The night that changed my life: Philip Hoare on a lifetime shared with David Bowie

It’s one long performance, one long evening shading into brilliant night.

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6 July 1972. Power cuts, miners’ strikes. The dead go unburied. The world’s dark and bright. I walk the secure streets of suburbia. By day I wear a brown school blazer. At night I stand in front of my mirror. Downstairs, he points through the screen and picks on me. A glittering panther, pawing at a guitar, scary and shock-headed.

12 May 1974. The picture on my wall, pulled from a girls’ magazine, still ragged from the staples. He pirouettes in pale blue, eyes shaded the same colour. His tie is silver foil and spun gold. He’s an analogue angel in platform boots. In my dreams he mimes the piano with his fingers, laughs, and walks away.

6 May 1976. I leave the station and walk into a yawning black space; it was once an imperial swimming pool. It aches with the dark; initiate, intimate, violently beautiful. The razored eye rises and there he is. Just me and him. Sleek, monochrome, caged by fluorescent tubes. A relentless engine of arrogance, quoting Prospero, here in his room overlooking the ocean.

12 January 1977. The inner-city streets still look like bomb sites. In the queue, a boy with bleached hair wearing a biker jacket asks me for a light. I descend to the cellar knowing I’m doing wrong. There are his children, on the stage. No going back now.

25 June 2000. Standing in a muddy field as the sun sets, I watch him ripple his fingers. His hair is long and mousey. It’s a godawful small affair. The whole thing was one long brilliant joke. He was saying goodbye.

27 April 2012. The curator takes me to the basement and opens a long plywood casket. Inside is his outfit, stuck over with sequins and pearls, stiff on his legend. It trembles, like a flower. White stockings lie in one corner, still grubby with the nuclear beach he’d walked on. An astronaut’s suit, the chrysalis left behind by a butterfly. I reach out to touch it, but I can’t.

11 January 2016. An Atlantic storm blows over the beach house; the sea surges underneath its foundations. I wake to the news in the middle of the night. I came here to write about him. Now he’s gone. At daylight, I scratch his name in the sand and let go of his hand. Then I swim, like a dolphin.

The night that changed my life: read more from our series in which writers share the cultural encounters that shaped them

Philip Hoare’s books include Wilde’s Last Stand, England’s Lost Eden, and Spike IslandLeviathan or, The Whale won the Samuel Johnson Prize for 2009, and The Sea Inside was published in 2013. He is professor of creative writing at the University of Southampton, and co-curator of the Moby-Dick Big Read. His website is www.philiphoare.co.uk, and he is on Twitter @philipwhale.

This article first appeared in the 05 December 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special