My Life According to the Albums of David Bowie 1968-1983(A story for National Short Story Day)
December 22, 2011 Leave a comment
Its the shortest day, which means its National Short Story Day, and here’s one I wrote a few years ago, which maps the characters life against the albums of David Bowie, I hope you enjoy.
1. The World of David Bowie (Collected early recordings) (1968)
My name is David Jones. I read the Daily Express because my father has had it delivered since before the beginning of time and reading between the lines of all the stuff that he reads, I can tell there’s a revolution going on. My father mutters about Hippies the way he used to about Socialists. I can see the pictures and if I balance my portable radio at a certain angle I can catch Radio Luxembourg which is still better than Radio One, though I like John Peel’s Perfumed Garden, and hear the songs that make here, where I live, seem another planet. I have to get out. My mother makes us all eat dinner at the same time every night. There is nowhere to go. My father wants to set me up with an apprenticeship. He thinks I might make a passable draughtsman if I “get a proper haircut” and stop drawing from “that dangerous imagination of yours.” Something makes me want to go and study an art foundation course in Birmingham but I might as well ask to be put forward for the next Apollo mission. My father and I have one bridge between us: for an hour a week we are sat down watching “Civilisation” together. Neither of us say a word, but Kenneth Clarke is as close as we have to a mutual friend. But this isn’t civilisation; this is the suburbs.
2. Space Oddity (1969)
There’s a man on the moon and I’m watching it happen over egg and chips. My egg is the sun, the chips are the stars, a piece of white bread is the Apollo mission pod and this dollop of ketchup means Blast! something has gone terribly wrong and Buzz and Neil and the rest are all turned technicolor. On the television though everything is going to plan. “They’re probably filming it on a movie set in Hollywood,” my father grumpily suggests. I keep schtum. Until it’s in the Daily Express he won’t believe a word of it, certainly not something he’s seen on the Gogglebox. My mother is saying “stop playing with your food,” and “tug your tie in to your shirt if you want to keep it out of the egg.” She likes it now I’m at work. There’s a whole new list of rules and regulations that she can insist that I follow. The kitchen door doesn’t do much to hold out the smell and the sweat and the steam of the cooking; and I can almost taste the sickly smell of boiled over milk. My mother is looking at my hands. “What?” I say. “You can go wash them,” she says, “I’m not having you at the table looking like that.” I expect to see them covered in blood, but no, its the inky imprint of a day lurched over the draughtboard. Each step up the stairs to the bathroom makes Neil Armstrong’s small step seem small and insignificant. I wonder. Is this it? Is. This. It.
3. The Man Who Sold the World (1970)
The catastrophic weather this year hasn’t helped. I feel dark and low and depressed, but my wages have gone up a little. We are keeping in line with the Union rates. For the first time I have a little money in my pocket. I do the sums, and work out it will be easier to go into digs. I replace my mother and father with an Irish woman in Selly Oak, called Mrs. O’Grady. She doubles the size of the meals put before me, and doesn’t give me any gyp about my tie. Every night there’s a couple of bottles of stout provided for me, “to keep off the winter cold.” It is dark and damp and if I wasn’t so tired from the long hours of my apprenticeship and the examinations, I would have the time to be very lonely. Our practice is merging with a larger one, in modern offices above the Bull Ring. Each morning I will be able to look out over the wide expanse of the second city and see…nothing but the grime already silting up the outside panes. I listen to some of the new heavy music through my transistor in frustrating mono; go down to Villa Park every second Saturday; check every evening that my tickets for the Who at Bingley Hall are still there in the top drawer.
4. Hunky Dory (1971)
Her name is Beverley. Bev. Beverley. Bev. I am as happy as Larry, things are so hunky dory. She’s pretty, intelligent, funny, and it’s like I’ve known her all my life. She seems to feel the same way about me, which I don’t find that easy to believe, and keeps saying all her friends are engaged! It’s not like she’s that old! Twenty five isn’t that old, is it? I like the fact that she’s got her own job and a bit of money, because until I get qualified I’m not exactly raking it in. She’s a liberated girl as well, it seems they’ve finally made it to the Midlands! Didn’t know what to expect really, but she seemed happy enough and I was ecstatic. At last! If we go on like this, who knows? There’s so much to do, so much going on – the world seems a place of endless opportunity. Everywhere I go I can imagine the sort of buildings I’d love to build if I got the chance, grand, eloquent, exciting and contemporary. Everywhere I go I have to close my eyes to see it though, the reality doesn’t come close.
5. The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972)
The chairman is on my left hand side and the Mayor is on the right and I am on stage in front of my white board and acetates showing them exactly what I’ve envisaged in the solitude of my office. It’s strange to hear myself speaking to this assembled crowd. My voice hardly seems to convey the authority that it ought to, but I don’t mind, I try and concentrate on the story I have to tell, the vision and from the vision the detail. They are enigmatically quiet and then, when I finish and sit firmly down there is an awful pause that could mean nothing is going to happen at all, then there is rapturous applause. I have won them over. “Thank you, David Jones, a young man who is clearly one of the architectural visionaries of the future, we are grateful to…” I catch Beverley’s eye at the side of the room, there in the cheap seats of the Wulfrun Hall, and I just know that this is only the start.
6. Aladdin Sane (1973)
Choose my time well. The wedding is planned for the day after we’ve handed over the final plans. I’m all over the place. On the one hand, Bev is stressed out with all the preparations, on the other hand I hardly see her anyway, because of the long hours. It isn’t helped by the powercuts and all that other shit going on. I find myself on the telephone to my father agreeing with him about the whole Union thing. I don’t mean it, or rather I don’t know what I mean. I’ve just qualified, I’ve got this golden opportunity to make a real difference, and in the next seven days I’ll be a married man. We’ve splashed out, and we’re catching a week in the sunshine. Its an island called Majorca, and the hotel is brand new so should be fantastic. I’ve started getting dandruff, and stroke my head worriedly looking for signs of baldness, but so far there’s none, thank God, though the dandruff annoys. Bev likes my beard; and I do as well. Was never much into the kissing thing, and now I’ve got the facial growth, she’s gone right off it, just a peck on the barely exposed cheek. Everything else is in working order though, so no problems there.
7. Pin Ups (1973)
It’s the best day of our lives. We insisted on colour photography, none of that grainy black and white. My friend Des had a Super 8 cine camera that he uses to film the opening of new buildings for corporate publicity films, and I’ve got him to come along with a load of the stuff. It’s strange seeing everyone in the one place: my mother and father and all their friends, this bunch of almost-strangers who mean the same thing to Bev; then our work colleagues, and a few of my more important clients with their wives. All of that lot and it doesn’t look a lot different than my parent’s wedding shots, big hats and dark suits, but look away to the side, and there’s me and Bev and our group of friends. A couple of years ago, I didn’t know any of these people, but it seems we’re a bunch, a group. We look like pin ups, with our flared trousers, long hair and beards. It’s took five years for the look to make it to the English suburbs, and already it’s changing again. We’ve hired the Mecca for the evening disco and are dancing under glitterballs, flat shoes replaced by outrageous platforms. I stand on the sidelines, agog at what we’re creating. People are beginning to wear buildings on their feet!
8. Diamond Dogs (1974)
Just when the lights are at the brightest it all goes dark. Work has just dried up overnight. Bastard OPEC. Bastard Unions. This life that we’d bought into on a wave of optimism, and now that optimism is sitting in our driveway now, offering a very uneconomic fifteen miles to the gallon, and it’s also there in the growing bump of Bev’s stomach. The lights have gone out. The glamour work that I was aiming for has all been shelved; now it’s drafting proposals for small scale shopping malls, which we’ve already had to halve the budget for as the economy’s gone bleaker, replacing marble with prefabricated concrete, wood with plasterboard. The streets are a mess, uncollected rubbish piling up; wildcat strikes paralyse the West Midlands, and I don’t know whether our private practice will last the year. I look to opportunity: and take a part-time post at the local F.E. college, teaching technical drawing to a new generation that already seems to have given up. The baby’s born and we call him Carl. Not after Marx, after Douglas. He’s been Kung Fu Fighting in Bev’s tummy for months.
9. Young Americans (1975)
Guess I’m a lucky kind of guy after all. I was about to take a council job and have a sad, safe life designing school lavatories, but a design I’d entered for a competition and almost forgot about has been given a special commendation, and I’ve been asked to work for six months on some real architecture. The only catch (catch? I love it!) is that the work’s in Pennsylvania. I think of American architecture; the sight-straining streets, the bulimic billboards, the vertiginous towers. I go, leaving Bev and Carl with a promise to fetch them as soon as I score a permanent job. We both think it’s the beginning, but as soon as I step off the Pan Am jumbo jet, and feel the American tarmacadam under my feet, I have a giddy sensation. It’s not falling – it’s leaping. And I realise I’ve already left them behind, my English family, alongside my English life. Bev and Carl are just a photograph to me even before I start to screw – that’s the American word for it – Ashley, the Human Resources co-ordinator at International Drawings Inc.
10. Station to Station (1976)
I spend a year going back and forth from country to country – as International Drawings Inc grows into its name – I’ve commissions all over, London, Milan, Berlin, and see more of some air hostesses than I do of my own family. I keep everything in compartments, so though I’m sure Bev knows things aren’t right, there’s plenty of money coming their way, and she’s her hands full with Carl – and now with Sandy, a delayed present from one of my flying trips home. “Why the American name?” she asks, but I say, “we’ll go there as a family one day.” When I tell Ashley the latest news, the news I can hardly hide from her, it’s all over between us. She’s high up the tree, she’s got executive privileges, she’s able to pull strings, and that’s how I get what I don’t want, Head of European Operations. It’s not as glamorous as it sounds. I was their European Operation. What am I now, head of myself? I roll the dice to work out where I should be based. That’s how come the European branch of International Drawings Inc. finds itself in Solihull, with me crawling back home, tail between my legs.
11. Low (1977)
It all came out. It had to. What had we got in common? I was back there with the woman I’d hardly even seen since we got married, so how could I pretend that I loved her or expect her to love me? “I came back here to make it work!” I shout, but she doesn’t hear, or rather, she knows well enough that it’s just words. I tell her all about Ashley and she tells me all about Colin, or almost all. The last bit I have to squeeze out of her. She doesn’t know whether Sandy is Colin’s or mine. But we both know – we both know really. Sandy is dark, Colin is dark, we’re all fair. Sandy, what a silly name for a dark haired girl. By the time I’ve moved out, Sandy’s lost not only a dad, but an ‘S’ and a ‘Y’, everyone calls her Andi. I live in a bedsit a minutes walk from the office and some – most – nights I just fall asleep at the desk, waiting for the cleaners to wake me in the morning. Colin works in computers and he thinks they’re going to be big. The bombshell hits. His job’s moving to Bristol and he’s taking the family – my family – with him. How can I complain? I hardly know any of them. I’d already lost Sandy, I steeled myself to losing Carl. All over the subway’s that I had a part in designing, there’s graffiti reminders of what we’ve come to. “No Future,” “Anarchy.” I’m not old, yet I’ve already run through what I thought would last me a lifetime. It’s a low point, that’s for sure.
12. Heroes (1978)
I have immersed myself in my work. I find that I am good at certain things that I never expected. I rarely find myself with my sleeves rolled up squinting at a blueprint or scratching a pencil over a drawing board. I am in meetings with financiers. I am growing the business. I am the youngest area manager that they’ve got. I am destined for big things. Almost without realising it I buy a large house in a once dilapidated suburb near the city centre and get other people to redesign it for me. I am never there. I am in hotel rooms and at airports and being ‘wined and dined.’ I wish I was still in regular contact touch with Bev, but only because I want to ask Colin about computers – we’re thinking of getting one. The photographs of my children I don’t even keep out on show anymore. It would be too complicated. I am listed in an Evening Mail profile of “important people of the Midlands.” I have been approached by my local Conservative party about being their representative at the next election – “It will be soon, Callaghan can’t go on like he is, we need people like you.” Am I a person like me? I guess so. I put a little photograph of Thatcher on my desk. See her every day.
13. Lodger (1979)
Now this is the best day of my life! There’s a new woman in it, and I’ve only met her twice, for a couple of minutes each time. But that doesn’t matter, I’m devoted to her, and she’s paid me back in full. What a majority! Who’d have thought it? We’ve all had so much crap with the Unions here in the Midlands over the years, and it seems even the working men have had it with them. They see their Union Rep swanking around in the newest car, and they’ve said enough’s enough. They’re thinking of their kids, what they’ll get out of it, and they’ve agreed with the billboards, “Labour Isn’t Working.” I’m spending most of my time in London now. I’m a lodger again – but this time its different – when you don’t need the money people bend over backwards to give you things for free. The amount of empty flats in Central London is astonishing. I have a brief twinge, after all, the amount of homeless in Central London is astonishing as well. I cut my brief twinge off at the pass. The difference is: I’ve WORKED for this. They haven’t. Yet, they’ll still see the benefits trickle down to them wait and see. And the other thing about London: its waiting to be built. I hadn’t realised. The average Londoner sees how cramped things are, but I’m an architect, all I see is the space, the opportunity. Politics will suit me, I can tell.
14. Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) (1980)
Perhaps if I’d not gone into politics I wouldn’t have got the ulcer. Who knows? I enjoy the excitement – sure I do – but is it my life? There’s others that thrive on it, but I’m missing my hands-on work. I go to see a specialist on Harley Street, I deserve it, I can afford it. He’s not happy. He’s not happy at all. There’s a chance of cancer. At my age! I realise you can’t escape your upbringing, not where health’s concerned. All those fry-ups from my mum. When I go back there I still ingest them – she’s feeding me time-bombs. Then I get another, my dad’s dropped dead. This shouldn’t be happening. I realise that I’ve put the wrong things first, but everything’s too far forward to do anything about it. The funeral isn’t just close family – it’s my forgotten family. Bev and Carl and Sandy-Andi. It didn’t work out with Colin it seems and she’s moved them all to Croydon. The next time I go to specialist, I need someone to come with me, and who can I ask, other than Bev?
15. Let’s Dance (1983)
The last couple of years have been the best of my life, really. I felt things had got to some kind of ending, and then Bev and the kids came back into my life and that was what I wanted. The cancer was a scare, that was all, but it taught me ‘balance’ if nothing else. I’d made a few property speculations, when I’d come down here, on behalf of me and the company, and with the economy booming, I’m suddenly richer than I ever imagined. I’m happy to be a backbencher, after all there’s so many of us after the re-election that there’s not the jobs for everyone. Besides, I’m more influential behind the scenes. There’s plans for the City, for the East End, for the whole country. I’m more relaxed than I’ve been in years. Me and Bev go out to this club in the centre of town, Springfellows it’s called, we get treated like the top people we are. “Come on,” she says, “I don’t think I’ve seen you dance since our wedding.” The record comes on. It’s that new song by David Bowie, “Let’s Dance.” God, I’d not heard him for years, think I liked him when I was sixteen or so, but to be honest, I’d missed what he’d got up to over the last decade or so, been too busy. “This is a great record,” I tell her, and I mean it. Next day I go out and buy it. I’ve heard there’s this new format that’s come out, that’s better than vinyl. It’s not that popular yet, but I get a DAT player at immense expense. Everyone’s at the peak of their game, me and David Bowie both. It’s took a couple of years to kick in, but I get the feeling that the eighties is going to be our decade.
(c) Adrian Slatcher