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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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Man in the mirror-ball: Simon Armitage's The Unaccompanied

With this mature, engaging and empathetic work, the poet softens the pain of passing years. 

The Unaccompanied, by Simon Armitage
Faber & Faber, 76pp, £14.99

“The centuries crawl past,” Simon Armitage notes in his new collection, “none of them going your way”. After a decade of acclaimed travelogues, transgressive prose poetry, and above all translation, Armitage has combed those centuries to produce innovative versions of ancient and medieval texts: Pearl, The Death of King Arthur, Homer’s Odyssey, Virgil’s Georgics. In The Unaccompanied he returns, refreshed from his sojourn in the past and bringing the classics with him; in the book’s dystopian present, in “Poundland”, Odysseus meets the ghost of his drunken comrade Elpenor not in the Underworld, but “slumped and shrunken by the Seasonal Products display”, the poem’s pseudo-archaic English underscoring its ironic rewriting of Homer. Meanwhile, the protagonist of “Prometheus”, holed up in a post-industrial wasteland, sees his father retrieve not fire, but a Champion spark plug.

To lighten its nightmarish visions, The Unaccompanied offers the same beguiling playfulness that has characterised Armitage’s verse from his 1989 debut, Zoom!, to the “Merrie England” of Tyrannosaurus Rex versus The Corduroy Kid (2006). “Tiny”, for instance, reads like an old-school Ladybird Book (“Simon has taken his father, Peter,/to the town’s museum”) and “The Poet Hosts His Annual Office Christmas Party” makes a mischievous nod to Yeats. As ever, there are pinpoint references to popular culture; in “Gravity”, it is the “six-minute-plus/album version” of Fleetwood Mac’s “Sara” that plays on the stereo in the sixth-form common room. Yet Armitage’s concern for the socially excluded – the “skinny kid in jeans and trainers” from “The Ice Age” to whom the poet offers a spurned coat, “brother to brother” – burns unabated.

This collection articulates a new anger that is more personal, a lament for individual mortality, the sadness of time moving on too far and too fast. In “The Present”, the poet attempts to take an icicle home to his daughter:

a taste of the glacier, a sense of the world

being pinned in place by a
diamond-like cold

at each pole, but I open my hand

and there’s nothing to pass on, nothing to hold.

Armitage’s fluid poetics are pitch-perfect and his imagery remains incisive. The bare winter larch trees become “widowed princesses in moth-eaten furs”. In “Poor Old Soul” an elderly man sits, “hunched and skeletal under a pile of clothes,/a Saxon king unearthed in a ditch”. This is the measured poetry of late middle-age, in which only the promise of more loss fills the “white paper, clean pages”. In “Kitchen Window”, the poet’s mother taps the smeared glass before she falls away “behind net curtains” and then further “to deeper/darker reaches and would not surface”. “Emergency” (published in the NS in 2013) could almost be his audition for Grumpy Old Men. “What is it we do now?” he asks as he details the closed banks, and pubs where “tin-foil wraps/change hands under cover/of Loot magazine”. W G Hoskins’s gentle topological classic is referenced in “The Making of the English Landscape”, though a very different country is seen at dusk from a satellite:

like a shipwreck’s carcass raised on a
sea-crane’s hook,

nothing but keel, beams, spars, down to its bare bones.

In “Harmonium”, the poet’s father – who, in 1993’s Book of Matches, berated him for having his ear pierced – helps his son lug an unwanted organ from their local church and reminds him “that the next box I’ll shoulder through this nave/will bear the load of his own dead weight”.

Armitage’s poetic world is instantly recognisable, always inclusive. We know the faded ballrooms that turn into even sadder discos in “The Empire”. Or the clumsy children’s shoe fitter of “The Cinderella of Ferndale”, who leaves her own footprints of disappointment. As the poet stumbles on a farmers’ fancy-dress parade for a breast cancer charity in “Tractors”, the slight incident bleeds into the universal shock of diagnosis: “the musket-ball/or distant star/in your left breast”. Critics often cite Philip Larkin as an influence on his work, but Armitage’s highly tuned sense of such “mirror-ball” moments – small but refracting repeatedly across time and lives – is all his own. Thankfully, with this mature, engaging and empathetic work, he is back to record them for us, softening the pain of passing years. 

Josephine Balmer is a poet and classical translator. “Letting Go: Mourning Sonnets” will be published by Agenda Editions in July

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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