Ashes to Ashes

No 7 Haddon Hall, 42 Southend Road, Beckenham

We knew the address by heart. God knows how many times we’d told our mums we were going down to Church Street Market and had, instead, got the number 16 bus to Victoria, taken a train to Beckenham, and stood outside David Bowie’s house. This time was no different. Except it was completely different.  It was a life-changing event that I cannot now prove because a few years later I lost my archive of David and Angie Bowie’s letters, and the sketches about which I planned to ask him as we walked up the drive to the big front door.

We knew the house and we knew, from having gone round the back in the past when there was no response to our ringing, that there was a massive flat with a gallery all the way around it, and it was here we imagined David and Angie and little Zowie Bowie – then younger than two – lived.  We rang the bell. Glory be: Angie comes to the door. Zowie is running around her feet. “Go back in you little bastard” she says lightly and the three of us – me, Georgia, and Kim, look at each other and snigger. “You’re wanting David?  Hold on I’ll get him for you.”

He comes to the door. I have no memory now what he was wearing, just that it wasn’t anything outlandish –  slim trousers, a shirt… ‘Hello girls,” he says.  He knows our faces and he always seems to have a bigger smile for me. There aren’t many grinning Asian teenagers sporting Bowie cuts in the throngs outside his concerts or waiting at the door of Trident Studios. I’m easy enough to remember.

He has a chat with us – I’ve no idea about what. I think we’ve taken some sweeties for Zowie, which he charmingly accepts. As we start to run a little dry on smalltalk, I say “Did you get the costume designs I sent you?”  There’s a pause. His whole face lights up. “Was it you?” “Yes. Angie said you were trying to get them made up.” Another pause, he is looking at me with real pleasure. “Are you coming to Earl’s Court?” he asks. “Yes.” “Well, have we got a surprise for you.”

Our eyes lock a few seconds, as they will again and again in Odeon car parks as we race behind his Bentley – WMH 650G.  And, on one occasion, at the Gaumont State, Kilburn, where I get to the front of the stage as he is singing, I now imagine, The Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud.  I will be picked out for… for always being there. Stuart, Bowie’s bodyguard will give me privileges – tell me where they are going, what they’ve been doing. His Warhol mates, Andy, the road manager, and Cherry Vanilla, a gloriously out-of-her-box aide who later releases a single of her own –  Central Park Arrest –  will let us into concerts unticketed and  set us up for breakfast at the Hyde Park Hotel with the bemused Spiders From Mars.

On that doorstep with Bowie, it is a magical moment. As ever when he sees us, he ruffles my hair. ‘Wait till Saturday’, he says.  And on Saturday, there we are at Earl’s Court and he comes on stage and I’m captivated by the gold circle on his forehead and it is Georgia who pinches me and says “Shyama, he’s wearing your costume.” And he is. It will become an iconic Bowie costume, credited to the Japaneses designer with whom he’d worked  for months on getting the look for that tour right. I don’t doubt for one minute that it was a true designer’s eye that found the right material, with the right stretch and glitter and pattern; that created the chunky arm and leg bracelets that were just hoops in my drawing; that  took the whole idea thing to a different level. He was Hockney reimagining a a pavement artist’s scribble. But it was absolutely what I had drawn, and it was absolutely as I would have imagined it looking if I had had the nous to know what to do with it off-the-page, and to see my idol stretching lizard-like in it – a Japanese komodo lizard – was just one of the finest moments in my life. Did I want anything more?  I honestly couldn’t have imagined anything more then or now.

All my Bowie letters, signed photographs and memorabilia was kept, once I’d left home, inside an empty Victorian commode in my rented bedsit in West Hampstead. In 1981 the landlady sold the house to developers. It was a week after the move that I realised I had not emptied the commode.  My exquisite broadsheet sized programmes of Bowie from the MelodyMaker, the programmes from his concerts, his Pin Ups tour, the numerous black and white headshots I’d conned out of the RCA press office by pretending to be from The Daily Mirror –  the personal letters from Bowie and Angie – their rounded hands, his more of a scrawl, and hers sharing the catlike roundness later seen in Princess Diana’s writing. All of this was in the commode but when I went rushing back to 41 Pandora Road.  The landlady shook her head; “I’m so sorry, Shyama, furniture clearance took everything the day after you left.’  She couldn’t even remember who they were.

One of the lost letters, in a slim, lined, pale green envelope, with my name and address written on the front in Angie’s rounded hand, was a response to a Birthday Card I had made and sent to Bowie so it arrived at the stage door in Newcastle where he was on tour on the day of his celebration. It was a beautiful card. I’d spent hours on it, spelling Happy Birthday out entirely with guitars and saxophones. Inside, as always, I’d written him a letter about my life and about his music, and I’d also enclosed, as his birthday present, two designs for new costumes. One was a one-piece with one arm, one leg, scooped across his chest, and with the bare arm and leg decorated with hoops. The other, also made up, was a more standard spaceman looking outfit and I’d nicked a detail from a jacket I’d bought in Church Street Market and added a drooping epaulette  to give it a more interesting shoulder line.

Angie wrote to say David had been so happy to receive my card and that he ‘loved the designs’ you sent him. In fact ‘we are going to see if we can get them made up.’ In my head, she says they are going to Japan to see if they can get them made up, but I may have added that because I don’t recall them going to Japan so I’m assuming he was here, but he was a genius, that designer who made something so wonderful from a young girl’s flat drawings.

Time passed. I grew up. I hated Bowie’s Tin Machine phase and it gave me a get-out card from superfandom. I fell in love and got married and had babies and as a lot of people do when they are busily building new lives, I left him behind somewhere, still buying the albums of course, but not dewy eyed or rushing to every tour. Years later, maybe ten years ago, during a discussion on radio I told the story of the costume. It was appropriate to whatever we were discussing. It wasn’t a story I’d told a lot – what was the point when all the markers of that time were long gone? But… the response to that story was instant. Two women who claimed to be some sort of David Bowie society came and talked to me, taking down lots of information – checked out the houses where we three Bowie musketeers had ‘stalked’ him (Vale Court in West London, and Oakley Street), and told me I should share the story because it was lovely. Seriously?  I told my daughters. They were little then, but they were impressed. That was great!

Then on Friends Reunited, my old friend Georgia made contact after thirty years. “I still remember that outfit you designed for David Bowie and how excited we were when he came on the stage at Earl’s Court’ she wrote.  I remember feeling total astonishment: the story was so much my story in  my head, I’d forgotten I was part of a posse and that there was a collective pleasure in that moment. And a collective recollection. We met and reminisced with great joy.

Reel forward and Bowie hits 65. The broadcaster Samira Ahmed Tweets a greeting and I Tweet her to say how much I used to love him and that I once designed a costume for him. ‘Will you write it? ‘she asks.  ‘If you blog it, I’ll Tweet it, that sounds like a great story.’ So I write a blog in 45 minutes (I note this particular account is nearly 1500 words, and I have only been writing for 40 minutes – it’s a story that rushes out at the speed of knots) and Samira Tweets it, and one thing leads to another and I find the story has inspired one of my favourite broadcasters into making a programme about Bowie’s effect on young Asian women. It’s title?  I Dressed Ziggy Stardust.

Of course, for obvious reasons like a lack of evidence, I am not credited on the programme with designing the costume. Though I did.  Correction: I drew it. Whoever it was to whom Bowie took that drawing, is the person who designed it, who put life into the idea. But the idea, that was mine. Who will say so now however?  Who remembers what they were doing at that time and where their thoughts came from. That night at Earl’s Court every item in  Bowie’s wardrobe was original, exquisite, extraordinary. Every single item was iconic.

My contribution was very small in the great scheme. It is only over the years that the value of that single costume has shown itself, because it was quirky and unusual and allowed us to watch Bowie move in a way his other clothes did not. But that night, overcome with wonder at the whole show, I did not know it was iconic and nor did anyone else. Indeed, I was totally absorbed,  because I was a girly girl, with the extraordinary make up he donned for that tour – the painted face, the gold, the red, it was astonishing: oriental and glorious.  Samira’s programme allowed me, however, a wonderful wander back down Memory Lane.

I am not a sentimental person. I loved Bowie with all my heart and for many years. At 17 I told everyone that I would  only ever marry a man called David with brown hair and blue eyes, as that was the closest I could get to my icon. So I did, for a while, at the age of 31. The children I had with that David have grown up with Bowie in the house and lived through my orgasmic outpourings after seeing him on the Reality Tour in 2004. It was a sublime night at Wembley – truly brilliant – but I was not hankering after my youth or the idols of it, simply struck by enduring greatness as we grew older together.

And yet… and so oddly… when I woke up this morning and heard that David Bowie was dead, as well as feeling great sadness, my first thought was ‘I’m glad it was him and not my mum.’

I’m glad it was him and not my mum??

I have realised as the day has gone on that David Bowie was so much more than a musical and style idol in my life. So much more than the man who had my untutored drawings transformed into the most beautiful and iconic costume by a master. So much more than my childhood. He was a member of my family. The big brother. Perhaps even the father I never had. He has been in my heart even when I was not aware he was there.

I was once interviewed for a film about Asian high-achievers (don’t say a word). I remember being asked who the biggest influence in my life had been. Without hesitation, I replied: David Bowie. The interviewer laughed – other people were saying mothers and fathers and aunties and gurus, but I was naming a bisexual pop star?  Oh yes, I said: David Bowie had been and would remain the guiding light in my life. I loved everything about him from his music and his style to the way he challenged our beliefs and behaviours. His bravery, his brazenness, his open-minded philosophies on life. I don’t remember if I said it so coherently but the drift was there.

And that, I think, is why I thought ‘I’m glad it was him and not my mum”, because all of this time he has remained the most important marker of male mores in my life. From my young, developing, growing, self, to my middle-aged, grumpy, menopausal, blue-haired, self, I am Bowie’s child. And so, even as I felt deep sadness for his loss – the loss of a genius – I was relieved my mum survived him.

RIP David Bowie. Thank you for all of it. Thank you for trusting my design, for being open and honest about it at the time, and for giving me some great memories. I know the truth, and I’m hoping you still remembered it too!

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5 comments

  1. This is even more beautiful the second time round, and with your lucid and beautiful update. The best thing written about DB so far, imho. Absolutely beautiful. Thank you.

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  2. Alexandra Pigg · · Reply

    A lovely truly moving story Shyama, can’t believe I didn’t know it already – you dark horse!

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  3. N Charest · · Reply

    Beautiful. I have a friend here in the states that just disclosed she sent him a song a long time ago and he called her on the phone. They talked for an hour and he encouraged her to keep being creative. I wonder how many other young people he influenced directly like he did you and my friend?

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  4. […] She wishes I hadn’t, but is still my friend, luckily. It’s not for everyone, I know. She’s written her own great account of her Ziggy Staudust costume design that turned out to have a life of its […]

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  5. Lovely writing. (And impressive designing.)

    And somehow enhanced by the ad for two pairs of sensible beige ladies Hush Puppies at the bottom. I’m afraid the internet is no respecter of art. (And I’m pretty sure it didn’t pick up on MY preferences. Not on a weekday, anyway.)

    Or perhaps it’s a sublime counterpoint?

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