David Bowie was an islander, born in England, died in Manhattan, his ashes scattered off the island of Bali. He had a lifelong interest in another island nation, Japan, and homes in Australia, Mustique, and Bermuda. Like Thomas Jerome Newton, his avocation could easily be described as Traveler; his moniker on his website was Sailor; at the Secret Roseland Concert for Bowienetters (2000), he wore a sailor’s blouse with ribbons and triangular placket and loose bell bottoms; on the Isolar tours, a white sailor’s or captain’s hat; and during the Mick Rock Aladdin Sane photo shoot, his face was adorned with an anchor, as shown on the last page of RisingTideFallingStar.
For 20 years, and when he made Lodger, the album most dominated by terrestrial rootlessness, Bowie lodged in Berlin and lived in Switzerland, where “the vaults” may still be; the mountains provide a level of physical and psychological security not to be found in coastal regions, certainly not along the coast of southern California, in spite of the imperious tone of “Station to Station’s” “Tall in this room overlooking the ocean.”
RisingTideFallingStar is about people who by birth or choice live on the coast, where land ends and sea begins and there is nowhere left to go but back. Hoare grew up in Southampton, England. Southampton was for embarkation; south Florida, where I was raised, final arrival. Once he settled in Manhattan, Bowie could see Liberty Island, where the Statue of Liberty stands, very near to Ellis Island, through which so many poor came, many who began their journeys in Southampton, who would never again see their homelands.
Mine was quite a different coast. Miami was a city in its infancy when my grandparents arrived, my maternal great-grandmother and her daughters coming east from far west Texas, and my father’s people from Ohio; they were lured into a malarial swamp by advertisements for a better future. I have looked at the 1930 census for my father’s block, and no head of household had been born in Miami. They were what Hoare calls “washashores,” (34) referring to the fulltime residents of Provincetown, Massachussetts: “No one arrives here accidentally, unless they do. It is not on the way to anywhere else, except to the sea” (41).
Last spring I went to the Outer Banks of North Carolina, which I imagine to be geographically similar to Provincetown on Cape Cod, where much of RisingTideFallungStar takes place. It too is a can’t-get-there-from-here sort of place. One road connects these islands, and there is one bridge to the mainland. Otherwise access is by ferries and air (Kill Devil Hawks, where the Wright Brothers first flew, is on the Outer Banks). It is shifting so much now that Cape Hatteras Lighthouse had to be moved inland in 1999.
The Outer Banks are the closest part of the US mainland to Bermuda, the island that well could have been the model for Prospero’s in The Tempest, a glimpse of the coming New World. David Bowie had a home there, between worlds. The Tempest is a character, at least an informing force, in RisingTideFallungStar. The first mention of the “starman” is Derek Jarman’s fancy that Bowie would sing Ariel’s song in his version of the play . From Shakespeare’s Ariel, Hoare goes by easy stages to Percy Bysshe Shelley, described by a contemporary as the “image of some heavenly spirit come down to earth by mistake” (185), and said by another to have drawn pentacles and seen demons, never eating much or sitting still (190).
Then there’s the Phoenician sailor in Eliot’s The Wasteland, Melville’s Billy Budd and Moby Dick, Jack London’s Martin Eden, Keats (“Here lies one whose name was writ in water.” ), Stephen Tennant’s Lascars (337), and Wilfred Owen, pictured as a child in his Edwardian sailor suit and later as a WWI captain, who drowned in poison gas, in murky muck and mangled landscapes. Selkies and mermen.
There are so many more: Hoare’s family, who lost their connection to their native country of Ireland (369) as I assume did Bowie’s mother; there is no mention of his retracing her family’s path from Ireland to Kent.
But I will end, as I began: Read RisingTideFallingStar.
Some Random Thoughts:
Hoare notes Shelley had a flooded house in Italy and that John Lily developed one in Bimini in the 1960s to study dolphins (203). There is a wonderful novel about this experiment, Ted Mooney’s Easy Travel to Other Planets.
Brixton and Bromley, London, where Bowie grew up, are much closer to the Thames Estuary and North Sea than is metro Houston to the Gulf of Mexico, but whether London is considered coastal, I don’t know. Considering whales have swum up the Thames, I”m inclined to say if is. (I lived a few years in Houston, but there I was aware of its geography only if hurricanes threatened. Its metro area is considered the largest coastal city along the Gulf of Mexico, but it doesn’t have a coastal feel. I began reading RisingTideFallungStar just before Harvey hit Houston and had to put it aside when Irma came across Florida.)
Warren Ellis has a very fine essay, “A Compendium of Tides” on the shapeshifting qualities of the Thames Estuary in the anthology Spirits of Place.
In the early 1990s Bowie had a Balinese-inspired estate on Mustique in the Grenadaires in the Caribbean. I don’t know why he sold this retreat he considered enchanting, but I have two guesses. Iman may have not found visits to a part of the world well known for its brutal slavery as charming (there is no hope of escape on islands) (the fortune of Elizabeth Barrett, one of the authors Hoare features in this volume was derived from Caribbean sugar cane plantations), and the island’s celebrity-dominated parties proved deadly to the family of its owner, Colin Tennant, 3rd Baron Glenconner.
This post follows several others on Philip Hoare’s RisingTideFallingStar, which will be released in the US in April.