Loving the Alien: Bowie and the ‘Burbs

bowie_konradsBowie Mick Rock

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How did  I come to make a documentary for Radio 4 called I Dressed Ziggy Stardust? It was pitched and commissioned about 6 months ago, long before anyone thought Bowie might be releasing new material.

This is the story behind the documentary and extra tips I wrote about raising my children the David Bowie way that helped me come up with the idea.  I owe special thanks to Shyama Perera who inspired me with her talent (and her dyed hair) and generously shared her story. I guess the programme is for everyone who wants to reclaim our popstars from the establishment of rock critics who have a tendency to leave the teenage, and especially the female fans, out of their grand histories.

The original pitch: Two British Asian girls growing up in 70s London: One  scared but fascinated by emaciated, androgynous David Bowie on her TV. The other older and bolder was hanging around outside his house, chatting with him and Angie, having breakfast with his bandmates and sending in ideas for costumes. One day more than 30 years later the two girls met and exchanged stories. Revisiting locations and memories Samira Ahmed (the scared one) takes Shyama Perera (the bold one) on a journey to explore how David Bowie changed their lives and how Shyama may have changed his. 

The post I wrote for the Radio 4 blog explains the significance of the two photos above. This is a version of it. And below are two of the key videos referenced in the programme. Note the Muslim bride/Crusader theme of Loving The Alien. 

 

This is a story about heroes and how they change us.  As a little girl I grew up in 70s & early 80s south London suburbia terrified and fascinated by David Bowie. 

I navigated my way through a decade that often ignored but more often didn’t seem to like “coloured” people very much, with National Front support at its peak. And I fixed on rare and hugely inspirational Asian role models, like the bold and charming TV presenter Shyama Perera.

A year ago, Shyama and I finally met. I confessed my hero worship of her and we found we shared a love of David Bowie. But where I had watched from a suburban distance, through the TV screen and the music charts, Shyama, an inner London girl, a few years older and bolder, revealed how as a teenager she had hung around outside his house chatting with Bowie and his wife Angie,  breakfasted with his bandmates, and sent in costume sketches. One day David Bowie ruffled her hair on his doorstep and told her she’d have a surprise at the gig that night. The story of I Dressed Ziggy Stardust was born then and I pitched it to Radio 4.

As well as re-visiting the old locations from Shyama’s Ziggy years, producer Alice Bloch broadened our search for fans and found Shami Chakrabarti of Liberty and Chandrika Joshi. There aren’t many female Hindu Priests, but, Chandrika a refugee from Idi Amin’s Uganda, growing up in Wales, saw resonances of Lord Krishna and the easy androgynous beauty of Hindu avatars in Marc Bolan and Bowie. Who could have thought Top of the Pops could lead to her challenging the gender expectations of her faith and culture?

Rupa Huq, a colleague at Kingston University, grew up in the Queen of the suburbs – Ealing. She shared fascinating insights into both how Bowie intruded into her own Bengali upbringing; notably in the Muslim bride and Crusader imagery of Loving The Alien And, through her own research as a sociologist, she explained how suburbia was not the dull, conservative space as portrayed in 70s sitcoms, but a radical “edge” where immigrants made their homes and youth formented rebellion. Punk, like Bowie, came from the ‘burbs. To those of us sick of racist experiences, the idea of a white boy, who could fit in without effort, choosing to stand out and court controversy about his sexuality was incredibly liberating.

Suzi Ronson, Bowie’s costume mistress during the Ziggy days, his publicist Cherry Vanilla, who managed the fans, and photographer Hy Money filled in the gaps. Hy had taken her children to Bowie’s south London “Arts Lab” club on Beckenham High Street. It was where Bowie and Bolan jammed with sitar players in suburbia. Being Asian could be cool, after all. He apparently said of it:  “I run an arts lab which is my chief occupation. It’s in Beckenham and I think it’s the best in the country. There’s a lot of talent in the green belt”.

Throughout the making of the documentary I carried round the 2 photo postcards shown  at the top of this post. One of a teenage David Jones in one of his many failed pop prototype incarnations — more Tommy Steele than Ziggy Stardust; a suburbanite desperate for fame. The other, a famous Mick Rock portrait of David Bowie, jaffa-haired and skinny, holding a photograph of himself in yet another persona. I saw the same suburban hunger for success as the immigrant child forging her own identity.

So while he’s everybody’s hero now, it seemed important to reclaim Bowie from the middle aged male musos who say he never did anything decent after the 1970s, for the fans, including the female fans. It’s good to remember the time when grownups often hated and feared David Bowie, and he seemed to be speaking just to girls like me and Shyama, daring us to love the alien within.

I Dressed Ziggy Stardust is broadcast on Radio 4 Saturday March 16th at 1030am. Details and link to listen again after transmission.

Further reading/listening

Raising your kids the David Bowie way

Talking Bowie and Asian identity with Nihal on the BBC Asian Network March 15th (at 2 hr 12 min 30 s in)

Talking Bowie and the ‘burbs with Robert Elms on BBC London March 13th( at 1 hr 32 min in)

 Ziggy Stardust came from Isleworth

Bowie in pictures – Matthew Sweet finds the science in the fiction

Evening Standard Guide to David Bowie’s Soho 

 

 

 

About samiraahmed

Journalist. Writer. Broadcaster.
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