Philip Hoare’s RisingTideFallingStar: Frock Coats and the End of Empire


Bowie on Outside in 1995 interview with Larry Katz: 

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.]”

In the second half of Philip Hoare’s RisingTideFallingStar, Hoare visits the Royal Museums Greenwich for a personal viewing of Admiral Nelson’s undress coat worn when he was killed at the Battle of Trafalgar.

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 reminds me 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 in The 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.

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The Vale of Soul-Making. Philip Hoare’s RisingTideFallingStar

RisingTideFallingStar, the best book about Bowie I expect to read, the one I hope his daughter Lexie has, does not, within its text, include the word Bowie.  

I don’t read reviews before I read or write about books, so I don’t know if others see how gratifying this book is to Bowie people.

halfwing.jpg
Dustjacket flap features half the picture of Philip Hoare with wings by Dennis Minsky.

The advanced publicity cover picture suggested that the allusions to Bowie I’ve noted before in Hoare’s work would be more explicit, while the one-word title RisingTideFallingStar, reminiscent of Richard Long’s haunting Textworks, had me guessing Hoare would be returning to the sea again. Both are correct, and what is more, new friends and old* gather in the expanding Hoareiverse.

But like all Hoare’s books, RisingTideFallingStar is essentially about what John Keats called “the vale of Soul-making,”** and soul-making is a matter of self-transformation, the sadness of alienation, and the circuitous routes we take to attempt to get home.

It could be called a lament or thernody, like the song of the humpback whale, which Hoare describes at the beginning of the last chapter (“a keening threnody to me; but to another whale, it is a serenade of lust” (387)). On the book’s last two pages, Hoare seeks rest “in [his] room, overlooking the ocean,” listening to the whales’ unending song, “bending sound” and “dredging the ocean” (387). As a tempest gathers on the night of January 10, 2015, he confronts the allure of falling not to earth but deep into the sea, before finally sleeping and waking to “the news” (392).

I think all here know something of this feeling, this wondering at the stillness of Bowie’s body, then watching the videos, and knowing we will never again feel the transmission of energy through his “eyes, at the centre of it all” (393). After the text but before its epigram (alluding to The Tempest — and “Station to Station”) is Mick Rock’s photo of Bowie with the sailor’s anchor on his face. The last words of Thoreau, which Hoare quoted back on p. 129, come to mind: ‘“Now comes good sailing.’”

mick rock
Mick Rock’s picture of Sailor, page 395

For Hoare, whose trajectory was launched 40 years earlier by “the starman who obsessed me, and who presided over my blue notebook” (22), the answer is to go down to the sea, and write Bowie’s name in the sand, and let the waves take it away, and then, as he does each day, to dive into water.

To dissect RisingTideFallingStar would feel like performing a vivisection; to paraphrase, babytalk. it is a very long prose poem: nothing is dispensable, images break the surface briefly, then much later, having always been right there, return like waves to be visible once again. 

In the next few posts I’ll note some of the other Bowie allusions and evocations that run through this book. RisingTideFallingStar won’t be released in the US until April 2018 (but why wait? Get it now from Amazon.co.uk), and since this is a Bowie blog, not a lit crit or history of culture thesis, I’ll be taking the Just wow! And then there is this! And here is the best commentary of The Man Who Fell to Earth ever Approach. 


*For example:  Coleridge, Keats, Byron, Shelley, Melville, Thoreau, Barrett-Browning, Wilde, Owen, Woolf, Plath. The indefinable Stephen Tennant. Admiral Nelson, Dickens, Shakespeare, seabirds, cetaceans, selkies.

**”The common cognomen of this world among the misguided and superstitious is ‘a vale of tears’ from which we are to be redeemed by a certain arbitrary interposition of God and taken to Heaven-What a little circumscribed straightened notion! Call the world if you Please “The vale of Soul-making” . Then you will find out the use of the world (I am speaking now in the highest terms for human nature admitting it to be immortal. . .)” — John Keats

Sailor’s Journal Indexed, Part 3: Writers and Publications

More like a half a droplet in the seas than the tip of the proverbial iceberg, here we have the few authors and works mentioned in the brief Sailor’s Journals. There aren’t quite as many authors and books in Sailor’s Journals as you might expect. On the erstwhile bowienet there was a section entirely devoted to books.

Continue reading “Sailor’s Journal Indexed, Part 3: Writers and Publications”

75≠100: Revisiting Bowie’s “Favorite” Books

How can there be so much confusion about a list of 100 books? The David Bowie Top 100 Books is making the rounds again, this time at BookPeople, who say its source is the New York Public Library, which issued it on January 11, 2016. The NYPL says its source was a 2013 post on the David Bowie Facebook page (gone). Davidbowie.com* now has 100, noting that when the list first appeared in openbookstoronto.com, it was incomplete. If you search for that site, you will find nothing, but the link that begins with “only 75%” takes you to open-book.ca

The earliest list I can find including 100 books is at open-ca.com, dated September 26, 2013: “David Bowie IS co-curators [Geoffrey] Marsh and Victoria Broackes have released a list of Bowie’s favourite reads.”

Should a list of 100 books include 100 books? 

Not at The Guardian and Telegraph. Twice, first on October 1, 2013, and as a reprint in January 2016 (“This article is 3 years old”), the Guardian published a list headlined “David Bowie’s top 100 must-read books” which included only 75 titles and was said to be from the “curators” of the David Bowie Is show atthe Art Gallery of Ontario.”

The Telegraph listed 75 books on April 1, 2016, as if their publication were news: “And thanks to an exhibition of Bowie at the Running at the Art Gallery in Toronto, Ontario, we have a list from co-curator Geoffrey Marsh of Bowie’s 100 favourite books.” This line suggests that the article is part new (includes Bowie’s death) and part old (the show was not in Ontario in April 2016).

So why did the Guardian and Telegraph headline 100 but only list 75 books? In the online editions, space is not a problem, and in a print edition, the headline or subtitle still doesn’t have to refer to 100 when there are just 75. And, yes, they are the same 75, and the reasoning is transparent.

The oldest two books on their lists are Richard Wright’s Black Boy (1945) and Ann Petry’s The Street (1946). The newest is from 2008. Bowie was born in early January 1947 and died in January 2015.

Why the Culture editors at these two publications decided that Bowie’s favorites were only those published in his lifetime is inexplicable.

Were these Bowie’s favourites?

Marsh’s list was compiled for David Bowie Is. A list of books to place in the exhibit might focus on those published in his lifetime, not because they were Bowie’s favorites, but because they say something about the times in which he lived.

Marsh, in fact, made it clear that while Bowie gave the show’s curators access to his archives, “Bowie would have no involvement at all.”

Let’s look at some of the 25 that didn’t make these major news sites’ lists (for the entire list in chronological order, go to open-book.caAs I Lay Dying, Blast, Dante’s The Inferno, Homer’s Illiad, Lady Chatterly’s Lover, Madame Bovary, Mr. Norris Changes Trains, The 42nd Parallel, The Bridge, The Great Gatsby, The Stranger and The Waste Land

Pretty amazing exclusions, whether they were Bowie’s favorites — or not.

While I can’t see Bowie looking for books published in each year of his life (or nearly so) it’s possible, probably likely, that Bowie provided some of the titles. For years that Bowie had not mentioned a book, Marsh and the archivist could have searched an archival database for books published between 1945 and 2011.  

Most serious readers like Bowie talk in terms of authors, as he has (all Pagel, everything by Ackroyd, and so on); the choices for these authors could be Bowie’s — or not.

As for me, I wouldn’t put my favorites in a box in my archives, unless I had multiple copies (paper, cloth, first, ones I’ve underlined, etc.). I’d keep them with me. I think he might have had multiple copies of his favorites; paperbacks acquired when young and traveling, first editions later.

I hope some day we will know more.

*I believe it first listed 75 until contacted by #BowieBookClub.

Evocation: Billy Collins’ “Embrace”

Last week I came across Billy Collins’ poem “Embrace” — and I learned the rules* have changed, so I can offer it in totality, which is a good thing because you need it all. 

Embrace

You know the parlor trick.
wrap your arms around your own body
and from the back it looks like
someone is embracing you
her hands grasping your shirt
her fingernails teasing your neck
from the front it is another story
you never looked so alone
your crossed elbows and screwy grin
you could be waiting for a tailor
to fit you with a straight jacket
one that would hold you really tight.

@Billy Collins. From the collection, The Apple That Astonished Paris: Poems. First published 2006; rptd. 2014 by the University of Arkansas Press

It’s a stunning 12-line poem, and immediately I thought of Bowie, and will likely never again watch Bowie do the “parlor trick” without thinking of “Embrace.”

There’s absolutely no reason as far as I know why Bowie would have inspired any of Billy Collins’ work — the connection is in my head. Collins is an American poet, born 1941 in Manhattan, and was America’s poet laureate for 2001 to 2003. I’d describe him as an imagist, with a small i.

I hunted without success for a portrait by Andrew Kent, the photographer who did the black-and-white studies of the Thin White Duke. Maybe there is a Kent still of the “parlor trick,” or perhaps I was just mingling what we know of Bowie in the TWD era and the last six lines of “Embrace.”

I then asked for help from a particularly welcoming FB group of Bowie devotees (not all are) and got dozens of response, but this one of “Heroes,” from the same broadcast as the Bing Crosby and Bowie duet of the “Little Drummer Boy” is in in tone and choreography perfect. The video starts 15 seconds in.

heroes

*Quoting more than a few lines of a poem used to amount to academic or professional suicide. But the Poetry Foundation has concluded that a non-commercial blog may do so, if the poem is accompanied by “critique or commentary.” Many other conditions apply and are listed on page 13 of the guide. If a poet objects, then his or her wishes are to be respected. My reasoning is that since 52 of Collins’ poems are on PoemHunter, and the Foundation and PoemHunter are frequently mentioned in tandem on educational sites, Collins would probably not object.

Echoes of Cocteau

I was flipping through Jean Cocteau by Patrick Mauries recently and came across this photo of the character Death in his film, Orphée, based on the myth of Orpheus, a poet so in love with Death he follows her into the underworld.

orphee_4116152

Here we have Death (María Casarès) [photo by Roger Corbeau/Ministère de la Culture/AFDPP].

I was reminded of Thomas Jerome Newton in his homeland costume, and applied a black and white filter:

man-wfte

Not exact by any means, and I don’t know whether Nic Roeg or Bowie had any ideas about Newton’s alien garb. Costume designer May Routh says she wanted the water tubes but conceived them as more like lace; the special effects team interpreted the design differently, making the tubing more substantial.

We know that Bowie was interested in Cocteau’s surrealistic imagery. Heroes‘s “Beauty and the Beast” is a nod to the Cocteau  film La Belle et la Bête, starring Jean Marais, who also played the lead role in Orphée.

Cocteau and Marais were lovers; Cocteau said of his young man: 

“It does not depend only on sensual grace. It flows from the child still at the heart of the mature man. That is the true source of the expressive beauty of his eye, of the way he looks at you, imposes his physical presence.”

Cocteau could as well be describing Bowie.

Cocteau was a sensualist, a painter of murals for churches, and fascinated by angels, who typically were modelled as beautiful boys, like this one, the Angel of the Annunciation at Notre Dame de France in London, England, photographed by Victoria Emily Jones. See her essay and photographic tour of  Notre Dame de France in London, England by clicking the link.

The Annunciation.
©Victoria Emily Jones

What came to mind: the “Look Back in Anger” video.

It goes beyond angels, however. One minute into the video, Bowie rises quickly from his bed,  in much the same way that the poet’s wife is commanded to rise from hers at the minute mark  in this snippet from Cocteau’s Orphée.

When Bowie rubs his hand across the painting, his skin takes on a grotesque appearance as if his face is now a painted facade disturbed. Now, in another film of Cocteau’s, La sang d’un Poète (The Blood of the Poet), a sculptor has a similar fright.  First he does some sketches, but the mouth starts to move. He tries to rub it out, but it transfers itself to his hand. He tries to rid himself of it by pressing it to the mouth of a statue (movie stills).

The statue entices him to break through a mirror to a different dimension and gives him a gun to kill himself. Instead he returns to his reality, and smashes the sculpture.

Smashing through mirrors is common to several Cocteau’s films. Go back to the Orphée  snip and view the last frames.

Tormented Bowie places his angel painting in front of a mirror so he will not have to see what has become of his face, but can’t resist studying his new ugliness. He doesn’t manage to break his mirror or spell and ends up crawling under his bed, instead.

When the artist of Blood of a Poet is on the other side of the mirror, he encounters some strange scenes (movie stills , like this one, featuring a transvestite, Barbette, who Cocteau later wrote about:

barbettesang

That oppish bullseye and strange haired figure is vaguely reminiscent of the set and weird woman of “Strangers When We Meet.”

strangers

Here’s another image from Orphée. Flanked by two biker angels, the Poet and Death stroll through the Underworld:underworld

Could this have been an inspiration for the Village of Ormen of “Blackstar”?village-of-orman

Finally there is one more odd Cocteauian echo for today:the similarity to this photograph of Jean Marais dressed by Chanel for Cocteau’s Oedipe Roi:

marais

to this one from Outside: fishman

 

I don’t know what to make of this.

 

Bowie Sighting: Philip Hoare. Public and Personal Bowies

Last January while waiting for Serious Pleasures: The Life of Stephen Tennant, I chanced upon Philip Hoare’s, The Sea Inside, and enjoyed it so much that after Serious Pleasures I returned to Hoare, this time The Whale (UK Leviathan), and hence to Melville’s Moby Dick, a wonderful book to live in for several weeks, when not required reading. I also started keeping an eye out for Hoare’s short pieces in The Guardian and following his Twitter feed (@philipwhale).

Looking for allusions to David Bowie in Hoare became a game with me because if he could work Bowie into a book about whales, then where would one appear next? Now the game feels bittersweet; in the past few weeks so many have written so much.

Already it is tapering off, this deluge of tributes. I suppose tributes — their writing and their reading — are part of grieving, which serves the living, not the dead. I wonder too if there is not some element of magical thinking about them, whether they are like the command not to speak ill of the dead or RIP [rest in piece], means perhaps of insuring that the spirits of the dead are placated, safely sent on their way, no lingering, no haunting.

I find tributes to the living much more compelling, and this, I realize, is what I was looking when I started keeping track of Bowie Sightings, in Hoare and in Matt Haig’s novels.

Such sightings I see as thank-you notes, sent out into public space, with generosity of spirit: to Bowie, and to the future readers.

When authors I respect allude to those from whom they have gained much, I take note (Patti Smith’s highly allusive M Train is a moving, melancholy meditation on memory and mediaries to the mystical. To read what she has: a fantastic voyage).

Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.”  — E. M. Forster, Howard’s End

Forster, best known for his novels including A Passage to India, was a friend of Stephen Tennant’s, but what I’m interested in here is “only connect.”

By sharing or connecting, the personal becomes public, while still remaining just as personal to Hoare or Smith, undiminished.

Consider (again) the Bowie allusion in The Whale [Leviathan]:

“And I stood looking out to sea, watching transatlantic ships sail by, like Fitzgerald’s boats borne back ceaselessly  into the past, waiting for a future that might never come, like the man who fell to earth.”

Hoare explains this in the notes on the text:

“17 ‘boats borne back ceaselessly’ F.Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, Penguin, 1974, 188. Gatsby looming over the water is a reflection of Ishmael at the Battery, whilst Fitzgerald’s closing phrase about ‘that vast obscuity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night’ echoes the final passage in Moby-Dick: ‘then all collapsed, and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago.'[576] In The Man Who Fell to Earth, (1976), Thomas Jerome Newton also looks out over the water, and the film’s director, Nicholas Roeg, cites Auden’s poem, Musee des Beaux Arts, with its reference to Icarus.”

Several years ago I wrote about similarities I saw between Jimmy Gatz (who the Great Gatsby was before he was Gatsby) because I see Bowie as very much a self-made man. Moby Dick and The Great Gatsby are Americans novels that have very little in common except what matters most: they will endure.

blue light
David Bowie in Nicolas Roeg’s  THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH (1976). Courtesy Photofest.

Here, however, Hoare is responding to resonances of imagery. There is no ocean in The Man Who Fell to Earth, (1976), but there is a pier, and at the end of it is a light. Newton and his girlfriend live across a lake from the scientist who seems Newton’s friend but betrays him, and all collapses for Newton, as it did for Ismael.

When Hoare was asked by Electric Sheep  who he considers his avatar or alter ego, he readily responded:

“Thomas Jerome Newton, the flame-haired, paper-skinned, grounded angel in The Man Who Fell to Earth.”

“Newton crosses zones and cultures, an existential figure, a stranded alien in search of water for his parched planet. The scene in which he stands at the end of a dock was, to me, a direct echo of Jay Gatsby standing at the end of his Long Island dock.”

In David Bowie Is, Hoare remarks that “The Man Who Fell to Earth is such a key point in the Bowie universe because it exists sui generis – it’s completely on its own” or “reduced to the essence of Bowie-dom. . .always being beyond.”

I agree, and if I had only one Bowie item — album, video, film — that I could take to a desert island, it would be The Man Who Fell to Earth.

Magic — that is the only explanation for  the trinitarian creation of Thomas Jerome Newton by Walter Tevis (who wrote the novel), director Nicolas Roeg, and David Jones/David Bowie (and I will add that the actor in those other movies of Bowie’s is more correctly David Jones).

It’s not that Bowie fits the description of Newton in Tevis’s novel; he doesn’t. But Roeg knew when he saw Cracked Actor that only Bowie would do, no matter that he had no previous experience. Interestingly, in his next picture, Walkabout, Roeg would cast David Gulpilil Ridjimiraril Dalaithngu, an Australian aboriginal who spoke no English (as well as his own son, Luc) in the lead role, and it seems unimaginable that any other man could replace Gulpilil in the role.

So why did Roeg chose Bowie? He is not human. And he isn’t. He is a projection. When Newton teleports, when he sends messages home by way of music broadcast into space, he is Bowie. When he is the gentlest of gentlemen, private and remote, and one of the most influential people on the planet, he is Bowie.

The way I connected Bowie and Gatsby differs from Hoare’s, and he brings them together via Melville.

In other instances the public persona of Bowie is connected in more obvious ways. Take, for example, Oscar Wilde and Bowie. In Oscar Wilde’s Last Stand, Hoare slips in a reference to Heddon Street, where Bowie is photographed for the Ziggy Stardust cover. Bowie of course had no direct physical connection to Wilde (1854-1900), but Hoare sees Wilde as a proginitor of Bowie — and Bowie as a guide to those who preceded him, including Wilde (connections run multiple ways). “My education came from him [Bowie] as I learned about William Burroughs, Andy Warhol, and Jean Genet. Just like Oscar Wilde, he commodified dissent for the suburbs,”  and in a review of Wilde in America: Oscar Wilde and the Invention of Modern Celebrity, Hoare notes that author David M Friedman “might have updated his story further. A century later, Andy Warhol installed his fame-making Factory at 33 Union Square. There, a pre-Ziggy Stardust Bowie – who, long-haired, wearing a “man-dress” and draped on a sofa, had reprised Sarony’s languid portraits of Wilde for the cover of his 1970-71 album, The Man Who Sold the World – would call on Warhol and reinvent himself as a result.”

I agree Bowie’s visit to Warhol’s Factory led to his re-invention of himself. When I look at the picture of Bowie in his man-dress, scowling and being paid no attention at Warhol’s, I think Bowie’s epiphany is that a colorful and embracing decadence is what he could offer England, that NYC already had the dark decadence market cornered: consider the Velvet Underground’s songs “Venus in Furs” about S&M and the paean “Heroin.”

I’d also argue that Bowie’s legacy will surpass Burrough’s, Warhol’s. Genet’s and Wilde’s. He was a magpie: Bowie took the shiny bits he found and built himself a magnificent fortress. And he had well over 50 years to do so.

“Live in fragments no longer,” to repeat Forster. Add to this Ezra Pound’s command to poets to “make it new,” Whitman’s “Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself; (I am large, I contain multitudes.)” and Blake’s “He whose face gives no light, shall never become a star.”

There are so many ways begin to talk about Bowie.