Friday, 6 December 2013

The Dorich House Museum - A Hidden Treasure You Should Discover

This Friday (6th December 2013) presents a rare opportunity to visit a unique museum in a marvellously unusual house with views over Richmond Park.  I finally managed to get there during one of its summer open days after planning to do so for the past year.  A friend told me it was a fascinating wonder, and it topped my expectations.

You may perhaps have driven past it, or wondered why ‘Kingston University’ is marked on maps in a residential area bordering Richmond Park.  The University, thankfully but surprisingly, took over the derelict house when its artist designer and owner died.  They remarkably restored it in the 1990s and opened this quiet museum almost 10 years ago.    
The museum is the Dorich House Museum, which was the home and studio of sculptor Dora Gordine and her husband Richard Hare, the younger son of an earl.  The house is named after a combination of the couple’s first names, a precursor to ‘Brangelina’.  Even if you have never heard of them, and I had not (despite Gordine having been hailed in 1938 as 'possibly the finest woman sculptor in the world'), the house will interest fans of sculpture and Russian art, and people who, like me, love Modernist architecture, 1930s culture, and Art Deco and décor.  Also, those who just like to be exposed to new and interesting things, beautiful sights, and oddities like a shelf unit crammed full of plaster heads looking like a crowd of extraordinary, irritated and stern characters, will enjoy it.

I made my way to Dorich House from Putney Station in 86°F heat and seemed to be the only person present who did not work there. In the summer, there is more than just one monthly open day, so I was spoilt by having all the rooms to myself as I climbed the three stories, delighting in all I found.  I then joined the free tour (the tours are held at 1130am and 2.30pm, and booking for them is advised as most open days aren’t so quiet.)  Our tour of only four visitors was led by volunteer Ian, who rather than orating in a booming Thespian’s voice whist histrionically delivering rehearsed speeches, had an endearing Bill Nighy way of nearly muttering warmly to us lucid, informative thoughts and observations about a house for which he clearly has a true fondness. 
The tour began in the Plaster Studio, which was immersed in rays of sunshine pouring through the grand windows that reminded me of NC Wyeth’s studio in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. Ian pointed out that the sink in the studio had no drain so as not to clog up the Kingston sewer system with discarded plaster, and there was an open lift (a sculpture hoist) to transport massive deliveries of clay up to the floor above using a slow hand crank without, as Ian noted, any health and safety locks for the gearing, which meant it could all come crashing down on someone, but thankfully never did.

Marvellously, several shelves against one wall were crammed with the aforementioned  variety of plaster heads, each with tremendous character because they were, of course, based on real people with personalities, carved by the hands of a skilled sculptor.  I love how they seem tossed higgledy-piggledy on the shelves as Dora may have stored them, some on their side, rather than reverently presented as busts in a museum.  A would-be obvious thought struck me that, whereas painting masterpieces are one-offs with possible sketches and studies available, bronze sculptures can be cast more than once and they leave behind a plaster cast, partly discarded marvels that are art in themselves.  Meanwhile, the valuable bronze final product, or another cast of it, stands in a grand building, gallery or home somewhere out in the world.
One head on the shelf caught my eye as it was the spitting image of the Spitting Image Margaret Thatcher puppet.  Ian told us it was actor Dame Edith Evans, and that Dora and Edith had fallen out over it as Dame Edith thought Dora made her left eye looked skewed in the work.  However, an artist painting her portrait at the same time convinced her that her eyes actually were a bit wonky, so she returned to let Dora finish it and they became firm friends, with Dame Edith even posing in the nude for Standing Female Nude, which I believe greets you as you enter the house.  Dame Edith had posed shortly after her husband died and when she was having an affair with her As You Like It co-star Michael Redgrave (dad of Vanessa, Lynn and Corin), and she said that the sitting sessions with Dora were more valuable than psychoanalysis.  I was intrigued by the portrait artist who dared to convince Dame Edith, perhaps best known in film for her Lady Bracknell (seen here: ), that she had crooked eyes. Given the time period, I think it may have been Walter Sickert (see his 1938 painting: ), who some people, such as author Patricia Cornwell, believe to be Jack the Ripper.

Although numerous nuggets of detail came from our guide Ian, the tour began usefully with a quick film that we watched while seated in the bright and airy Plaster Studio. Rather than being tedious, the film was an enormously useful guide to the artist who designed the house in which she lived. You can appreciate a collection more with such an educational grounding, and too many homes and galleries assume all visitors are experts on the person who created them, which is rarely the case with me. (I visited the remarkable Strawberry Hill House without having any idea who Walpole was; I was just intrigued by the architecture and the oddity of such a place appearing in a quiet neighbourhood.) 
Set to soothing baroque music, the film told of an Estonian woman who lost most of her family in the First World War and ended up in Paris, where she didn’t correct people who wrongly assumed she was a Russian aristocrat, and through contacts and coincidences ended up mixing with the Bloomsbury set in London.  She became a British citizen and moved with her first husband (the physician to the Sultan of Johore in Malaya) to Malaysia and Singapore, the local culture of which influenced her work, which she created under a palm frond roof. She also designed her homes and studios, including a round house that her estranged husband had built after she left.

‘Words are not my medium at all,’ her frankly slightly annoying  bolshie voice—or that of an actor that you hope is a bit over the top—told us, from lines based on interview transcripts.  Ian told us that the actor was only slightly exaggerating Dora’s forceful tone.  It reminded me of a Simpsons episode where a lost Lisa flees in fear when some men in the Russian sector brutally shout at her after she asks for directions, although the subtitles tell us they are simply saying ‘what a cute little girl’ and conversing casually but in a scary East European way. 
Since the émigré who reinvented herself  later married her true love, Richard Hare, a scholar and connoisseur of Russian art, the house is a delightful mix of Russian empire line furniture with gilded icons and fascinating figurines beside imposing bronze nudes and eastern-influenced sculptures.  Everywhere, pieces of admired works of art are scattered about, but not in an overwhelming setting as in busy museums where every inch is covered with something so old and important, it’s exhausting to contemplate seeing it all.  Some pieces have been separated. In the Plaster Studio is the plaster mother from Mother and Child, and a bronze of the child can be found on the fabulous roof terrace clutching a toilet float ball disguised as a balloon.  The 1964 bronze cast of both together is at the Indianapolis Museum of Art in Indiana, still being appreciated, whereas I think the original casting commissioned by the Queen for the entrance of the Royal Marsden Cancer Centre in Sutton that she unveiled it in 1963 may no longer be there.    

During the tour, Ian pointed out other bronzes, including a young Dorothy Tutin in The Wild Duck, telling us of her mother who could not bear to display it as it was too moving with connotations of death (Tutin, incidentally, played Cecily to Dame Edith Evan’s Lady Bracknell in aforementioned film of Earnest).  He also told us just enough about the process of casting bronze to bring understanding without boredom.  I spotted on the magic shelves of the discarded, unloved but colourful cast of characters a plaster head that made me of Lord Kitchener in the old army recruiting posters or someone from Pepperland in The Yellow Submarine film.  I also enjoyed an unusual one of a mother and baby’s head joined together.  I later thought (wrongly) that it might  have been for Happy Baby, made for the Holloway Prison’s new maternity ward in 1948 as solace for the women who could not then keep their babies, which was then moved to offices and forgotten until a Kingston University academic recently found it. However, that sculpture is a baby on its own.  We passed by the entrance of the house, one of the few dark areas, where a variety of silly slippers are lined up against a wall.  Ian told us that Dora was so protective of the lovely wooden floors throughout the house that she made every visitor wear slippers. Happily, the granddad-plaid and bunny slippers at the museum entrance are an illustration of what visitors in her day would have seen, and thankfully visitors today are not forced to don this humiliation.
By contrast to the dark entrance, the stairways—and the main upstairs rooms—are glorifyingly bright thanks to the huge windows.  On the first stairway, Ian showed us a wooden mould hanging on the wall, which was used for Russian gingerbread (or Pryanik), which would be presented to a bride on her wedding day and then passed around to guests later as a sign that they should go home.  The Museum has the recipe should anyone wish to implement this marvellous hint at their own dinner party. Ian said that he liked to sketch the mould some days, revealing the apparently pleasant life of a volunteer tour guide in a peaceful but intriguing place of quiet treasures. 

Although he spoke so naturally and fluidly that he never gave the sense that there was a script, Ian warned that he might diverge from it to input his own opinion, such as contrasting the film’s reference to a tribal hunter being sheltered in Dora’s Singapore home because he had nowhere else to sleep, as though he’d knocked on the door and the Europeans put him up for the night on the four-poster featherbed in the guest room. Ian suggested that it was more likely that they trapped him and forced him to help with jungle clearance.  His observational interjections were always welcome and he held up a figurative flag to make it clear when he was expressing a view rather than reporting an official fact.  This method painted an intriguing portrait that sucked us into the story of the life of the home and its owners rather than giving us a dry lecture before a cold stark wall that might have been less absorbing.
The next floor was breathtakingly bright and beautiful, and we entered the studio through tasteful fire doors that had replaced the originals.  A high chair where Dora sat to work is positioned on a raised platform like a stage and at one end, the floor of which can be lifted to reveal the destination of the sculpture hoist.   Ian told us the house was designed so that the wonderful windows (no longer the originals) faced north to get light that didn’t create changing shadows throughout the day, the sort of thought an artist must consider.   In this room stood a massive plaster cast of the bas-relief Power, which was commissioned by Esso for their then new refinery in Milford Haven, Wales, and unveiled in 1960 by, as we see from a photograph, a young Duke of Edinburgh.  The focus is an incredible physique of a muscly male torso from the back (I speak of the sculpture, you understand, not Prince Philip), to represent the power of the workers and the refinery as a source of energy.  Ian told us that the model was an actor whose biography was once featured on Radio 4, and who also worked as a Flamenco dancer to develop that impressive torso, sketches of which were framed on the wall.  We also saw a splendid charcoal of a Surrey Home Guard (Private L.G. Young, 1943), whom Dora chose to paint as a great example of the typically English sardonic smile.   It is a remarkably fun work full of character built from simple lines scrawled around the page. 

Ian showed us a fun cabinet in the corner that Dora was said to have designed, but which Ian thought represented something like an Ikea-type of ordering where you could choose which elements of a design you wanted added to your piece. He pointed to an area where she could keep her records, and I pictured paper files, before I realised that he meant those big musical vinyl thingies, and I felt like I had betrayed my generation by forgetting.  
We then moved into the next sensational room where Ian painted a vivid picture of moneyed clients being given a spectacular unveiling of their commissioned piece in a thrilling coup-de-theatre as she pulled back the curtains to reveal her creation glowing angelically in the light from the surrounding windows.  He gave us background on various splendid pieces displayed in the room, including the changing perceptions of them (eg one thought before the war to look too aggressive, but after the war seen to show the resilience of human spirit).   Another striking modern sculpture of a torso in the room had been named by builders working in the museum as ‘Laughing Buttocks’,  Ian told us, but which he aptly described as ‘not a beautiful dancer but a dynamic body that can dance’. 

This room included what looked to me like a fairly unremarkable (albeit neat, nearly African styled) head that apparently is one of Gordine’s most widely praised works, which made her famous nearly overnight: The Chinese Philosopher (1925-26), based on a student she met in Paris.  Ian said he later moved from philosophy to become director of the Chinese national bank and possibly also something to do with the undergarment business.  That’s the sort of titbit that makes you think but which museums rarely print on the little title cards on the bases.
On this quiet afternoon, there were only three others on the tour with me. They were a likeable Hampshire couple and a clearly intellectual man, all of whom undoubtedly studied the classics at Oxford, where they also got their doctorate [in some dead language and another ethereal field with little practical use that stretches the mind], and listen to nothing but Radio 4.  Which is a fine enough sort of person (and I listen to a lot of Radio 4).  If they noticed me at all, they would have seen me as the quiet philistine, as I did not join in with their cooing comments about the lovely patina of every piece, nearly murmuring ‘yah, yah’ as they all saw the same mysterious layer that extended to a plane above the simple shapes in bronze that I could see.  However, they really were delightful and excellent companions for the tour.  I briefly studied Art History as a young student but was sorry that we delved heartily and seemingly endlessly into the Mesopotamian period when I was more interested in Impressionism and Cubism, which that course never covered, so I simply looked at all this fine work and thought, ‘Neat. I like that one.’  Along with wisdom I stirred up, as you know, such as ‘that looks like a rubber Margaret Thatcher puppet.’  But I was clever enough not to say it aloud.

Ian pointed out the Art Deco finish to the hair of another portraiture head.  It took me a moment to realise what he meant, as he pronounced it ‘AHR de-KOH’, which is probably how it should be said given that the movement started in France, but I have to stick with my harsh American ‘ART DEK-oh’.  There were glorious examples of AHR de-KOH furniture upstairs, which was a large reason for my being there, but first we paused to admire a fantastic head based on a Kingston boy from the Italian restaurant located down the street at the time, as well as an important bronze of Sir Kenneth Clark.
The Sir Kenneth Clark bronze had just been acquired from somewhere in Canada and placed beside the plaster cast, and it was even the first time that Ian had seen them together.  Not a very good likeness, I thought, picturing the only Kenneth Clarke I knew, the past (and heftier) Tory Chancellor.  It transpired, as my cooing compatriots all knew, that this was a different Kenneth Clark, a different Chancellor (of the University of York), also a Tory and the father of the late diarist and controversial politician Alan Clark, which made more sense in the Gordine timeline.  He was later Baron Clark of Saltwood, known in Private Eye as Lord Clark of Civilisation, as he wrote and presented the 1969 BBC Civilisation series, and had a stronger link with the art world, as a Trustee of the British Museum.  

He was director of the National Gallery when he sat for this work, when Gordine broke her wrist.  When she returned months later expecting to have to start over, she found that Clark had ensured that ‘his underlings’ had kept the original clay work under damp cloth for months so she could continue where she left off.  My fellow visitors gathered around the two heads in confusion as to how the plaster could seem bigger than the bronze (shrink in the heat? Chiselled down? Optical illusion?). They looked dubiously at them and tried to measure with their hands but agreed to accept that they were the same as the marks were identical; I thought more obviously the ears were, but I was The Quiet Philistine.  It’s good to have something to mull over and work together to solve. 
This glorious room filled with 20th century art included an empire line sofa that had been beautifully restored by a western college.  The room was understandably a mix of the passions of both inhabitants, as you would expect in the home of a balanced, happy married couple.  Richard was determined to bring Russian art to the attention of more people in Europe.  The house is filled with Russian furniture, art, trinkets, plates and icons, which are wonderfully mixed with Gordine’s work—albeit in happy clusters rather than scattered madly across each room.

The icons covered one wall in the corner.   These Russian church icons usually showed Christ or a saint in gilt, often with a cross, and Ian was enthralled by them as we were once he imparted his notable knowledge upon us.  He explained how you could pull the cross out from the travelling icons, like reaching into a painting and pulling a 3D useful object from it to use in a service. Neat.   He related the stories that some of them illustrated, stories from the apocryphal rather than the King James bible, which are more along the lines of prising open the jaws of hell so Adam then the Virgin Mary pop out.   My fellow tour peeps nodded along as they had presumably all, in their English boarding schools, read the Russian Orthodox Bible.  I stare quietly and philistinely with my American educated brain (where religion and state must be separate) but start to enjoy these icons, which I might have just dismissed as alien religious gunk on the wall initially, albeit with respect.  After all, Ian was a storyteller and voiced the story that each icon told.
We moved up to the superb Art Deco dining room, with lights Dora designed and some beautiful green tiles on the fireplace.  Ian told us that the room could be hired for dinners, which everyone agreed would be an outstanding setting, particularly with musicians playing in the gallery downstairs.  They have even done weddings in the garden, which has retained a few of the apple trees from the original orchard.  

Dora and Richard nearly built their house in Hampstead, we learned as Ian pointed to some framed house plans on the wall.  Godfrey Samuel, a co-founder of the radical Tecton Group of architecture (‘the Richard Rogers of his day’ suggested Ian), designed a house for them, subject to Dora’s fixed ideas, but couldn’t get planning permission to build it by Hampstead Heath, so they came to Kingston instead as Richard had relations there. The orchard originally covered the whole plot,  and the couple apparently built a budget home using a local builder and surveyor.
Although the outstanding house is chock full of work by Dora and 19th Century Imperial Russian art collected by Richard (a delightful mix of the two, like the name of the house), Ian refreshingly picked out a few of the better known or more fascinating works, rather than reeling off lists of tedium about every single piece, although he answers questions about any others.  Fifty minutes in (including the film at the start), Ian bemoaned the time and asked if we were okay for him to continue, and we were perfectly happy to carry on for what became nearly 90 minutes, and one chap stayed behind and sat and chatted with Ian afterwards.

Photographs on the walls showed Dora sculpting as models sat before her, or the loving couple, the Dor and the Rich of Dorich, enjoying the home where we were now doing the same.  We learned that she liked to clean because it gave her time to appreciate her home, a philosophy that wrongly suggests that I severely dislike my own, and as I gazed over the many little Russian trinkets around, I couldn’t imagine how she could bear to dust them all.
We got to sit in the lovely AHR duh-KOH chairs in the living room, which seemed a luxurious pleasure as I expected them to be roped off like much of Eltham Palace, and Ian explained with fascination how the couple met.  A friend asked Janet Vaughan to put Dora up when she arrived on the boat train, instantly providing useful connections as Vaughan’s mother knew the Bloomsbury Group such as Virginia Woolf.  Vaughan’s father had been the headmaster at Richard Hare’s ill-fitting school Rugby, who had given Hare support and encouragement, so Hare visited him in London after surviving the school and thus met Gordine.   Although he fell for her right away, she went to the Far East with her wealthier husband, Dr George Garlick.  When Richard inherited more than expected on the death of his father, the Earl of Listowel, he visited Gordine and Garlick in Malaya, then returned to commission the ill-fated Hampstead house for Gordine.   (I had actually never heard of the Earl of Listowel when I went to Dorich House, but he has been following me around ever since. Not in a scary, stalkerish way, nor even in a human form way, but he keeps popping up in curious coincidental ways, and my goldfish brain keeps thinking, ‘Hmm…Earl of Listowel, I’ve not heard of him’ only to find that I had, in fact, wandered around his Uncle’s house and simply forgotten the title. )  When they failed to get planning permission and Gordine’s marriage failed, she returned to Europe, and Hare financed and project-managed the building of Dorich House to Dora's design, and they were married in 1936, when they settled in Kingston.

Ian told us a great deal about Richard as well, as he is half the house.  We learned that he hated sports but won a language prize at Rugby, worked in the Secret Service in the war, and was later Professor of Russian Literature at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University of London.  He died suddenly in 1966, at which point Dora faded away from the art world and the world in general. She lived alone in the house for 25 years as an eccentric recluse, letting the house fall to ruin thanks to her age, several cats, and schoolboys throwing rocks at the windows, although the neighbours tried to help her and apparently suffered her ringing them in the wee hours for a cup of tea.   When she died aged 96 in 1991, a friend of Richard’s who was, I think, Vice Chancellor of Kingston University miraculously persuaded the University to take on the house and make it a gallery for their collections, although a great deal of Richard’s enormous silver collection was apparently sold to pay for the extensive restoration.  The Trustees of the estate were uncomfortable with doing so but had no choice, and perhaps he would have approved, as his money built it in the first place. 
Other artefacts  included some beautiful blue plates in a huge glass case full of other trinkets, and some plates with a ‘posh’ Russian Imperial porcelain mark painted with a revolutionary scene. Ian told us that revolutionaries (the Kommisars, which makes me think of that fun 1980s Falco song) once broke into a Moscow porcelain factory and decided to add their own ‘mark’ on the back of these imperial plates and so painted them with revolutionary themes (eg a Kommisar).  How sweet to think that some revolutionaries paused to be artisans with a delicate touch, to bring a portrait for their mission to plates rather than destroy everything in sight. One such plate was in the British Museum’s recent list (and Radio 4 programme) of A History of the World in 100 Objects.   Bread and salt trays were also displayed, which were curious greetings as people enter big Russian houses, in a pre-revolutionary bourgeois style. Ian pointed out the Russian double-headed  imperial eagle motifs that appeared in various objects throughout the house.

‘Richard liked the more modern Russian avant garde’ one of my fellow tour peeps comments about his collection.  ‘Hmmm, yah’ (they didn’t really say yah, but those who I can only guess have done their thesis in Russian avant garde all coo in agreement, while I just stare and attempt to smile admiringly but no doubt actually smile blankly.  I am not actually mocking them; I enjoyed their company and input).
Apart from the marvellous mix of museum of heads and torsos, Art Deco and Russian ornaments, the house has surprises such as rayon from 1952 that to me looked like a truly hideous curtain made of fabric better suited to be worn as a 10-year-old boy’s pyjamas in a picture book, but the non-philistines accompanying me thought it was a treasure and admired its find in the ruin of the house.
In the stifling July heat, it was such a thrill to get to the roof terrace, simply to get some air.  We were surprisingly high up, overlooking the edge of Richmond Park, as Ian told us about the regulation height of the original wall that was being restored, as it either had to be high enough or low enough for deer to jump over; probably the former so the King could shoot them.  Other lovely houses trickled up a huge hill before us, their lovely roofs and a few windows peeking out of the solid greenery of grand ageing trees  The terrace itself was fairly unremarkable, apart from the aforementioned Boy with Toilet Ball Float, but there is space either side for a group in a party to admire the glorious view, with a covered part in the centre. One could easily imagine the couple putting a mattress up there in the height of summer and sleeping in the open air, as they did, gloriously cool and safe from being mugged or stomped on if they’d done it at ground level.  Ian told us how the house had been built at an odd angle to avoid the orchard. I looked down to see a woman seated on a bench beneath one of the lovely orchard trees, reading a book, and thought what a heavenly way to spend the afternoon,  and how joyous to live here and be able to do any time, even in Spring when the trees would be full of gorgeous blossom.
Ian had been repeatedly apologetic about the tour, which he meant to be an hour long. I think at most, it was only 20 minutes late finishing, wholly with our consent.  We had lapped up Ian’s every word, the only distraction being the surprisingly loud chatting from the workers downstairs.

At this stage, the surely Oxford graduate Hampshire couple muttered about traffic worries and thanked Ian as they had to depart, then astonished but impressed the Londoner in me by turning to shake my hand as well (I had a similar shock in my local shopping centre the other day when a girl passing me as I sneezed said ‘bless you’. What is London coming to?).  I found their kind farewell warmly welcome, and despite being the Quiet Philistine, I had enjoyed first my solitary exploration and then joining the small group for a delightful day together in our hidden treasure.
On Friday, 6th December, the museum holds a special open day with an annual popular Christmas Café (costing £6.50); there is not normally a café on site.  Check the website (which seems to be down at the moment but is normally found at ) for other open days if you cannot make it today.  The next open day is Thursday, 12th December.  

On some rare weekend open days, they also have a Children’s Trail and Art Workshops, and the garden is open for picnics when the weather is fine.  The Museum is open from 11am  to  4pm on their Open Days, with guided tours (where booking is recommended, and which adds amazing value) at 11.30am and 2.30pm.  Apart from the Christmas Café day, admission to the museum is usually £4, concessions £3 (Children under 16 free).
This warm and welcoming museum is located at 67 Kingston Vale, London, SW15 3RN, and can be followed on twitter: @DorichHouse . It is definitely finding time to get there on an Open Day, and following it with a stroll through Richmond Park.

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Getting to Know the Grandfather I Never Knew

When we pause for a moment’s silence on Remembrance Day, I think of all the men in my family who were soldiers at one time but thankfully survived those wars, although they are now sadly gone, and one is buried in Arlington National Cemetery. I think of the friends my late father once mentioned losing as he fought the Vietnam War from the Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, where I was born.  I think of the people in the tragic stories presented to us on the television moments before the trumpet or the bells in the tower of Big Ben sound to mark the minute’s silence, and my heart goes out to them.  And I think of the grandfather I never knew because he died in World War II.  And how I’ve recently come to know him better.

In our house in the States in the '70s, amidst antique furniture that was regularly knocked over by boisterous children and golden retrievers, we had a small solid silver model of a submarine on a stand.  I knew from an early age that that was representative of the submarine on which my mother’s father had been killed when she was a toddler, and that his death was the result of a torpedo backfiring.  I accepted that without curiosity, as you do when you’re young, without wondering how we knew what happened, and whether he was one of a few people killed because they were standing in the wrong place, and why the torpedo backfired.  I could link the story to the picture hanging over the staircase of the man who was wearing a neat navy hat like the ones we’d bought at the gift shop of the  USS North Carolina Battleship in Wilmington, NC. But, to my shame now, I took little more interest in that long dead stranger, as I had a loving grandfather, technically my mother’s step-father, who had been the only father she ever knew.  Her younger brother Terry had never even seen his father (though I can see now from the photograph that Terry’s daughter looks incredibly like her handsome grandfather).
I remember as a child finding amidst papers in a drawer in the unused ‘for company only’ living room a letter or telegram addressed to my grandmother saying that her husband was Missing in Action.  I thought for a moment about how horrific it must have been for my grandmother to be holding that in her hand for the first time, when she was a young wife who loved him and had two young children, yet I never, ever asked her about it. It seemed like it was not the done thing.

Oddly, it was not until about 35 years after I first saw that letter when I asked my mother to remind me of the name of the submarine.  The USS Tullibee, she told me, and she said it was particularly awful because no one knew what happened to it or its crew until years later when the sole survivor was released from a prisoner of war camp.
The joy of the internet is that one can find reams of information without any real research at all, just by typing a few words, even information that is crucial to your family history.  In addition to various mentions in books, the USS Tullibee has a Wikipedia page, so I now know just what happened.

A year after the submarine was commissioned, and a year before the war ended, the USS Tullibee was indeed sunk by its own torpedo north of Palau, on 26th March 1944. She was a 2,463 tonne Gato-class submarine, and had set out on her fourth and final war patrol on 5th March 1944, calling a few days later at Midway Island for fuel before proceeding to patrol the Palau Islands, but was not heard from again.  She was scheduled to support aircraft carrier strikes against those islands (which are about 500 miles or 800 km east of the Philippines) on 30–31 March, and due to stay in the area no later than 24th April.  On that date, a dispatch was sent directing her to proceed to Majuro for a refit, and she was expected there about 4th  May, but instructions stated that a submarine unable to transmit would go instead to Midway. On 6th  May 1944, Midway was alerted to keep watch for a submarine returning without transmission facilities, but the Tullibee never arrived and was presumed lost on 15th  May 1944.  That must be when my grandmother received the dreadful telegram.  And that was the last anyone heard for over a year. The submarine Tullibee was stricken from the Naval Vessel Register on 29th  July 1944.
After V-J Day on 15th August 1945, a prisoner of war was freed from a Japanese camp.  He was Gunner’s Mate Clifford Kuykendall, a Tullibee crew member. Finally, the tragic story could be told.

On 26th March 1944, the day after the submarine arrived in the Palau Islands as planned, she found a Japanese convoy of a large passenger-cargo ship, two medium-sized freighters, a destroyer, and two escorts. According to the printed accounts, “the submarine made several surface runs on the transport but kept losing her in rain squalls. Tullibee finally closed to 3,000 yards (2,700 m) and launched two torpedoes from her bow tubes at the target. About two minutes later, the submarine was rocked by a violent explosion. It was only learned after the war that Tullibee's torpedo had run a circular course and she had sunk herself.”
Kuykendall had been on the bridge at the time and was knocked unconscious and thrown into the water. When he regained consciousness, the submarine was gone, and he heard voices in the water for about ten minutes before they stopped. How dreadful.  He managed to stay alive in the water for a day before being picked up by the Imperial Japanese Navy.  He apparently spent 18 months being beaten and tortured daily in a prisoner of war camp until his release after V-J Day, when my grandmother and the wives of the rest of the crew learned that they were definitely widows.  But I suppose it is better to know what happened rather than facing some gnawing great abyss. Mind you, I wonder whether she hoped for a few days, weeks or months that her Lieutenant Commander husband might also make his way home from a prisoner of war camp, but he did not.  So at some stage, she knew that she had to move on. 

In late 1945, my mother would have been three, unaware of the loss as she would have only seen her father on leave since she was a baby, and I wish there were photographs of him holding her, beaming, as I can picture his pride.  Her baby brother was never seen by their father.  A year or two later, my grandmother married the man we all grew up loving as a father and grandfather. He was divine and lived until the 90s, and I even took some video footage of him so even his voice and mannerisms will always be remembered.  But sometimes now I feel a bit guilty that we have not been more involved, somehow, in the memory of the man who truly gave us life, and who gave his life when fighting for his country.  He was then designated to an existence in a flat frame amongst many others on a wall.  He deserved better.
I believe I got the impression from my mother early on that she never wanted to hurt my (step-) grandfather by making enquiries about the man who preceded him. And maybe no one ever wanted to dig up sad memories by asking my grandmother about that time.  The only time she ever, ever spoke of him was during a visit I made to see her in Pennsylvania five years ago She had enjoyed a few drinks as we waited for our dinner to be served, and I somehow came to ask her what made her decide to attend the Connecticut College for Women in New London.  She went there, she told me, because the man who she fancied went to Yale, and at the time, in the 1930s, Yale did not admit women, so she went to the nearest good girls' school.  She said that everybody wanted him, as he was so charming, handsome and popular (and I gather from a good family with money, but I think so was she).  "But I got him," she had said with pride and a wry, self-congratulating smile.  That is the only mention I had ever heard of my grandfather or her romance with him, and I loved it. I should have pursued it more and have no idea why I did not. Maybe the food came and she changed the subject.

When Grandmommy died suddenly and quite unexpectedly at the age of 92 (she had seemed sufficiently fortified to carry on another 10 years), I was surprised to find when we started clearing her house that, despite her having considerably downsized when she moved into a retirement village some years before, she seemed to have kept every letter that her first husband had ever sent her from Yale 70 years before.  She had almost no space and few closets and yet here they all were.  I was only over there for a weekend for the celebration of her life, and so I grabbed a handful to bring back with me to England.  I was at the time being made redundant from my job of over 20 years and, with shocking debts, I feared there was a real danger of my losing my home, so even if I could cram more things into the small suitcase I flew home with, I wanted nothing of value as I feared bailiffs might take it.  So I tried to convince my mother and brother to save some precious things, including the remaining letters, but as my mother has a history of throwing everything away and I gather that’s what happened to much of the contents of my grandmother’s home, I’m too terrified to ask about them, much as I want them.
Because the letters that I do have have vividly brought him to life, and I long for more.  He is Henry, an honest, fun and eager young Yale student writing regularly to the girl he adored, from the Yale Delta Psi house, St Anthony Hall, in New Haven.  He starts some notes apologising for not writing, others refer to the ‘swell time’ he’d had with her the previous weekend and to the sweet letters she had written; some beg her to try to attend a social occasion like a wedding that she’s reluctant to make owing to family or other commitments, and often he apologises that he can only see her on Saturday or Sunday, not both, because he must study for tests.  He tells of arriving at 4am having driven back from a ‘nifty party in NY last night’ and having driven back with ‘Woody, Ed etc’.  Some letters refer to Ed and Pokey, who were a married couple I always knew as ‘Aunty Pokey’ and Ed, having no idea until now quite how far back they went back with my grandmother, and how well they knew the man in that silent picture on the wall. The letters often end with vague arrangements such as ‘Look—if you go to New York, wire me.  If not I’ll meet that 10 o’clock train Saturday. O.K.?’  Another time: ‘Anyway—seeing you won’t write – I’ll see you Friday at one o’clock at the station & stay there till you come. That’s devotion. Or maybe my New London scouts can find out when you arrive.’

Other times, in earlier letters, he is desperate.  One letter I love is from Halloween 1934.  He writes “Just now heard from you.  I’m sorta shaky still. But I had to write fast & straighten things out. And apologise. Cause I did write you.  Within two days after your last letter came around the seventh or eighth.  And you wouldn’t answer. After two weeks, I wondered.  I wrote twice but tore up the letters half finished.  Tonight I was going to write. But you saved me the indignity. Thanks. What happened, I don’t know. The letter will turn up sometime.  (Probably in the pocket of my coat).  But I did write. So forgive me.  I thought something had gone astray. But I couldn’t think what. The things—never mind. Only let’s not do this again. It’ll drive me to drink.”  He then refers to their planning to meet up after all at a game, where he jokes that he fears he’ll lose his life there, as a Yale man sitting on the Princeton side, perhaps because she got the tickets through her father, who got his PhD at Princeton.  He signs it off still a bit delicately…”That last was rather poorly handled comedy relief. Too much Shakespeare. To get back to the serious: I’m still sorry. Tell me how to make it up. Tell me soon (hint).”  My grandmother was clearly pleased with the letter and wrote on it ‘Sent air mail!’ and underlined that.
In another concerned letter in November 1937, a year before their marriage, he says, "I struggle in here at 10.30 intending to phone you. And find a wire that cinches the idea. But when I call you’re out on a date! So I just thought I’d drop a line to call you all sorts of a prom trotter. Yale, Prin., and a date to top it off.  Gawd I hate you. Course I really don’t or I wouldn’t be writing this. I did at first though—when I called. Now I’m just jealous & amazed and worried. Can’t you settle down? How can I love a prom trotter? What I want is security, not a walking representative of Eastern colleges. I’m half serious, darling. Wish I could get my mind made up—and yours. Will you ever grow out of it? Why do you have to be so darn lovely & popular. Why couldn’t you have a hook in that nose & wear glasses. Oh hell—fifty years etc.  Thanks for the wire. Or was it just more prom trotting? I worry & wonder.  Wish I were sure (Security).

“Weekend was crazy & fun. We’ll swap tales sometime. Don’t suppose you did anything about theatre tickets. Just as well—I’m very broke."  A prom-trotter was slang for a student who attends all school social functions, and throughout his letters, he refers to her going to many different dances at Princeton, Vernon, York,  and other places, and sometimes he sends her invitations for dances she has already agreed to come to with him, apparently so she can see the intriguing ‘no flowers’ rule.
One time when he has been worried by a letter from her by reading between the lines, he says. “This is the third try. I can’t tear this up—it’s my last piece.  I don’t know what to say.  You probably won’t get this far anyway. Do you hate me? Or just indifferent. If it’s all the same to you – of the two I’d rather have you hate me. I’m blue.  And fed. “  It seems the friction is because they can’t meet.  He can’t get away because he has to stay for some tests, and she is trying to break a date with him because her father wants her to go see some relatives. Although he says he can see her father’s point of view, he says hopefully,  “We’ve got a date. And you can’t break it.  It’s against your principles (I hope).”

Most letters refer to parties, exams and seeing each other at weekends, and he gives a fun account of life at Yale in the late 30s.  There’s a Jeeves and Wooster flavour when he adds, after saying he hears he passed his Chemistry exam: “This place is getting worse & worse. I came in from dinner tonight to find someone’s Austin in the front hall with three campus cops working on it to get it out.”  Another letter speaks of Calcium night, when “Pretty near the whole Hall invested in fifty cent dresses & paraded around the old Campus. Organised madness-–we even made up special songs for the occasion.  What a night. I came in fairly early to try to study but stayed up letting in the drunken brethren. Never seen such a wild time.”
There are a few later letters expressing his boredom at spending some time in his father’s business in Sewickley, Pennsylvania, after the more challenging work of Yale, with references to his father clearly trying to impress my grandmother, insisting that his son tell her that he’d tried to get him to use better stationery to write to her and asking that he enclose articles the father thought she would enjoy.   My grandfather even encloses a brochure about a silver sale that he’d come across and tells her that they really need to pick out theirs as time was running out, four months before their wedding.

Another time, he spends an unusual amount of space in the letter speaking jokingly of “the problem that’s come into my life. It’s terrible – obsesses me day & night.  It’s the maid – the one that makes the beds.  (Gee – I can see you making beds). Every day when she picks up my – er – sleeping garments – she ties a knot in the string in order to hang the pants up.  It’s awful. I’ve done everything but speak to her – I’m afraid I’ll hurt her feelings.  I’ve tried throwing them under the bed –she finds them, knots the string, and hangs them up.  Once I even took the strings out but she found it and put it in.  She can’t be beaten – the morning I overslept she started to hang me up too. Worry, worry. 
“Promise me one thing—when we’re married, you won’t tie knots in my pajama strings – will you? ….Well I’ve got to quit – got some shopping to do – wonder what size nightshirt I wear.”

Many were written after enjoying her company, such as “I don’t know just what to say, Dearest.  I’m not going to try to thank you for all the fun of the party & boat ride and stuff. Guess I’ll just thank you for being around so I can love you. Don’t know why you’ll have me but I won’t fight my luck.” He signed that one “Love—(inadequate word)”.  He rarely signed his name, and he almost never used apostrophes, almost as though that were a quirky characteristic as it certainly wasn’t down to lack of intelligence.  This is my grandfather, such a sweet, honest, caring, loving lad.
Tragically, in a letter dated April of the year they got married (1938), he says ‘We’re going to have an awful lot of fun together darling—wonder if we’ll have time for it all in one lifetime.’  He wouldn’t have known that he would be fighting in a war in a few short years and die in it within six.

When he died, he was 27. Twenty-seven!  Think back to when you were that age, and you think you know everything, but you really know so little, as you’ve had so little experience of the world.  (All that hard studying at Yale, sometimes instead of meeting my grandmother for a dance, and I feel it didn’t set him up well for life as there was no chance to apply it.). Although through war, he had loads of experience in the world and, thankfully for us five descendants, had already started a family. 
Another sad thought that grips me is it seems his excellent genes end with our generation, as though they narrowly escaped being wiped out by war but we’ve failed to play our part. My brother married late and has no children, sadly as I was counting on him since I have never wanted children, and as a fiercely independent and single person over 45, there’s little chance of my procreating even if I suddenly had a change of heart.  I still hold hopes for my cousin, who looks so like her heroic grandfather, but she is apparently not that way inclined either.  It seems a shame.  Even my grandfather’s family name won’t carry on as his son’s adopted son only had daughters.  I don’t know why this all makes me feel sorrowful.  It’s as though he deserves more, rather than having all those youthful hopes and dear, tender thoughts snubbed out within years with no legacy to follow.

As much as I adored the (step-) grandfather I knew, the man my widowed grandmother married when my mother was about 4, and the father of my aunt, I now feel guilty that I didn’t pay more attention to my blood grandfather, this adorable human in the letters, who couldn’t wait to start a secure and settled life with my grandmother, who had visions of a long and happy future together, without any notion that so soon he would be dead. During his long and undoubtedly stressful separation from her and their children, one of whom he would never see, perhaps he carried on writing letters to her as he had from Yale, to post when they next reached a safe port, which never happened.  Perhaps they floated in the water with the other debris when Clifford Kuykendall was picked up from the water.
Just in the past few days, thinking of him again, I was able to learn from simple internet searches that Clifford Kuykendall is still alive—at least he was in late 2012.  His great niece’s responses in a forum to fellow grandchildren of long dead Tullibee crew members they never knew, was that Clifford carried a lot of survivor's guilt having lost all of his shipmates. He was only 21 when he was released from the Japanese POW camp, and that understandably affected his mental state.  She said that he was sharp and remembered everything that happened in great detail.
However, she said a year later that his mind was still good but he didn’t really remember any details about his fellow crew, he just remembered their faces.  “Which still haunt him today, having lost all of them at sea.  I think talking about it is just too painful for him. He is 88 years old now and has heart problems…..People are always trying to contact him. He said it just brings up bad memories. After the Tullibee sank, he spent 18 months in a Japanese Prison camp where he was beaten and tortured every day. So you can see how painful the past can be for him.’

So I won’t trouble him about my Lieutenant Commander and Communications Officer young grandfather. But I thank goodness that at least one man survived to tell the tale and carry on. An online newspaper article from a few years ago reports on his meeting with the children of another crew member, and says that when he returned from the war, he sat at his sister's kitchen table and wrote letters to the 79 families of all the crew of the Tullibee to tell them what happened.  He said that telling the families the truth, and dissolving the awful mystery for them, was the least that he could do. Bless him.
During the same search, I also came across a record showing my grandfather’s address in Wilmington, Delaware, at the time of his death, and I was able to look at
the actual house on Street View where my grandmother and mother had waited for his return, or at least the house beside theirs; their own was hard to pinpoint and may even be gone now.  But I was able to appreciate the lovely neighbourhood and read about its history.  I also learned from a quick search that my grandfather had served in the Navy for two years and two months at the time of his death and was decorated with a Bronze Star, Pacific Asiatic Ribbon with three Bronze Stars, a Submarine Combat Pin with three Bronze Stars, and a Purple Heart, some of which I have, some of which will probably be in my cousins’ hands, as sadly my uncle died a few years ago.  I was surprised also to find a photograph online of where he is ‘buried’, in the Manila American Cemetery and Memorial, as there could have been no way to retrieve or identify his remains, so he was buried at sea by nature (and the
horrid explosion), but then I realised the plot in Manila is ‘tablets of the missing’. (Of course, the poor people of the Philippines have been going through their own tragedy in recent days, decimated by that massive typhoon with so many of their own people missing and an estimated 10,000 dead already.)

My grandfather was a lovely, warm, soul I feel  know a bit better now.  I wish I had done more to know him when there was time, through people who knew that youth before tragedy struck.  I long to chat to relatives who knew him, and realise that I had decades to talk to his widow and somehow failed to do so.   At least he is no longer just that framed, flat photograph on the wall.  I feel certain that, with his joie de vivre, he would have adored us, so it is horrid that we didn’t pay him the same regard, as it wasn’t his fault that he was absent.  We let him languish in a photograph we regularly rushed past. But when you are young, you care so little for the past, and nothing for strangers in photos that hang quietly on the wall.  I wish there had been other pictures of him.  I have a photograph of my grandmother as a bride, but no picture of the groom, and I’m sure he looked remarkable.
Before I ‘met’ my grandfather through his letters, when I did think of the mysterious turn of events later in my life, I would find myself humming Thomas Dolby’s song One of Our Submarines is Missing, which refers to “Tired illusion drown in the night,  And I can trace my history down one generation to my home in one of our submarines.”  I seem to recall reading that Dolby also lost his grandfather in a missing submarine, although it looks as though it was a British submarine that ran aground in the Baltics.  But it’s a similar loss, and I know where my mind drifts when I hear the song…to that handsome man in the naval uniform who died too young and then was cruelly nearly forgotten by even his own family, which galls me. Although he clearly wasn't forgotten by my grandmother, who saved all his letters, and who, given how upset they were when they could not meet for the occasional weekend at college, must have been utterly devastated to learn they would never meet again, despite all their beautiful plans.
I feel an affinity with him now; I care for  the young man at Yale who wrote those letters, and I hope to be able to mark the 70th anniversary of his death next year somehow suitably.  And he will fill my mind as long as any memories reside there, which I pray will be for many decades, but this story shows us that we just never know.  For now, today, on Remembrance Day, or Veteran’s Day in America, my thoughts are very much with the long lost darling grandfather I have only recently come to know.  The hopeful, fun yet studious youngster who got the girl in the end, and thankfully started a family quickly.  The naval officer now on eternal patrol. “Splendid you passed, the great surrender made; Into the light that nevermore shall fade.”  (O Valiant Hearts, Sir John Stanhope Arkwright)
As I am now 20 years older than my grandfather was when he died, it naturally puts me in mind of Laurence Binyon’s For the Fallen:

“They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:  
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
 We will remember them.”

 It’s the least that I can do.

Friday, 24 May 2013

Why You Mustn't Miss David Bowie - Five Years on BBC2 on 25 May

On the day that YouTube reinstated the blocked video for David Bowie’s latest single, I was at the Victoria & Albert Museum watching a remarkable new feature-length documentary on David Bowie to be screened on BBC2 this weekend.  Sitting amongst such vintage hacks as NME’s Charles Shaar Murray and Michael Watts and esteemed directors like Nicolas Roeg and video guru David Mallet, I assumed I’d see yet another profile of Bowie’s 50 years in music marking 30 years since The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, and I thought I’d seen it all before.  

But producer/director Francis Whately’s David Bowie – Five Years is an insightful, focused and often amusing documentary showing a surprising amount of unseen footage, with fresh, entertaining commentary by the people who were at the centre of crucial creations across different Bowie epochs.  Whately chose to focus on five significant years in Bowie’s career: 1971/72, 74/75, 76/77, 79/80, 82/83. When introducing the film, he said that many people would argue that there were more important years that he should have chosen, to which he responded that they were welcome to make their own films.  They surely wouldn’t be as intriguing or surprising. This was bursting with ‘imagine that!’ moments, with remarkable, newly discovered archive footage, brilliant insight from key players, truly imaginative editing, stunning colours that pop off the screen and, of course, sensational sound.  

The sound matters greatly as the film is bursting with excellent Bowie music, and not just the usual hits. You watch as Bowie painstakingly constructs compositions, for instance, teaching a young Luther Vandross and other backing singers precisely how he wants his soulful song “Right” from Young Americans to be arranged.  Cuddly guitarist Carlos Alomar, singer Ava Cherry, and Alomar’s wife, the ageless Robin Clark (The Voice on Simple Minds hits like “Alive and Kicking”) marvel at his method, how he would coach them until they understood the puzzle he had pieced together.

The film is full of craftsmen marvelling at Bowie’s genius for this craft.  Rick Wakeman, who played piano on Life on Mars, talks us through Bowie’s unexpected chord change.  He seems charmed with the piece as he plays it for the first time in 40 years, and I am moved by the beauty of a piano piece that I might attribute to an 18th century composer if I heard It on Classic FM.  Even Wakeman stops and stares at the keys with admiration before pronouncing the song a piano player’s dream. ‘I must go home and learn it.’ 
With Life on Mars, we delight in the privilege of seeing Bowie’s façade slip for a moment with a grimace as flubs the lip sync for a video of the song. It’s jolting as the convincing performance sucks the viewer into believing in the painted otherworldly creature recounting this alienating, frightening tale, but he suddenly drops that mask with a sneer at his human error. In another scene, we see him painting on the mask before his assistant helps him step into his freaky one-legged onesie.  In a later photo shoot of quite a different look, we watch him pretending to rock out like Gene Vincent like any boy with a toy guitar.

There are plenty of reminders that Bowie was all about image even before he lived up to it—or before most of us knew that he lived up to it. We see Bowie on stage rocking a version of “Suffragette City” fit for a stadium,  then a close-up  of a girl up front screaming hysterically at the rock god before her. But when the camera angle changes, you realise there are only three people in the audience, though at least they are dancing.  The screaming fan is his wife Angie, perhaps trying to force feed her feigned hysteria to the world so it comes to accept his icon status.  We catch on eventually,   and meanwhile Bowie delivers performances fit for the screaming masses, though crucially he has the sense always to leave them wanting more.
We hear from numerous collaborators, even Robert Fripp, who Whately pointed out rarely gave interviews but was apparently so calmed by the researcher who interviewed him that he later braved an appearance on All Star Mr and Mrs with wife Toyah Wilcox. Sitting quietly, looking every bit the tie-wearing accountant he once was (and rather like actor/producer Bob Balaban), his quirky use of colourful language is given more impact as it emerges from such a deceptively prim looking character. 

The difference between pop guitar and rock guitar, he explains, is that “You might get f**d”. Pause. “Can you put that or should I express it in alternative terminology?” As Bowie explains the thinking behind the lemming dance in the “Fashion” video, Fripp dryly mocks its lyrics. He also declares that anyone who plays “Beauty and the Beastgets erections, making porn of the clip that follows of Alomar beaming with his eyes closed as plays it. 

Of course, that’s nothing compared to the long scene with Mick Ronson on stage performing “Moonage Daydream” with Bowie miming acts that make me want to avert my eyes even though I’m over 18. That must have been even more shocking at the time, but Bowie was never shy…. despite a young Spitting Image-like Janet Street-Porter demanding (in an ‘I worship you so let me help you deal with that issue’ way) that he admit to being shy, which he sweetly and patiently dismisses before calmly pointing out that he had a show to do.  He strolls straight onto the stage and stands in darkness in front of a roaring crowd as the band strikes up “Heroes”; the excitement is tangible, and I want to be there.  He has become the rock god Angie was screaming about.  More than three people are there now.    
Co-producer Tony Visconti tells us of an extra contribution he made to Heroes, as the lyric about kissing by the wall and guns was written after Bowie saw him and singer Antonia Maas snogging by the Berlin wall, which at the time was lined with armed East German soldiers (where, weirdly, we see a clip of the wall with what looks like Brian Eno’s cat nearby, but more on that later). Visconti tells us how he was brought on board by appealing to Eno and Bowie’s love of new gadgets (Bowie even bringing in some demos at one stage on a newfangled Walkman thingie), as Visconti told them he had a new thing called the Harmoniser, which “f**cks with the fabric of time” like Science Fiction.  We hear Bowie praise Eno’s expert use of three takes of Fripp’s emotive guitar to give “Heroes” its amazing sound, when it could have turned into a mess.

Heroes is the second album of Bowie’s Berlin Trilogy, after the experimental and less adored Low.  Brian Eno,  with a pained look behind his eyes, tells us that some critics who wrote about Low really needed to get a proper job.  Cut to a shot of Charles Shaar Murray, a veteran music journalist who I always think looks like a melting Ian Dury, reading a scathing review from a faded old broadsheet NME: ‘’It stinks of artfully counterfeited spiritual defeated futility….We’re low enough already, David. Give us a high, or else just swap tapes with Eno by post….’ He turns to the camera with a mischievously defiant smile. ‘Yeah, that’s what I wrote’. 
The presence of the likes of Murray in the film, never mind in the room with us, ensured that this was no Bowie gush fest.  In fact, although several people in the film marvel over Bowie’s genius, it was generally bemused collaborators who had been amazed by his unusual way of constructing an arrangement and his focused method for delivering his vision.  Musicians, producers, a couple of useful cultural historians adding context to Bowie’s choices and fame—the only people given a voice in this film have something insightful to offer us, usually observed first hand.  Whately, clearly a fan himself, wasted no time on a the Channel 4 style of retrospective full of unknown talking heads too young to remember the subject at hand, whose view we care nothing about.  These contributors all have something to say that we want to hear.

The Modern Bowie is not actually one of the talking heads, but he is omnipresent. We observe him through enlightening clips while quotes are artistically draped over the screen. His voice leads us through it all, sometimes with the proliferation of promotional soundbytes Bowie designed himself over years of spouting wisdom and philosophies, sometimes sharing brutal feelings such as when he was ‘psychically damaged’, coming close several times to overdosing. The film is effectively narrated by Bowie, linking the gripping interviews from people who matter as they explain in layman’s terms how his masterpieces—and misses—were created.

Mind you, not everything Bowie and his producers tried worked.  When discussing Brian Eno’s methods in the studio when working on Low, drummer Dennis Davis wearily conveys his resistance when Eno brought a blackboard into the studio as though they were in elementary school.  Carlos  Alomar, wonderfully frank, fun and someone you wish you were buddies with, tells the same story through bubbly smiles as he recalls having to play random chords as Eno pointed to them on the blackboard, before finally saying, ‘Dude, this isn’t working for me, man.’  With his optimist’s spin, he concedes that the unusual technique took him out of his comfort zone and taught him to see things from a different point of view.  ‘I didn’t like that point of view,’ he adds ‘but when I came back, I was fresh.’
Eno admits that he didn’t understand how good musicians worked since he wasn’t a musician himself in that sense.  That follows an art-house style would-be outtake that’s delightfully kept in, where Eno is seen to shoo his gorgeous cat up a splendid spiral staircase presumably to avoid any distractions or continuity issues during the interview.  Eno is sufficiently interesting that you still listen to him when his cat sneaks back into the shot, and it’s fun to play a sort of Where’s Wally called Where’s Eno’s Cat, even in gritty landscapes as an identical cat is spotted by the Berlin Wall. (Why did Eno shoo the cat with sweeping gestures rather than pick it up and move it, I wonder, imagining that the adorable Persian fluffball is actually vicious like the Python Holy Grail cave rabbit.)

Around this period, we hear Bowie speaking of freedom after downsizing to a wardrobe of just jeans and checked shirts (I gladly missed his bluegrass lumberjack phase).  He turned to David Mallett to create his music videos, although Bowie often storyboarded them himself—and we see him drawing them.  Mallet is a fan of checked shirts himself, appearing in a flannel plaid shirt in the film as well as in the audience, wearing it under a jacket as though it were a Brooks Brothers pinstripe.  It makes me think that if I were truly creative, I would have such a gimmick, and maybe my conservative dress is why I’m not yet a creative success.
Mallet, a video guru in those early days of MTV, was also a producer/originator of The Kenny Everett Video Show, on which Bowie and numerous other impressive guests appeared.  He talks about the “Space Oddity” video being cobbled together quickly [I’m also a big fan of Cmdr Chris Hadfield’s genuine Space Oddity video: ].  He talks of Bowie wanting to be on a beach with a clown and a digger on the “Ashes to Ashes” video, which includes a cast of Blitz club regulars like Steve Strange and Boy George, so he sees Bowie as a precursor to the Modern Romantic movement. Watching Bowie’s skill on the storyboard for what he thought was one of his better songs demonstrates that he is an all-round artist not just clever at creating music, which is perhaps why he disliked being limited by the ‘rock star’ tag, and why he carefully honed various looks and personas.  An artist—a creator, a writer, an actor—is all about creating rounded characters.

He is, of course, an actor as well, more than I realised.  I knew he often seemed to linger in the background of films as a vampire and flitted about the disappointing Absolute Beginners,  and I had hazy memories of seeing the Man Who Fell To Earth on late night Cinemax as a young child.  I was surprised to learn that he played the title role on Broadway in The Elephant Man in 1979.  Better yet, the film shows long clips of him on stage in that role, twisting his body in a warped way to convey the essence of the character without prosthetics. His Joseph Merrick has romantic views about Shakespeare, and we hear from Jack Hofsiss, whose direction of the play won him a Tony, the youngest director to have done so then.  Having later injured his spinal cord in a diving accident, he speaks in the film through a damaged voice, full of praise for Bowie the Actor.
I was seated behind the director of the Man Who Fell to Earth (along with amazing suspense classic Don’t Look Now), Nicolas Roeg. Boldly bearing scarves as one expects a director to, I watched two visions of him in the polka dot scarf before me, watching himself with clasped hands and no visible reaction.  The on-screen Roeg speaks of seeing in Bowie a man who wasn’t frightened to ruin his image, whom he spotted in Alan Yentob’s 1974 BBC documentary Cracked Actor when it was time to cast the lead alien. We see a clip from that documentary, with Bowie in the back of a limo putting in an Aretha Franklin eight-track tape and singing “(You Make Me Feel Like A) Natural Woman” before spouting philosophy about the fly in his milk that he proceeds to drink.  Bowie’s Earth co-star, the now 65-year-old Candy Clark, says he looked naturally like someone from another planet so few changes needed to be made.  “He’s wrong when he says he’s expressionless” she says in praise of his acting skills.

Dick Cavett concludes that Bowie is an actor in character when he appears on his show in America, watching the tie-wearing pink-haired Bowie paw at the floor with his cane, a man he had been warned might  just bite his neck.  Bowie was rather scarier perhaps than Barbra Streisand, Maria Muldaur or similar pop stars of the day, but he delivered a fantastic “Young Americans” before covering The Flares’ “Footstompin”, which sounded oddly familiar. We learn how Bowie took Alomar’s infectious guitar riff on the latter and transformed it into “Fame” by cutting the song up into a blues format.  Bowie explains that co-writer John Lennon came to that session and joined in.  “Lennon sang ‘aim’ and I put an ‘F’ in front of it”.   Fimagine that. 
Astonishingly, we also see Bowie performing on Soul Train, a show WASPs like me never watched as it was seen as “the black American Bandstand”, with shows beginning with guests unscrambling letters to spell a notable figure in African American history. So why would Bowie be on it?  The clue must be in the name.  Yet the next clip we see has Bowie talking about how he was influenced by Kraftwerk, and we move away from soul to Station to Station. The man journeyed through more genres than I remembered.

On the other side of the pond, we see part of a supremely awkward Russell Harty interview via a satellite link (as Bowie is “in retirement” from the pop world in 1975), where Bowie comes across as the smoother professional. Harty blunders through the name of the song so that Bowie has to introduce it himself (pronouncing his own name to rhyme with “Joey”, incidentally).  He  also patiently corrects Harty when he introduces his film as ‘The Man who Came to Earth.’  [We don’t see the whole slow sticky exchange, during which Harty suggests that Bowie may have no audience to come back to because everyone in England now worshiped the Bay City Rollers, and why come back if he’s not that good a musician? It’s on YouTube . Maybe this is the real reason Grace Jones smacked Harty in the face years later.]
From the clip we see of Bowie arriving back in London at Victoria station surrounded by adoring crowds as though he were the Queen, Bowie needn’t have worried.   We see him develop in the film from the captivating glam rock figure in those embarrassingly awful one-legged knitted onesies (a close-up of his crotch shows that crochet does not flatter) to the breathtakingly glamorous blonde be-suited Let’s Dance era MTV God.  I recall that it was that persona that made me snatch up tickets when he came to my college town, only to be subjected to the dire Glass Spider tour with no hits until the very end, long after most people had given up and left despite Peter Frampton’s presence on guitar. The mood was not helped by Bowie pretending to pull a local girl onto the stage who danced far too well because, it transpired, she was Toni Basil.  But this film reminds me that Bowie is fascinating to watch and has incredible presence, something that should have been indelibly etched on my brain. 

This highly successful Let’s Dance era Bowie, who we know with our hindsight deserves the EMI party we see thrown for him at Claridges, follows the unusual step of hiring producer Nile Rodgers (Chic, Sister Sledge), who met him when Billy Idol pointed out Bowie sitting alone in a club.  Bowie wanted hits, and Rodgers was a hitmaker.   Rodgers refers to the ominous folk overtones of Bowie’s 12-string guitar (with only six strings) before he found that Bowie was jazzy and cool. But he had
concerns.  “If I don’t make a record that makes people want to dance, and we call the song Let’s Dance,  I’m gonna have to trade in my black union card.” He plays the intro he developed for “China Girl” and tells of his relief when Bowie recognised its comedic value (which had been lost on philistine me), and with these videos, MTV gave his career another life.  We’re reminded how stunningly beautiful Bowie looked then, once his teeth eventually become as slick as the rest of him. In his own words, Bowie suddenly wasn’t a cult artist anymore; he was playing stadiums.

It’s a long way from the period at the start of the film, when young Bowie was desperate to make an impression on a bored, wigless Andy Warhol, who does not welcome Bowie into his enclave after having hurt him by saying that Bowie’s tribute song to him was the worst thing he had ever heard. After long shots of Bowie looking like a child longing to join in the game, we are treated to a bewilderingly thin Bowie miming his own disembowelment, almost too graphically, before (miming) ripping his heart out and setting it free.  And following his heart, continuing to find his own way worked out rather well for him.

Francis Whately clearly adored crafting a film about a subject he was evidently passionate about, after meeting Bowie in 2001 when he approached several of his heroes in search of a presenter for a show about sculpture, and the first response was a phone call from Bowie.  Like Bowie, he surrounds himself with the very best talents, resulting in an outstandingly edited, aesthetically arresting and absorbing film with eye-popping colour, which uses clever devices throughout but happily shuns the inexplicably trendy irritating gimmicks of showing close-ups of speakers’ nostrils filmed by a drunken gibbon on skates.  This film artfully focuses without distractions on the world of Bowie during these five years, naturally playing plenty of music  through gorgeous sound. It reminds you of the joy to be had by playing those old Bowie records that you lost touch with or thought you were bored of, and you may want to explore the tracks you previously neglected. This is not just a rehash of everything you know. This is special.  Don’t miss it.
Afterwards, at the V&A, just like in the old days at the pictures, everyone applauded the superb film.  Some of us retired to a pub, where Charles Shaar Murray berated a BBC production coordinator for saying “Jay-Zed”, explaining “You wouldn’t say Zed Zed Top!” and Bowie’s PR disagreed with the genius behind the film’s sound mastering, Patrick Cleasby, about which was Morrissey’s best solo album.  There, I learned that the international version of this priceless film will have to be cut substantially in length, which seems a crime.  So acknowledge your privilege in seeing the Director’s Cut while you can…..and for free.

David Bowie – Five Years will be shown on BBC2 at 9.20pm on Saturday, 25th May 2013.
The film will be followed at 10.50pm by a showing of Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth. The ‘David Bowie Is’ exhibition, featuring handwritten lyrics, original costumes, videos, set designs and Bowie’s musical instruments, continues at the Victoria & Albert Museum until 11 August 2013.