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Heroes are from another world, aren’t they? They come to us through the radio, television and the internet. Unless we are unlucky enough to meet our heroes, they remain purely in sound and image. It’s a leap of faith for us to decide that they really do exist in the same world as us, a leap we don’t always want to take. It’s kind of nice to think that they really are otherworldly. Yet our heroes are human. They do come from somewhere. And it can be closer than we think.
When I picture spring 2020 I see the street where I live, empty and sunlit, viewed from my bedroom window. Every day seems to be bathed in warm sunshine. This is a blessing; the back garden becomes our sanctuary. And a curse—just think of the world we want to explore under such blue skies. We’re locked down: home schooling, home working, home exercise, home everything. It’s surreal, scary and weirdly mundane. Hollywood has led us to believe that the end of civilization will come with huge explosions and zombies and angry purple skies. Yet here we are obsessing about getting an online grocery delivery slot, deciding whether Zoom is better than Teams, baking sourdough and doing yoga while peering at our smart phones.
The U.K. government’s guidance is that one outdoor exercise session is permitted per day. No one really understands what that means, but the general consensus in the cycling community is that a one-hour bike ride is acceptable, provided you ride alone and stay local. And unless you’re jacked up on EPO, a one-hour bike ride means you have to stay local.
So, I roll out onto the streets of my London suburb. No cars, no hum of the city, no planes descending to Heathrow or City Airport. Only the birds making a racket in the trees. South London in lockdown is a peaceful place to be. Past the locked gates of my daughter’s school, out onto Burnt Ash Hill. Before Covid, before lockdowns, this road was a channel out of the city, leading me and many other area cyclists toward the North Downs, the Weald of Kent, open countryside. No matter. I have an alternative plan. This is to be a “time travel” ride with an amazing soundtrack.
I pedal through Grove Park toward Bromley, working out the stiffness in my legs. Past nail salons, cheap cafés, barbershops and betting shops—all closed. Just to be out of the house feels transgressive. At Plaistow I turn east, following my usual route, but instead of climbing up past Sundridge Park train station, I pause and turn right into a little residential street called Plaistow Grove. Both sides are lined with small Victorian row houses. It’s a street that goes nowhere; if you follow it around it brings you back onto the same road up toward the train station. Yet it’s a very important little street—this is where David Bowie grew up.
No. 4 is much like all the other houses on the street, apart from the circular blue plaque that confirms its rock-androll status. Bowie, or David Jones as he was then, moved to Bromley with his family when he was age 8 (the family lived briefly in two other houses before settling in Plaistow Grove). His father worked in PR for a charity and the family was firmly middle class. Bowie later said that his childhood was a happy one. He wanted for nothing, unlike the children of many other local families who were struggling with life in postwar Britain.
High school was the nearby Bromley Technical College where Bowie was taught art by Owen Frampton, father of Peter Frampton (who went on to become the famed rock guitarist). Owen Frampton was an inspirational teacher for the young David Jones, who was already, in his early teenage years, exhibiting a love of music, fashion and art. Bowie was a born performer and even then seemed to have a very clear view of where he was going.
The trains that rumbled out of Sundridge Park station could take a young man up to central London in 30 minutes.
Only half an hour and yet it was a world away. Bowie began exploring Soho, Chelsea, South Kensington, all the lively parts of the city. For many of these odysseys into early ’60s pop culture, his partner in crime was Marc Bolan (who would pioneer the glam rock movement with his band T. Rex). Bowie and Bolan were as obsessed by clothes as much as music. They soon became “faces” on the Carnaby Street scene. Interviewed for Dylan Jones’ 2017 biography “David Bowie: A Life,” Bowie spoke of suburbia as a cultural wasteland in which people were caught between the values of the city and the values of the country. Escape was essential, and for Bowie escape came in the form of a short train journey up to central London, dressed to the nines. Art, music, fashion and sex all lay at the end of that train track.
This is surely a dynamic that plays out in other great cities around the world, yet because London is essentially a collection of villages that have bled into one contiguous circle, there is a provincial, backward feeling to places like Bromley. Bowie certainly equated the smallness of his parent’s house with smallness of ambition, smallness of mindset. He was always going to be stepping on to that train heading north: “Ground control to Major Tom….”
I pull away from Plaistow Grove and climb toward Chislehurst, where the houses are newer and bigger and mostly rather vulgar. This is the setting of Hanif Kureishi’s celebrated 1990 novel “The Buddha of Suburbia,” set in the 1970s, in which a young mixed-race man obsessed with David Bowie longs to escape the stifling atmosphere of the suburbs. Bowie himself was a fan of the book and provided the soundtrack to a BBC film version. I once did a creative writing course and Kureishi was a guest tutor. On a coffee break I told Kureishi that I think about his book every Sunday morning when I cycle out of London through Chislehurst. He looked at me as though I was crazy.
Dropping into a steep-sided valley I pass Chislehurst Caves, a thoroughly weird labyrinth of man-made tunnels carved into the rock below suburban houses. The caves are now a tightly controlled tourist attraction but in the middle of the last century they were wild and mysterious. Children went missing down there. Bowie’s older brother once spent eight days in the caves while the authorities and his parents frantically searched for him. Another Bromley resident, Siouxsie Sioux (she of The Banshees), played one of her first gigs in the caves.
No time to stop though. I have one hour to ride my bike, and another iconic musician’s origins to locate. I ride through Sidcup and Blackfen, toward Welling. These are modest, scruffy places with roads that are usually busy and dangerous. Not the sorts of places that cyclists enjoy riding through. Now there is a curious quietude here. The roads belong to me. I can look at each passing house. The suburbs can be dull, but they can also be “strange and violent” as the writer J. G. Ballard famously observed.
I pass under the A2 arterial road that connects London to Dover and the English Channel. In Welling I turn onto Wickham Street. On my left are mid-century houses and small blocks of flats; and there, a short distance along on the right, there is the place I am looking for. A ramshackle wooden fence and a thick line of trees. In July 1958, just a few weeks before David Jones started attending Bromley Technical College a few miles away, a baby girl was delivered in Bexleyheath Maternity Hospital and later came home to East Wickham Farm. Her name was Catherine Bush.
David Bowie and Kate Bush may have grown up near each other but their worlds were unconnected, and very different. East Wickham Farm is 400 years old and until the middle of the 20th century was surrounded by countryside. Suburban housing estates may have encircled it, but the farm always retained its sense of age and splendid isolation. Around the large rambling farmhouse were various outbuildings, including the drafty barn that Bush turned into her personal retreat for reading, singing and songwriting.
The Bush family was eccentric, educated, artistic and loving. Kate had two older brothers, Paddy and Jay, who inculcated a love of stories, poetry and music in their baby sister. Their father was a doctor and an amateur pianist who loved Schubert and Chopin. He gave Kate her first piano lessons and encouraged her early attempts at songwriting. Visitors to the farm were both impressed by the friendly and supportive nature of the family—Mrs. Bush seemed to enjoy feeding musicians with lots of tea and cakes—and intimidated by the intellectual weight of the family’s conversation.
Bush loved Bowie’s music and went to his final Ziggy Stardust gig at the Hammersmith Apollo in July 1973. Two years later she was discovered by Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour and with his help made a demo recording at the AIR studios in London’s Oxford Circus that would lead to a contract with EMI. Gilmour gets a lot of the credit for Bush’s early success, but really his role was to polish a rough diamond. Bush had already written “The Boy with the Child in his Eyes” and dozens of other amazing songs. Her artistic vision was conjured in her childhood years in East Wickham Farm, just a few yards from where I’m now standing.
Perhaps it’s her elusiveness, perhaps it’s her uniqueness, her total lack of compromise; I think of Kate Bush as truly heroic. I can’t quite imagine that we might exist in the same world, never mind share the same part of London. She’s here, behind these trees, in spirit. Her music is rooted here. And that’s good enough for me.
I turn away and head for home. Perhaps instead of baking sourdough and doing yoga my lockdown activity can be listening to old pop songs through a pair of great headphones. There aren’t too many better ways to celebrate life.
From issue 105, get your copy at pelotonshop.com