I’m delighted to report that today Fish published the shortlist for their Lockdown writing prize and my piece ‘The Good, The Bad, and The…’ was on it.
Coming soon – My new children’s book with really lovely illustrations by Alice Jowitt
In the 70s, my brother and I were… planespotters. Home was near Windsor, and during the holidays we’d pester our mother to take us there to catch the 727 Green Line to Heathrow. She probably didn’t mind, two boys out of her hair all day. In our bags went our tools – binoculars, log books and air band radio, which could be useful if we couldn’t read the plane’s number on the fuselage.
The radio looked like any other but alongside the usual medium and long wave you could listen to conversations between the pilots and air traffic control on VHF. So if you missed ‘copping’ a number with the binoculars, you might hear the pilot speaking to the tower.
Also into the plane spotting kitbag went a packed lunch. A cheese sandwich, a bottle of Cresta (it’s frothy, man) and a banana, which made the cheese sandwich taste of banana too, especially if it was a hot day and we let everything mush up in the bottom of the bag.
They called them Green Line Coaches, but really it was just a single decker bus. Once we got there, we’d go to the Queen’s Building, a labyrinthine rooftop terrace between Terminals One and Two.
The Queen’s Building was a remnant of an earlier age of innocence, where the plane spotters were outnumbered by friends and families waving off or welcoming travellers. Those expecting passengers would wait until they saw the correct plane touch down, often with the guidance of a friendly spotter, and then they’d rush down to the terminal to be in place to greet their people before they’d collected their baggage and come through passport control.
But as we passed whole days on the terraces, we lived and breathed planes. Not just looking at them, but reeling in the throb and rumble as the planes landed and took off. Landing, thrust reversers screeched as pilots urged their aircraft to a stop. Taking off they’d make even more noise, every inch of throttle needed to get a hundred ton metal tube into the air. And the smell – a pervasive fug of burnt kerosene.
And why do I say seaside pier, in the middle of an airport? Well, there were little cafes and shops, and photo and recording booths. It was a rare day that we didn’t take home a set of mugshots of us pulling faces or a cheap piece of vinyl recording some unlistenable din we’d made. There was a camaraderie among the planespotters, and if someone missed spotting a number someone else would volunteer the info.
I regularly use Heathrow now for business trips to Ireland, and while I’m waiting for the plane to Cork I probably sit in much the same place sipping my moccachino from the Eat concession as I did when I trained my binoculars on the runway. I watch the planes, but I don’t write down any numbers, from inside what is now known as the Queen’s Terminal.
This is the piece I wrote shortly after his death two years ago. It was longlisted for the Fish Short Memoir Prize.
Ashes to Ashes
Dead things come in threes. Monday, it had been David Bowie; Thursday Alan Rickman, then on the Friday morning…
Like I did every day, soon after 8am I put the dog on his lead and opened the front door; there at the top of the steps to the front gate was a dead cat. I knew it was dead the moment I saw it. I nudged the dog back in the house, found a suitable box and placed the cat in it, and then put the box in the safety of the garage while we sorted out what to do next.
I’d had David Bowie in my head all that week. I was pole-axed by his death, and the whole day passed in a cotton-wool smudge of Bowie records, memories and introspection. The poor cat put me right back there, and made me think of the Bowie theme song to Cat People. The film may not have been an Oscar contender, but the song was good, written with disco legend Giorgio Moroder. Cat People. A movie full of cats and dead people. People and dead cats.
I discovered Bowie when I was fourteen. As a young teenager I was rather pompous (not for the last time, I hear you say), and had decided pop music was something that I should grow out of. I was dismissive of my younger brother’s interest, and was attempting to convince myself that now I preferred classical music. All that changed the first time I heard that riff pumping out of the car radio on the way to school. Der-der-der duh-duh-duh, der-der-der duh-duh-duh. The Jean Genie, let yourself go! And I did.
From that moment on, I was a Bowie Freak. That’s what we called ourselves, not Bowie fans. We were freaks, and proud of it. “Are you a Bowie freak?” “Yeah, are you?” “Yeah.” That was it. Friends for life. As the comedian Bob Mortimer’s been saying for a while, if you want to know if it’s worth continuing a conversation with someone at a party, just ask them if they like Bowie. If they don’t, walk away.
I was too young to have seen Ziggy Stardust live, but I set about buying the back catalogue (even the re-released ‘Images 1966-67’ with Antony Newley-esque songs like the excruciating Laughing Gnome) and immersing myself in everything Bowie. I tried to look like him too, as far as school rules permitted. We weren’t allowed to dye our hair, but I washed it in henna every day, which gave it a vague red tinge you could just about spot in bright sunlight. I went for the feather cut, growing it as long at the back as I could get away with. I tried to make the top and front stick up, but I never achieved David’s spiky heights. I wore black platform shoes under my voluminous grey flannel flares. I was so skinny I nearly blew over in the wind at the best of times; with my four inch heels I was a safety hazard. We had to wear a white shirt and tie, but my shirts had massive collars and my ties were all pinks, purples and oranges, tied in a double knot.
One school holidays, I bought the single Rebel Rebel. It was to feature on Diamond Dogs, but the album hadn’t come out yet. My brother bought Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon at the same time. We shared a bedroom and had a cheapo copy Dansette record player. A big red case with the amplifier in the bottom; it opened up to reveal the record deck and the top divided into two loudspeakers. One turntable, two new records – it was war. I was the bigger, older brother so I won, and the Rebel riff rang out from the feeble speakers – “You’re not sure if you’re a boy or a girl”.
But I had discovered the person I wanted to be. If not myself, Bowie wasn’t a bad option. It came at a handy point in my life. I was starting to fancy girls, but I just didn’t have a clue what to do. Okay, that’s from a song by contemporaries The Sweet, not David Bowie. But as he was for a lot of adolescents growing up discovering their sexuality, Bowie was there for me. I got some stick from the other boys but it was nothing compared to the bullying I’d had at prep school, and if anything I took pride in doing the peacock strut and being noticed. It was all OK, because I was going to be a rock and roll star, and David the Starman, waiting in the sky, was watching over me. They even gave me the nickname ‘Mini Bowie’ for a while; that was just fine.
Like a lot of Bowie fans, I was devastated when David killed off Ziggy Stardust, or as he put it in the song lyrics, when the kids had killed the man and he had to break up the band. And my desolation turned to horror when Bowie re-emerged as a white soul boy in his Young Americans phase. How could he do that? We were the freaks, the androgynous glamrockers, white and pale? But it was Bowie. He still looked amazing, fusing Hamlet and Major Tom as he sat up in a crane wearing an ermine cape and holding a skull in one hand, the mike in the other. So we bought the record. And of course we grew to love it, and all night, we were the Young Americans, until it was time to be The Thin White Duke. Or the Man Who Fell to Earth – he could act, as well! We thought so anyway, although it’s true he didn’t have to stretch too far to play the alien.
Bowie left his bisexual androgyny behind him, but I discovered there was a market for effete young men like myself, who were just gay enough. Boys who liked to be in a girl’s bedroom while they put their make-up on.
I finally got to see my hero for real at Earls Court on the Station to Station tour; I’d already seen the pictures so I knew how to dress – black trousers and waistcoat, open necked white shirt, and a pack of Gitanes stuck in the waistcoat pocket, even though I didn’t smoke. I joined a thousand other disciples dressed in a similar way; others preferred to keep the spirit of Ziggy alive. We were united in our love though, and as the bright white lights and crashing rhythms announced the arrival of the Bowie train, we worshipped together at the platform. I’ve never known a rock concert of such intensity.
Then punk and new wave came along, and it all got a bit tricky. My take on it is that put simply, there were two main punk tribes. There were the ‘Oi’ punks and there were the rainbow punks. The former owed a lot to skinhead culture, played thrash music and used to fight a lot. The latter were the offspring of Bowie; lots of art school students and creative young people with more subtlety and originality. I came across some of the pace setters quite early on. The so-called Bromley Contingent including Siouxsie of the Banshees used to go to the disco at the Windsor Safari Park (now Legoland) for the same reason we did – it was one of the very few discos in the country which played music like Bowie and Roxy and not the mind-numbing pop of bands like Brotherhood of Man and Showaddywaddy. Save all your kisses for me. Or not.
So I joined the arty punk tribe, and saw all the bands like the Clash and the Pistols, but still put on the make-up sometimes for the likes of the Banshees or Ultravox! (the pre-Midge Ure version, I hasten to add), and kept up with Bowie, now into his Heroes period. The grainy black and white Berlin aesthetic became the perfect backdrop for the austerity of Thatcher’s Britain. I even started making this sort of music now as well as listening to it, in amazing bands like AWOL, 1936 and Disturbance Term. You haven’t heard of them? No, neither has anyone else. But strutting the stage singing my own songs was the most fun I’ve ever had.
The art school punks morphed into the New Romantics; one of the first ever club events was Bowie Nights at Gossips in Dean Street, we’d gone full circle. Steve Strange did Fade to Grey with Visage, David Bowie sang Ashes to Ashes and both videos looked the same. Steve Strange was even in both of them. The old romantic was just as cred as any of the new ones.
Then both Bowie and the new romantics became more mainstream, groups like Spandau Ballet and Duran Duran becoming mere pop bands, and David Bowie making Let’s Dance, his most commercially successful single and album. I saw him again, performing this and some of his greatest hits on the Serious Moonlight Tour, when it landed at Milton Keynes. That doesn’t sound promising, but he managed to turn the bowl into a suburban Grand Meulnes that balmy July evening; infectious tinkling dance music and thousands of gold and silver moon-shaped balloons choking the dusty sunset.
We ended on a high, me and David, with that concert. After that, I gave up the music and got a proper job, and he did Tin Machine. Not heard it? You don’t want to. Of course he’s done the odd great song since then – like the Buddha of Suburbia and Absolute Beginners, both made for film and TV, and the recent Where Are We Now – but there hasn’t been another album to match Hunky Dory or Young Americans.
Nevertheless, my respect for him kept growing. He may have become mega rich and an A list celebrity, but he never ‘sold out’, as us punks used to say. He set his own moral standards, he kowtowed to no one. In 1983 he asked live in an interview with MTV why they featured hardly any black acts on their burgeoning music channel. Now savvy bloggers would say he used his white privilege to do so, but people listened. And Bowie was a man who turned down not only an OBE but a knighthood. And didn’t make a big deal of it.
No doubt, we’re in a poorer world without him, ashes to ashes. The man who organised his own cremation before anyone could start thinking about his funeral. No one else attended, not even his own family. Dust to dust.
As for the cat, there was no collar, but I took him to the vet, who found a microchip. He was a Bengal, named Blue, and his owner lived round the corner. You could tell Blue had been a character, a big powerful cat even in his box. I left him at the vets, and that was an end to it.
You wish and wish, and wish again
You’ve tried so hard to fly
You’ll never leave your body now
You’ve got to wait to die
Silly Boy Blue, silly Boy Blue
© David Bowie, Silly Boy Blue, 1967
So, that’s that then, and we’re on the brink of a new government being formed – it looks like (despite the efforts of the Tory press) enough people voted Lib Dem to give us influence and temper toxic Tory tendencies.
For my part, I was squeezed in Westminster North but pleased that the winner was a woman with integrity who genuinely cares for her constituents. We tried hard to focus our efforts on getting a council seat – we didn’t manage this but we beat Labour into a distant 3rd and narrowed the gap on the Tories.
I’d like to use my final “Election Day” blog to thank all the members, supporters and voters – and to list some of the tributes to our campaign below:
“Well done on a great campaign (best ever in these parts I think)” – senior party strategist.
“I just wanted to tell you that whatever happens today I think you’ve fought a brilliant campaign” – phone call on polling day from anonymous voter.
“Mark, I really admire the job that you locally and your leader nationally have done” – blog post
“Mark Blackburn made a stonking speech tonight: ‘Let’s no longer pander to the politics of fear’ ” – a fellow LibDem candidate
“Your votes were EXCELLENT. Please keep working over the next four years” – another LibDem candidate
“I am so impressed by your work and energy – and if I lived in Westminster North might even be tempted to vote for you” – a Labour Party supporter
“Awesome!” – a new member
I’m not just posting all this for my own benefit (though it is heartening to read!) but as a tribute to all of you who helped in this campaign. Thank you all. And so that’s it for now – but I’ll be back – whether it’s five months or five years!
Goodbye for now,
I really must get some sleep soon, been tweeting and FBing and emailing after a full-on day of politic-ing, and I’ve got to be up in a few hours for the Good Morning leaflet drop. But I’m still high on adrenaline after another tremendous day in the constituency – the polls have bounced right back in our favour and my team’s just qualified for the Champion’s League for the first time ever!
But before I go, two things – first, remember your vote tomorrow is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to secure real change, not just a blue rinse, so don’t fall fearful of the press conspiracy to push hope under for another who knows how many years.
And secondly, thank you everyone – all the old faithfuls who’ve never had to work so hard, the hordes of new supporters and members who’ve enthusiastically joined our campaign, friends and family who have pitched in, and everyone who’s had an encouraging word to say along the way – and it hasn’t always been easy!
To the record number of people who are now reading this, I say Goodnight, and tomorrow VOTE WITH YOUR HEART!
‘I used to be a long term Labour Supporter – but then I overheard one old lady whisper to the another whilst sitting on the park bench at lunchtime.
She said “Do you know what? The first time in my life I think I’m going to vote Lib Dems” as if she was coming out. The other lady half eating her sandwich nearly choked coughing and said “So am I but I dare not tell our John”. The smiles on their faces as they shared a common bond.
How refreshing – It’s not just the two old ladies, most of my peers who are City workers are again whispering and “coming out” as secret Lib Dem switchers.’
Rob of W asked me to expand on my comments regarding the amount of social housing in Westminster so here’s a few more facts and figures. CityWest manages 22,000 homes on behalf of Westminster Council, of which 9,000 have been sold to private tenants. This information comes directly from CityWest. Of the remaining 13,000, there are varying estimates as to how many are unofficially sub-let, taking them out of public-sector availability, but if we take a mean point of 10% that means another 1300 out of commission for those in need.
A few other facts and figures, some of which I may have quoted before, but just so they’re all in one place – the average re-let time for a vacant council property is 27 days, but 411 had been out of use for a year or longer in April 2009 and only 4 in this time category had been recommissioned. Some of these are buildings in need of major works.
10% of properties are checked each year to ensure that the right tenants are in occupation – that means obviously there’s a ten-year cycle for each property to be checked. We are now in the last year of a five year improvement programme and in that last year £1m has been spent on improving security.
All in all, including within the private sector, again according to which source of information you use there are between 4,500 and 6.200 empty homes within Westminster, more than any other London borough.
Yesterday we ran our first street stall, since we’ve now got so much support we can deliver our leaflets, go canvassing and still send people to help in Brent. Phenomenal. And a fantastic reception at our stall – so many people so glad to see us mixing it up!
Concerns over whether there are Tory plans for demolition and forced movement of people from council homes, support for our stance on not charging for evening parking and raising local meter charges which would be so destructive for local businesses, and lots of general goodwill towards us for the recognised efforts we’ve been making locally.
That’s all for now – it may be raining but there’s more canvassing to be done!
I thought things went well yesterday. Even more new supporters coming out for the first time, another assured performance by Nick Clegg in the final leaders’ debate, good poll showings…
…But today was even better. My first (political – I used to give my tuppenny worth on trainers – I remember when Zoe Ball was a researcher!) radio appearance along with the other candidates and I think and hope I gave a good account of myself and the Liberal Democrats. Unlike the hustings I thought we had a good strong debate about issues and policies, not personalities. Four good candidates, all wanting to fix things, but with different views on how to go about it. Eddie Nestor did a fine job in the Chair.
I believe the only big issue which didn’t really get a good airing was housing – we should have made more of the fact that Westminster has more empty homes than any other London borough – 5-6000 depending on the estimate; only about half the social housing stock managed by the Almo CityWest homes is still in the public sector, there are chronic overcrowding issues and of the 400 council homes in need of refurbishment for over a year, only 4 have been recommissioned. But there’s only so much you can cram into a few 15 minute chunks, as Eddie kept telling us.
What really made my day was going back to our election HQ afterwards and finding out that in my absence more volunteers than ever before had come along. We’ve got our long weekend’s tasks well underway, and I’m looking forward to a whole three bank holiday days of mega campaign action. This is what real change means.