I always had this idea that David Bowie spent his childhood in a nice big house in a beautiful expanse of English countryside. I assumed this because I once saw a version of the classic animated Christmas movie The Snowman (1982) that he narrated. He appears in the movie’s live-action introduction and tells us about an extraordinary event that happened to him one wintertime when he was a little boy: “That winter brought the heaviest snow I’d ever seen. The snow fell steadily all through the night and when I woke up, the room was filled with light and silence, and I knew then it was to be a magical day…” What happens is that little David leaves his country house, trudges out into the snowy fields and makes a snowman, and this snowman comes to life, befriends him and takes him to the North Pole to visit Santa Claus. Wow, I thought. No wonder Bowie went on to make all those weird albums like Space Oddity (1969) and The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972) after he’d grown up!
However, when Bowie sadly passed away on January 10th, I discovered that he’d actually been born and raised in south London, first in the district of Brixton and then in the suburb of Bromley. Which meant that he hadn’t spent his childhood in the English countryside, and he hadn’t built a snowman that came to life, and he hadn’t met Santa Claus at the North Pole. Damn it, David – you lied to me!
But no matter. Folk in Brixton are understandably proud that David Bowie hailed from their neck of the woods and a while back someone painted a picture of him from his Ziggy Stardust / Aladdin Sane period on a wall in Tunstall Road there. As soon as Bowie’s death was announced, this mural became a place of pilgrimage for Bowie-philes and was quickly transformed into a shrine to his memory.
Coincidentally, the other day, I was visiting a mate in Brixton and I happened across the Bowie mural / shrine – well, I could hardly miss it, since it’s at the mouth of Tunstall Road just across from the entrance to the local tube station. By this time, the wall with Bowie’s red-lightning-streaked features was propping up a waist-high scrum of offerings – mainly bouquets of flowers, but there were also candles, dolls, teddy bears, action-figures, wine bottles, beer-bottles, letters, cards, pictures and, for some odd reason, a tin of spam.
Meanwhile, people had stuck up more flowers, pictures and letters on the brickwork around the mural, as well as newspaper cuttings and even a vintage issue of Jackie, that ‘weekly magazine for girls’ once published by D.C. Thomson, which had Bowie on its cover. (It also boasted of having pin-ups inside for ‘Bryan Ferry, Elvis, Alice Cooper and Noddy Holder’, so it was vintage indeed.)
The wall had acquired a few pieces of Bowie-related graffiti, but that was nothing compared to the white-backgrounded hoarding just along from the mural, which in the past few days had become smothered in scribbled tributes and epitaphs to the departed rock god. Many of these messages were cosmic in tone, in accordance with his early 1970s stage persona: ‘Rest in space’, ‘See you on our red planet’, ‘Our star in the sky’ and so on.
I found it ironic that the ads on those hoardings, which Bowie’s fans had so defaced, were for various beauty products. Surely, I thought, in view of what Bowie did to popularise the use of make-up – among boys as much as among girls – the cosmetics industry wouldn’t begrudge this small act of vandalism by the great man’s admirers?