And the papers want to know whose shirts you wear…

In Heroes on April 16, 2013 at 7:28 pm

The Man Who Fell to Earth

I’m in a dither, trying to decide whether to go back to the David Bowie exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum for a second try on Friday.

I went last week, in a state of highly-excited anticipation and it just didn’t work out. I left about a quarter of the way through it, feeling very irritated.

I’m a member of the V&A, which is well worth the £64 a year, as you just stroll into all the exhibitions, with no need to buy tickets – a particular advantage with this show, which sold out for the whole run as quickly as a One Direction tour. A first for the museum.

But this time, we were all made to queue up before entrance anyway to get the audio headsets.

I loathe those bloody things.


It nearly drove me potty at the Manet show at the Royal Academy (also a member there, for same reasons…). Everyone walking around in a moronic state, all coming to a lingering gormless halt at the same places as the audio guide drones on.

So I was already grumpy about that, but conceded for this particular exhibition, as the audio aspect is pretty germain to Mr Bowie. But the real problem once we got in was sheer size of the crowd.

The exhibition is just mobbed. Which is great. I love that David Bowie – the man who shaped my generation and changed world attitudes to sexuality and gender forever – has such resonance and with such a wide cross section of people. But it did make it hard to connect with the show, when you were jostling for position to see anything.

David Bowie in Munich in 1976

And after I had queued up for my turn to look at a few wrinkled ticket stubs, I started to feel a bit lowered by the banality of a lot of the exhibits in the early rooms. Old tickets and posters didn’t enhance my appreciation of Bowie, they slightly reduced him.

But then I did have a golden moment. Standing in front of a large screen showing the film of him – in the blue lurex catsuit, with his halo of russet hair, plucked-away eyebrows and kohl- rimmed eyes – singing his 1969 breakthrough hit Space Oddity.

Back it all came. How amazing it was in homespun hippyville 1969 to see someone on the telly, who looked like that, singing a song about the most amazing thing ever, which was happening right then – men landing on the moon.


Someone who looked like he came from outer space, but sang about it in a way which still never fails to bring tears to my eyes.

‘Tell my wife I love her very much… She knows…’

Because while I was as gripped as any other school kid by the Apollo missions, making my own space capsules out of cornflake packets, it was all about the science and technology. Bowie put the romance and the mystery back into space.

So I just stood there in the V&A gazing at him, strumming his guitar, looking right into the camera, the razor cheekbones turning this way and that and I fell in love with him all over again.

The madding crowd was pushing around me impatiently, determined to see every little detail of every flyer from crappy gigs in Bromley in 1965 and I didn’t care.


There was a bloke standing next to me, about my age and like me, rooted to the spot, transfixed and transported, watching the video. And that’s when I understood why I didn’t want to see the rest of the exhibition: the whole point of David Bowie is the sound and vision.

I don’t care where he went to school, where he bought his first guitar, who he was and is married to, or what he has for lunch. All I care about his how his music and his image have made me feel since I was nine years old.

He expanded my mind like a psychedelic drug then and did it all over again ten years later with the thrillingly dark and cerebral Berlin albums. He has been a uniting passion between me and all the most interesting people I have known in my life.

I don’t need David Bowie curated. He’s in my DNA.

David Bowie

When the film finished, I headed round the corner, hopeful the magic might have started kicking in, but the crowds just seemed to get worse and the stupid headset didn’t even work.

I ran out of there, trying not to look at the rest of the show in case I wanted to come back another day (and in case I accidentally saw a picture of him in Labyrinth….shudder), at a time when there might be fewer people.

Then, as we do these days, I got home and asked the hive mind what it thought about this subject.

Was I just being a grumpy old woman? Had anyone else seen and loved the exhibition? And – FOMO kicking in – was I missing out, by giving up after the early section?

And did anyone feel, as I realise I do, that finding out more about the your heroes – a mistake I’ve made with reading way too much about Joni Mitchell and the Mitford sisters – can lessen them?

I was interested to get these replies:

@kateinkew: I felt the same when I read more about Frank Lloyd Wright’s life outside his work. Wish I hadn’t.

@olibennett: Yes! Also the Keith Richards biog was a romp but certainly cured me of fandom.

@fictionwitch: Happened to me with Georgette Heyer biography. Fallen idols.

@LDNcalling: Yes, tick box. Music biographies can be really dull.

And finally, my favourite.

@TrueBritKnits: I do not need to see the keys to the Berlin apartment!

I felt very comforted by those replies. But I’m still not sure if I can stop myself going back during the special ‘members only’ hour this Friday.

What do you think I should do?

And here’s the clip with stood me still…

  1. What you described sounds like my idea of hell. Think about it for a while and then decide. Are there any quiet times you could go?
    I remember a few years ago when Bowie set up his own company which provided email address with, I think, He had to close the company down as it was completely oversubscribed and they couldn’t cope.

  2. As you keep thinking about it, go back during the members only hour.

    Thanks for the tip about the crowds and that the early rooms contain ‘padding’. I have a ticket for the exhibition for next month.

    My last visit to view the Sistine Chapel was a similar experience! I could only feel grateful, that I had seen it previously, in less “pushy” circumstances.

    • I had to give up on getting in to St Mark’s Basilica when I went to Venice for the first time last year. It was before the height of the tourist season and we went to the square at 8.30 am, but the queue was already huge. It’s maddening, but I have to be glad that so many people want to have cultural experiences. Although the massive tour groups at Versailles just about ruined that for me… I can’t help thinking a lot of them are just ticking boxes. Been there, seen that, got the T shirt etc…

  3. Go back, don’t get the headphones, take your mp3 loaded up instead. Look at the outfits and the fabby video of the Michael Clark Dance Co dancing to Jean Genie. Or, get the headphones but only put them on in front of certain videos. Whoosh through the first room. That’s what I did 2nd time round and it was much more enjoyable.

    And don’t feel bad about being rooted to the spot. I was, several times. Also in the room with the big screens I just lounged and forgot everyone else and gazed at the beauty.

    I met another hero years ago, Malcolm McLaren, and vowed never again. Sometimes you do need not to know about people and just adore from afar!

    • This is MOST EXCELLENT advice. So you agree, the first part of the expo is crap? There was no proper explanation of how he transformed from the quiffed crooner of the first room to the Space Oddity in the next room! Lindsay Kemp seemed to be a bit of an afterthough. I found that bewildering. I wish I’d never interviewed Mickey Rourke…

      • Can’t tell you how STUPIDLY excited I was to read my tweet quoted!

        Yeah, that first section seems odd, a mish-mash of lots of stuff without it being particularly relevant or curated. Background but a bit pointless. I think on the whole that although there is a some amazing stuff there it’s not handled very well, can’t help feeling the Met in NY would have made a much better job of it. Then again, I thought the same about the Hollywood Costume exhibition and HATED all the talking i-Pads there. And the shop for that was was just full of utter crappy tat. I know the V&A is probably trying to widen the audience for exhibitions but they do seem to be dumbing-down a bit. The Postmodernism one was the last really good one they did, I think, I know they want to fill their coffers but is it really the V&As remit to be populist and sell crap? (Talking about the costume shop there, the Bowie shop is slightly better).

        If you can, don’t go in the members’ hour. I think that’s more rammed, I went to the Members’ preview evening and had to queue 90 mins to get in, would have given up apart from OH being 45 mins late to meet me and then nattering to pal who’s already been in for most of the rest of the queuing time. Second time I went, just normal ‘everyday’ was a lot quieter, got there about 11.30am.

        Mickey Rourke! Yeah, like to remember him in ‘Angel Heart’…

      • Well, I feel like I’ve met my soul sister. Feel exactly the same about V&A expos and so does my big sister who was so cross about the quilts show, she won’t go back.

        I was disappointed with quilts too because it didn’t show anywhere the process of making them, which is so fascinating. But the show which made me furious was Evening Dresses/ It was completely uncurated! Did you go? It was just divided up by colour – no context, no fashion history. I was Disgusted, of Hastings. The Princess Grace one was way too small and cramped too.

        As for the wretched shop, I don’t want a David Bowie tea towel or fridge magnet or whatever crap they’re selling. Very good tip not to go in Members Hour.

        It’s not always disappointing. SOme people I’ve interviewed have been wonderful. Kyloe Minogue is lovely, as is Cate Blanchett and she remembered me next time I saw her somewhere. Interviewing RIck Mayall in the 1980s turned into a hilarious mad drunken binge. Funniest night ever. Richard E Grant was another winner. Sophia Loren… I could go on xxx

  4. I was a Bowie fan from the 80’s in my teen years though I suspect I had memories of the earlier music from when I was a toddler. I tracked down his earlier albums from second hand music stores. With no internet and living in Australia I really didn’t know much about him except I loved his music. And now we have YouTube. Dream come true.
    I’m not sure about the exhibit – just envious you can stroll through the V & A any old day! Maybe you need to go back or you will always be wondering. If it doesn’t work out high tail it to the gift shop then have a cup of tea. Sounds like a plan.
    Thanks for the gorgeous pics. Sigh.

  5. Good feedback for V&A. They should organise things to run more effectively (like allocated times and working headsets). Also true about knowing your idols.

    As someone coming to London from Sydney soon I’m now rethinking whether we visit this.

    • See Belinda’s brilliant comment below – skip through the early rooms (they are very poorly done) and just get on to the big spaces, which did seem more enticing as I ran throught them muttering crossly…

  6. What you have described is EXACTLY why we didn’t go to the DB exhibition at the V & A when in London last week … DB is in my DNA too ( as is that clip – though in black and white b/c there was no colour TV in Australia when that clip was released) …

    Went to the Manet and loved it ! My husband had been trying to see ‘the Railway’ for YEARS … He regularly goes to Washington ( where it lives) but it is not often on show … So we went to London especially to see it ( oh and Dame Maggie in ‘The Audience’) ( mmm and accidentally e mptied the Silver Vaukts).

    Go DB

    Australian Woman

    • Sounds like I might have to go back to the Manet too… There were some wonderful wonderful paintings, I was just so irritated by the audio guide drones… x

  7. Absolutely go back… you’ll regret it if you dont, especially if its members only hopefully less people.

    Completely iunderstand what you mean abour headsets and large crowds. My firend and I went to Melbourne to see the Napoleon exhibition ..and I felt the same pushing crowds, people getting cross if you acidently get in their line of vision

    I remember vividly seeing DB in Sydney in 1978 at Randwick Racecourse or the showground (nothing else then ) ..magic

  8. I’d definitely GO. You might regret it!

  9. I think if there is a ‘Members Only’ hour I’d go back. Hopefully less crowds frantically trying to get value from their entrance fee. Many may be like you and been through already and may be happier to stand back a little and really take the experience in. I don’t think there’s the possibility of having your memories changed as there is nothing bad about the sublime Bowie. You can just switch off for the boring bits and focus on the bits that touch your soul. Best, Cx
    PS – I work at an Art Gallery and I hate Audio headsets. They remove people from the interaction between person and art and make people behave differently than if they weren’t wearing them. How can you turn to that person next to you, gage they are having the same experience as you (and are happy for you to make comment) and share the moment with them? I think they are cold and impersonal. Much rather a guided tour (by a real person) any day!

    • Very interesting to hear that a pro in the art world hates those headsets too. I’ve studied Art History at Uni (very proud of my MA!) so I suppose I don’t need them to have the background, but I like to dart around an exhibition looking more closely at the works that call out to me. I don’t look at every single thing. But I suppose we are all different. I have very brainy friends who go slowly, look at everything, read every caption. You do need context to properly understand and form opinions on any work of art, but I think the immediate personal response is equally important.

      • I must admit – I can be a bit of a “darter” too! Looking closely at bits and pieces that catch my eye – and reading about the pieces I like to delve more in to. And sometimes just sitting and looking for a while at a favourite piece. Which is why I hate audio headsets dictating the info you are given and the pace you look.
        I know a lot of people are “anti-guides” – but at the Gallery I work they do a brilliant job and really giving you a different insight into the Exhibition/artist. More of an experience, than a tour. Not for everyone, I know – but they can really heighten the experience. Lovely if you can do both! (look on your own, and do a tour)
        The tour guides don’t just trot you around giving dreary information, but make for a memorable experience. One of the best tours I have witnessed was one of our brilliant guides – who got quite teary when standing in front of an awe-inspiring art work. At the end of the Tour, everyone cheered like they’d been at a (fabulous) rock concert! x

      • I stumbled across an impressive tour guide with a group of school kids at the National Gallery in London some years ago – I have never seen children sitting so quietly & totally enraptured !

        This guy was good. I had to stop and listen.

        The trick would be to relay the information without it sounding as though you had repeated it umpteem dozen times before. No mean feat obviously.

        We found the Tour Guides (are they called “Park Rangers”?) in Philly just as impressive.

  10. Oh Dear, I had always thought he was singing “and the papers want to know who shot you, where”. Well, he was Major Tom! He could have been in a war…..No really.

  11. I wouldn’t return if I were you Maggie. it all sounds a lot like the Dali exibition at the NGV here in Melbourne a few years ago – just awful, waaay to many people, couldn’t really enjoy the art at all. My friends and I escaped to the cafe for some respite. Glad you had that one special moment though.

    Re learning more abut your heros – about three years ago I really got into Lucian Freud, read nearly everything written about him, don’t regret it a bit, feel I truly understand his work now (I didn’t previously).

    • Oh my, THAT was an exhibition… Also very crowded, but could take it all in. I really loved it. I am going to go back to Bowie, I think, but taking the excellent advice of Belinda – see below x

  12. Ugh, those crowds would be my idea of a living hell. I think I’d stay away and preserve my beautiful memories.

    Going a bit off topic here, but if you like stuff about space, do follow Chris Hadfield, commander of the ISS, on Twitter and Facebook. I have never really been interested in space stuff until this amazing guy brought it to my computer screen – magnificent photos, great Youtube videos and a wonderful sense of unity with the rest of the world. He’ll post a pic of some town in China and comment that ‘4 million of us live there’. ‘Of us’ = we’re all the same from space.

  13. I feel this way at almost every exhibition. I went to the Manet and was quite enjoying the barcode that came with a video until a security guard hollered at me for using me phone. He backed off when he realised but my lovely afternoon was shattered. Especially as he didn’t seem to see the people TOUCHING the paintings, I don’t understand why adults need to be reminded that by touching these works of art they are destroying them. As for one readers opinion of sharing the moment with someone, I find this ends up with me stuck with a traveller for the whole exhibit ( which I loathe) or a new friend who always wants to cut in front of you. I go to exhibitions to leave the world behind and that’s almost impossible when someone is kicking you in the back of the heel or worse a running commentary of incorrect information grrrrrrrrrr.

  14. I’d definitely go back Maggie. If you’re already wondering whether to do it, you will regret not going. Also, if it is members only, there may be less crowds. I’m incredibly jealous as it is – hopefully they’ll bring the exhibition to Australia some day.

    I’ve had the amazing pleasure to see DB up close and personal at a private performance and he is just electric to be near. Hopefully the exhibition captures some of that and like you said he is all about music and sound.

    So go back, take off the headset and embrace the atmosphere as I am sure he would too!

    • Wow – how amazing to have that experience. What year was it? What did he play???? x

      • It was in around 87, my memory is playing tricks on me these days but it was during the Glass Spider tour in Sydney. Blue Jean was a fave in those days and was amazing! My ultimate fave song though is “Life on Mars” – the film clip for that is also brilliant. Your blog made me dig out those photos from way back then and I have to say I can’t recall him ever having BIG 80’s hair but he did!

        Enjoy going back for a 2nd time x

      • oh I love that song so much too… 10 year old is just discovering Bowie now (I took her the expo and she loved it and saw it all, untrammelled by my emotional baggage) and it’s so lovely to watch her listening to that song and taking it all in. Trying to understand what it’s about – we’ll never know, it doesn’t matter…

  15. I am typing this listening to “Space Oddity” (thanks for the link and video, Maggie), remembering a small cluster of us around a mono player in 1972 or 3, entranced by “Starman”. I regularly dial it up on Youtube to get that old magic back.

    Love the picture of Bowie in his yellow suit. He wore the same during his Serious Moonlight tour, back in 1984. What a fabulous night: a full moon at the Sydney Showground. Not long before, I’d actually been on the same plane as him coming back from the UK. No, he was in the pointy end of the plane and I was banished to cattlle class. I did get to see him from afar, though.Even the back of his head gave me goosebumps.

    We introduced our daughter Chloe to Bowie when she was tiny. When she was about 2 or 3 she could always recognise his voice on the radio. It was great seeing her rocking out in her saggy nappy.

    It is a fine line: how much do we really need or want to have or know about the public people we admire? I felt sad at the end of Deborah Mitford’s memoir, “Wait For MeI” I had always imagined it to be a fairy tale marriage with the duke, but not so. And, the weirdness of her family. I had adored Nancy Mitford’s writing, but, I guess, what you create and your own reality are mostly very different.

    Your post has sparked so many thoughts and memories, as per usual!Thanks.

  16. Hi Maggie, I felt like this when I met you in Melbourne last year! I have read your columns and blogs and books for years but seeing you in real life (at Matilda’s, my friend gave you the hat) and hearing about how you write and seeing pics made you just like a normal person (sorry!) and I went home a bit flat. Do we need to preserve our memories/heroes intact ? or is it worth expanding what we know about people and places? Not sure but now you are back to my idol. Keep it coming. xxx

    • Ha ha ha ha that’s so funny – hoisted by my own petard! I suppose when I do those events I want the lovely people who come to like me. Perhaps I should be a snotty cow instea. Oh that is so funny, it’s made my day. My whole family were so AMAZED when I showed them that hat. It is one of my most prized possessions. I basically forced your friend to let me keep it (I did offer to pay…) and it was so so so incredibly nice of her to bring it along. It made me feel somehow fated to have the amazing connection I had with Australia from the moment I first set foot there. I really felt like I’d been there before and I never got lost in Sydney once, driving around on my very first day. It’s enough to make you believe in past lives.

      • Cheers Maggie – my friend Susanne was happy for you to have the hat-she knows you will treasure it and pass it on.

  17. About the headsets: I find them quite intrusive too. I want to feel my own response first and only then find out more. It really hit home when I went to the Accademia (sp??) in Florence to see Michelangelo’s treasures. We had a guide but had to use headsets to listen to her. After 15 minutes, as we were slowly approaching David, I took mine off. I couldn’t bear to have anything intruding on my first real view.

    I loathe crowds at exhibitions, so often don’t go unless I get in really early or really late: I like to linger and hate feeling pressured when there are people breathing down my neck to make me move on (ticking the box). I loved being in galleries and museums in winter: much more civilised! When I lived in London in 85 one of my favourite things was to drop in to the National Gallery and sit very quietly in front of the DaVinci cartoon (Virgin and Child). Heavenly when I was on my own in the room.

    It was funny reading Janine’s comment above: I know what she means. I agonised over what to wear to your visit to Readings in Hawthorn last year; sidled up to get my books autographed, red faced and awestruck. Duh!! You are lovely and ordinary (in the nicest possible way) but as with any degree of celebrity, imbued with sparkle – we feel like we know you so well through what we read in your books, and of course in your posts.

  18. I went on a Saturday two weeks ago, and loved it – I was struck by one of the final rooms (the biggest), where everyone just sat, awestuck. Spent about three hours there, and when I left I wanted to go right back to the start again. Have not stopped playing Bowie since.
    I would really recommend getting there early in the morning if you can. You could skip all the rooms you didnt like, and beat the crowds. We got there at 9:30 and had quite a lot of fun in the queue, people watching! Given the crazy ticket sales, I suspect that for the rest of the exhibition that any day by lunchtime it will be heaving
    Rather than membership of specific institutions I’ve had an Artfund membership for the last two years, which is brilliant. Usually gives you half price entry (sometimes free), plenty of advance notice which helps to ensure you book early – having learnt from harsh experience. It also has a great app that allows you to see what’s on near you, wherever you are in UK.

    PS. Can we have another fast update soon Maggie? I’ve been on it since end Jan….

    • See my new post… I’m so so tempted to go back again. That second to last room is such a treat, isn’t it? Like you I found it so hard to leave and only dragged myself away because I had an appointment. Did you long to dance too? I so wished I had one of my old pals with me.

      And yes, will blog about fasting again, but I went on holiday, so ditched it for a while. Back on board now, but need to get a few weeks under my belt, before I comment. HOw is it going for you?

      • Maggie, I wanted to dance the whole way through! Think I may be headed back to gift shop to source some presents for friends back home in Oz.

        Fasting…. doing ok, but yes it does feel slow. 11 pounds off in 13 weeks, and same for husband. We both still have a way to go, however it is slowly becoming routine and doing it together definitely helps. Oven baked curly kale has proven a big hit, and also myfitnesspal has helped re-educate us for feast days. My grandparent-in-laws followed something similar from their 60s onwards, and lived until 97 and 103, so there’s definitely something in it!

        Hope you are back in your favourite jeans soon!

      • I’m losing one pound a week too. I think it’s a good rate to lose weight, they say it’s more likely to stay off. That’s fascinating about your husband’s grandparents, can you tell us anymore about that? What inspired them? What their regime was? I find it hard-ish. But when I tell myself – you don’t have to do this tomorrow – I can stick to it. It’s much better than living ‘on a diet’, falling off the wagon, hating yourself etc.

  19. Just visited London from Sydney recently, and the last day of my visit was the first day of the exhibition. Sold out so I bought a members card to get in.I too hate audio for the same reason, and tried to go in without it- not allowed! Then joined the shuffle in the first room for about 10 minutes, before deciding it was crap and skipping onto the music rooms. At this point I was glad I had the audio. Agree it was so crowded, but this was my only opportunity to see the show, so i tried to cocoon myself in the music and just ignore it, not the best experience it could have been, but still fantastic, and im glad i persisted. I’m about the same age as you I think, grew up with Bowie, loved space oddity. Starman, and it was so wonderful to see the video of live performances and the staging which was good (but cramped into a too small space,) What I hadn’t appreciated though was what a complete artist Bowie is, From painting ( loved his german expressionist style portrait- wow!) to costume design, writing, theatre, stage design and production, poetry. I loved seeing his notebooks and his original hand written lyrics- as someone who loves to draw and paint it was wonderful to see his drawings and storeyboarding for diamond dogs. The Berlin stuff- Amazing He can do it all. I never had the chance to attend one of his live shows. The last room with gigantic screens made me almost feel like I was there, and I loved all the costumes, he is a creative genius. The periodic table of Bowie showing everyone he has influenced was amazing. You really realize how Madonna has ripped him off, ‘vogue’ and her Marlene Dietrich look was a direct take from Bowie. They need to give this show a much longer run so that everyone who wants to see it can get in and have time to take it in as it deserves

  20. And PS, visit Venice in winter, it is beautiful, there are no crowds, and no queues for St Marks, you can really appreciate its magnificence when you are not being herded through like cattle. Only slight downside is that some of the restaurants and shops close, but most are open, I would definitely only visit at this time having been there in september( crowded) can only imagine the horrors of June. Oh, and it is sunny in the open areas and gloomy along the canals in winter, very atmospheric and beautiful.

    • I went in early March, before Easter and it was still crowded. Summer must be unbearable, plan to go back in November one year.

      • I was there ( in Venice) in early January, that’s when I will visit again. It’s much cheaper too.
        reading your account of the exhibition really took me right back there so thank you, I was completely enthralled when I left the exhibition with the brilliance of Bowie and went to check his you tube clips- it’s all there, including the stuff I missed way back when.
        He also picked McQueen out as a star at his graduation show as a student, he has a brilliant eye for talent and creativity.
        By the way, I love your blog, I really missed your column in Good weekend, it was the first thing I used to turn to when I picked up the paper. You have a lovely style, and I often used to find I had been thinking of similar things, and then you would somehow put them into words! This is so much better though in many ways, as we get to chat online, but I’m sorry you lost your column- terrible editorial decision as far as I’m concerned, GW is no longer a must.

      • Oh sigh… I still miss writing that column. I know I could write about anything on here, but the discipline of 650 words within certain subjects was v stimulating to the creative juices. I went back to the Bowie expo today! Went with a friend of the same generation and he felt exactly as I did – bewildered until the last three spaces. It was great to sit and watch the big screens with him and to see him respond to the Berlin room and the Thin White Duke costumes, just as I had.

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