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David Bowie: The eternal space oddity

Why does Bowie still hold such mythical power?

This article was written in January 2013, in response to the release of Where Are We Now​?

Apart from a charity gig six years ago, sightings of David Bowie in the past decade have largely been paparazzi shots: a thin, white duke drifting from school gate to home in Manhattan, content with the demands of fatherhood following heart surgery in 2004. Industry friends of mine were asked to write his obituary five years ago. So it was exciting to see the searchlight swing round when, out of nowhere, he announced his first album in ten years and released a single (“Where Are We Now?”), on his 66th birthday, in advance of a huge retrospective opening at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London in March.

For a magical moment on the morning of 8 January, the music industry is saved. Charts matter again (emails are pouring in from William Hill); there’s proof that you can keep secrets from the internet; the eternal mysteries of pop are restored as that shaky but unmistakeable voice breaks through YouTube, like Gandalf back from the dead.

Why does Bowie still hold such mythical power? Is it because he retired for a decade, ramping up the expectations? Nothing keeps you safer from criticism in the music industry than hardly releasing any music – Kate Bush will testify to that. Or is it because he’s always been “ahead of the game”? To be fair, he’s not (musically) these days, nor is he pretending to be.

“Where Are We Now?”, produced by Bowie’s long-time wingman Tony Visconti, is a luxuriantly self-reflexive song, reminiscent, with its elegiac chord sequence, of “Thursday’s Child” from the 1999 album Hours . . . (which also saw him boldly alluding to much of his previous work). He’s been chewing over mortality on his past two albums, with songs such as “Afraid” and the ironic “Never Get Old”. It’s obvious why. The new single is a sombre walk around his beloved Berlin, communing with ghosts.

If you want witty, equivocal poetry about middle age, listen to Nick Lowe or Chris Difford. Bowie is getting older reluctantly, fearfully, far away from his audience – and for his audience, this is a very powerful thing. The first line he’s spoken in years, “Had to get the train from Potsdamer Platz . . .” is a call out to the class of ’77, sending them right back to those heady times, alone. Musically unremarkable though it may be, “Where Are We Now?” activates two of the most potent things about popular music: nostalgia and the contemplation of darkness.

A good friend of mine, who gets the whole Bowie thing much better than I will ever do, suggested the other day, “He’s never got over the crushing disappointment of learning the world isn’t as magical as the one he perceived when he was a child.” His playfulness isn’t all gone, though. In the new video, with his face projected on to a puppet made of old socks by the artist Tony Oursler, he looks a bit like Avid Merrion’s “Bear”.

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

This article first appeared in the 14 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Dinosaurs vs modernisers

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Standing up to China’s censors: an attempt to delete history backfires

For years now, the official Chinese position has been that no one was killed in Tiananmen Square.

At the time, the massacre in and around Tiananmen Square in Beijing on the night of 3 June 1989 was the worst thing I’d ever seen. In front of the Beijing Hotel, where my camera team and I took refuge after we’d escaped from the square itself, I counted 40 people killed or wounded by soldiers of the Chinese army. A photographer who was standing on the next balcony to ours was shot dead when the gunner of a passing tank casually sprayed the hotel with machine-gun bullets.

During the previous three weeks I had spent almost every day in the square, making friends with dozens of students who were demonstrating there. How many of them were killed that night I have never been able to find out. It’s not the kind of thing you can easily forgive or forget. 

For years now the official Chinese position has been that no one was killed in Tiananmen Square that night. This may or may not be literally true, though I saw for myself the bullet-scars on the stone steps of the monument in the middle of the square before they were repaired, so it probably isn’t. But this is just playing with words; the real killing fields were the avenues leading away from Tiananmen Square, such as Chang’an Avenue, which runs past the Beijing Hotel. The implication of the official line is that the massacre was simply invented by the western media. Fake news. Sad.

Tiananmen paralysed China for an entire month, and damaged its relations with the outside world for years. Even today, more than a quarter-century later, it retains its intense toxicity. A Chinese newspaper journalist I know got into trouble for referring to it as a “tragedy”; if you have to refer to it, you must call it simply “the Tiananmen events” – but it’s better not to mention it at all.

It was bad enough in what now seems with hindsight like the liberal, benevolent reign of Hu Jintao. Since 2012, when Xi Jinping came to power and introduced an increasingly ferocious crackdown on dissent, every official throughout the vast Chinese system is aware of the urgent need to keep away from sensitive subjects: not just Tiananmen, but the Cultural Revolution, Tibet, Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Which is how, earlier this month, a Chinese import agency came into conflict with the oldest publishing house anywhere, over the world’s best and most respected journal of Chinese studies. The China Quarterly, double-blind and peer-reviewed, is owned by the School of Oriental and African Studies, but Cambridge University Press publishes it. The Quarterly’s website of course carries many articles on just these subjects. The import agency suddenly ordered CUP to take down all 315 of them, some dating back to the 1960s, from its website within China; if it didn’t happen, the Chinese said, they would be forced to close the entire website down.

CUP fell over itself to obey, in order, it said, “to ensure that other academic and educational materials we publish remain available to researchers and educators in this market”. Which, as a defence of freedom of speech, isn’t quite up there with John Milton, himself a Cambridge alumnus, in Areopagitica:  “Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.”

The China Quarterly’s admirable editor, Tim Pringle, in the quiet but steely way that befits a scholar under pressure, allowed it to be known what CUP had done, and dozens of outraged scholars and others yelled about it as loudly as Twitter and Facebook would allow. The China Quarterly’s first editor, Roderick MacFarquhar, nowadays a sprightly octogenarian who teaches at Harvard, weighed in angrily on behalf of the organ whose high reputation he had helped to create, and some rough words were used about academic publishers who did the work of an autocracy’s censors for them.

To do it credit, CUP listened and realised what irreparable damage they were doing to the China Quarterly; and it announced on Monday that it was reinstating all the articles.

Pringle couldn’t resist a bit of high-minded reproof:  “Access to published materials of the highest quality is a core component of scholarly research,” he wrote. “It is not the role of respected global publishing houses such as CUP to hinder such access.” And he added:  “Our publication criteria will not change: scientific rigour and the contribution to knowledge about China.” Milton would have been proud of him.

Does any of this really matter? Well, it’s a useful object-lesson in how to approach China. Personally, I don’t think Xi Jinping and his friends, as they splash around in the lakes and swimming pools of Zhongnanhai, the Communist Party retreat beside the Forbidden City, will have known or heard anything about it. In spite of its refusal to admit the dreadfulness of the Cultural Revolution and the Tiananmen Square massacre, China isn’t really just an Orwellian society where officials labour away destroying or rewriting the files of the past. No doubt the party would like to, but it simply isn’t a shot on the board in the modern world.

You just have to turn to Sina Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter. After CUP decided to reverse its self-censoring operation, hundreds of brave souls in China took to the internet to greet the news with pleasure and relief. Some had the courage to put their names to their comments: “It is a triumph of morality,” wrote Zhang Lifan, a Beijing historian. Another historian, Sun Peidong, praised the international chorus of disapproval that had brought about CUP’s change of heart. Someone else, unnamed, wrote “Cambridge University has backbone.”

Even in the days of clampdown and repression, you can just about get away with saying this kind of thing; though within hours some government job’s-worth had deleted the entire discussion from Weibo. But right across China decent, honourable people who believe in telling the truth now know CUP and Cambridge University haven’t, after all, sold the pass.

John Simpson is World Affairs Editor of BBC News, having worked for the corporation since the beginning of his career in 1970. He has reported from more than 120 countries, including 30 war zones, and interviewed many world leaders.

This article first appeared in the 24 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia