This story starts with a death. Or a vote. Maybe both. It’s confusing. But it’s also very clear.
January 11th, 2016, in the midst of mundane chaos: the oxymoronic Monday morning as I chivvied my three children to get ready for school and scrambled around for interesting elements to add to the packed lunches, which were bespoke for each child (I know). Packed lunches are the bane of my life. I once wrote a piece about making them, in a creative writing group. It was filled with vitriol. Disproportionate, but it was there, festering, bubbling…
My husband, who has an innate ability to find time to read stuff in the mornings and often sends me links to Guardian ‘pieces of interest’, broke the news. He stood in the kitchen, iPhone in hand.
“Jan, David Bowie’s died.”
My immediate reaction to this revelation was emotional and rather raw. I burst into tears. The children were surprised. I was surprised. With the benefit of hindsight I think he should have dropped the bombshell more gently, but then again had I been asked, I never would have thought that kid gloves would be necessary. As it turned out, it was just the first bout of weeping on a strange and sad day, during which I’d find myself crying at any given moment, to the bemusement and ultimately mild annoyance of my children.
In the weeks and months that followed Bowie’s death, television, radio and social media were flooded with Bowie stories and material. It was comforting to soak up as much of this as possible. To immerse oneself and try to feel his presence in some kind of heightened way; from late night video compilation programmes to obscure rarely seen live performances from the BBC archives.
One You Tube clip was from 1999, when David Bowie addressed the graduating class from the Berklee College of Music in Boston. The entire speech was as effortlessly charming, engaging and generous in its content as I would have hoped. Bowie’s closing gambit:
“Music has given me over 40 years of extraordinary experiences. I can’t say that life’s pains or more tragic episodes have been diminished because of it. But it’s allowed me so many moments of companionship when I’ve been lonely and a sublime means of communication when I wanted to touch people. It’s been both my doorway of perception and the house that I live in. I only hope that it embraces you with the same lusty life force that it graciously offered me.”
This eloquent summary is surely a definition of music, or of what music can mean. It sowed a seed in my mind, as I struggled to understand the feelings of grief I had for someone I had never even met. I felt like a fraud: surely I had no right to feel grief because I had never even met the man, let alone known him? But at the same time I also knew I would mourn his passing more than I would some friends or family. This confusion of emotions was too acute to ignore then and too chronic now, not to explore further.
On Friday June 24th, 2016, automatic news notifications told me what I didn’t want to know. I got up at 5.30am, having had a fitful night of anxiety and apprehension, during which I was compelled to check my phone at regular intervals. I’d gone to bed feeling good but now I had a knot in my stomach. I got up, crept downstairs and huddled on a beanbag to watch the death throes of the referendum results, the death knell of Britain’s ‘have its cake and eat it’ membership of the European Union, which apparently wasn’t good enough any more.
It was all a bit surreal and I wouldn’t truly believe it until David Dimbleby told it to me straight: that the Remain vote could not win. In a previous professional life I’d worked in international news, and my news antennae were always twitching. I needed a journalist I trusted to tell me what I couldn’t believe, and Mr Dimbleby did just that. It was around 6.30am by then and I suddenly felt night shift-tired. The result triggered new feelings, new outrages, new boundaries of decency (or lack thereof) in Britain, the full impact of which would continue to drip feed into our collective consciousness over the medium term. What did become apparent in relatively short order was that we’d been held to ransom by bluster and incompetence at best, downright deceit and arrogance at worst.
I have no doubt at all, that these seismic shifts had an impact on my wellbeing, on my mental health. And therefore it must have followed that other people felt the same.
Award-winning writer Dame Hilary Mantel delivered the 2017 Reith Lectures in the summer of 2017. Continuing a tradition of culturally and intellectually enriching broadcasting, her five lectures were entitled: Resurrection: The Art and Craft, and focused on the hold history has on the imagination. In a gripping series of talks, one of the standout moments was an audience member question after the third lecture, in which Mantel was effectively asked about the state we’re in, post-Brexit vote.
“There has been a gigantic failure on the part of the voting public in Britain to know their history, to examine the evidence that was put before them, and a giant failure of imagination. I think the whole thing is shameful, regrettable and I think – time will prove how destructible it may be. All nations have a fantasy of a golden age, but I would say ours was to come. I’m not so sure, now.”
You don’t say.
On November 8th, 2016, I went to bed feeling quietly hopeful and excited that the United States would have its first female President. I’d been watching reports from the Trump campaign: of his hateful, divisive, racist, sexist, misogynist rhetoric. I told myself to accept the wisdom of key thinkers and high profile celebrities, who had for months said that he was going to lose.
However, my acceptance of this view was cautious. We’d already experienced Brexit, which ‘wasn’t going to happen.’ When I woke up in the early hours of November 9th, the predictions had turned. I almost wasn’t surprised. Populism had arrived. By breakfast time, Donald Trump had been elected to serve as the 45th President of the United States. Hillary Clinton’s glass ceiling dreams were shattered, in the wrongest way imaginable. Somehow it felt like mine were, too, and I ended the year in a state of disbelief and denial.
January 2017 brought the anniversary of Bowie’s death, the inauguration of Donald Trump as President of the United States and the beginnings of what can only be described as despair. The world shifted on its axis as we entered a new news era of Twitter Watch and fake news, as Trump formulated a garbled and contradictory foreign policy via sentences of 140 characters. I pitied the Pentagon waking every morning and opening Twitter with bated breath, to see what new revelations awaited them. It was compelling, in the way a horrific car crash might be. Openly hostile rhetoric towards minority groups and ‘dissenters’ became the norm as Trump rallied his base. Liberalism became a dirty word and it was shocking to discover that one barely needed to scratch the surface to reveal prejudice, hatred and blame bursting out. And all of this seeped across the Atlantic; with the words fake news being uttered on our shores by a Tory government seemingly out of control and alarmingly out of touch with a self-proclaimed mandate that ‘it is the will of the people’.
A springtime snap general election here in 2017 went spectacularly wrong for the Conservatives, specifically Prime Minister Theresa May, but absolutely nothing changed as a result.
In November 2014, David Bowie released a compilation album. At that time, Bowie was privately already battling cancer, having been diagnosed in the summer. The record contained material from all facets of his career. The title was taken from a lyric on Bowie’s 2002 album, Heathen. It was called Nothing Has Changed. That’s what Theresa May said when she stood in front of Number 10 after that 2017 election result. It turns out, that in both cases, Everything Had Changed.
In the spirit of optimism and hope, it’s important to recognise that change can be good. The right kind of change can be necessary. Reinvention, regeneration. Bowie has always reinvented, innovated. For his final Reality Tour in 2003, he recorded his classic song Rebel Rebel with a new introduction. It was incredible. Always looking to push that new boundary. The announcement of the casting of the first female Doctor Who suddenly resonated hard, in the wake of incremental erosions in women’s place and standing.
Veteran news correspondent Martin Bell spoke at the 2017 Ways with Words festival in Darlington, where he suggested that journalism was under attack, and that he himself had to believe the nightmare would soon be over. Even the UK’s General Election throw up questions of treatment and access offered to the press.
Donald Trump’s (sort of) unlikely populist rise to become leader of the free world has brought back into sharp relief a personal interest in the Kennedy era from the late Fifties to the assassination of JFK in 1963. My own thoughts on Kennedy as flawed genius have surfaced again. And even though the Camelot years were before my time, it feels like there might be a new hope for the future in the shape of Joe Kennedy, whose unmistakable Boston accent has been ringing in Congress.
With the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that my confusion and sense of loss was intensified by the political and social craziness that spiralled over the eighteen months following Bowie’s death. It nagged at me and I decided to try to unpick the tangle of emotions that had become a part of me and changed me. I wanted to find out what other people were feeling. It turns out I wasn’t the only one.
I also realised that to get to the heart of that I needed to fully explore Bowie’s impact on my life, and to seek out the stories of others who had loved and listened to David Bowie.
Bowie was woven into the tapestry of my life from a very young age, ever since my eldest sister introduced me to his wonderful weirdness. As LCD Sound System’s James Murphy said, “I started by liking what my brother and sister did. That’s what you do.”
And that’s where it began. At least some of it.
David Bowie died. That’s when the seed was sown. Five months later we voted to leave the European Union. One green shoot. Another five months and Donald Trump was President-elect of the United States. A flurry of growth.
Time to speak out.
Janis Lane has a Masters Degree in Creative Writing. Her fiction has appeared in Ellipsis Zine, Flash Flood Journal and Pygmy Giant, and her essays on Thresholds International Short Story forum. She was longlisted for the 2016 Bath Short Story Award. She lives in Lyme Regis and can be found procrastinating in her stationery shop, The Writing Room, which has wonky walls.