David Bowie performing in 2003. Photo: Getty.
Show Hide image

Let’s not pretend: David Bowie’s Brit Award was for being alive

Musicians and pundits need to get over their obsessive, nostalgic hero-worship. In 2014, David Bowie is irrelevant.

In ten years time, if we should happen to look over the Brits winners of 2014, among the list of forgotten flash in the pans and now-stadium-dependables David Bowie’s award for Best Male Artist will be the Proust’s madeleine or forgotten TV theme that sends us hurtling back to 2014. And, with a lurch of embarrassment for the time and all of us here, the question will form on our lips: “What were we thinking?”

Let’s not pretend: Bowie’s award was for being alive, as was the acclaim that greeted his single, “Where Are We Now”. We thought he was dead/in a coma/suffering from dementia/Parkinson’s Disease and he wasn’t. If that didn’t do it, the song (calculatedly or not, who knows?) was even about nostalgia – walking through Berlin, looking back – and came with a wistful chorus guaranteed to send Pavlovian shivers down the spine of anyone who’d seen him perform “Starman” on Top Of The Pops, or listened to “Station to Station” in a dark bedroom, or remembered him leaning against a wall in the video for “Let’s Dance”. Solo acts can’t break up and reform; Bowie had (calculatedly or not) figured out his own way to rekindle that love.

I’m as happy as anyone that he’s alive and well enough to make a record and disappoint me by appearing in an advert for Louis Vuitton. But let’s not get this out of proportion. Let’s not pretend he’s made a great album: I don’t even want to listen to the whole of that song again, let alone the album it comes from. It was the same when Bob Dylan released his Tempest in 2012. Asked what the best albums of the year were, I put that in. How could I not? It was Bob Dylan, the man who changed rock music and, more importantly, nursed me through my student days and three separate heartbreaks, played the best gig I’ve ever seen, whose greatest moments still work their magic for me. And I haven’t listened to Tempest since.

Bowie, like Dylan, is irrelevant. Any of the other nominees for Best Male Artist – folk throwback Jake Bugg, angsty electronicist James Blake, retro-soulboy John Newman or plangent piano manchild Tom Odell – represent a strand of popular music in the UK now, for good or ill. Marvellously, none of them were born when Bowie last won the same award, in 1984 – for Let’s Dance, the album where he was last relevant, though first stopped dictating what relevance was. Another twinkle in his father’s eye was Harry Styles of One Direction, whose reaction to Bowie’s win, for Radio 4’s Today programme, was, “He’s a legend.” The boy put his finger on it – a legend is exactly what Bowie is, and his award came from the ancestor-worship pop music has been indulging in for some time as it tries to come to terms with its own old age.

Radio 6, a station created in order to connect pop past and present, has been one of the most committed participants in the past year’s Bowie worship. Perhaps they can draw a line under it now. Moving on doesn’t have to take away from what he did before – we can still love that. We can enjoy his new stuff, too, but let’s not get them confused. It’s a shame Bowie’s comeback didn’t take the form of dense art music like Scott Walker’s, or painting. Instead, it seems he still wants to be in the game. But to humour him, for the sake of our various pasts, is ludicrous.

GETTY
Show Hide image

Inside Syria's unending siege, civilians, not soldiers, are the chief victims

In Aleppo, civilian strife is just another tool of war.

Maria is a young mother who lives in Aleppo. She missed her opportunity to flee when the Syrian-Turkish border was closed to all but the seriously injured in early 2015. With her two children – Fadi, aged five, and Sama, aged nine – she stayed in the city.

Maria’s husband was killed by a barrel bomb that fell on their neighbourhood in 2014. After that, she took the children and moved in with her husband’s family. Her married brother-in-law asked her to be his second wife. She accepted the offer for the sake of security. This year he, too, was killed when a bomb fell on his shop.

Speaking to her on Skype, I referred to Aleppo as a city under siege and she quickly corrected me. “The city is not under siege,” she said. “We are human beings under siege.” Maria clearly felt offended by my words. She moved the conversation on to the images of a young Syrian boy, sitting in an ambulance, which have appeared on newspaper front pages around the world – a symbol of the human suffering in Aleppo. “What can I say? His silence and shock reflected all the pain of Syrians.”

Tearfully, she described her living conditions. “There are two widows, with three children, who live all together with our old mother-in-law. The good people around us try to give us food and clothing.”

She added: “Before, I used to cook a big meal for me and my family-in-law every day. My late husband was well off.” The children don’t go to school but they get some lessons at home – Maria used to work as an Arabic language teacher at a high school in the city.

The household’s other widow, Safaa, joined our conversation. “Since the first day of Eid ul-Fitr [the festival that marks the end of Ramadan, this year on 6 July], the siege began in Aleppo. There was no food or water. Children cried and could not sleep because of hunger.”

Safaa made food from pulses that she had managed to save, particularly lentils. As the area around the city is rich in olives and well known for producing za’atar herbs, the extended family depended on reserves of these for nutrition. “Al-za’atar al-akhdar [a dish of the herb, olive oil and a few other basic ingredients] has saved the reputation of Aleppo and its people,” Safaa joked, and both women laughed.

Then, suddenly, the Skype connection was lost and they both disappeared.

Another Aleppo native to whom I spoke, Ayham, described his desperation as he finished his engineering degree before fleeing Syria. “I am my mother’s only son, so I didn’t want to do military service, and I left, as I felt so insecure,” he told me. He had been living in Shahbaa, a neighbourhood controlled by Bashar al-Assad’s regime, while completing one application after another to study abroad. Eventually he was successful and he has now made it to a university in Europe.

Ayham’s parents were pushing him to leave because they knew that he was part of an underground anti-Assad protest movement. “There are two Aleppos,” he explained. “One is free and the other is controlled by Assad’s regime. Both are very unsafe . . . Living hungry was easier than living under threat.”

There are roughly two million people in the city, most of them women and children. Since the second day of the siege, there have been no fruit or vegetables available and only a few bakeries are producing bread. Compounding the starvation, the bombing has been intense, hitting hospitals, ambulances, blood banks and the Syrian Civil Defence base. Assad’s regime is targeting vital resources for civilians.
Even after rebel forces, in co-operation with the Islamist faction Jaish al-Fateh, managed partly to break the siege and open a new road into the south of the city through the Ramoussa area, they could not bring in enough food. The little that made it inside immediately sent prices soaring. Civilians could not use this road to escape – jets were targeting the routes in and out.

The eastern areas of Aleppo, which are still under the opposition’s control, are also still without aid, because of how risky it is to get there. All the talk coming out of the city today is about decisive battles between Assad’s forces and the rebels in the southern quarters. Civilians put the recent air strikes down to these conflicts – it has long been believed that when the regime loses ground, it intensifies its bombing as revenge, and to send a message to those who continue to resist.

People in Aleppo and the north-eastern territories of Syria are suffering and dying. They have no other choice. It seems that both Isis and the Assad regime are trying as hard as they can to destroy Syrian civilians, whether through direct attacks or by gradual starvation.

There is little information available, as both sides attempt to prevent the media from documenting life under siege. Isis accuses journalists of being agents of Assad, while the regime portrays reporters as terrorists. Pro-Assad social media accounts have alleged that Mahmoud Raslan, who took the footage of the boy in the ambulance, has links with terrorism. The same channels have yet to say much about Raslan’s subject – Omran Daqneesh, the five-year-old whom he showed, bloodied and stunned, after the boy was pulled from the rubble caused by multiple air strikes. Omran’s ten-year-old brother, Ali, has since died from injuries sustained in another attack.

After four hours, I heard back from Maria. She apologised for losing the connection and asked me not to worry about her. “All of us are fine. We did not die yet,” she said. Her daughter, Sama, has not been to school since last year, she told me, and now studies only Arabic poetry. They have no books, so she depends on the verses that Maria knows by heart. Sama misses her school and her friends, and though she remembers their faces she has forgotten their names.

Maria has made a doll for her out of scraps of fabric and they call it Salwa. Together, they sing Syrian folk songs for the doll, in particular one that goes: “Hey Salwa, why are you crying? I need a friend.” Maria is resigned. As she says, “We are back in the Stone Age.” 

K S is a Syrian journalist, based in Sweden since 2014

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser