuary in the anthology Spirits of Place.
In the early 1990s Bowie had a Balinese-inspired estate on Mustique in the Grenadaires in the Caribbean. I don’t know why he sold this retreat he considered enchanting, but I have two guesses. Iman may have not found visits to a part of the world well known for its brutal slavery as charming (there is no hope of escape on islands) (the fortune of Elizabeth Barrett, one of the authors Hoare features in this volume was derived from Caribbean sugar cane plantations), and the island’s celebrity-dominated parties proved deadly to the family of its owner, Colin Tennant, 3rd Baron Glenconner.
This post follows several others on Philip Hoare’s RisingTideFallingStar, which will be released in the US in April.
David Bowie died during the evening of January 10, 2016 in New York City, but much of the world was sleeping, and so woke to the news on the 11th, the news traveling like a cross-continental comet.
He was cremated, according to the death certificate filed with his will, on January 12 in New Jersey; the will directed that if it were not possible to cremate his body in Bali “in accordance with the Buddhist rituals,“* his executor should scatter his ashes off the island’s coast.
Smoke rising; ashes falling.
Philip Hoare notes in RisingTideFallingStar that Guglielmo Marconi believed that his transAtlantic radio transmitters “might also pick up the cries of sailors long since drowned in the Atlantic” (39). Thomas Jerome Newton, the alien in The Man Who Fell to Earth, recorded an LP, The Visitor, in hopes of radio play that would allow his wife, if she were alive, to receive a message from him on their home planet. He wouldn’t be making the journey home.
My feeds have been nearly all Bowie for the past three days and will continue into tomorrow.
I wonder if all these transmissions, bouncing between towers, betwist satellites, are being received by the starman, as Hoare calls him.
“He looks like a comet, his flame-like hair slicked back on entry into earth’s atmosphere.”
Philip Hoare, on the fall to earth of alien Thomas Jerome Newton, aka David Bowie. RisingTideFallingStar (130)
After a brief meditation on the fall of Icarus (this book is about risings and fallings and risings of tides and stars, and Icarus, Lazarus, Billy Budd, Ishmael, to name a few), Hoare turns to The Man Who Fell to Earth. Throughout he refers to Bowie as the starman, and Bowie becomes a comet, a piece of a star not yet fallen to earth “forever roaming” (118), often seen as prophesying a sea-change in human affairs, apocalyptic or progressive. Hoare sees Bowie as both “outcast & sensor” (329), a resonant comparison.
The 1618 blue-green comet was taken by the Pilgrims as a sign that it was time to cross the sea to a New World (118). Their appearance is dual: comets with their ball and tails move very quickly, but since they can cover such distances, appear to be slow moving ; their cooling blueish tails may be our source of water (118). Water has disappeared from Newton’s planet and it is this for which he searches. Comet Lovejoy, as seen from International Space Station (NASA).
Hoare’s description of Newton’s hair being like a comet makes so much sense to me. It is — and isn’t — human colored. In the novel by Walter Tevis, Newton is finally busted because his $20 bills aren’t quite right. His planet’s reception of Earth’s transmissions was very, very good — but not quite good enough to see exactly the whorls on the US currency. Similarly, Nicolas Roeg’s/Bowie’s Newton almost passes as human, but in the first minutes of the film, as soon as his hood falls down, it is clear something is different about this guy.
“A sun grazing comet as witnessed by the ESA/NASA Solar and Heliospheric Observatory, or SOHO, as it dived toward the sun on July 5 and July 6, 2011. SOHO is the overwhelming leader in spotting sungrazers, with almost 3000 spotted to date. SOHO can see the faint light of a comet, because the much brighter light of the sun is blocked by what’s known as a coronograph.” Credits: ESA&NASA/SOHO
Bowie is also extra terrestrial in an uncommon sense; terrestrial to the extreme as a shape-shifter within his own species’ anatomy, which is not enough to accommodate his imagination. Hoare reminds us of the changes preceding Man Who Fell: Bowie as “half-canine, half-human, a dog star…with a feral yelp” — a Diamond Dog (132).
Hoare notes too that on the stack of televisions Newton watches, trying to make sense of Earth and its life forms, is a snippet from John Huston’s film of Melville’s Billy Budd of the beautiful sailor “golden Adonis or dark star” (338) who is hoisted up to be hanged, and then his dead body is buried at sea, falling to the depths.
Hoare then brilliantly links Man Who Fell’s use of whale songs when Newton and his wife are together in a “fluid cybersexual space” (132) continuing on to illustrate the similarities in covers for Songs of the Humpback Whale and the album 2001: A Space Odyssey, the story of astronaut David Bowman (134).
And whale songs, Hoare reminds us, are among the sounds sent on the golden discs in Voyager Explorer, launched in 1977 to tell another world’s people who Earthlings are, as are “Blakean images [of] a naked man and woman and transect lines indicating Homo sapiens’ place in the solar system [that] appear on the Black Star[sic] album” (note for page 134).
“Outside is set at the end of the millennium. What are your thoughts about what’s in store?” Bowie: “‘I’m very positive about it. …What Brian and I are trying to do is develop a series of albums that trace the last five years of the ‘90s. This is the first in this series or cycle of albums.’ [As it turned out, Outside was Bowie and Eno’s last recording together.]”
What, I wondered on first reading, is Admiral Nelson doing in a book featuring so many poets that returns again and again to Bowie?
It’s the frock coats, the frock coats with “pleated skirts [that] swung as Nelson walked. . .and gold-lace cuffs” (327). It’s also the stockings, and the emphasis in portraits on the Admiral’s “balanced” “stance,” more like a “dancer than a fighter” (323). Much of ruling is looking the part. It’s as theatrical and improbable as Bowie.
As the curators explain the fascinating construction of these amphibious woolen maritime frock coats, Hoare muses on how it would feel to be so protected, much as he earlier considered what it would be like to assume the body of a dolphin washed ashore in Provincetown: “I imagine her as a human in a dolphin wetsuit. I think of her bones, lighter than mine since they did not have to bear the full weight of gravity” (61), and the claims of the poet Oppian (AD 180) that killing dolphins is immoral because they were humans who returned to the sea, and “the righteous spirit of men in them preserves human thought and human deeds” (60). If, Hoare imagines, he could slip on Nelson’s coat, and “feel the skirts sway and bounce like a kilt,” he could “be a hero, just for a minute or two” (328).
In fact, Nelson was not a handsome sailor but a small admiral who had lost an arm in battle and was blinded in one eye, above which was a scar,“as if he’d been ripped by lighting, a zig-zag rip” (324). His scar remindsme of the one on Pierrot in Ashes to Ashes, and during the production of David Bowie Is, the curators took Hoare to see the costume up close, which is described both in this book and a passage from a profile of Hoare inThe Guardian:
“There lay a cross between a plywood cradle and a semi-circular, space-age coffin. Like the casket of a mummy. In there was the Pierrot costume for the “Ashes to Ashes” video. It was made of buckram and silver fabric and sequins, but it was stiff and looked like the chrysalis of an insect which had vacated it. It was in the shape of David Bowie, as if he’d been teleported out of this world and left this reliquary we were worshipping. I reached out but I couldn’t touch it. It would have been too much. It would have broken the spell.”
As Hoare leaves the Nelson vaults, he notices a sequin had fallen from the coat, “a bit of stardust,” and dutifully returns it to the curator.
But what do these coats have to do with Bowie? RisingTideFallingStar covers the past five hundred years. It is, on one level, about the rise of Empire, the allure of the New World, the migrations of peoples, exploration, cruelty and destruction, and making it new.
It begins with Shakespeare’s The Tempest and a shipwreck halfway to the New World on Prospero’s island, likely Bermuda. Bowie spent a lot of time there is the late 1990s after selling his place on Mustique. He was poised then between Old and New Worlds, becoming, finally a New World New Yorker. He, like Hoare, was a child of a near-dead Empire, and when I look at Bowie’s wardrobe for Outside and Earthling, the End of Empire (millennium, century, and decade) comes to mind.
There is, of course, the slashed Union Jack coat for Earthling designed by Alexander McQueen, and some of Earthling’s titles allude to WWII, e.g. “Battle for Britain (The Letter)” and “Seven Years in Tibet,” but the coat itself is the most eloquent statement.
I’ve long been fascinated by the frock coat Bowie wore on the Outside tour. Why cobwebs? But when Hoare mentions Nelson’s coat that the admiral “wore at the Battle of the Nile… now sadly injured by moths” (317), my thinking changed. It’s described as “a dark, wool frock coat veiled with torn embroidered tulle, and a pair of high-waist, full dark trousers dribbled and smudged with paint.”
Torn embroidered tulle and lacy ruffled cuffs, deliberately distressed or delicate: this is the end of the Empire.