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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.

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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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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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