Bowie in Blackwell’s Portsmouth

Local writer and academic Sue Harper reflects on the lives and legacies of two of the greats – David Bowie and Blackwell’s Portsmouth – in this humorous and thought-provoking short story.

Years ago, I ran a research project on the 1970s. It was very successful but left me with a sense of unfinished business. I was particularly interested in David Bowie – his gender fluidity, his musical variability, his admirable penchant for being one thing and seeming another. A Bowie biography had recently been reprinted and I thought I would stage a little celebratory event. Accordingly, I reserved Blackwell’s. Jo ordered the books. The cakes were bought.

So far so good. I had intended to give a little talk and chair a discussion – perhaps play some of the music. The event might attract maybe 30 people. But, by either my unconscious desire for mischief or just by accident, the wording of the invitation was ambiguous: ‘Is Davie Bowie really dead? Can he be revived?’ This went around the internet like wildfire. I was appalled to realise that the fans were expecting a psychic manifestation. I had always thought of Pompey as a sticky place, full of spittle and semen, but it turned out that people thought it was full of ectoplasm as well.

The day dawned. Thousands and thousands of people streamed out of the station. Many dressed as Ziggy Stardust. The others were dressed as the Thin White Duke. It was the biggest crush Portsmouth had ever seen. The police were out in force. They even brought out horses to control the crowd. Since Blackwell’s was on a roundabout abutting onto five major roads, the city was in total lockdown. A Council official was stuck in his limousine and shook his fist at the crowds.  Several University high-ups were caught in the traffic-jam too.  They were riding bikes, as if to curry favour with the Greens, but soon had their vehicles crushed by a fire-engine. The organisers of the event (now seen as “ringleaders”) were corralled inside the bookshop. Brian had a nose-bleed all over his shirt and looked like Banquo’s ghost. Jules had the beginnings of an asthma attack. Amanda fiddled nervously with her new beads. I simply experienced a sensation of being virtuous, but nonetheless to blame.

Eventually, the traffic cleared (it took hours) and ten of us were left in the shop. We sat around finishing the wine. Blackwell’s had large windows and was surrounded by high buildings. I thought we must have looked like Nigthawks, that sad painting by Edward Hopper.

‘OK folks’, I said, ‘before we go, let’s raise a glass to Bowie. This is all for him anyway. David, where are you?’

In the corner of the shop, there was a tall black cupboard. Suddenly the door creaked and began to swing open. One of the girls started to whimper. Two more drops of blood trickled onto Banquo’s shirt. My bladder, ever my weakest organ, went into overdrive. And then, out of the cupboard, stepped Bowie himself. Not as Ziggy or as the Duke but it was him, even if his eyes looked as though they were made of glass.

He began to sing but no living throat ever made music like this. He sang five or six songs which, although they were old, sounded new. The last one was All the Young Dudes. This was the song he had given to a young group, free of charge, to make their own fortunes.

He gestured to us to sing the chorus, “all th’ young dudes…carry the news …carry the news’.

We made a keening, unearthly sound and, as it died away, he walked backwards into the cupboard, in a re-enactment of the end of Darkstar.

They closed Blackwell’s soon after that. Perhaps it had become tainted with sedition. More likely was that it fell victim to the forces of greed, philistinism and cultural myopia. I wondered what the ghostly Bowie had meant by “carry the news”. Surely it must have been this – that all people must die, but art does not.  It is all that remains of us.  It keeps youth blooming after its prime, it keeps the leaves on the tree after the autumn and it keeps hope alive. Bowie knew that piece of wisdom and, now we know it too, even though it was ignored by the Suits and by the Dementors.

Image edit by Emily Priest.