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6 December 2018

The night that changed my life: Simon Armitage on David Bowie at the V&A

The exhibition turned me from a grumpy old man into a weeping 15-year-old boy.

By Simon Armitage

In 2013 my wife took me to the “David Bowie Is” exhibition (rubbish title) at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London for my birthday. I’m a bit grumpy about exhibitions. I don’t like organised tourism or being herded along. I hate queuing. Also, the V&A is all about medieval needlework and classical statuary, isn’t it? What would they do with Bowie apart from categorise and sanitise and ossify him and flog me an “Ashes to Ashes” pillow case or Aladdin Sane teapot and shove some of his spangly leotards in a glass case?

The first few rooms were mostly costumes, and were full of people reading captions and programmes out loud to themselves, so I broke rank and went ahead to the “lyrics” section. The poet in me was determined to be more interested in words than platform shoes, and I lingered over the schoolboy handwriting and clumsy typewriting, spotting lines that had been drifting through my mind and floating around my bloodstream for decades.

Wandering deeper into the maze of rooms and corridors, mostly on my own now, or perhaps just not noticing anyone else, I began to feel as if I was falling into a David Bowie-themed kaleidoscope, cover art and iconic photographs and pop videos reflecting and refracting from every surface, the experience intensifying and the momentum quickening, everything leading towards the source of the light, to Ziggy Stardust. Not Bowie’s first album but the first album I bought, around which I’ve constructed all kinds of personal fantasies and creation myths.

But at the core of those fables is solid truth, a truth that struck me forcibly as I reached the finale of the exhibition. For a bewildered teenager floundering in 1970s semi-rural, post-industrial northern England, Bowie was my secret Jesus. There was another way of being in this world, and that weirdo spaceman creature with the whiny voice and see-through skin was alternativism incarnate.

In the vast hall at the end of the tour, concert footage was playing on enormous screens on all four walls – it was hard to know which way to look and where to listen. Eventually, only one screen remained lit, showing, floor to ceiling, the Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars film, Ziggy announcing his imminent self-assassination, Bowie sing-talking the first verse of “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide”.

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Fair play to the esteemed and decorous V&A, it was fucking loud – when the bass drum kicked in I could feel it pulsing in my rib cage. And when Bowie pleaded those final lines: “Give me your hands – you’re wonderful” over and over, I was a 50-year-old poet and a 15-year-old nobody with tears streaming down his face, reaching out with everyone else in the crowd to touch the untouchable.  

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

This article appears in the 08 Dec 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special