Monday 11 January 2016

David Bowie - a Southern Exploration

I have often wondered, perhaps somewhat morbidly, where I'd be when Bowie died. Implicit in this is the fact that I'd outlive him, which seemed a given when younger, but when someone dies aged 69 and you're 54, those 15 years don't feel like such a gap.

I didn't think I'd be unemployed, that's for sure, so when I heard the news this morning, my time was my own. My first instinct was to play all of my favourite (should be 'fave' I think?) records at mourning banishing volume. But then I dusted off Kevin Cann's book 'Any Day Now' - the exhaustive, almost day by day account of Bowie's formative years in the UK - picked up the car keys, and went for a little drive.

Everyone who was a fan (was? That sounds odd) has their own David Bowie, dependent on the age and the point in his career when they 'turned on' to his music. My own David Bowie was created in 1969, hearing 'Space Oddity' over the school Tannoy as part of an educational programme on space travel. Three years later, soon after the carrot topped, blue guitar swagger of Bowie performing 'Starman' on TV's LIFT OFF WITH AYESHA hit me for six - forcing me to rush out and buy the 7" with its dangerous and perhaps even more mercurial B-side 'Suffragette City' - I brought my copy of the single along to our primary school final year picnic, where the teachers had thoughtfully rigged up a record player to enhance the event. 'Starman' effectively cleared the picnic area - it obviously wasn't for everyone. My father, whose own version of David Bowie conjured him as a kind of Tommy Steele for the next generation, faithfully bought me all his albums when they came out, right up to the point where I asked Dad what 'lobotomy' and 'libido' meant because I'd heard Bowie sing the words. It didn't help that I asked him rather loudly in the middle of a party that my decidedly strait-laced parents were throwing.
40 Stansfield Rd

But back to this morning. So I've posted up a few songs (including possibly my all time favourite 'Conversation Piece') on social media like many other friends, and I'm still in shock. My David Bowie was the early version: 'She's Got Medals'; 'The London Boys'; 'Silly Boy Blue'. There's a shameless nostalgia operating alongside the grief, so I decide to take a drive around South London, Kent and Surrey to see if I can connect with my 'early years' Bowie, using Cann's book as my guide.

Stockwell Infants School
40 Stansfield Road, SW9, Bowie's birthplace, although he'd only live there for about six years, but the growing packs of media lurking in Brixton have decided that his beginnings must remain as urban as possible. When I arrive in the road, it's just me and a few photographers. Two streets along there's a bank of TV News outfits congregating, disgorging young teams all wearing regulatory puffa jackets - I wonder what their Bowie looks like?

106 Canon Rd
Round the corner is Stockwell Infants' school, where young David went to school for a few years. Luckily no-one (apart from me) is hanging around taking photographs. The school have put up garden centre screening to stop anyone poking their lenses through the bars. Back in Brixton the official mourning has begun - the Ritzy cinema changes its front of house to continue the SW9 reclamation of Mr Bowie. It's time to move on.

23 Clarence Road
It's difficult to gauge what it must have been like to move out of London into Kent in the 1950s. Nowadays the areas of the county bordering the capital are fairly built up, but even now as I drive away from SW9 there is a palpable change in the architecture and the density of housing which must have been much more acute 60 years previously. But these London hinterlands are where Bowie would grow up and make his first forays onto the live scene. His first house after Brixton was 106 Canon Road, Bickley, a rather sweet little town which, like so many places in the area, clusters around its railway station. This was his home for about a year. It's small, little more than a cottage, and quite a difference from the Stansfield Road address. So in 1954 the family moved up the road to a larger home, 23 Clarence Road, still in Bickley, but in a much wider street surrounded by detached 
4 Plaistow Grove
dwellings and an overall feeling of the private estate. This is absolute suburbia, and although the trains connect to central London stations, my guess is that the average inhabitant doesn't (or didn't). Bowie would remain here for just over a year, before moving to a slightly more connected address, immediately behind Sundridge Park railway station - 4 Plaistow Grove. This would be the home at which he moved on from junior school, securing a place at the all boys Bromley Tech in Keston (still in existence but now called Ravenswood, although it's a school still proud of its Bowie links including being the location for THAT fight resulting in David's permanently dilated pupil). It's also where he was living when he joined his first group - the Konrads - initially playing saxophone, but gradually moving to take over vocals.

The gig list at this time shows that the Konrads really worked the provinces. A few of the venues that were regularly used were Shirley Parish Hall, Wickham Hall and Justin Hall, part of St David's college - these venues were interspersed between Croydon and Beckenham. Presumably because of the distance from centrally connected transport, Bowie would be playing to a largely local Kent/Surrey crowd. Until 1964, when David would progress from the Konrads to the more R&B based The King Bees, this small and very quiet part of the south east would be his playground.

Justin Hall, West Wickham

Shirley Parish Hall, Shirley

Wickham Hall, West Wickham
Moving away from the provinces and back towards Brixton, I also move forward in time. I stopped first at the The Three Tuns pub in Beckenham. Now a chain restaurant, this was the site of the infamous Beckenham Arts Lab started in 1969, where Bowie developed some of his artistic tendencies. A young woman is standing outside with a microphone trying to get a sense of what Beckenham's Bowie is like.
The Three Tuns - site of the Beckenham Arts Lab

A few hundred yards away from this venue is the Croydon Road Recreation ground, an unassuming public space which was the location for the Beckenham Free Festival, held in August 1969 (and namechecked in the Bowie song). As I made my way to the bandstand, from where a permed newly blissed out Bowie once performed - a long way from the Konrads yet geographically just down the road - I saw that a few bunches of flowers had already been laid at its steps. An older woman was talking to a couple of local people as I approached through the mud; she also had a microphone and was clearly attempting to record some local memories of the man. I mentioned to them that Brixton was being seen as Bowie central today. She became annoyed: "But Bowie only lived there for a few years. He belongs to Bromley and Beckenham, not Brixton," she remonstrated.

Croydon Rd Recreation Ground - site of the Beckenham Free Festival
I walked away back to the car, thinking that everyone creates their own David Bowie, and that he'd be quite happy with that.


  1. A brilliant bit of Bowie detective work David, and a fine accompaniment to Kevin Cann's book - are we ever going to see a sequel to that ? My own wanderings took me to Hansa, during a weekend trip to Berlin in 2016, although I couldn't quite convince my wife to track down Bowie and Iggy's flat at 155 Haupstrasse in Schöneberg ! I heard the news of Bowie's passing whilst standing in my kitchen listening to the 7am news, and was stunned, confused even, considering I had bought Blackstar two days before. I was even hoping he might tour again. I spent that day in work in a fog of gloom, my colleagues who know I'm a Bowieboy left me alone. I still find listening to his albums a little bit painful, and I promise you I'm not normally so sentimental about artists passing, but y'know, it's David Bowie...

  2. Exactly Wes. There are a few artists whose passing I'll mourn/have mourned more than averagely: Hardy Fox of 'The Residents' was difficult as was Pete Shelley; I'll find the passing of Robyn Hitchcock a hard one. But Bowie was something else altogether.