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Will Self on David Bowie: We won’t see his like again

I wouldn’t claim to have an exhaustive familiarity with Bowie’s oeuvre, but then I don’t need to.

This is an advance preview of this week’s magazine – to get all our David Bowie coverage, visit newstatesman.com/subscribe

Like a million other baby-boomers I’ve been revisiting the sound track of my early adolescence this week – I confess, although no great rock fan nowadays, I cried when I’d heard David Bowie had died. Cried for all sorts of reasons – not least, because unlike so many famous people in this era when medical science is our religion and disease is diabolic, Bowie had refused to go public with news of his cancer, or offer us ringside seats while he “battled” with it. (A ridiculous metaphoric construction – and no doubt one Bowie himself, with his fine lyrical sensibility, would’ve eschewed.) One minute he was, if not present, at least immanent in the way of all great and influential artists − the next he was gone.

Again, unlike “Sir Mick” and “Sir Elton”, Bowie had refused state honours from the British government. And he’d done it not once, but twice – the message was clear: he didn’t seek status or preferment in this world, at least not the sort politicians dole out. I never met him myself – indeed, my only direct connection to him was fairly bizarre: a copy of Alethea Hayter’s classic work of literary-critical history, Opium and the Romantic Imagination, with “David Bowie” inscribed in the flyleaf, together with his Swiss address, in charmingly juvenile, cursive handwriting. I’d acquired the book from a friend, Kevin Armstrong, who at the time – mid-1980s – was playing guitar in Bowie’s Tin Machine band. It kicked around the house for some years until, suffering from my conscience I mailed it back to him.

He never thanked me, even though I’d put a return address − but I bore no ill-will; I reasoned he must be busy. Or, if not busy, like some deity who’d created not just one world but many, he was resting from his labours. I wouldn’t claim to have an exhaustive familiarity with Bowie’s oeuvre, but then I don’t need to − his music, in common with that of the Beatles, actually constitutes the backdrop on to which the transitory experiences of my own life have been projected; a romantic imagination indeed. Bowie is always described as a chameleon − a shape-shifter, whose artistic success was directly related to his willingness to reinvent himself in a bewildering array of guises and poses.

But I don’t see it like that at all: the great achievement of English popular music artists resulted from the willingness of a handful of visionaries not simply to slavishly copy American rock ‘n roll, but to hybridise this music with indigenous British popular culture, specifically with the music hall. Like the quick-change vaudevillians, Lennon, Bowie and their successors (one thinks of Morrissey), wrote mythopoeic songs that implied the existence of entire cultural realms − ones which were obscure and yet tantalisingly familiar, inhabited as they were by the likes of Sergeant Pepper, Aleister Crowley and the Bewlay brothers. It was in these alternative worlds, spun into existence from riffs and melodies and hook-lines, that Ziggy Stardust struck attitudes, the Jean Genie slinked about, and the Spiders from Mars cavorted — and it was around these worlds that Colonel Tom orbited, awaiting his rendezvous with the Star Man.

Lying in bed, with the covers pulled up over my head and a cheap Japanese transistor radio pressed to my ear, I really thought I could see those sailors fighting in the dancehall − really believed I understood the lines,  “Pour me out another phone / I’ll ring and see if your friends are home.” Perhaps in a way I did understand them − because Bowie’s music offered this total immersion, an experience more akin to ones offered by contemporary digitised virtual reality than the analogue past. I was never a Bowie obsessive − I engaged fervidly with his music at times, then cooled and drifted away. I might’ve been expected to cleave to the work of his heroin-addled Berlin years − Low, Heroes − but I didn’t: Bowie was loomed so large − was so fucking big during those years, that it became a point of honour for anyone with pretensions to being avant garde to try and avoid him.

Some albums couldn’t be avoided, though − Hunky Dory, which I spend an entire summer listening to when I was sixteen (in 1977 it already seemed like a mysterious relic from a distant cultural past – haunting and elegiac); and oddly, Let’s Dance, which the hipsters of the early 1980s reviled for its poppy perfection, but which I adored as perfect driving music. (The summer of 1983 I spent driving very fast to its percussive beats along the French Riviera, then stumbling into town… just like a sacred cow.) When I saw Nic Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth, I, in common with many others, assumed Bowie had been typecast as the infinitely sad, painfully vulnerable alien – but when I saw the music video of Bowie’s Ashes to Ashes, I felt joined so tightly to him at the hip that our bones grated, so perfectly did the sounds and images evoke the torturous and negative realm of drug addiction.

Bowie didn’t do public grandstanding – he didn’t, Bono-style, set himself up as a saintly figure, relieving the burden of his own conscience with conspicuous acts of charity. Instead he released two albums in the past decade − the second days before his death − that in their several ways were elegies for a life lived with furious intensity. Yet how strange it is to be living through the period when these great artists are dying − Bowie and his peers were avatars of the ephemeral, whose art was conjured out of the sexually-frustrated gyrations of teenagers, but over the decades both they and it grew and matured into a sort of classicism. All of which is by way of saying: we won’t see his like again.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

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How power shifted dramatically in this week’s Game of Thrones

The best-laid plans of Mothers and men often go awry.

Last week’s Game of Thrones was absolutely full of maps. It had more maps than a Paper Towns/Moonrise Kingdom crossover. More maps than an Ordnance Survey walking tour of a cartographer’s convention. More maps than your average week on CityMetric.

So imagine the cheers of delight when this week’s episode, “Stormborn”, opened with – yes, a map! Enter Daenerys, casting her eyes over her carved table map (Ikea’s Västeross range, I believe), deciding whether to take King’s Landing and the iron throne from Cersei or a different path. After some sassy debates with Varys over loyalty, more members of her court enter to point angrily at different grooves in the table as Dany and Tyrion move their minature armies around the board.

In fact, this whole episode had a sense of model parts slotting pleasingly into place. Melisandre finally moved down the board from Winterfell to Dragonstone to initiate the series’ most inevitable meeting, between The King of the North and the Mother of Dragons. Jon is hot on her heels. Arya crossed paths with old friends Hot Pie and Nymeria, and the right word spoken at the right time saw her readjust her course to at last head home to the North. Tyrion seamlessly anticipated a move from Cersei and changed Dany’s tack accordingly. There was less exposition than last week, but the episode was starting to feel like an elegant opening to a long game of chess.

All this made the episode’s action-filled denouement all the more shocking. As Yara, Theon and Ellaria dutifully took their place in Dany’s carefully mapped out plans, they were ambushed by their mad uncle Euron (a character increasingly resembling Blackbeard-as-played-by-Jared-Leto). We should have known: just minutes before, Yara and Ellaria started to get it on, and as TV law dictates, things can never end well for lesbians. As the Sand Snakes were mown down one by one, Euron captured Yara and dared poor Theon to try to save her. As Theon stared at Yara’s desperate face and tried to build up the courage to save her, we saw the old ghost of Reek quiver across his face, and he threw himself overboard. It’s an interesting decision from a show that has recently so enjoyed showing its most abused characters (particularly women) delight in showy, violent acts of revenge. Theon reminds us that the sad reality of trauma is that it can make people behave in ways that are not brave, or redemptive, or even kind.

So Euron’s surprise attack on the rest of the Greyjoy fleet essentially knocked all the pieces off the board, to remind us that the best-laid plans of Mothers and men often go awry. Even when you’ve laid them on a map.

But now for the real question. Who WAS the baddest bitch of this week’s Game of Thrones?

Bad bitch points are awarded as follows:

  • Varys delivering an extremely sassy speech about serving the people. +19.
  • Missandei correcting Dany’s High Valerian was Extremely Bold, and I, for one, applaud her. +7.
  • The prophecy that hinges on a gender-based misinterpretation of the word “man” or “prince” has been old since Macbeth, but we will give Dany, like, two points for her “I am not a prince” chat purely out of feminist obligation. +2.
  • Cersei having to resort to racist rhetoric to try and persuade her own soldiers to fight for her. This is a weak look, Cersei. -13.
  • Samwell just casually chatting back to his Maester on ancient medicine even though he’s been there for like, a week, and has read a total of one (1) book on greyscale. +5. He seems pretty wrong, but we’re giving points for sheer audacity.
  • Cersei thinking she can destroy Dany’s dragon army with one (1) big crossbow. -15. Harold, they’re dragons.
  • “I’ve known a great many clever men. I’ve outlived them all. You know why? I ignored them.” Olenna is the queen of my LIFE. +71 for this one (1) comment.
  • Grey Worm taking a risk and being (literally) naked around someone he loves. +33. He’s cool with rabid dogs, dizzying heights and tumultuous oceans, but clearly this was really scary for him. It’s important and good to be vulnerable!! All the pats on the back for Grey Worm. He really did that.
  • Sam just fully going for it and chopping off all of Jorah’s skin (even though he literally… just read a book that said dragonglass can cure greyscale??). +14. What is this bold motherfucker doing.
  • Jorah letting him. +11.
  • “You’ve been making pies?” “One or two.” Blatant fan service from psycho killer Arya, but I fully loved it. +25.
  • Jon making Sansa temporary Queen in the North. +7.
  • Sansa – queen of my heart and now Queen in the North!!! +17.
  • Jon choking Littlefinger for perving over Sansa. +19. This would just be weird and patriarchal, but Littlefinger is an unholy cunt and Sansa has been horrifically abused by 60 per cent of the men who have ever touched her.
  • Nymeria staring down the woman who once possessed her in a delicious reversal of fortune. +13. Yes, she’s a wolf but she did not consent to being owned by a strangely aggressive child.
  • Euron had a big win. So, regrettably, +10.

​That means this week’s bad bitch is Olenna Tyrell, because who even comes close? This week’s loser is Cersei. But, as always, with the caveat that when Cersei is really losing – she strikes hard. Plus, Qyburn’s comment about the dragon skeletons under King’s Landing, “Curious that King Robert did not have them destroyed”, coupled with his previous penchant for re-animated dead bodies, makes me nervous, and worry that – in light of Cersei’s lack of heir – we’re moving towards a Cersei-Qyburn-White Walkers alliance. So do watch out.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.