David Bowie at the V&A, and why my sister nicely ruins everything

My sister, in the nicest possible way, ruins everything. Take snow. I used to get excited about snow! And then she pointed out that it was fairly miserable for people with nowhere to shelter from it.

Then there was that time she ruined Together in Electric Dreams by pointing out that if the object of his affection didn’t smile until it was time to go away, then maybe they didn’t like Phil Oakey that much anyway.

Or the time that she snorted at the idea of conditions being remotely ‘normal’ in Enola Gay. I mean, honestly. Am I really supposed to think about things?!

And then she ruined 30-odd years of thinking perfectly nice but faintly indifferent thoughts about David Bowie (except as Jareth, of course, where he is the Best Thing Ever), by asking me to go along to the V&A retrospective about him.

Because actually, as it turns out, his body of work screams pretty much every life lesson worth knowing. The exhibition – lovingly curated and presented beautifully in an enjoyably immersive experience complete with headphones that play a soundtrack triggered by the nearest display – is not very much about David Bowie himself – except as he can be known through his work – but mostly about the art of and around his work. It includes sketches and lyric notes, a piece from the graphic designer about the creation of the cover for The Next Day, videos of collaborators and influences. It’s a massively rich collection, and it’s only a tiny slice of the massive volume that could have been displayed, I’m sure.

We stopped at one point, in the middle, already overwhelmed with the quality of what we’d seen – and before we’d even reached the man’s mid-20s.

“If you just completely commit yourself to it, and keep producing work so prolifically,” she commented, “you’re simply bound to strike gold more than other people.”

I thought about other vastly active artists – the obvious ones for me at this moment are Gaiman and Palmer – who might not always hit the target but whose monolithic archives mean that they are always producing something, and therefore are more likely to produce something excellent. And, besides, practice makes perfect, right?

I’m not suggesting that innate talent isn’t important. But as my former colleague Stacey, bassist for Axes, once said to me: “It pisses me off when people think this kind of thing just comes to you. Sure, I’m musical, but I worked my arse off to get this good.”

And, crucially, it’s not enough to be good on your own. You have to share it with someone else. Perhaps with everyone else. Because then it takes on a separate life of its own, too (here I think of Mark Billingham, author of the Thorne detective novels, who – rightly, in my opinion – figures “a book isn’t a book until it’s read”).

Basically, the brilliant, when it comes to what they are brilliant at, simply don’t do shy, even when it hurts, and they don’t do lazy, because that doesn’t make sense to them.

They also don’t have to do drama. Have you ever noticed? People like working with them, and hiring them, and talking about how easy they are to collaborate with. When you’re reasonably secure in your ability, and totally passionate about and dedicated to the production of whatever it is you produce, you simply don’t have to be an ass about it.

And so, back to Bowie and my sister. My sister, who ruins things by not ruining them. By, in fact, forcing me to think, and reflect, and love her ever so much for it,  even while I resent the nagging feeling that I should set my bar higher, and rise to meet it.

As we were leaving, she said to me, contemplatively:

“You get the impression that the world is just a better place for having had him in it.”

Now what a legacy that is.

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5 responses to “David Bowie at the V&A, and why my sister nicely ruins everything

  1. Pingback: A letter to my daughter on the occasion of her 3rd birthday | ALEXANDRA ROUMBAS GOLDSTEIN

  2. This idea about sharing making things real just made me think of The Sound of Music, which I think contains a lot of helpful life lessons:

    A bell is no bell till you ring it;
    A song is no song till you sing it;
    And love in your heart wasn’t put there to stay;
    Love isn’t love till you give it away.

    Maria Von Trapp knows her stuff.

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