“The solid book we wrote cannot be found just yet”
One of the more intriguing exhibits during the Bowie Weekender at the V&A over the last couple of days, was the installation of Paul Morley at a desk with a laptop, a pile of reference books, Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt’s Oblique Strategies and a screen behind him with a live display of the mammoth task he has undertaken.
All is explained on a label on an adjacent pillar:
Paul Morley is writing about David Bowie
10:00 - 17:30
Join legendary rock journalist Paul Morley as he writes a book about David Bowie in a weekend!
On the same desk is a box to collect contributions from visitors in postcard form. (See inset. Thanks to Merlin Adams for main picture)
Paul has risen to the challenge and has dutifully remained at his post observing the comings and goings and comings back again.
Nobody is sure what form the final document will take, but, rest assured, with Morley’s involvement it will be something special.
However, if you’re not particularly familiar with Paul's brilliant work across the years, don’t take our word for just how good he is. Here’s a quotation from aforementioned super-brain, Brian Eno:
“Paul Morley is the greatest thinker/writer/social critic/TV presenter since Plato/Keynes/Duchamp/Betjeman.”
We’ve had the very good fortune to receive the first fruits of Morley’s labour sent directly after close of play yesterday.
We’ll leave you with these excerpts and we will hopefully return with more of the same tomorrow, with Mr Morley’s blessing.
Notes for a book about David Bowie to be written by me in a weekend in the Grand Entrance of the Victoria and Albert Museum as a kind of temporary writer in residence at the David Bowie Is exhibition – perhaps, more exactly, notes for a ‘book’ to be written about ‘David Bowie’ in a weekend at the V and A. Perhaps the weekend should itself be ‘the weekend.’ I do feel as though I am also inside inverted commas, although not sure how to write that down. Maybe later, a photograph of me working at this desk, with some inverted commas elegantly draped around me.
First of all, I must explain more fully where I am and what I can see around me, to fully capture the moment, the reality of how for whatever reason I have ended up in the position of being expected as one version of an expert on the ways of Bowie to complete a book in a weekend. This situation is perhaps the equivalent of me going to work, from 10 to 6, and this is my wonderfully ridiculous office, filled with glossy marble, monumental columns and the larger than life light of the Gods. I am sat to the side of the Grand Entrance, and opposite me, hanging down many metres from the vaulted cathedral-like ceiling is Dale Chihuly’s alien-dramatic Rotunda Chandelier. Made in Seattle in 2001 from tangled, convoluted blown glass and steel, it could easily be a representation of something David Bowie would have worn at some point in 1972 to represent his subversive show off mind. On the other side of the ticket and information desk is the ghostly Medieval and Renaissance Galleries, 1350 to 1600, known to V and A staff as the Med and Ren. I had been warned not to enter these galleries before I began work, as I would be arrested. I took this warning seriously.
To my left, hanging below a majestic golden gothic altar, three large, tinted photographs of David Bowie overlook the ticket and information area. He seems to be licking his fingers with something that is not quite relish, not quite pure, deviant flirtation, looking both out of place and very much at home in the spectacular entrance, mocking the very idea he should be hanging in such a place, making it very clear this is exactly where he belongs.
Adrian Deakes, a Performance Education Manager from the learning department of the Victoria and Albert Museum, passes my desk and tells me that he has been doing a study project with pupils from the secondary school in Bromley where David Bowie went as a youngster in the early 1960s. It was Bromley Technical High School when Bowie attended as David Robert Jones; it is now Ravens Wood School, although Adrian says Bowie would still recognise it as the school he went to, the same halls and corridors, and, no doubt, similar smells and sounds. “The same view over the playing fields to the large white houses beyond, the house opposite the school entrance, proudly stating ‘built in 1875.’ The 2012/13 teenagers were very taken when they visited the exhibition and heard the young Bowie, someone previously not that familiar to them, a distant rumour at best, how when he talked he sounded just like they did. He has travelled so far away from that time and place, through so many other times and places, sometimes to the other side of space, experiencing the illuminating, and deforming, white heat of fame, but he was still there, with them, for them, close by, as relevant as anything in their lives, ultimately, more so. They have made a film about their experience getting to know about someone they were delighted to discover actually went to their school. They have called the film ‘David Bowie is one of us.’
“David Bowie is a person who did exactly what HE wanted to do,” said one of the students, Jack Gordon, “Now look where he is . . . “
There are those who are treating me sat at my desk as a kind of installation, as some sort of museum guide, asking where the lifts are, where the ladies is, where, indeed, ‘Is’ is, and once or twice they decide I might even be a psychiatrist or, perhaps, on the other side, a patient in need of treatment. Someone who wishes to be known only as Helen and is very alarmed when I asked her real name lives around the corner in South Kensington, and seems to use the V and A as her local, a convenient place to visit when she is bored at home or the builders are in. Maybe she comes here to forget all the things going on around her. In just a few minutes she fills me in on her life, her husband in Geneva, her kids. She asks me directly what is it about David Bowie, then. Why are you so interested ? She had an accent that turns out to be part Polish which makes her question sound a little sinister, like the pair of us have just entered a demented detective mystery directed by Roman Polanski. I mean, she says, he was beautiful as a young boy, but what was that film ‘Labyrinth’ all about ? As far as she was concerned, nothing he had done that was great could ever make him recover from this most peculiar affair. It turns out she is critical of the exhibition itself. ‘Pretentious, no?” she decides, in a way that intends to make it difficult for me to disagree. I make a defence of the very idea of pretentiousness, that without it there is no possibility of creative ambition, of the kind of risk taking that can lead to genius. She abruptly dismisses this line of thought, and says she has to nip back home to take delivery of some new radiators for her kitchen.
Later, fortysomething Wendy from Sussex gives me more of a fans view, and tells me about an amateur performance she had seen in her local hall just a few days ago that almost seems like she made it up. It was a musical about someone called David Jones, who is not David Bowie, but who identifies very closely with Bowie, was born on the same day, and dreams of being as successful. The more successful Bowie becomes, the more of a failure David Jones becomes, losing sight of himself as he obsesses over Bowie, and he turns to drugs and crime, falling so far into grubby lonely obscurity it seems all that is left is death. I cannot quite work out what happens next, except that he is saved by hearing ‘Rock and Roll Suicide’, and there is a relative form of a happy ending, and a band comes on and play some of Bowie’s greatest hits.
For Wendy, more than Helen, who I realise is probably more of a Med and Ren person, David Bowie has changed her life, and she tells me of the experience she had at school as she was growing up that I recognise – how you could tell looking around at what some fellow pupils had done to their uniforms, or their hair, or make up, just the way they walked, who were the Bowie fans, outsiders on the inside of something they felt was special, and who were not. You could see minds opening in the way a skirt or blazer had been given a little personal, home-made touch of colour, in how their hair had been treated, twisted, touched up. More and more visitors of all shapes, sizes and ages pour through the Grand Entrance on their way to experience the dispersed, concentrated traces of David Bowie haunting various sectors of the museum, and many of them like Wendy look like they are making a pilgrimage, into their very own past, shared with their very own Bowie, when everything was possible, or a future they still believe in, that can still, surely, be about change, for the better.
And then someone comes up to my desk to ask me to fix their phone. And then someone comes up to my desk to ask me to turn the music down – there is a DJ in the Entrance, playing music by and inspired by Bowie, which just happens to be my favourite, from Magazine and Joy Division to Philip Glass turning ‘Heroes’ into a symphony made of blown glass and steel. It all sounds perfect to me. She is livid; her world is falling apart, busted by the decadence of these rude intruders into her calm, collected and soothing sanctuary.
I do not want to be too rude and suggest that of those in the museum she is on the older side, but she is not shall we say the type who will talk of the moment she first discovered David Bowie. She has yet to discover Bowie. She is right now not in the mood to ever discover Bowie. “We don’t expect this racket in here !” she explodes during the particularly sensational and for some legendary Mike Garson piano solo on ‘Aladdin Sane.’ I toy for a moment with trying to explain why the music should not be turned down or off but UP, especially during this particular beautifully beserk solo, which is joyously harmonising with the light pouring from the skies into the vast entrance, but decide she looks in the mood to have me deported if I oppose her in any way. Bitterly disappointed that I am in fact of no use to her, she charges off to search out those in control who might get rid of this horrific noise, so that she can enter the Med and Ren, and appreciate all those quiet, settled centuries without Garson’s startling piano. A few minutes later a young lady in a scarlet Bowie wig wearing cut off denim shorts draws the attention of everyone in the Grand Entrance by dancing the slowest, look-at-me-but-don’t-look Moonage Daydream daydreamy movement to ‘Moonage Daydream,’ as though this is actually a happening, a wonderful breaking through decades of tightening formality, and I think that by now the older lady not wearing the scarlet wig and threatened by Garson’s piano is planning her own counter-revolution, or feeling that she is sitting in a tin can far above the earth.
The changes began forty odd years ago in small halls in small towns around the country by Bowie and his company of mavericks and showman militants have eventually reverberated all the way through to the moored, supervising spaces of the Victoria and Albert museum. I watch a little girl walk past my desk with a red and blue Aladdin Sane flash painted across her eye, which looks exactly right, and it seems like the Ziggy zonked outsiders led by their glorious, pacesetting and inspirational ringleader still believe they can make a world of difference.