A number of early readers of my just-published collection Black Mascara (Waterproof) have asked me about the ideas behind the poem ‘Tilda Swinton as David Bowie’, so I am pleased to provide this blog post in lieu of a discussion at some suitably sparkling literary salon – although one hopes, of course, that with spring peeping round the curtain in shorts and sunglasses, waving its vaccine appointment letter, such gatherings are not too far away. Let us begin with the poem in full:
This was the line-up on the rail at the photographer’s studio:
Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, the Thin White Duke,
Orlando as a boy, Orlando as a girl, Vita, Virginia.
At the shutter’s click, you met under a streetlight
on the Reeperbahn, stayed up all night, fell asleep
at dawn in each other’s arms and woke on a bed
of oak leaves in the garden at Knole,
played guitar and sang as I was born with my hair
on fire. In Paris, we held hands in an artist’s impression
of the street that will take my name after I am gone;
in Berlin, we danced in the watchtower’s shadow,
passed like Gitanes smoke right through the Wall. Now,
in this London winter, I stand on Southwark Bridge
and still the waters with the Life on Mars blue
of my breath. Cast off your layers – spaceman,
suit and tie, doublet and hose, breeches and gaiters,
string of pearls, ink where blood should flow –
until you are invisible. Step out onto the ice,
carve your names with the blades of your skates,
overwrite one with another until you have made
a new language – and as you watch the freezing
and melting of these curves and lines and try
to decipher their meaning, ask yourselves, honestly:
am I not the most beautiful thing you have ever seen?
When I first started writing poetry – alarmingly recently, as I spent a long time being certain that I couldn’t – I filled a notebook with photographs, literary quotations and other clippings and cuttings that I hoped would generate ideas. The most indelible of these was a series of photographs of the actress Tilda Swinton as David Bowie, shot by Craig McDean for Italian Vogue in February 2003. I don’t remember how or where I first came across these extraordinarily arresting images, but I had them in the notebook for a couple of years before I could see how to make a poem out of them.
The story starts with my abiding fascination with the writer Vita Sackville-West. Oh, Vita. For all her terrible snobbery, her aristocratic haughtiness and her well-documented shortcomings as a poet, she remains utterly compelling and endlessly irresistible. It would be absurd to try to explain the reasons for this myself when Virginia Woolf has done it so unforgettably, so this is an extract from Woolf’s diaries, dated 21st December 1925:
I like her and like being with her, and the splendour – she shines in the grocer’s shop in Sevenoaks with a candlelit radiance, stalking on legs like beech trees, pink glowing, grape clustered, pearl hung. […] What is the effect of all this on me? Very mixed. There is her maturity and full breastedness; her being so much in full sail on the high tides, while I am coasting down backwaters; her capacity I mean to take the floor in any company, to represent her country, to visit Chatsworth, to control silver, servants, chow dogs […]
This tells us everything we need to know about Vita, and why Virginia Woolf fell in love with her – but I am getting ahead of myself here. To me, Vita is fascinating not only because of her affair with Woolf, but also because of her earlier grande passion with Violet Trefusis, socialite, writer and daughter of Edward VII’s mistress Alice Keppel. Even the manner in which their affair became public knowledge is the stuff of fiction – Vita recorded every detail in a memoir discovered after her death by her son Nigel Nicolson in a locked Gladstone bag he had to cut open with a knife. It is impossible to look away from these pages of Portrait of a Marriage for a second: first, Vita is her alter-ego Julian, striding through Charing Cross station in a WWI soldier’s uniform so that she can conduct her affair with Violet brazenly, in public; then, she is dramatically eloping with Violet to Paris; finally, there is the inevitable, spectacular crisis, involving their husbands flying to Amiens to physically separate the lovers from one another.
Vita’s affair with Virginia Woolf seems quieter and more muted in comparison, but it did inspire Woolf’s 1928 novel Orlando, famously described by Nigel Nicolson as ‘the longest love letter in literature’. Woolf records in her 1927 diary that she has an idea for ‘a biography beginning the year 1500 and continuing to the present day, called Orlando: Vita, only with a change about from one sex to another’; the novel also features Violet Trefusis in the guise of the Russian princess Sasha. Woolf is a hundred years ahead of her time both in her diaries and in the novel itself, in which:
Orlando had become a woman – there is no denying it. But in every other respect, Orlando remained precisely as he had been. The change of sex, though it altered their future, did nothing whatever to alter their identity.
The lack of fanfare here seems to reflect the way in which Vita adopted and discarded her ‘Julian’ identity at will, as the circumstances suited her, and with tremendous pleasure; it was ‘a discovery too good to be wasted’ and in Paris with Violet she ‘practically lived in that role’. We are starting to see, then, some of the ideas in ‘Tilda Swinton as David Bowie’ about the playfulness of identity, of the notion of multiple identities shifting and merging – but the crucial detail necessary to unlock the poem is this: Tilda Swinton played Orlando in Sally Potter’s 1992 film adaptation of the novel. When I first stared, wide-eyed and fascinated, at Craig McDean’s photographs of Swinton as Bowie, I saw not one person, not even two, but all the identities and personas I list in lines two and three of the poem, jostling for space, interacting with and inhabiting each other. Then I thought of how Bowie’s creating and discarding of his alter egos has the same wickedly creative playfulness that characterises Woolf’s writing in Orlando, and the poem came together from there. Thus the Reeperbahn is the deliciously seedy and disreputable Hamburg street where we know Bowie spent time; Knole is Vita’s ancestral estate in Kent; the image of all the personas ‘passing like Gitanes smoke right through the Wall’ references both Bowie’s time in Berlin and my interest in the mutability of identity; the different Bowies and the different Tildas are again reflected in the section of the poem where they ‘cast off’ their ‘layers’. And, finally, the poem ends as it does because, if you look the photos up on Google images, you will see that Swinton as Bowie is indeed the most beautiful thing you have ever seen.
Virginia Woolf, Orlando (Penguin Modern Classics, 2000)
Virginia Woolf, Selected Diaries (Vintage Classics, 2008)
Nigel Nicolson, Portrait of a Marriage (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1973)