Bowie Sighting: Ali Smith’s Winter

Ali Smith’s Winter (2018), the second of a quartet (Autumn appeared last fall) is about Christmases past and present, hearth and earth, the regenerative powers of winter, and the complexities of family life. It is also a very punningly funny and political Brexit novel. Image result for winter ali smith

The references to Bowie work thematically — and continue the subtle tributes that I keep finding accidentally.

It’s 2003, and at the reception following his grandfather’s funeral, 17-year-old Art is approached by a woman living out loud, one so different from his mother, but who claims to be his Aunt Iris (Ire). He doesn’t remember her, although she promises they spent a quarter of his life together. She is trying to get to know the young man he is now:

“Tell me something real, try again. . . .
So, Arthur, she says, in a voice pretending to be a boring relative’s voice. How’s school…which university will you try for… what will you call the three children you’ll have,” ad nausuem. (170)

To which Arthur replies,

“Right now I am spending an inordinate amount of time listening to this, he says.
He gets his ipod out of his pocket.
What is it? she says. A transistor radio?
A what? he says.
He unwinds the earphones and plugs them in. He switches it on. He scrolls through til he finds track two of Hunky Dory. He hands her the headphones.” (170-171)

A few pages later, Art, who once again has been shut down by his mother Sophia, thinks of his aunt’s reaction:

“I used to play this, she shouted…
She started singing the lines about the nightmares coming and the crack in the sky.”(174)

“Oh you Pretty Things/Don’t you know you’re driving your/Mamas and Papas insane.” That would be Iris in the 1970s,  a founding member of the Greenham Common protest, with her arrests at anti-nuclear demonstrations. But at the end of her father’s life, it is she who took charge of young Art when his mother dumped him at his grandfather’s.

Art was a passive child, outwardly simply an inconvenience to his mother, but he made her feel “physically terrible, bombarded by transference aches, every time she is anywhere near him and his sensitivity” (243). 

Christmastime 2016, and the craziness has flipped, as it will when parents become more like themselves each day, and the squabbling of his aunt and mother are driving Art insane.

“All the strangers came today/And it looks as though they’re here to stay.”

Lux is a complete stranger who Art has hired to pretend to be his girlfriend for the holidays. Born in Canada, a  child of Croatian refugees, she cannot bear the sorrow of their lives. She is brilliant and luminous. She reads everything. Aunt Iris will return to Greece to help refugees after Christmas; Sophia complains of the people “coming here because they want our lives” (206).

Lux declares Art’s family reminds him of the one in Cymbeline, and it was thinking if a country could produce a writer like Shakespeare, then that is where she wants to be. So she came to England, but her money ran out before she finished her degree. The most beautiful thing she has ever seen was on a school trip to the Fisher Museum in Toronto: The ghostly imprint of a rosebud once placed between two pages of Cymbeline.

Other Bowie Bits

Two of Bowie’s heroes, Charlie Chaplin and Elvis Presley, are mentioned in a single paragraph describing the Christmas night when Sophia first met Art’s father. It is December 25, 1977, the day Chaplin died. Sophie mentioned that this year’s Christmas marathon has been of Elvis movies (he died in August of 1977).

Sitting in a Tin Can

As a child Sophia was stricken by the fate of Laika, the dog sent into orbit by the Russians. Her father forty years later calls her to report that Laika “didn’t have to circle the earth in that tin can for a whole week before it died. No. Lucky for that dog, it died only a few hours after they blasted it into space” (244).

But businesswoman Sophia is now just too busy with a “worldwide strategy video conference call” (243) to listen to her old man go on about a dog.

 

 

Continue reading “Bowie Sighting: Ali Smith’s Winter”

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Bowie Sighting: Peter Robinson’s Sleeping in the Ground, An Inspector Banks Novel

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 [2017], 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.

It’s a small tribute, but a tender one.

 

Philip Hoare’s RisingTideFallingStar. David Bowie, Islander

 

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. 

File:Cape Hatteras lighthouse North Carolina.jpg
Public domain (USG) aerial of Cape Hattaras lighthouse before it was moved.

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.” [213]), 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.

Philip Hoare’s RisingTideFallingStar: David Bowie, Cosmos-politan, 1

“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. 

Comet Lovejoy seen from orbitThe 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.

566988main_comet_july2011-orig_full_0

“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).

Image result for diamond dogs album

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).

Image result for sons of humpback whale album

Image result

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).

 

More to come, soon

Comet 2

Great comet of 1618

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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”