BBC Radio 4 Extra to repeat ST IVES AND ME Wed 21st Dec 6.30am, 1.30pm and 8.30pm: presented by Anna Chen

Spend the longest night of the year with me on BBC Radio 4 Extra when St Ives and Me is repeated on December 21st

ST IVES AND ME on BBC Radio 4 Extra.

I’ve just learnt from my lovely producers, Mukti Jain Campion and Chris Eldon Lee at Culture Wise, that my BBC R4 programme about the history of artists in St Ives, Cornwall, is on again.

BBC Radio 4 Extra is repeating St Ives and Me on Wednesday 21st Dec 6.30am, 1.30pm and 8.30pm. And there may even be one at 1.30 the next morning if you haven’t had enough of me by then or have rolled in merry from Christmas season fun and frolix and are in need of entertainment.

Available after broadcast here.

The original broadcast in 2011 was Pick of the Day for the Radio Times, The Times, Daily Telegraph, Daily Mail, Observer and the Independent.

St Ives, a Cornish seaside town 300 miles from comedian and poet Anna Chen’s London home has been attracting artists for two centuries. A varied assortment of eccentrics, entrepreneurs and free spirits have turned the pilchard-fishing and tin-mining town into a popular cultural haven.

Anna has been holidaying there since she was ten and knew many of the famous artists who’ve populated and popularised St Ives.

In the late 1970s the bohemian fashion journalist and novelist Molly Parkin was a regular on the St. Ives scene and she recalls how, in the dark recesses of Mr Peggotty’s disco, she introduced Anna to artist Patrick Heron. In his Porthmeor studio by the Atlantic, Heron used to make Anna mugs of tea while he painted and sketched her and their conversations opened her eyes to the arts. Revisiting those studios, she meets two present day painters maintaining the St Ives’ tradition.

On a personal tour of the town, she returns to Barbara Hepworth’s sculpture garden, hears about the unique light conditions that attract so many artists and reveals the vital roles Napoleon, Von Ribbentrop and the 1960s hippies played in promoting and preserving St Ives.

At lunchtime, in Norway Square, Anna performs her comic poetry in the St Ives Festival, which has been attracting trendsetters for thirty years.

And she waits on the beach, with bated breath, for the legendary 33rd wave.

Producer: Chris Eldon Lee
A Culture Wise production for BBC Radio 4.

I may even be reading a bit of poetry. Here are a few photos from St Ives September 2011. For more pix, go here.

At Tate St Ives for Martin Creed’s balloon installation
Jan Jefferies and Anna
Denise and Steve Ingamells at Tate St Ives
Jan Jefferies and Charles Shaar Murray at Tate St Ives
Producer Chris Eldon-Lee interviews Valerie Hurry in the Tate St Ives Rotunda
Chris recording in Fore Street, St Ives
Chris reads at a St Ives festival session in Norway Square.
Also present, artists Bob Devereux, Keir Williamson
and the late, much missed Colin Birchall
Bob Devereux hosts the St Ives Festival lunchtime sessions in Norway Square.
With Marc Jefferies and Charles Shaar Murray

Lol in Norway Square
Rod Bullimore, Norway Square, St Ives
Buffalo Bill Smith and Colin Birchall at the Frug in the St Ives Arts Club
With Clare Wardman in the studio she shares with Iain Robertson
Clare and Iain’s view over the beach from Porthmeor Studios
Charles Shaar Murray in The Hub
Anna and Jan in Barbara Hepworth’s conservatory
Anna and Jan on the Island below St Nicholas Chapel
Charles Shaar Murray and Chris Eldon Lee in The Mermaid
Jan, Anna and Denise in The Mermaid
Sunset over Porthmeor Beach and the Clodgy


Molly Parkin
Bob Devereux
Valerie Hurry
Steve Dove
Tony Carver
Jo McIntosh
Denise Ingamells
Annie Jackson
Iain Robertson
Clare Wardman

Charles Shaar Murray and Buffalo Bill Smith — Walking Blues by Robert Johnson
Charles Shaar Murray — Dylan in ’66
Bob Devereux — Queen of the Gypsies; Oak
Lol accompanying Bob Devereux
Rod Bullimore — Last Orders; Sewage Against Surfers
Anna Chen — Ode to a Detox on Leaving St Ives; Kicking a Dinosaur

Anna’s poetry collection, Reaching For My Gnu is available here

More information on Anna’s radio programmes here

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Helena Bonett’s Tate film of Barbara Hepworth’s Trewyn Studio in St Ives screened

I’m delighted to learn that Helena Bonett’s film of Barbara Hepworth’s Trewyn Studio — now a Tate St Ives museum — includes a clip of my 2006 video (above) and is now out doing the rounds. Next screening 15th June at Porthmeor Studios in St Ives.

From the DVD cover:

Trewyn Studio in St Ives, Cornwall, is where the British modernist sculptor Barbara Hepworth lived and worked from 1949 until her death in May 1975. Transformed into a museum by her son-in-law Sir Alan Bowness, later director of the Tate Gallery, it opened to the public in April 1976 and has been managed by Tate since 1980. 

This film, produced as part of the Tate St Ives Artists Programme, presents Bowness’s memories of Trewyn Studio and its establishment as the Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden, using still and moving images to explore queations of time, materiality and legacy. 

A film by Helena Bonett in collaboration with Jonathan Law, 2015, 52 minutes.
Made possible by the Tate St Ives Artists Programme

I have a copy of the DVD which I’ve watched and enjoyed but sadly it’s only available for private viewing and public screenings through the filmmaker.

In the meantime, you’ll have to make do with mine. If you like my 2006 video, here’s one from 2013:

Keep up to date with Helena Bonett’s Twitter

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Anna May Wong: A Celestial Star in Piccadilly, BBC Radio 4 Extra tomorrow then iPlayer for 30 days

Anna May Wong: a celestial star in Piccadilly, BBC Radio 4 Extra, 06:30 and 13:30 Wednesday 16th March 2016

I had the great pleasure to make my programme on Anna May Wong, Hollywood’s first Chinese screen legend, in 2008 for broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in January 2009. It’s repeated on BBC Radio 4 Extra tomorrow, Wednesday 16th March at 06:30 and 13:30, then on iPlayer for 30 days.

Anna Chen writes and presents A Celestial Star In Piccadilly, a half-hour profile of Hollywood’s first Chinese movie star for BBC Radio 4.
First Broadcast 11:30am, Tuesday 13th January 2009.
Pick of the Day in Guardian Guide, Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday.


While I was growing up in Hackney, there were few east asian women in the culture reflecting anything like my appearance. Those that did slip through were not necessarily an inspiration. Yoko Ono was unfairly reviled in the media as a hate figure, although – far from breaking up the Beatles –she was a respected Fluxus artist in her own right and famous among the avant-garde cognoscenti way before John Lennon was anything more than a pop star. The twin horrors of my childhood, Suzy Wong and Juicy Lucy – happy hookers who migrated from popular literature onto the screen – were always there to define me in the eyes of a society without any other reference points. There were powerful women, too, but they came in the shape of Jiang Qing (Madam Mao), the kleptocratic Imelda Marcos and, in fiction, the evil daughter of Fu Manchu. Her I quite liked.

I wondered who the young Anna May Wong had to look up to. She grew up as third-generation Chinese born in a youthful America when Native Americans were safely out of the way on their reservations and former slaves were consigned to ghettos and plantations. Chinese-Americans were about as low as you could get; depicted as so much of a danger to working men and decent citizens that the US government introduced legislation specifically designed to curb the ambitions of the Yellow Peril within. Their ambitions may have been humble — earning an honest dollar for one’s labour, living in safety and security, bringing up families of their own — but the owners of capital tolerated them only as cheap labour, while much of the labour movement in both the Britain and the USA (Wobblies excluded) saw the Chinese as more of a threat than as fellow workers.

Various schools of thought say that Asiatic humans first walked over the Beriing Straits more than 17,000 years ago and populated the Americas down to their southernmost tip. Others contend that Imperial Chinese ships arrived in the 15th century, predating Columbus by decades; or that they initially landed in California on Portuguese ships carrying silver from mines in the Philippines.

What we do know is that in the mid-19th century, the discovery of gold at Sutters Mill in 1848 drew first a trickle and then a flood of Chinese who joined in the Gold Rush, populating the west coast and working the mines in the Sierra Nevada mountains. The next wave of immigration was brought in as cheap coolie labour by Charles Crocker in the 1860s to build his Central Pacific railroad which would link Sacramento with the East and bring the West into the Union during the Civil War. Conditions were harsh and they were paid less than their white counterparts.

But not all Chinese would submit and conform to the role of coolie; there was one major strike with thousands laying down tools as they busted through granite mountains and worked in 20-foot snowdrifts. It was a strike that had the potential to unite all workers, and ever since I found out about it in the early 1990s while working with Sinophile author Martin Booth on his film script The Celestial Cowboys in 1993, it has inspired me, especially as there are those who insist that Chinese are genetically bourgeois and incapable of working-class consciousness. The strikers were eventually starved back to work with a few concessions but they had shown they they weren’t all pushovers.

Many miners and railworkers settled in the US and formed America’s first Chinese communities. These were Anna May Wong’s roots.

In a world bereft of role models, Anna May carved out an acting career in the early days of the Hollywood film industry. She started young, as an extra on the streets of Los Angeles, learning her craft and gaining proper roles in defiance of her traditionalist father, who wanted her at home in the family laundry.

By 17, she was starring in Hollywood’s first technicolour movie, The Toll of the Sea, as the Madame Butterfly character, “marrying” an American who promptly dumps her when he returns to his homeland and a white wife. She dies tragically at the climax, beginning a pattern that would endure for most of her career.

Trapped in Dragon Lady or Lotus Blossom roles, she grew tired of being demeaned, insulted and limited. Anti-miscegenation laws meant she wasn’t allowed to kiss a romantic lead if he was white, even if he was a white actor playing a Chinese. Your sexuality got you killed, at least symbolically.

In the late 1920s she came to Britain, where she was already a huge star and made the black and white silent feature film Piccadilly for the German director E A Dupont. This was perhaps her greatest starring role, but she still had to die at the end. Death was the fate she had to endure for the crime of being attractive. I take a closer look at this movie in the programme as there’s a plethora of prejudice leaking at the edges, some of it hilarious, much of it still extant today.

Anna May was the toast of Europe: mates with Paul Robeson, Josephine Baker, Marlene Dietrich and, strangely, Leni Riefenstahl. Such was the contrast in Europe with what she’d experienced back home that she once stated there was no racism in Germany. And that was in the Thirties, which gives you some idea how bad it must have been if you were a minority in the Land of the Free.

She starred with Marlene Dietrich in Shanghai Express, acted with a greenhorn Laurence Olivier on the London stage. Philosopher Walter Benjamin had a major crush on her. She dined with royalty and was adored by her fans. Eric Maschwitz wrote the classic song “These Foolish Things” about her.

Yet Hollywood still refused to lower the drawbridge and give her the starring roles she deserved. Those still went to white actresses in Yellowface. Myrna Loy as evil Daughter of Fu Manchu? Loy, Katherine Hepburn, Luise Rainer and Tilli Losch were all considered better at being Chinese than Anna May Wong.

These things take their toll and she died in 1961, at the unnervingly early age of 56.

But isn’t everything different today? Nope, it’s still with us. The form has mutated but the content lives on. A Celestial Star in Piccadilly is one case study in how minorities are rendered invisible in the culture and as producers of culture, while the fruits of their labour are appropriated by those who sit at High Table.

And the danger of that is it’s the sleep of reason where monsters are born.

Hmmm, sounds familiar and rather too close to home …

Interviewees include:
Graham Russell Gao Hodges, Anna May Wong’s biographer, Laundryman’s Daughter
Diana Yeh, historian
Alice Lee, writer and actress who performed her one woman show about Anna May Wong, Daughter of the Dragon
Elaine Mae Woo, director of Frosted Yellow Willows about Anna May
Ed Manwell, film producer, Frosted Yellow Willows
Neil Brand, composer of the new score for the BFI Southbank rerelease of Piccadilly on DVD
Jasper Sharp, east Asian film expert
Kevin Brownlow, legendary film historian and filmmaker
Margie Tai and Connie Ho, who remember Anna May Wong visiting their Limehouse neighbourhood when they were kids

Produced by Chris Eldon Lee for Culture Wise Productions
Many thanks to Mukti Jain Campion of Culture Wise for giving me latitude and for her feedback


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British Born Chinese documentary panel discussion at the LSE: audio

British Born Chinese filmKevin and Daniel in British Born Chinese

Here’s the audio from last Saturday’s panel discussion at the London School of Economics where I’m talking about British Born Chinese, a documentary by Dr Elena Barabantseva.

Speaker(s): Dr Elena Barabantseva, Anna Chen, Andy Lawrence, Dr Véronique Pin-Fat
Chair: Professor William Callahan

Recorded on 27 February 2016 at Wolfson Theatre, New Academic Building

British Born Chinese engages the everyday struggles of two boys, Dan (aged between 11-13) and Kevin (aged between 12-14), reconciling their Britishness with Chineseness through their experiences at school, as volunteers at a community centre, and at home. Filmed over the course of two years in an innovative participatory and reflexive style, this film is an example of how artistic practices of filmmaking can work as a primary research tool. Driven by dialogue and close involvement with the film’s subjects, the film challenges the dominant popular representations of British Chinese as a ‘model minority’, and argues for a different understanding of community based on a shared sense of vulnerability.

Elena Barabantseva is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Manchester and Co-Producer of British Born Chinese. She is a member of the Critical Global Politics research cluster, and British Inter-University China Centre (BICC) and author of Overseas Chinese, Ethnic Minorities and Nationalism: De-Centering China.

Andy Lawrence is filmmaker in residence and lecturer in Visual Anthropology at the Granada Centre for Visual Anthropology, University of Manchester. He is the founder of AllRitesReversed, a documentary film production company. He is Co-Producer of British Born Chinese.

Anna Chen (@MadamMiaow) writes and presents programmes for BBC Radio 4 as a freelance, and writes, produces and presents her arts show, Madam Miaow’s Culture Lounge, at Resonance 104.4FM. Her blog, Madam Miaow Says, was shortlisted in the 2010 Orwell Prize for blogs, and longlisted in 2012.

Véronique Pin-Fat publishes on ethics in global politics and is Senior Lecturer in International Politics at the University of Manchester.

William Callahan is Professor of International Relations at LSE. His toilet adventures (2015) film was shortlisted for a major award by the UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council.

Posted in Chinese Diaspora in Britain, Film, Talk | Tagged | Leave a comment

Anna May Wong Must Die! in China: Anna Chen’s radio interview on Beijing’s Studio Plus

Here’s a radio interview I gave in Beijing when I did my Anna May Wong Must Die! talk for the China-based Bookworm Literary Festival in 2015.

Anna Chen: A Voice to Conjoin Britain with China

2015-09-30 10:17:08 Web Editor: Li Shiyu

Anna Chen presents her multi-media one-woman show: Anna May Wong Must Die. [Photo provided by Anna Chen]


Chinese people are among the fastest-growing ethnic minorities in the UK. However, in areas such as arts, media and politics, they are still the quiet section of the population.

But London-based writer, performer and broadcaster Anna Chen is reluctant to remain silent. Actively involved in comedy shows and radio programs, she is using her voice to conjoin the British Isles with the Middle Kingdom.

Let’s follow Li Ningjing to learn her story.


In a dimly-lit room in Beijing, accompanied with rhythmic music, stand-up performer Anna Chen rapped a trenchant, witty song on Anna May Wong, a Hollywood legend and one of the most misunderstood talents back in the Roaring Twenties.

“This is what fascinated me about Anna May Wong, who was Chinese movie star, Hollywood’s first Chinese superstar (and) the most famous Chinese woman in the world in the 1920s and 30s. And the things she was up against then, I felt I was still bumping up against at the end of the 20th century. ”

Off the stage,Anna acts like a typical Londoner. But born to a Chinese father and British mother, she admits that she has always been conscious about her dual identities.

“I grew up as an English girl, feeling very English, but also very aware of the Chinese side of my family. So I always say that I have Beatlemania yelling at me in one ear, and Red Guards yelling at me in the other. It’s a very, very strange mix, but I think it’s quite interesting.”

Immersing herself in the cultural extravaganza in the UK during the 1970s, Anna Chen has developed a strong interest in the entertainment industry since an early age. But when she started to go to auditions, this fledgling performer was not satisfied with the stereotyped roles being offered.

“One of the things that I came up against with was (that) there were no parts written for Chinese women. The only Chinese women you saw on the screen, either on film or on TV, were very demeaning roles. See, (there were) either the Dragon Lady: evil, being destructive; or else you were the Lotus Blossom: very delicate, in the need of help, and a little bit feeble; or else, the third thing (is that) you are completely invisible. So after a while, I wrote my first show called Suzy Wrong-Human Cannon.”

In 1994, Chen took her show to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the largest arts festival in the world and thus became the first British Chinese comic to do so. A few years later, she also made her acting appearance in Stewart Lee’s Fist of Fun. That experience not only granted her as the first Chinese comedienne shown up on British television, but to a certain extent, it also promised her future opportunities in broadcasting, particularly after successfully launching her first radio program on Yoko Ono.

“I started to make programs for BBC, for Radio 3 and for Radio 4. One of the things I always enjoyed was making programs about Chinese culture and Chinese people that showed in a positive light. I always said that if you dehumanize a group, if you make them just a blank canvas, if you create a vacuum and all sorts of really unpleasant monsters fill the vacuum, so I think it’s very important to humanize. Because we are! That’s the reality.”

Besides offering her voice as a regular guest talking about Chinese matters and current affairs, such as the Morecambe Bay cockling disaster and the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Anna Chen has also written and presented China-related documentaries and drama for BBC and London-based radio station Resonance FM. From her screen heroine Anna May Wong, China’s manufacturing industry and its relationship with Britain, to Chinese sci-fi and chinoiserie cliches in music, the topics are diverse while her style is frequently labeled by critics as “witty, wisecracking and sophisticated”.

One of her most well-received programs is a ten-part BBC series named “Chinese in Britain”. Presented in an anecdotal manner, the program explores the lives of Chinese people who came to the UK before the immigration boom in the 1960s and unveils some less-heard-of truths. For example, the earliest Sino-UK cultural exchange could be traced back to the 17th century, when the Jesuit scholar Shen Futsong met King James II; while during the First and Second World Wars, actually there were a great number of Chinese sailors who joined the British merchant navy and contributed a lot to the British victory in those turbulent times.

“I do get people coming up saying: ‘You know, we really, really enjoy your program.’ ‘Cause it’s such a rarity! ‘Cause what you normally get is that if they do look at Chinese, it is normally from the outside, from their point of view looking at something strange, rather than what we did, which is saying: ‘This is us. We are here. Look, this is us telling you our story and just making it normal. ‘”

From stand-up, theatre to poetry and radio, this multi-talented artist is using her voice to “grapple with issues of politics and identity, subvert stereotypes and poke the status quo with a sharp stick” warts and all. Thanks to her projects, Chinese are no longer the takeaway owners or inscrutable Kung Fu experts, but ordinary people with diverse characters.

Anna says her role model is Prometheus, who inspires her to do her best to conjoin Chinese with the rest of the world.

“I think I am planting seeds. So whether it germinates, I don’t know. But this is how I think of myself. I think with this next generation, we are starting to see more people coming up. So I think time is on our side.”

Beside hosting her weekly radio show, Anna Chen is planning to write a memoir, which documents her life as a British Chinese.

For Studio Plus, this is Li Ningjing.

Click here to listen to Anna Chen’s radio interview on Studio Plus, Beijing.

Posted in Anna May Wong Must Die, China, Chinese Diaspora in Britain, Live performance, Race, Radio, Talk | Tagged | Leave a comment

FAREWELL David Bowie from a longtime Bowie fan: RIP

David Bowie Blackstar RIP

Great planning, David

So THAT’S what Blackstar was about. David Bowie, who died yesterday aged 69 after a long illness, said farewell in the most eloquent, meaningful and stylish way possible with his last album released only days ago. He left his fans a valuable parting gift that will speak to us for as long as there’s music and human beings to listen to it.

We did a collective “Aaah” as we learnt the worst and realised he was talking to us beyond his mortal death; Blackstar is a letter to us written over the 18 months since he was told that the cancer he’d been diagnosed four years ago would kill him in a year. (The exact timeline of his illness isn’t quite clear at the moment of writing.)

Last night, the night he died, journalist Charles Shaar Murray and I were grooving to the CD which had just arrived. It’s deeply saddening to know we were dancing along to it even as he took his last breath. However, now that we do, a whole new dimension has opened up where we can still be with him, fathoming the unfathomable, working out his puzzle, reading the hieroglyphs he left us.

David entered my life before I even hit puberty and has never left. I was transported to heaven in 1969 by his single Space Oddity and again when it was re-released in 1972. My cousin bought me a cassette of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars and I never looked back.

Ziggy kid and lifelong Bowie fan

If you were a dreamy, creative kid who didn’t fit in, David was your guide, big bruv and your own personal Starman. It wasn’t just that he was supernaturally gorgeous: he exuded love and that’s what we valued. Of course, I know he was a chameleon who you could project yourself into and onto but I won’t call him a blank canvas because he was anything but blank. He had the ability to hook out your innermost best and make it fly.

And the music …

He gave shape to the inchoate and told us ‘Oh no, love, you’re not alone’. It’s hard not to embrace that when you’re convinced that you are.

‘Life on Mars’ made me cry because I was the girl, maybe not with the mousy hair, but with the dysfunctional family in a world of which I was desperately trying to make sense. David was steering me from a sunken dream to the seat with the clearest view, and I was indeed hooked to the silver screen which was my escape.
‘Her mummy is yelling no,
and her daddy has told her to go.’
Okay, it was actually the reverse, but parental rejection was so familiar to me that for a long time this was MY song.

A major part of David’s appeal was that he was looking up at the stars away from the sailors fighting in the dance hall and wondering if there was life on Mars way above the daily turmoil. The highest note in the song is that soaring MA-A-ARS at the peak of the chorus that lifts you into another realm of consciousness, like he’s waking you up and leading the way out. And we eagerly looked up there with him. In ‘Blackstar’ he’s doing it again, still our leader — well, more pioneer than leader — but with us quivering in fear behind him as he prepares to make his final journey.

I’d dance myself into a Rite of Spring frenzy to ‘Rebel Rebel’, ‘The Jean Genie’ and ‘Width of a Circle’. I felt the torment of the singer in ‘John, I’m only Dancing’ being drawn to someone he shouldn’t, and behind it all, that guitar that could wail and chuck out a stomping rhythm. On TV, ‘Starman’ introduced us to David’s blonde guitar-toting sidekick, Mick ‘Ronno’ Ronson, who was also the recipient of our powerful young emotions. I can remember most of the lyrics up to and including the Diamond Dogs album even when I can’t remember what I had to eat last night.


I missed the legendary Rainbow gig where his mentor, mime artist Lindsey Kemp, shared the stage and Roxy Music was the support act, but I was determined to make up for it when more London dates were announced. Under age I may have been but I was a girl on a mission. I bussed it from Mare Street in Hackney and queued overnight at the Kilburn State Gaumont and the Hammersmith Odeon in order to secure front-row centre seats.

We early birds at the head of the queue bonded tightly, guarding each other when we went to pee under Hammersmith Bridge, saving each other’s places in the queue and sharing provisions. It’s lovely to watch the DA Pennebaker film of the final Ziggy gigs and spot everyone forever young and filled with love. (I can be seen briefly during ‘Width of a Circle’.)

The build-up was spectacular. David’s frocks annoyed the hell out of elderly relatives when his photos were published in the tabloids, confirming to us that he represented something a world apart from their rigidly oppressive minds. At Hammersmith we buzzed with anticipation. Someone read out a piece in the NME about David announcing he was retiring, shock, horror, the first time I ever heard the name of the journalist, Charles Shaar Murray.

Quick, there might not be enough of him to go round. But thankfully there was.

We all dressed up. There were all sorts of variations on David’s iconic haircut and Angie Bowie’s platinum white do. Angie was Bowie royalty, being married to him and very much part of his creative team, much loved by the fans. I still vividly recall her in a red and white striped top and white pants, walking from limo to the glass doors while we squealed with excitement and craned to get a peek. The Mainman crew (Warhol’s Cherry Vanilla and Leee Black-Childers et al) were all there. Lulu turned up. Wow. I mean, she was a mainstream entertainer and even she was entranced by the outsider transitioning to insider and cultural icon.

Of the fans, I made close friends with Dena, on whom I developed a crush, and her mate John Shipcott who would babysit Zowie (Duncan Jones) and thrill us with tales of hanging up David’s wonderful costumes and, glory of glories, show us photos of the house interior on pain of death if we told anyone. And Debbie who had the best Angie haircut thanks to an indulgent mum. I remember a guy called Henry who was a dead-ringer in his carroty spiked hair and Ziggy flash. It was all sparkle and glitter, lurex and spangles.

For the final three gigs at the Hammersmith Odeon I sprayed my green peplumed leather jacket silver (the one I wore to school instead of the requisite green serge blazer) and wore it with white trousers. My mother allowed me to wreck our beautiful Chinese parasol that smelt strongly of mothballs by gluing on big silver letters that spelt ‘David is my Nirvana’, ’cause I’d just learnt what Nirvana meant and felt this was an appropriate time to use it. When I opened it in the front row, I was rewarded with a kiss blown directly at me. I still recall the sensation of my heart thumping through my chest, tears wellng and my spirit soaring out of the top of my head. David had NOTICED me!

Buying front row tickets was a bit of a waste for as soon as the lights went down and Wendy Carlos’s ‘Ode to Joy’ (from Stanley Kubrick’s movie of Clockwork Orange) struck up with its ‘bom, bom, bom, bom’, everyone rushed the stage anyway. This was quite dangerous because the orchestra pit between us and beloved David was guarded by an iron rail that came up to mid-thigh, way below your centre of gravity. Your legs were seriously in danger of being broken in the crush. The security guards — who were far from modern thug bouncers and looked after the fans — regularly had to drag us over the rail and out of the melee.

Some harboured fantasies of then being led backstage where they could meet our hero but I suspected they’d just be released into the wilds of Hammersmith outside the back door and have to start all over again from the main entrance. I spent long periods of the three shows bracing myself on the shoulders of security, several of us sometimes leaning on each bloke. This meant that I could barely use my 8mm Bolex movie camera but I surreptitiously shot a fair bit and would take it to all my 1970s gigs. Sadly, my mother threw out my film years later, but that’s a horror story for another time.

The climax and moment of greatest tension … well, there were a few of those. ‘My Death’ when David left the longest pause and we all yelled, “ME!”. David going down on Ronno’s guitar. Or the end of the show wondering if there would be an encore and they’d all come back on and thunder through ‘White Light, White Heat’.


On the third and last night when my legs could no longer take it, I wandered into the almost empty Odeon lobby and perched on the Herbie VW car doing promo service for the movie due the following week. A tall bloke wandered over and struck up conversation and eventually asked me if I wanted to go to a party that night. I said yes and that’s how I ended up at the Café Royale in Regent Street for David’s retirement party. I may have been traumatised along with everyone else by his onstage confirmation that this would be his last gig, but going to the party was a powerful consolation prize.

Here we were in one of Oscar Wilde’s hangouts. Brian Conolly, blonde singer of The Sweet, was not terribly nice but Lulu, Angie and Mick Ronson were so kind. I was filming Lulu and Angie with my little Bolex when Angie said something I couldn’t hear and Lulu repeated it, saying, ‘She said you’re too gorgeous.’ By now I was feeling like Cinderella with three hours to go before pumpkin time.

When David walked in he filled the room which was already rammed with stars. He was short in stature but huge in spirit.

I was too shy to crash into his conversations but I did chat to Mick Ronson and took a selfie movie, now sadly gone with all my other 8mm footage and belongings  in the Great Mother’s Purge.

I took the film and projection kit into school when it came back from the developer’s for anyone who was interested – about half a dozen of us — and it dawned on me. Whatever the imagination-free say or do in their efforts to crush you underfoot or drive you under the tread of their tanks, there was indeed room in this world for someone like me.

At my lowest, when all the nightmares came today, his single ‘Ashes to Ashes’ was riding high in the charts. It formed the second bookend on my hopeful childhood and youth, the first being ‘Space Oddity’. I needed an axe to break the ice but that wouldn’t be happening any time soon. In the meantime, David provided a musical memory from which to draw strength and I thank him for that.

RIP David. Love ya. xxx

Anna hotpants 71 02 cropAnna the Bowie fan at 14 

[Edited 16.01.16 to say more about the music of Life on Mars]

Posted in Charles Shaar Murray, Event, Music | Tagged | 2 Comments