Consider the quotation 'Ultraviolence in Liberty fabrics.'
Does it describe:
a) A costume designed for the musician David Bowie during the Starman era?
b) My disposition, 45 minutes into the V&A exhibition celebrating the musician David Bowie, having moved a total of no more than three metres from the entrance, trapped between ever-encroaching human walls of ditherers, slow readers, the spatially unaware and David Bowie fans – and the Venn diagram which holds them all?
[The exhibition has been open for several months now, and it occurs to
me that it's so good that no one may actually be leaving. They're just
letting more and more people in.]
The answer is, of course, both. It was a trick question.
Still, during the three hours you spend carefully edging your way around David Bowie Is..., it is heartily reassuring to find something, anything, in common with the subject. The creativity, the eclecticism, the energy, the conviction on display, is simultaneously inspiring and totally demoralising. What have I achieved with my sorry life in comparison? Why have I wasted so many years? Should I have worn more jumpsuits when I was younger and a slim size 10?
Say what you like about Dave, but he certainly gets things done.
I like to imagine this kind of conversation between David and his neighbour as they both left their respective houses on any given Monday morning from the late 60s onwards.
'Hello there, David!'
'Hi Jeff. How was your weekend?'
'Oof, well, pretty busy actually. Mowed the lawn - that was well overdue. Took Maureen and her mother out for Sunday lunch, bled the radiators, watched Poldark. How about yourself?'
'Well, I wrote a few songs, went to my mime class, commissioned a set of asymmetric PVC stagewear from an unknown fashion student, storyboarded a new short film, made some flapjacks and read a really inspiring book about Dadaist theatre in the 1930s.'
David Bowie Is... a very sobering comparative exercise. Still, as my companion, Mr H, said to me over lunch afterwards, the gulf between our achievements exists because David Bowie is a one-off. There is him, he said, and then there is the rest of us.
The next day, I went to get my hair cut and noticed my hairdresser had bought exactly the same postcard from the exhibition as I had and stuck it to his mirror.
This is the kind of symbiotic thinking that can be achieved by shouting at each other over the noise of a hairdryer three times a year.
And since hairdressers are confidantes and counsellors, as well as being really good at not gagging when bits of other people's hair get everywhere, I discussed my feelings of Aladdinsecurity with him.
He, too, was philosophical. (Look at all the reassuring men I know! When I was floundering after the sudden death of my dad, a counsellor told me there wasn't enough positive male influence in my life. Well, look at me now! I'm a winner!)
'That's why he has an exhibition about him,' my hairdresser said. 'And we don't.'
If you are as self-involved as I am, here's what you take away from David Bowie Is...:
There will never be an exhibition all about me.
People will never queue patiently to look at faded photographs of me aged six dressed
in a mum-sewn clown costume for a ballet recital and ponder how commedia
del'arte had always had a profound influence on my work.
My penetrating yet slyly humorous letters of complaint to Southwark Council will never find a home under a protective glass case as an example of an artist honing their gift before finding their true artform. This is a bloody shame because they were brilliant letters, actually.
All I could do to console myself was look for any other ways DB and I are alike. There are several:
We share a naturally/unnaturally high pallor.
We are both Capricorns, supposedly the dullest sign in the zodiac. (At this point, the V&A would probably whirl their endless white ribbon of Bowie-related till receipts around like a rhythmic gymnast and say that astrology is bullshit.)
Our dads have the same name. And I think we can all agree that 'John Jones' is pretty unusual.
Another thing: as I walked around the exhibition, I overheard a man trying to impress the woman he was with by telling her how the mention of 'the market square' in Five Years related to the market square in Bromley. He may have been making it up. I wouldn't know. I'm the first to admit I'm a Bowie-come-lately. But I have suffered my own harrowing torment in Bromley's market square, when a wooden skewer thrown on the ground became embedded in my foot, having found a path through the slats of my gladiator sandals (a grasp of footwear trends will tell you this happened some years ago).
Um. OK. Everyone?
I THINK I MIGHT ACTUALLY BE DAVID BOWIE.
Obviously I realise I'm nearly 40 and this has never occurred to me before, but if it's true, then I did take an awful lot of drugs in the 70s, so it's very likely this kind of thing could slip your mind. And Dave does love an image change.
I feel much better about things now.
Still. I should NEVER have turned down the Olympics.