Following David Bowie Home

A journey through South London a few days after the death of David Bowie in January 2016, following a pilgrimage he had made himself, in secret, back to the places where he grew up. I wrote about this for The Independent on Sunday but here’s an updated version, now that we are a year on.  If he meant anything to you at all, or you are curious about why he meant so much to others, please read on. There’s a video to go with it, of things I saw that day. I can’t put his music on that for copyright reasons, so I am playing the chords for Heroes. Anyway, here goes …

David Bowie told the driver to stop when they got to the house where he was born. He was weeping. “It’s a miracle,” he said quietly to himself, looking out of the tour bus, which was squeezed into a tight back street in Brixton, south London. “I probably should have been an accountant instead.”

This very private moment happened in 1991, when Bowie was almost at the height of his powers, and was observed only by a member of his band, according to Paul Trynka’s biography, Starman. But in the hours after Bowie’s death at the age of 69 last on 10 January, it emerged that he had made another, even more secret trip back to the places where he was brought up, shortly after being diagnosed with liver cancer. What did he see when he came here with his then 13-year-old daughter, Lexi, in the summer of 2014?

Now that Bowie has been cremated, with no family or friends present at all, I’m following his trail back through the years to understand him, the life from which he emerged to become a global superstar, and what we are really left with now. Continue reading “Following David Bowie Home”

Inside Yarl’s Wood, Britain’s most notorious detention centre

Susan wrings her hands and twitches as she speaks, jerking her head from side to side. She is clearly not well. “I ate washing powder to try and kill myself,” says the nervous woman in her fifties. Her eyes flash wild. “It was all I could find. I wanted to die. I would rather die than go back.”

Continue reading “Inside Yarl’s Wood, Britain’s most notorious detention centre”

It was 20 years ago today…ish. One last piece for the Independent on Sunday

Back in 1993, after spending time studying, working in refugee camps and trying to be a musician (not all at once) I came back to London, took a part time job and spent the other days of the week trying to break into national newspapers. I gave myself six months, after which I would give up and get a proper job. After five and a half months of being stonewalled by editors, news editors and secretaries or having stories slip away, I finally got hold of something, a story involving s prominent baroness and her charity. She agreed to talk, then I made a huge mistake. Relying on phone calls and faxes in those days, I accidentally managed to sell the story twice, once to the Independent on Sunday, which was quite new in those days, and once to another paper. It was highly embarrassing. I sent a fax to the other paper saying I was going elsewhere, but they (understandably) got very annoyed and used the brief I had given them as notes for another reporter who was sent to the door of the baroness. To my immense relief, she sent them packing, saying she had already done an interview with me. I could not have been more grateful. A lesson had been learned, the hard way. Now I had to deliver something to the Independent on Sunday, which is here. 

This appeared in November 1993, on the last Sunday of the six months I had given myself, so the last possible moment before having to admit defeat. It took me a while to come up with anything else after that but eventually a brilliant, mercurial news editor called Mike McCarthy took me out for burgers and champagne on the City Road (those were different days) and said he couldn’t pay me very much, in fact virtually nothing (not so different then), but if I wanted to I could call myself the Sindy’s pop culture correspondent as it didn’t cover that stuff much (yep, really very different days) and I’d get stories in the paper, get a good cuttings book, maybe parlay that into a job somewhere. It was a kind of semi internship that meant working all hours and weekends on top of another job, for what turned out to be several years. But it was also a huge break. Cheers Mike.

Continue reading “It was 20 years ago today…ish. One last piece for the Independent on Sunday”

The Invisible Man: Searching for the Reclusive Stanley Baxter

I have been writing for the Independent on Sunday for more than 20 years, but the edition that appears on Sunday will be the last. Thinking about that took me back to my first major feature for the IOS, commissioned as an act of reckless faith by the editor Ian Jack and Richard Askwith, who ran the Review magazine and remains one of the finest copy editors I have ever come across. I had never written anything longer than a thousand words for publication before, but Richard helped me through and opened the door to a career as a feature writer, for which I am extremely grateful. Anyway, here it is: a piece from a time before the internet or ubiquitous mobiles, when the celebrity age was just beginning but you still had to go to the library to look at the electoral register. I hope you enjoy it, let me know what you think.  Continue reading “The Invisible Man: Searching for the Reclusive Stanley Baxter”

Wrestling Kendo

I’m choking. Kendo Nagasaki, the most frightening wrestler this country ever produced, has got me in a three-quarter nelson: my head is in the crook of his elbow; his forearm is tight against my throat and he’s lifting it. I can’t breathe. I’m seeing stars, hearing popping sounds in my neck and trying not to pass out. So I bang my palm against his leg, which feels like steel cable under his red leggings, but he won’t stop. When he does let me go I am in agony. And it’s all my fault. You’ve got to expect pain if you’re stupid enough to climb into a ring with a masked man so vicious he was kept off the television early in his career, before becoming a superstar of Saturday afternoon wrestling in its heyday. Nagasaki was voted the Wrestler of the Millennium. His ritual unmasking was watched on television by 12 million people in 1977, and shown again last Tuesday as the climax of a show about the best of World of Sport. He wore lenses that turned his eyes a scary red. They sent a chill into the camera and forward down the years into my living room. And here he is, hurting me. “Can’t say it’s fake now, can you?” crows his manager, the motormouth Lloyd Ryan. “Nothing fake about that.” Read on