Bowie Sighting: Philip Hoare, Part 1

I’m not going to write about my feelings on hearing David Bowie has crossed over; this blog has over the years been an extended thank you to David. I  don’t know if I ever wrote here about one of the worst periods of my life when the only thing that brought me solace was scrolling through Bowie tumblrs for hours and hours, and for a year listening to only Bowie: that pretty much sums things up. My respect for his bravery — see posts “At 27 and 54,” the “(No Longer Crashing in the Same Car”) series, and, perhaps most relevantly, “Wake Up to the Next Day”.

I’ve neglected this blog because of my own liver disease (see any post in for the past year).

But now I want to pick up where I left off. and that is with what I call Bowie sightings: when he is alluded to or mentioned in a context where you wouldn’t expect to find him.

And my favorites are in the works of Philip Hoare, a longtime friend to the Pet Shop Boys and a contributor to the roundtable discussion of Bowie’s films in David Bowie Is.

But I started reading him after watching  The Man Who Bought Mustique (2000). I’d come across Stephen Tennant 1906-1987) before as an acquaintance of novelist Anthony Powell and the source for the (barely) fictionalized landlord of V. S. Naipaul in The Enigma of Arrival, and I knew there was a huge biography of this man who essentially did nothing, but did it beautifully.

Hoare does not explicitly mention Bowie in Serious Pleasures, but there is a sense that Tennant was a forerunner of Bowie as a persona. He was a beautiful boy  and unabashedly androgynous. In all other meaningful ways, David Jones/Bowie and Stephen Tennant could not be more different. Bowie was a self made man (or men); Tennant, an aristocrat. Bowie had an enormous capacity for work, but Tennant never finished anything, instead writing and rewriting the same book for decades. Hoare did make the link explicit later:

“Indeed, Stephen is a Zelig of 20th-century culture, having appeared as a character in Evelyn Waugh’s novels in the 1920s, in Woolf’s diaries and in his niece Emma Tennant’s novels. He was still being visited by Derek Jarman, David Hockney and Marie Helvin in the 1960s and 1970s. I followed in their footsteps, and met him in 1986. It was a visit that changed my life, since it prompted me to write my first book – an attempt to explain the effect of that memorable day.

“Caroline Blackwood, who knew Stephen when she was married to Lucian Freud, told me that Stephen was the nearest thing to David Bowie that the 1920s produced.”

He [Hoare] adds: “You can see why I liked him.”


“Stephen really had been a Bright Young Thing, and he had looked like David Bowie in 1927, wearing gold dust in his hair and that extraordinary leather coat with the chinchilla fur collar – the alien in Mayfair. And I was Stephen Tennant’s stalker… John Waters would love that.”

I confess to having only read the first 100 pages of Hoare’s biography of Noël Coward (1996). I did read England’s Lost Eden: Adventures in a Victorian Utopia (2005) but did not see any allusions to Bowie.

There’s an oblique one in Oscar Wilde’s Last Stand: Decadence, Conspiracy and the Most Outrageous Trial of the Century (it’s a long story, in sum, conservative homophobic war-mongering politicians conspire successfully to reverse social progress). The so-called Cult of the Clitoris met in The Golden Calf, a private club on Heddon Street — where 60 years later, Ziggy landed. See “Going Underground,” an interview following the 1997 publication of the book, in which Hoare reminds us that Lindsay Kemp performed a decadent version of Wilde’s Salome.

I consider Spike Island: The Memory of a Military Hospital (2001) to be Hoare’s break-through book. Like his other books, Spike Island is obviously meticulously researched. But this time Hoare does not hesitate to connect his subject to his own life, and as he does so, he explicitly thanks David Bowie.

Hoare tells us in its opening chapter that he grew up near Netley Hospital in Southampton, the biggest hospital ever built, a place for broken men from the Crimean War through WWII. It’s oddly fascinating (would you pick up a book about a hospital now in ruins?), but befitting its subject, it is dark, despairing, melancholy.

At the book’s end, Hoare tells of about the event that shaped his childhood: the death of his older brother in a motorcycling accident. What kept him going was London, great expectations of a release from his working class background and, while not putting his brother’s death behind him, finding his own way in a world beyond the confinement of grief:

“As I lay in my narrow bed by the window, while Bowie drifted in white space, a sci-fi Dietrich in powder-blue suit and make-up singing ‘Life on Mars,’ I dreamed of UFOs landing in our back garden, scanning the terrifying dark skies in my head for phosphorescent craft set to conquer the world. But the future did not descend from outer space. It arrived by train. . . And in a Somerset field, . . . I watched a middle-aged Thin White Duke. . .as the fires burn in front of him and the stars shine behind until they all go out.” [p. 362]

Hoare’s next books, Leviathan [American title: The Whale] (2011) and The Sea Within (2014) bear witness to Hoare’s gratitude to Bowie primarily in several allusions to The Man Who Fell to Earth. For example, in The Whale (p. 17): ”

“And I stood looking out to sea, watching transtlantic ships sail by like Fitzgerald’s boats borne back ceaselessly into the past. waiting for a future that might never come, like the man who fell to earth,”

an echo, he explains by Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby of the closing lines of Melville’s Moby Dick, and which Hoare finds re-imagined by Nicholas Roeg and Bowie (source notes, found on Penguin Books’ website).

But more on Philip Hoare’s gratitude to Bowie and Thomas Jerome Newton next time.

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