A Sense of Joyous Evil

I have a new novel coming out in a few weeks.

The Fighting Man could be said to be a bit of a change of pace for me – being an historical novel – although those familiar with my work will recognise the dark humour, the plot twists, the immersive ambience and the general sense of joyous evil which (I hope) is my trademark.

I’ve long wanted to write an historical novel. Not least as I have a fascination with history – especially medieval history – and love trying to get inside the heads of humans from different epochs. Historical novels that seem to give an authentic glimpse into an alien past are, for me, deeply satisfying and I’ve long seen it as a challenge to accomplish that glimpse for others.

So how do you get into the heads of people from the past?

In my own lifetime I’ve witnessed clear evolution in the prevailing attitudes of ordinary individuals buffeted by the winds of change, from the 60s of my infancy to now. So how on earth could I possibly comprehend the manifold phases of zeitgeist stretching from here back to 1066?

Well, obviously I can’t with any certainty, but there are some clues. The written records for a start, such as they are, always bearing in mind that history is written by the victors.

But there are other more subtle clues. I believe that human beings are essentially the same now as they were a thousand years ago. Certainly that is true physically, but beyond that we love, we laugh, we politic, put food on the table and try to get ahead. We may do these things very differently now, but fundamentally, the yeoman farmer driving a pig to market and supping an ale with friends was no different from the stock market analyst shouting his mates after getting a bonus for hitting his quarterly targets.

It goes deeper than that. For example, the contraceptive pill (introduced to Australia in 1962) to my mind was the biggest change in male/female relations since the dawn of time. And it’s my generation (Baby Boomers et seq) who’ve had to deal with the change.

How could young women growing up in the C21 genuinely understand, in a real visceral sense, what it was like growing up in that pre-pill milieu – the pressures on girls to be chaste and the shame of being proven otherwise?

That shame, of course, devolved from the pre-agrarian revolution times when the land could only support a finite few. In those days – pre-C14 England – marriage was literally a licence to produce children – new mouths to feed from the small parish pool. Those who bred out of wedlock, and their bastard progeny, were utterly scorned and reviled – not for any particularly moral reason, it was a purely economic problem. But we carried that stigma across the subsequent centuries – through the Renaissance and Reformation – the Ages of Discovery and Enlightenment – the industrial revolution, mass urbanisation, the wars of imperial and political revolution and then the mobility of post-war populations and suddenly – in 1962 – men and women were finally equal as far as control of their bodies was concerned.

But that didn’t mean an overnight adjustment. In 1962 there were still centuries of socio-cultural baggage that had to be dealt with – like the importance of monogamous marriage – and it’s that same socio-cultural baggage that allows me to peer myopically across the millennium and make inferences about the folks that went before.

So what were they like – the denizens of the C11? (I’m limiting myself to Western Europe because that has been my study.)

The medieval mind rested on two broad pillars – the church and vestiges of pagan magic which had, especially in rural areas, managed to survive in secret despite the church’s efforts to wipe them out, and in fact the two different traditions blurred somewhat. Historians refer to the various patron saints as the paganisation of the church. They refer to ecclesiastical magic – prayer as incantation or the communion rite as symbolic of sacrifice and the imbuing of oneself with Christ’s characteristics by consuming his flesh and blood. This was powerful stuff to the medieval mind (and not so far from the Neolithic mind).

The C11 people didn’t see the world the way we do. They saw God and magic everywhere with the physical world in front of them just one plane among many which was visited all the time by powerful spirits from other planes and used like a chessboard by the Gods. Human beings were like pieces being moved around a board by any number of ethereal players and prayer was a way of trying to influence the players but if prayer didn’t work there were other remedies offered by witches and wise women – and to this day there is an innately superstitious reflex in all of us. I for one always put my left shoe on first – the consequences of putting my right shoe on first simply don’t bear thinking about.

So, God and magic are central to The Fighting Man. Of course, I don’t let those get in the way of telling a compelling story. There is no magic – it is history, not fantasy – but there is the flavour and ambience of magic as I try to give the modern reader that glimpse I referred to earlier.

The basic synopsis is as follows:

In the year 1060, young Brand Holgarsson’s family are wiped out in a Viking raid arranged by Brand’s treacherous uncle Malgard. Malgard is named thegn of the town of Stybbor in East Anglia while Brand is made outlaw and hunted through the woods by Malgard’s men, determined to extinguish the last possible claim to Malgard’s thegnship.

Aided by a strange young woman, Valla, who claims to be 242 years old, Brand escapes and is befriended by Harold Godwinson, Earl of Wessex and the choice of the Saxon nobles to be king after the childless Edward (the Confessor). Brand nurses his dream of vengeance over Malgard while sharing Harold’s perils and waiting for Valla who will only return from The Place of Dreams if Brand has remained true to his promise to lie with no other woman.

All stories come together at the Battle of Hastings, where Harold’s great banner, The Fighting Man, flew above the field at Senlac Ridge in opposition to the papal cross carried by William the Bastard.

Beyond that, The Fighting Man is the kind of book I love to read myself, full of intrigue, sex and violence. Because that’s the way people are, and in my opinion, the way they’ve always been.

The Fighting Man will be in all good bookstores or Booktopia by early December 2017.

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A Clean Slate for the Paedo Prelate

Just when you thought it was safe to back to the church…

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse came out with some 85 recommendations to try to prevent a recurrence of this hideous episode in church history.

One recommendation, which most would think was a no-brainer, was that the current dispensation against disclosing admissions given in the confessional be abolished. It is, after all, a serious anachronism in a secular society – the idea that communications between priests and penitents be privileged and not compellable in court. It’s an anachronism in any society – secular or not – because the law is supposed to protect the vulnerable and facilitate the punishment of the guilty, and belief in some bogey man in the clouds is no excuse to stand in the way of justice.

Predictably, the catholic church has announced that, notwithstanding the evil exposed (grudgingly) within their ranks, they will not be abiding by any law throwing into question the sanctity of the confessional. Such communications, says the archbishop of Melbourne, are a spiritual encounter with god and occur on a higher plane than the mean intercourse of the law and are therefore beyond the law’s reach.

High and noble sentiments, no doubt, but all I’m hearing is the catholic church’s ongoing reluctance to genuinely engage with their own evil. Every step of the way they have dissembled, distracted, delayed, obscured – in short, done anything to hinder the passage of justice and refused to prevent or even acknowledge their own unbelievably hideous crimes – which is kinda ironic considering the church’s message of (so called) love.

This is, in fact, a bluff.

They are daring the state governments to make laws making priests compellable, knowing such would split the community if they tried to stand on the moral high ground and refuse. The way I see it, protecting paedophiles by refusing to acknowledge their confessions is way short of the moral high ground. It makes priests, bishops and archbishops accessories to concealing a serious crime.

The archbishop of Melbourne said that it made no sense to report crimes admitted in the confessional because if that was done then people would not confess. He seemed to suggest that the shriving of consciences before god was more important than detection or prevention of serious crimes against children.

The really big thing they are refusing to acknowledge is this: priests, and other religious paedophiles, confess their crimes in the confessional because it gives them a clean slate and permits them to start all over again, secure in the knowledge they can rape and sleaze their way to heaven with continuing penitence – which won’t be reported to the police.

Is that what we really want in the C21? Is that how we want our society and culture to be defined? That filthy perverts who confess their crimes to the minions of a non-existent god should be protected so they can go on attacking children?

I think we’re better than that.

Too Old To Rock And Roll But…erm…

Really don’t mind if you sit this one out…

Jethro Tull are back on our shores…again.

I’m not going to see them this time which is a little bit sad. Back in the late 70s I would have been first in line, and I have managed to see them every time they toured since 1984.

But the lustre has long worn off and Ian Anderson, songwriting genius though he may have been, simply can’t sing any more. The laryngeal polyps that cut him down in the early 90s should have been the end but like Monty Python’s Black Knight he struggles on with less of a voice every time and I can’t bear to put myself through it again. It’s like Usain Bolt selling tickets to a foot race after losing his leg in a shark attack – some people might actually go, but only out of pity.

I note that Ticketek were desperately flogging off cut price tickets only two days before their only Sydney show and when I looked at what seats were available they’d barely sold half. It’s awfully sad but someone has tell Ian that it’s over.

In fact, I wanted it to be over in 1980.

Jethro Tull were one of the bands I loved the most growing up: Pink Floyd, David Bowie and Tull. All wrote brilliant songs but (for me) Anderson was head and shoulders the best lyricist. My friends and I, equipped with the very finest mind altering substances, would sit in the dark immersed in Tull’s luscious soundscapes and debate ad nauseum the meaning of the words.

It seemed to us that the albums from Aqualung through Thick as a Brick all the way to Stormwatch were one coherent body of work that told an epically profound tale. We were like a bunch of mediaeval scholars debating angels on a pinhead such was the meaning we discerned and the intensity with which we explored and contended the finer points. Whole new analytical frameworks were established to encompass our work and such was our chutzpah that if Anderson had deigned to show up we would have explained to him what he was saying far more succinctly than he could have done himself.

Two of my friends even went on the most bizarre adventure to get to Scotland and visit him on his estate on the Isle of Skye (no doubt to correct him on any misunderstandings of his own lyrics) but Ian was on tour in America at the time and the door was slammed in their faces…but that’s a story for another time.

And speaking of time, it should have been up in 1980 for Jethro Tull. After putting out the superb Stormwatch in 1979, they should have called it quits on the studio albums because the job was done. Anything else could only spoil the legacy.

But A came out in 1980 – it was OK, although the sudden departure of the main players like Barriemore Barlow, John Evan and David Palmer was disturbing.

Then Broadsword and the Beast landed in 1982 and you really began to sense that the once astonishing Anderson was losing sight of his muse.

After that it really started to go downhill. Under Wraps, Crest of a Knave and Rock Island (good grief!) were just embarrassing. Kissing Willie? Are you kidding? In a last attempt to stay relevant Anderson had turned into a sad parody of himself.

I found myself desperately wanting them to at least give up on the terrible new material. Continue touring by all means but like an embarrassing uncle trying to be cool with the teenagers, Anderson kept trotting out pap so bad I didn’t even consider buying it – which would have been unthinkable only a few years before.

Clearly the Strange Gods of Music agreed because they struck him down in 1993 with a laryngeal condition that made singing impossible. ‘Thank God for that,’ I thought, ‘he has to stop embarrassing himself now.’ But no. Undeterred by his inability to hit any kind of note, Anderson kept touring and putting out the occasional crap album, culminating in the diabolically bad TAAB2 – a sequel to his 1972 masterpiece – Thick as a Brick.

Sacrilege!

I had no choice but to buy that one but I only played it once. The ongoing adventures of Gerald Bostock were too depressing for words and it even started to make me wonder about the earlier work. Can a man capable of writing such artless drivel truly be the same person who created classics like Aqualung, Warchild, Songs From the Wood, and Heavy Horses?

It was bewildering. What drove him to go on putting out such rubbish and spoiling the memory of his former genius? Did he have any kind of insight into how he’d soured his own legend?

The answer can only lie in the fact that a rock star’s life is fun and he didn’t want to give it up. Unlike David Bowie, he wasn’t able to reinvent himself but that might have been the answer – giving up on Tull after Stormwatch and then doing something different – like farming salmon or herding cats.

Alas.

So now it’s 2017 and Jethro Tull (if that’s who they really are) are playing one night in a half filled State Theatre where just a few years ago they would have sold out five nights easily.

The fans are trying to tell you something Ian and, for my own part, I feel absolutely dreadful having to say all this. I feel like Chief Broom walking up to McMurphy with a pillow but, like the lobotomised McMurphy, everything that made Jethro Tull unique and dazzling has already died and these sad old puppets trying to breathe life into the show are just making it far, far worse.

And your wise men don’t know how it feels…to be thick as a brick…

Not sure you do either any more, Ian.

Kurt’s Kampf

Kurt Tucker is a funny man. (Daily Telegraph, 28 March 2017)

The Young Nats leader and student rep at the University of Queensland this week said on Facebook that he was a political person so that if he had lived in 1930s Germany he would certainly have joined the Nazi Party as that was the only way to get ahead in public life in that milieu.

Odd thing to say in Australia in 2017: I am a political person so therefore I would have joined the Nazi Party. The two ideas don’t easily run together, but it is at least a fearless assertion of his true political colours which is refreshingly frank considering the likely reaction to such a statement – not least as the last 70-odd years have seen an unrelenting analysis, deconstruction and, above all, condemnation of that hideously barbaric regime.

Kurt Tucker, nevertheless is happy to associate himself with that regime because it would have been the only way to get ahead had he lived in a completely different time and place.

Makes sense.

Or at least it did. All hell broke loose when he was alerted to the fact, by his National Party and University colleagues, that he did not live in 1930s Germany. This may have come as a shock to Mr Tucker, but in fact he lives in Queensland in 2017, and modern Queensland has several differences with interbellum Germany – geologically, temporally and politically.

In response Mr Tucker announced that, on reflection, he would never have joined the Nazi Party which he regarded as totally abhorrent.

Really? So, if he actually had been an ambitious young politician in 1930s Germany, and offered a position as SS-Gruppenfuhrer within (say) Heinrich Himmler’s Gestapo with a nice office on Prinz Albrecht Strasse, Kurt would have looked Himmler in the monocle and said: ‘Thanks for the offer of a promising career within your organisation but I find your policies and practices abhorrent, so I must decline.’

Kurt Tucker is clearly a man of principle after all, and as a political animal there were plenty of other parties for him to join – some of them much less abhorrent than the Nazi Party although membership of other parties tended to get you incarcerated or killed.

So when did he decide the Nazi Party was abhorrent? Did he only learn that today? Or did he already know about the totalitarian fascists led by a genocidal maniac into its horrific crimes against humanity?

If he only learned it today then you could almost forgive his naivety in saying he would have joined. But he would have to have lived under the biggest rock in history to have only realised the truth today. That can only mean, therefore, that despite full knowledge of all Nazi atrocities, Kurt (a suspiciously German name) would happily have joined the Nazi Party.

And that is the end of Mr Tucker’s political career in modern Australia, although no doubt we’ll eventually see him as a One Nation candidate. They’ll take anyone who isn’t bankrupt (financially as opposed to morally).

But what this amusing episode underscores is the pathetic calibre of politician we put up with in this country. Mr Tucker went on to claim that 90% of the members of the current Liberal and Labor parties would also have joined the Nazi Party if that was the only way to get ahead, and he’s possibly right – although less than 1% of them would be stupid enough to say so on Facebook.

The sad reality is that most modern politicians are not interested in pursuing an agenda for its own sake. They are only interested in power. That’s what Kurt Tucker was openly proclaiming when he said he would have joined the party in power, irrespective of their policies.

And that is why Australians have lost interest in mainstream politicians and are looking towards the fringes for politicians who actually believe in something rather than moral vacuums who merely want to preside for their own self-aggrandisement.

What real difference is there between the Liberal Party and the Labor Party? They occasionally talk a different game, but they do the same things in power and there isn’t a struck match between them. They’re all so compromised by doing deals and all so beholden to lobby groups and promises of employment after politics that the system just grinds onward towards oblivion and no-one has the guts or gumption to do anything about it.

That’s why decent, talented people no longer join the mainstream parties. There is no vision or leadership to inspire them so only a moral vacuum would be remotely interested in joining – not to turn the country around but to leech the last of its lifeblood before the whole thing finally goes belly up.

So now, those of us with any sort of hope left look to the fringes for someone with guts and gumption to try and do something before it’s too late. The fringes do contain some passionate individuals who could make a useful contribution to our polity, but the fringes are also full of wacko fruit bats eyeing the last few scraps in the political trough and shouting: ‘Me too!’ How do we know who’s genuine and who’s going to turn into a maniac as soon as they’re elected?

Fortunately, one maniac at least has now put his hand up to give us early warning to stay clear. Mind you, Hitler did that also with the Beer Hall Putsch and the publication of Mein Kampf.

Didn’t stop him getting elected.

America Uber Alles

I feel deeply saddened for Hillary Clinton.

Not so much Hillary herself (who can get by perfectly well without my sympathy) but the Hillary Clinton who represented: experience, intelligence, rational political rhetoric and the inclusion of women at the biggest table of all. Against her was Donald Trump – a lying, narcissistic policy vacuum who mobilised the ugly, racist, pussy-grabbing majority – many of them women.

For Hillary to be beaten by that was the greatest humiliation since Goliath laughed at David’s twirling rag.

Make the lie big, make it simple, keep saying it, and eventually they will believe it. (Adolf Hitler)

America knew all about Donald Trump and they didn’t care. The only thing they cared about was the fact that the gloating billionaire bigot was not part of the standard political system which has let them down for decades. His own party rejected him but that only made him stronger in the eyes of the electorate – confirmation he was not part of the clapped out traditional system, so therefore genuinely electable.

The real tragedy, however, is not the triumph of a megalomaniac. The real tragedy is what has happened to America over the last forty years. How did the wealthiest country in history – the only superpower after the fall of the Soviet Union – become so divided?

All great movements are popular movements. They are the volcanic eruptions of human passions and emotions, stirred into activity by the ruthless Goddess of Distress or by the torch of the spoken word cast into the midst of the people. (Adolf Hitler)

Because America is a broken country. The disparity between rich and poor is approaching third-world levels and that must never be allowed to happen in a united society. Cannot, in fact, happen, because once a people are no longer united in their fundamental values and goals, they are fighting each other.

All propaganda has to be popular and has to accommodate itself to the comprehension of the least intelligent of those whom it seeks to reach. (Adolf Hitler)

The wealthy elite (including, especially, Donald Trump) have so manipulated the system for their own ends that the American Dream is no longer a viable reality for the vast majority – living in abandoned communities with no work, in houses worth nothing except to the banks holding mortgages.

I do not see why man should not be just as cruel as nature. (Adolf Hitler)

And when they complain? The treatment of poor people, black people, other minorities and marginalised people has become brutish in the last decade, both economically and physically. Most ironic of all – the land that was built by migrants now wallows in unleashed xenophobia and believes that a policy of exclusion, isolationism and nationalism will, somehow, restore their prosperity.

Keep a very firm grasp on reality, so you can strangle it at any time. (Adolf Hitler)

The election by a broken people of a populist demagogue promising a return to ‘greatness’ reminds me of another country some years ago. Like America in 2016, Germany in the 1930s was a broken, divided country, decimated by war, ruined by the Treaty of Versailles and ripped apart by opposing visions for the future. Out of the chaos, Adolf Hitler emerged to promise a better world…a German world…which they would lead after cleaning up their act at home.

Any alliance whose purpose is not the intention to wage war is senseless and useless. (Adolf Hitler)

Hitler spoke in particular to the unemployed soldiers and disenfranchised young – those with the least to lose by a break with the past and the most to gain from a totally new political paradigm, but Hitler was hugely supported also by the powerful industrialists. Similarly, Trump spoke both to rich and poor – those with the least to lose (poor) and those with the most to lose (rich) from change. How did they all hear what they needed from his evanescent rhetoric?

By the skillful and sustained use of propaganda, one can make a people see even heaven as hell or an extremely wretched life as paradise. (Adolf Hitler)

Change is all very well – god knows the world has plenty of problems – but Donald Trump is not equipped to address them. He perceives some of the symptoms but none of the underlying causes to the world’s ills, and is therefore less equipped to deal with his country’s problems now than Hitler was in 1933.

Generals think war should be waged like the tourneys of the Middle Ages. I have no use for knights; I need revolutionaries. (Adolf Hitler)

People often wonder how the Germans ever elected Hitler and how they let him get away with so much for so long? How were they all so fooled?

It is not the truth that matters, but victory. (Adolf Hitler)

Well, we saw the results of that fooling between 1933 and 1945 and Germany is still recovering.

Germany will either be a world power or will not be at all. (Adolf Hitler)

Clearly those cheering Trump’s victory loudest are those who oppose America. It is as though Americans have finally revealed their true colours. All that crap about liberty and democracy was just so much baloney they slung to make all peoples compliant to their will, and when it didn’t work they elected a fascist monster to abandon subtlety and stamp on the throat of the world. And of course, now the monster is revealed, he is easier to fight. The Russians, Chinese, North Koreans and especially ISIS will be doing cartwheels.

The great strength of the totalitarian state is that it forces those who fear it to imitate it. (Adolf Hitler)

My most earnest hope is that those around him can talk sense and moderate the man because if Trump delivers on his election promises, then the world is about to enter a much darker phase from which it will be impossible to extract ourselves without a seriously fundamental conflagration.

Those who want to live, let them fight, and those who do not want to fight in this world of eternal struggle do not deserve to live. (Adolf Hitler)

At least on the same day they elected Trump they also legalised pot in a number of states. God knows they’re gonna need it.

The Small t terror of First World Commuters

I am a commuter.

Every morning I catch the train from Woy Woy on the Central Coast to St Leonards in the city. There are quiet carriages at my disposal, but I don’t need them in the morning.

Mostly.

In normal circumstances my fellow commuters are all in their own zones – focussed or unfocussed as they prefer – preparing for another day in the salt mines. They tend to be polite. They tend to be considerate of each other’s space.

They tend not to be drama queens who over-react ridiculously to the merest of provocations and refuse to acknowledge apologies.

The Facts

The train rolled into St Leonards. Having clambered out of the seat I occupy like a writing machine for 60 minutes or so, I descended into the vestibule and hovered on the last step – conscious of the personal space of the people below, but also conscious of the people behind me who tend quickly to panic as the stairs get clogged at peak hour.

There was an acceptable space just before the doors, and the closest person to that space was standing next to the central pole. Was she hanging on for stability, or was she preparing to leave the train?

I wasn’t sure, but there was plenty of space in front of her (and no-one owns space on a commuter train except for the space they actually occupy) so, mindful of the people on the stairs (and those already panicking behind them), I stepped into the space.

Immediately, I was conscious of hostility. The woman by the pole was making these strange sounding (but obviously unfriendly) noises, and eventually I twigged they were aimed at me. I turned and asked her:

‘I’m sorry…did I stand in your way?’

Inarticulate angry muttering.

‘Sorry…I thought you were hanging onto the pole and didn’t want to stand here.’

More angry muttering, plus furious eye contact.

‘Okay…well, sorry again…and, try to have a nice day.’

I was getting a little flippant. After all, what exactly had I done to seriously inconvenience her – even if she did want to get off the train at St Leonards (and I wasn’t sure of that yet).

The doors rolled apart and I left the train, and finally I heard what she was saying:

‘Hooray…you won the prize! First off the train!’

I could have ignored her and just walked away, but I was more than a little bewildered as to why I’d pissed her off so badly. I turned again to see her glaring at me, and after a moment said: ‘You’re a seriously unhappy woman, aren’t you.’

She started to flare up again, but by that point I realised there was absolutely zero rationality to deal with, so absence was the better part of discretion. I left the platform shaking my head.

The Analysis

But the incident played on my mind the entire day.

I had done nothing. Absolutely nothing that could reasonably upset a normal, rational human being on a commuter train, so what had set her off? Or at least, what caused her to express her resentment rather than be mildly irritated for half a second and then forget it? And what inspired her to stay pissed off even after an apology?

The answers can only be internal.

Something may have been upsetting her in her personal life, or something may have happened in the minutes before she encountered me, but even still – why would she take out her frustrations on an obviously harmless, innocent and polite person?

I’m trying to put myself into her head to understand this. For me to remonstrate with a fellow commuter, I would have to be convinced that they had done something deliberately offensive or ignorant, and if they stopped and apologised I would be immediately mollified.

What sort of person perceives an injury where there is none and then carries on rudely even after apology?

A person beaten by the world.

A person who feels the need to strike out at those who are unlikely to strike back.

Because that is clearly what I was dealing with – a person who had been bullied and therefore felt the need to bully others – the original vicious cycle.

It is a sad truth that people in our society are beaten down by bad relationships; bad bosses; bad luck; predatory or conniving colleagues; financial problems; lack of jobs; terrorism; the toxic environment; corrupt or useless politicians; an unsustainable rate of change; unrealistic expectations inspired by advertising and the exemplar lives of celebrities; resentment of those more successful; and a deep sense of failure and futility as a result of not being able to cope with some (if not all) of this.

I could sense the unhappy woman’s profound resentment and frustration which was being channelled into an attack on a target she perceived as unlikely to strike back. It’s terrorism with a small t – but analogous with large T terror. Get pissed off with the world but strike back at the innocent instead of the oppressor.

And yet, she would have walked off St Leonards station convinced that I was the aggressor / guilty party and frustrated she hadn’t given me a big enough piece of her mind.

I suspect that what she really needed was a hug, but you can’t hug terrorists.

She might have had a bomb.

In the Night Walk Pavilion

So much will be written over the next days and months about David Bowie (aka David Jones). His life and work touched so many, so profoundly, that the shock of his death feels like the death of a close friend. It needs to be grieved over, talked about and somehow integrated with the rest of our days, which will be so much the poorer. This is my contribution…

* * *

In the early 70s when I was just starting high school and learning there was more to music than the Beatles and the Monkees, the first bands I liked were Slade, Sabbath and The Rolling Stones – strutting, macho rockers who showed us prepubescents The Way.

Yet, even then, it was rumoured that there was another Way. Half-heard whispers, graffiti on lockers, carved into desk tops – there was also David Bowie.

But there was something weirdly wrong with Bowie (and with anyone who confessed to be a fan). Bowie (apparently) claimed to be gay – or at least bi-sexual (whatever that was) – so red-blooded, normal prepubescents who didn’t want to be singled out were careful not to listen to Bowie and made sure they loudly bagged him at least once a day (especially if they did secretly like Space Oddity).

And so the months rolled by – all of us happy and normal – not listening to Bowie and united against The Other Way.

Then everything changed.

Yes, puberty happened in there somewhere, but more importantly, a new boy started at our school (in the wilds of Sydney’s north). Stephen was different to the rest – curly red hair and openly intellectual – he may simply have gravitated to the small group who took their schoolwork seriously, except for one thing. On his very first day, he made the explosive announcement…that he was a David Bowie fan.

He couldn’t have done more to invite scrutiny if he’d turned up naked with a sack of gay porn. The news swept the playground like fire in February and quickly there was a knot of interrogators around Stephen (who also had long fingernails and a suspiciously genteel manner).

Interrogators: ‘You like David Bowie?’

Stephen: ‘Yes.’

(Expressions of shock and outrage.)

Interrogators: ‘So you’re gay.’

Stephen: ‘No.’

Interrogators: ‘But you said you liked David Bowie.’

Stephen: ‘Yes.’

The knot dispersed with knowing glances and dark mutterings of reprisals, but Stephen seemed unaffected by it all and that’s probably how I got sucked into his world. How could someone be so insouciant of the terrible damage he’d just done to his reputation and prospects for acceptance and inclusion? I must have stared longer than most because he quickly identified me as a person prepared to tolerate him.

Of course, I was barely tolerated myself for my own intellectual bent – something I tried to curb, but it would constantly cause me grief by being just a little too clever in class or even (gasp) philosophical. I made up for this by being good at sport and shoplifting, but Stephen was unlikely to recover from his dreadful debut and was therefore dangerous to know. My own suspect nature would never stand the association.

And yet he sought me out – especially in the German language class we shared.

I didn’t want him to. I was already part of a tight little group that didn’t need any new members. If I was prepared to socialise with a Bowie-lover then I was committing social suicide, so I resisted Stephen’s overtures of friendship and even told him bluntly that I couldn’t be friends with him because I hated David Bowie.

This didn’t seem to deter him. He simply treated me as though we were friends and upped the ante by inviting me round to his house. Fortunately he lived a couple of suburbs away, which made it easy to fob him off, but two things were weakening my resistance: one was my natural politeness and sense of justice. I did perceive that Stephen was being treated badly – not least by me – but I was scared of the consequences of being openly his friend as opposed to an occasional furtive interlocutor.

The other was Rebel Rebel.

When I saw the clip for Bowie’s new song one Saturday night, I was transfixed. Bowie looked unbelievably cool and was playing a heavy rock riff – not looking remotely gay – but then I shook my head and ran from the room, desperately ridding myself of the seductive contagion. Bowie was bad! Bowie was bad!! Bowie was bad!!!

Another week or two went by and Stephen cornered me again in German. Would I like to come around to his house on Saturday afternoon? They had a pool table.

I was trapped.

Before I knew it, I’d said: ‘Okay…but are you going to play David Bowie?’

‘Yes.’

‘I’m only coming if you don’t play Bowie.’

He agreed, so I really had no choice after that, but I knew I was flirting with disaster if others learned I was going to a Bowie-lover’s house. I kept my No Bowie-date with Stephen secret from all but my mother (who had to drive me over) and Saturday dawned rainy. It poured all morning, inspiring a deep melancholy and eerie premonitions that my life was about to change.

The rain cleared but the clouds were still threatening as I stared at Stephen’s house from the car. The neighbourhood was so different to mine but clearly, anyone who had a pool table in the seventies was rich. The garden seemed like a work of art (his mother was into bonsai) and walking down the path was like entering a different world. There was a huge, subtly lit bonsai in the entry way which was not simply a means of ingress and egress. It was constructed from exotic timbers, lacquered, scented and shaded in a way that seemed to draw me in – already hypnotised by the strange and the new.

Stephen greeted me at the door and the first thing I said was: ‘No Bowie…okay?’

‘No Bowie,’ he agreed, with an odd smile.

After consuming a snack in the kitchen with Stephen’s mother (who seemed comparatively normal) we went downstairs to the pool room, where I was taught a lesson by my reasonably expert host. Three games went by without a single mention of Bowie and finally I couldn’t bear the tension.

‘Aren’t you going to put some Bowie on?’

He just stared at me.

I seemed to be doing the same thing from some weirdly external perspective. What the hell was wrong with me? Was I under some sort of spell?

‘Sure, we can play Bowie,’ said Stephen. ‘Come on.’

I followed him into the deepest, darkest part of the house – from where the strangeness seemed to emanate. Stephen’s bedroom.

I must have entered like a starving cat – wanting dinner, but fearing attack. If the others at school could see me now…

I sat on his bed while he fiddled with his record player (yes, vinyl in those days).

‘This is called The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars,’ said Stephen, turning off the light, and sitting next to me – causing my anxiety levels to skyrocket. I could actually hear my heart beating!

But no.

It wasn’t a heartbeat, it was a drumbeat, rising in volume, setting up a groove, and then a splash of arpeggiated guitar…

Pushing through the market square, so many mothers crying
News had just come over, we had five years left to sigh in…

It is difficult to convey to a modern audience the zeitgeist of the early seventies. This was the height of the Cold War. Vietnam was still happening. Everything seemed so futile but at the same time there was an aesthetic nihilism that reached even us budding intellectuals at the Arts End of the Earth. I had never heard anything express all of this so perfectly, yet Five Years wrapped it all up in four minutes of glittering imagery against a dark musical mood with a gloriously mesmeric melody. I was hooked.

Soul Love, Moonage Daydream – brilliant. I’d never heard anything like it, but then Starman absolutely knocked me out. ‘What an amazing, awesome, magical masterpiece!’ I found myself saying, while Stephen grinned – enjoying my conversion as much as I did.

By the end of the album I was totally blown away – emotionally exhausted by the ride I’d just taken, but there was more.

‘This is the new album,’ said Stephen, ‘…Diamond Dogs.’

‘Is that the one with Rebel Rebel?’

‘It is.’

If Ziggy had opened me up to the prospect of letting David Bowie into my life, Diamond Dogs confirmed me as a devout fanatic – ready to proselytise to all my Stones and Slade-loving mates who were missing out on something really important. The world may be dark, dysfunctional and doomed but Bowie’s music seemed to twist all that into something which, may not have been the answer, but was at least distracting and invited the listener to rise above it all to a place where art and music were all that mattered.

Obviously, I wanted Stephen to make a copy of those albums for me so we had to play them both again as they recorded onto a C90 cassette. I was in heaven.

Then another mind-shattering thought occurred to me. It was possible to like David Bowie and still be heterosexual! (As I was to discover about two years later while John, I’m Only Dancing played in the background.) This was an important thing to understand as, despite my euphoria at discovering Bowie, I was keenly aware that I would have to go to school on Monday and face a different kind of music, once my status as a Bowie fan was inevitably revealed.

Somehow I got through that ordeal without too much loss of blood, and Stephen became a popular member of my little clique. But around this time I made another important discovery: in fact there was already a secret society of Bowie-lovers. They were all musicians and strangely immune to the mainstream opinions and realities of high school.

As a mediocre singer, I was a fringe-member of the muso’s network and it was through them that I next discovered Hunky Dory – in many Bowie-philes’ opinion, his finest work. It is certainly the most intriguing from a lyrical perspective, including some of his most arcane material. Oh, You Pretty Things, Life on Mars and Quicksand are all opaque but still manage to convey a coherent narrative.

The same cannot be said for the closing track – The Bewlay Brothers.

I have struggled with that song my entire life. The lyrics are so portentous, so redolent of meaning and rippling with texture, but what on earth do they mean? (Full lyrics reproduced below.)

Like listening to an argument in an asylum, there are flashes of coherence which are maddeningly cut short by a fresh stream of consciousness every second line or so. The only line of the song I felt I understood was:

We were so turned on, in the mind warp pavilion

In other words, listening to the song (with its hauntingly wistful melody) was like being in the ‘mind warp pavilion’. Okay, I get that.

Imagine then my annoyance when (only recently) I discovered the line actually refers to ‘the night walk pavilion’.

So now I’m back to square one, trying to make sense of ‘chameleon, comedian, Corinthian and caricature’.

And yet, the night walk pavilion sounds like a peaceful, strange and beautiful place. I hope David Bowie is there right now.

* * *

The years went by and I turned into an adult – going through phases but not as many as Bowie. I was resolutely heterosexual, but not because I had anything against those who were not. I simply found women more attractive than men, and if Bowie might have been disappointed with my blinkered stance, so be it.

(In fact, I’ve never understood homophobia. As a fairly ordinary-looking specimen of homo sapiens, I’ve always encouraged other men to be gay. Where would my sex life have been without all the good-looking blokes fancying each other?)

Bowie continued to provide the soundtrack, along with plenty of others, but as music evolved very few stayed on the playlist for more than a decade. Others have described better than I could the incredible way in which he not only stayed relevant over the swiftly changing epochs of musical style but drove them forward – constantly taking the initiative and staying at the forefront of fashion for far longer than any other artist in the history of popular music. Not only that, he has continually proven himself to be a songwriter and lyricist of the highest order.

I bought all his albums, went to all of his Sydney concerts, read several biographies, attended the exhibition in London, and sang Quicksand while giving the eulogy at my father’s funeral.

* * *

So how do I feel, now that he is gone?

It is impossible to overestimate the impact Bowie has had on my life – helping me make sense of and cope with the world so subtly I didn’t even realise it was happening (while also providing much of the soundtrack).

What makes it especially hard for me is that Bowie was Peter Pan – the quintessence of youth, awakening, discovery and self-confidence. How can such a person be gone? While he was alive (and older than me) I always felt young somehow (despite being in my 50s now). It’s like the passing of an Age of Middle-earth – the magic has diminished.

Of course, he will live on.

Many people achieve fame in their lifetime but then fade over decades and centuries as they lose their relevance.

But some do not fade.

Some like Shakespeare, Mozart, Einstein, Orwell and Freud seem to burn brighter with every generation and I have no doubt that Bowie will prove to be one of these.

For, in my humble opinion, no-one has had more impact on music since Mozart.

* * *

As for Stephen, he teaches German at Cambridge these days…and it serves him right.

 

The Bewlay Brothers (by David Bowie)

And so the story goes they wore the clothes
They said the things to make it seem improbable
Whale of a lie like they hope it was
And the good men tomorrow had their feet in the wallow
And their heads of brawn were nicer shorn
And how they bought their positions with saccharin and trust
And the world was asleep to our latent fuss
Sighings swirl through the streets like the crust of the sun, the Bewlay Brothers
In our wings that bark
Flashing teeth of brass
Standing tall in the dark
Oh, and we were gone
Hanging out with your dwarf men
We were so turned on
By your lack of conclusions

I was stone and he was wax so he could scream and still relax
Unbelievable
And we frightened the small children away
And our talk was old and dust would flow
Through our veins and though it was midnight back at the kitchen door
Like the grim face on the cathedral floor
The solid book we wrote cannot be found today
And it was stalking time for the moon boys, the Bewlay Brothers
With our backs on the arch
And if the Devil may be here
But he can’t sing about that
Oh, and we were gone
Real cool traders
We were so turned on
You thought we were fakers

And now the dress is hung, the ticket pawned
The factor max that proved the fact is melted down
Woven on the edging of my pillow
And my brother lays upon the rocks
He could be dead, he could be not, he could be you
He’s chameleon, comedian, Corinthian and caricature
Shooting up pie in the sky
Bewlay brothers
In the feeble, in the bad
Bewlay brothers
In the blessed and cold
In the crutch-hungry dark
Was where we flayed our mark
Oh, and we were gone
Kings of Oblivion
We were so turned on
In the night walk pavilion

Lay me place and bake me pie I’m starving for me gravy
Leave my shoes, and door unlocked I might just slip away
Just for the day, ay
Please come away, ay
Just for the day, ay
Please come away, ay
Please come away, ay
Just for the day, ay
Please come away, ay
Please come away, ay
Please come away, ay
Please come away, ay
Away
Away