The strange grief I felt at David Bowie’s death took me completely by surprise. I would never call myself a huge fan of his work – I own only one CD of his, a singles compilation which I’ve started playing again for the first time in months – so how come I cried three times on Monday when the news broke? First was that line from ‘Space Oddity’: ‘Tell my wife I love her very much.’ ‘She knows.’ And then it was ‘Heroes’, twice – the second time on the 10 o’clock news when it accompanied footage of Team GB’s entrance at the 2012 Olympics. I’m not ashamed to say I cried like a baby, confused all the while about the death of someone I’ve never met.
That’s not strictly true, of course. Any artist – whether a musician, painter or writer – puts something of themselves into their work. Indeed, I’d argue that it’s the level of that commitment and how closely we get to the creator which determines how successful that work is. Music is a particularly powerful medium, maybe because it so often accompanies a communal experience: played at gigs, parties, clubs, weddings and funerals, it’s an aspect of our lives that brings us together. The older I get, the more emotional I find I am about certain songs, often because of the associations they have with my own life. Times good and bad.
If there’s a positive to be taken out of David Bowie’s death, it’s that idea of reinvention – that it’s never too late to start again, and take your life in a wholly new direction. I’ve certainly been doing that over the last few months, retraining as a teacher with all of the terror, awe and excitement that the process has brought upon me. On Monday I was observing a fellow teacher who was taking a class through one of my favourite poems, Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’. It’s a popular one to do with a class, largely because it’s short (an unconventional 14-line sonnet) and has various layers of meaning which all levels of student can unpick.
The poem describes the ruins of an enormous statue which stands in the middle of the Egyptian desert, one that was erected to the glory of pharaoh Ramesses II (and whose Greek name was Ozymandias). Fallen into disrepair, the pedestal on which the statue once stood is still visible, as is its inscription: ‘Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!‘ The poem is commonly taken as a word of caution to those in power who think their authority will never end. On the contrary, warns Shelley; such power is only temporary, just waiting for the day when it will be swallowed up by the sands.
An alternative reading is that, however broken it may be, the statue does survive, as does the story about it which begins in the poem’s opening line. This is a much more hopeful interpretation – that whilst political power crumbles and fades to dust, art and literature will and must endure. There is that very human need for stories inside all of us, one that will never disappear. It’s one of the many reasons why David Bowie and other artists like him continue to form such a powerful presence in so many people’s lives. Bowie understood this need for stories very deeply, and he never stopped telling them right up until the end of his life. Major Tom, Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane and the Thin White Duke – may you all rest in peace.