Goodbye Spaceboy

In 2013, I had the honour of being interviewed by the Guardian‘s Miranda Sawyer at Latitude Festival about the peerless visual culture of David Bowie (1947 – 2016). He was my absolute musical hero and has influenced my lifelong passion for men who subvert masculine norms to promote femininity as positive and powerful. Thank you to the wonderful Tom Wilcox and the Institute of Contemporary Arts for allowing me the privilege of this incredible platform. Below are my conversational notes to prompt me during the discussion. Apologies for any typos – they are raw as are my emotions on this very sad day, and I will tidy in due course:

Notes on Bowie’s style circa 1973 – final

Introduction

One of the things that got me into studying pop fashion was trying to understand why weird and wonderful stars like David Bowie and, latterly Prince, look so right when everything about them should be wrong. Only Bowie alone could pull off a red mullet, wonky teeth, odd coloured eyes and – lest we forget – some outrageous outfits. It really worked.

Of course David Bowie holds incredible aura as an artist with an imposing presence. But it was more than just luck and flair- Ziggy’s success was the result of really intelligent and carefully researched work on style and image.

This all happened at quite an early stage in Bowie’s career and made him massive. The album Ziggy Stardust was Bowie’s first commercially successful album since his 1969 eponymous album and reached the number 5 spot in the UK charts for 174 weeks.

The album was the first to solidify glam rock style into the mainstream and Bowie was the unquestionable leader of this early alternative trend which, as we now know, was copied but never bettered by subsequent artists.

So over the course of a series of key images, I wish to take you on a journey – maybe a space ride Miranda – through androgyny, aliens, japan, mythmaking, and of course camp, all of which underlay his incredible visual persona.

In academic work we call this the ‘extra-musical’ experience– the visual or other elements that make up the whole consumption of rock/pop. These are the things other than the music that we associate with the star and maybe keep or cherish. This means things like record covers and pop videos.

But somewhat less academically, in a recent interview, Bowie said “My trousers changed the world”- so let’s see how….

Gender performativity

The idea that gender was performative was pretty radical back then. It wasn’t until later that decade that sociologists such as Erving Goffmann started to posit that gender behaviour might not be natural but acquired through our lives. Bowie and other stars like Prince or Madonna made visible how we can make active choices about how to just be.

Definition of glam

One of the best definitions I have come across was from Todd Haynes who directed the film Velvet Goldmine. He said that glam was ‘ the result of a unique blending of underground American rock with a distinctly English brand of camp theatricality and gender-bending. And for a brief time, pop culture would proclaim that identities and sexualities were not stable things but quivery and costumed…” (1998)

Rock, English rock especially, has often seemed like a huge, anarchic dressing up box. And we have to remember that at the time groups were often dressing down.

 

Pic 1

3. David Bowie & The Spiders from Mars

 

Mick Rock became David Bowie’s official photographer in the early ’70s, capturing Bowie’s performance persona Ziggy Stardust, as well as his band members, the Spiders from Mars.

By way of background:

Bowie, born in 1947 as David Jones in Brixton, grew up in Bromley in Kent. It’s the same place all the punks and new romantics like Siouxie from nearby Chislehurst piled out of in the late ‘70s. Likewise, Pete Burns grew up in a quiet model village called Port Sunlight next to the Mersey on the Wirral. It was JG Ballard who described these nice unassuming places as “far more sinister than most city dwellers imagine. Their very blandness forces the imagination into new areas…one’s got to get up in the morning thinking of a deviant act merely to make sense of one’s freedom.”

Bowie had already spent the best part of a decade trying on a cast of characters with little success. Mod, beatnik vaudevillian, mime artist, post-hippy Dylan folkie, metal-head in drag. Lest we forget he played a bit of a fail by releasing his first album on the same day as Sgt Pepper! It served as a kind of apprenticeship, every move a stepping stone towards Ziggy. From then on I think he realised he needed to take full control….so by creating the extravagantly dressed Ziggy, the fledgling artiste Bowie presenting himself as an established rock star, one of rock’s first completely pre-packaged personas. In Ziggy Stardust& the other alter-egos Bowie constructed in the ‘70s, he found a safe playground to indulge all his anxieties and those of the world around him. “The only way to exorcise pain is to turn it into a theatrical experience,” the singer noted.

So this picture is from October 1972 in San Francisco- and from the Jean Genie promo video shoot directed by Rock. It features Bowie in rolled up denim jeans and a tiny wetlook leather bomber jacket, clearly referencing the young 1950s biker rebels of whom he sought to evoke the spirit in the song. Ziggy’s peacock strut is also the powerhouse bravura of American rock & roll, equal parts Little Richard and Iggy Pop. Bowie followed in the wake of English musicians emulating black Americans just as the Beatles and Stones did.

Class rebellion was important to rock in the early 70s as it had been in the 1960s. Working class English kids like to pose as aristocratic fops – Here he deliberately creates the contrast with Ronson dressed in knickerbockers like an 18th century dandy.

Solidly middle class young men affected Cockey accents like Jagger. Bowie had observed how Jagger copied Tina Turner’s gyrations, how Ray Davies of the Kinks camped it up like a pantomime dame. Bowie channeled Marlene Dietrich and screamed like Little Richard. And none of them was gay, at least not most of the time.

What made Bowie so radical at the time was that he was a rock star, and rock culture has always been sexed as male – so you had female and I’m sure gay fans but the onstage star was always coded as hypermasculine. Look at Suzie Quatro – she does ‘cock rock’ like Lemmie from Motorhead.

Bowie discovered mime work from Lindsay Kemp, the flamboyant performance artist, he saw that rock was also above all a theatrical form rather than some god-given megalith.

Pic 2

ziggy

But things had become rather dowdy in Britain. Bowie himself has said that “rock seemed to have wandered into some kind of denim hell. Street life was long hair, beards, leftover beads from the ‘sixties and, god forbid, flares were still evident”

Bowie consciously reacted – he eschewed sneakers for red platform boots, beads for feather boas, denim flares for catsuits. He chopped and dyed his flowing blond locks. God forfend he ever had so much as a five o’clock shadow or chest hair. Even the eyebrows were Immac-ed off. I once saw a film of him drinking milk. I think that was his only nourishing intake for two years. The lack of any apparent exposure to sunlight alone must have made his bones creak.

Vital to the formation of Ziggy was the controversial A Clockwork Orange (1971) – partly filmed at my university – so it’s entirely fitting a Brunel academic should be analyzing Ziggy. Not only does ‘Suffragette City’ reference the ‘droogs’ but the Spiders’ sartorial aesthetic was a dandified twist on the uniforms of Alex’s mob, right down to the diamond-encrusted crotch of Bowie’s jumpsuit. Dystopian ultra-violence fused with post-Warhol ultra-glamour. Bowie employed the designer Freddie Burretti in 1972 to make Ziggy and Spiders’ outfits in the vein of the Droogs, but he undercut the violent associations of the white jumpsuits by making them from colourful and exotic materials

Pic 3

bowie2

With Mick Ronson in 1972

Bowie says of Ronson, “Mick was the perfect foil for the Ziggy character. He was very much a salt-of-the-earth type, the blunt northerner with a defiantly masculine personality, so that what you got was the old-fashioned Yin and Yang thing.”

I want to say something briefly about Page and Plant – I don’t know whether Led Zep fans would be comfortable with the idea that they had a sexually charged stage relationship. But whereas they held back from openly ‘queering’ their performance, Bowie went right for it.

An infamous part of Ziggy’s stage repertoire was Bowie’s ‘fellating’ of Ronson’s guitar; a boon for photographers and an audacious new argot for mainstream rock’s vocabulary.

Pic 4

_42904427_rock_bowie203b

Bowie’s bisexual persona, whether it be cultural construction or biographical reality, has been analyzed by two polarised camps. The gay press who largely wanted to hold him aloft as a “gay Elvis” , and felt betrayed when he rejected the mantle. Or a largely heterocentric male music journalist perspective who were dismissive that it was anything other than media-manipulation. Rock music is, more than any other medium, a tribal concern, and critics may have simply been more comfortable with dismissing the notion that their hero was anything other than a hetero dude playing panto with sexuality.

I think we may have gone a bit sexually repressed since then. Bowie, a married man with a child, outing himself was deemed credible in 1972 and yet Brett Anderson’s actually more transparent remarks (“I’m a bisexual man who’s never had a homosexual experience”) were endlessly lampooned 20 years later.

Picture 5

ziggy-stardust-david-bowie

 

Starman: Bowie in concert at Earls Court, London, during one of the last performances he made in the guise of his character Ziggy Stardust in 1973

Bowie – as a be-glittered, androgynous alien offered a safe site for fans to project their fantasies, explore their identities and negotiate the ambiguities of their gender and sexuality against a backdrop of conservatism, uncertainty and a hell of a lot of denim in the UK. There was a feeling for fans that he encouraged you to become yourself. Although he looked really strange and risqué anyone could identify with him because the only think that was certain about him was that he was a star – he was neither alien or human, straight or gay, male or female.

Unemployment was over a million, we had a seven week miners strike and a dockers strike going on nigh on simultaneously. These were unsettling times especially for masculinity and traditional roles became unseated.

It’s not too much of an interpretive leap to see how this maelstrom informed the concept Bowie sketched of Ziggy. A messianic rock star spreads extraterrestrial messages, for which he is a cipher, across a world on the brink of apocalypse. His message of redemption is soaked up by an adoring audience but in the process he is sapped of his life force.

Science fiction as a genre was particularly resonant in an age of moon landings. The singer spent many a late 60s evening contemplating the existence of UFOs with friends like George Underwood. Stanley Kubrick’s 2001:A Space Odyssey (1969), a film that chimed with the space travel zeitgeist, informed Space Oddity. Hunky Dory‘s ‘Oh! You Pretty Things!’ had quoted Bulwer-Lytton’s The Coming Race (1871), widely regarded as the first sci-fi novel.

I was interested to read the work of a gender researcher called Gossinger who claims flying saucer addicts often suffer from gender confusion that manifests itself in their descriptions of encounters with aliens. That is, the alien becomes an androgynous, transsexual reflection of the individual who perceives it. – and he says that Bowie is a bit like that transsexual spaceman by reflecting fans’ latent desires to cross gender boundaries.

Another perhaps more palatable theory is that celebrities come into being when the needs of a given community to discuss social attitudes and behaviour are not being met – so Ziggy was merely a symptom, a reflection of what was needed by the public at that time. This might explain why the eccentricities just seemed to, well.. rock!

The make-up here is important coming as it did in the later Ziggy period. The silver lipstick, dark black eyeliner and the circle in the middle of his forehead – he explained it himself as “a futuristic third eye thing.”

Which links into Bowie’s fascination with Japan….

 

Pic 6

d229ce3200e61e7067747d295fccb7a6

Knitted cat suit Hammersmith Odeon 1973

Onesies before they were ‘ream’

In the early 70s, Japan was still an alien nation to the UK so Bowie said it was as close to Martian as he could muster.

As Glam generally became bequeathed in increasingly dull fabrics, Ziggy went down a rabbit hole and things got more and more curious. The image grew more extreme, accentuating the kabuki theatre aspects of this ‘cat from Japan’, courtesy of the designs of Kansai Yamamoto.

Yamamoto was the first Japanese designer to present a fashion show overseas. The show was in 1971 at the Great Gear Trading Company on the King’s Road in London. Bowie reached out to the designer and he worked on the costumes for his 1973 UK tour and subsequently the US tour costuming for the Aladdin Sane shows. The fashion show featured models doing kabuki style moves.

Kabuki is a Japanese theatrical movement – and it is oddly fitting to Ziggy. It’s a theatre of extravagant stylized gestures. At climactic moments the actors freeze, as though in a photograph, while striking a particularly dramatic pose.

Bowie has never become a great actor so far, but he is a magnificent poser in the very best sense of the word! He was also fascinated by the onnagata tradition, of male actors playing female roles, and the performers were encouraged to do that in real life.

Yamamoto sought to create a complete oddity, an isolated alien, a pop deity, utterly enigmatic, freakish, but simultaneously dangerously alluring.

Why androgynous stars are attractive?

But here’s the needle scratching off the record revelation……You could actually get the knitting pattern for this in French Elle!

Tamasaburo Banda 5 – the famed onnagata, taught Bowie how to apply his kabuki make-up.

His mullet was created by Yamamoto. It went from orange to electric red in 1973 and was meant to imitate the look of a flaming red lion dance wig of kabuki theatre.

As Bowie’s lyrics to the song ‘Ziggy Stardust’ describe it, the alien rocker was “like some cat from Japan”.

Pic 7

1973-Bowie-onstage-as-Zig-009

By Bill Orchard for Rex Features in 1973

 

Now despite the overt Japanese references. there remained something quintessentially English about Bowie’s strategy as he, like say Chuck Berry, drew on his predecessors in music hall theatre. So think Max Miller in his cheekie chappie garishly patterned suits in the 30s, and you see Bowie’s granddad!

With Ziggy he forged a vari-coloured hybrid, sculpted from sources high and low (“Nijinsky meets Woolworths”), English and American, rock and non-rock. Ziggy’s glitter rock tendrils extended their reach across a fractured post-Beatles music scene. It cast a net over the hordes of singles fans and the more cerebral album markets; a nexus figure for a pluralized musical climate.

Whereas artists and film makers liked to create interesting results by refining popular culture into high art, Bowie did the opposite – he plundered high art and took it down to the street as a form of rock and roll theatre.

He drew his inspiration from anything that happened to catch his fancy. Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin of the 1930s as you can see here with the lack of eyebrows, Hollywood divas of the 1940s, Kabuki theatre, William Burroughs, Warhol, and Kubrick movies. The mix of high culture, science fiction, and lurking menace suited Bowie down to the ground.

His feminization came from his fascination with enduring Hollywood legends like Judy Garland and Marilyn Monroe, two silver screen icons referenced directly by Bowie during the Ziggy period. Both had died under sudden tragic circumstances in their prime in the previous decade too.

Bowie had a passion for mythmaking and I think he looked to America very much as the epitome of self-representation. You had calm on the surface – the American dream – but not far beneath was huge unease. In America, disunity over the Vietnam War continued. Protesting students were killed and the civil rights movement lost some of its most potent forces, including Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. The hippy dream had turned into an atomized nightmare, the counterculture splintered into factions, some of them violent. In England, the conflict with Ireland raged on, punctuated by outbreaks of attacks from the IRA. This very much influenced Bowie’s oeuvre, the disrupting nature of his identity.

Pic 8

47df789e6a9c6ba625c9748441ec235f

There is a lot of camp in Bowie’s style. Camp is a sensibility of style and taste that uses exaggeration, artifice and parody. It’s been associated with gay culture but it actually has little to do with sexuality. It’s about androgyny and challenging norms and conventions, sending them up a little. Effeminacy is one way to create a sense of camp so you could say that strutting about in your pants with your hand on your hip is effeminate. But Bowie also displays a pretty in your face groin.

Bowie was embracing the spirit of camp here according to its truest definition, which is not just about sex but about the elevation of the aesthetic above the purely practical. Here is an aloof male, showing the dual binary opposites of extreme femininity and other worldliness while also showing earthly masculine sexual organs. Masculine feminine juxtaposition are the most characteristic kind of camp. So while he looked well endowed – it may have been exaggerated to render him as some kind of Eastern drag queen masquerading as a high priest or priestess. So it’s not so much raw and animalistic as aesthetic.

Again this is very different from the look of, say, Led Zep which was of course slightly overblown but wasn’t meant to be ironic

It is parodic because everyone knew at this time that he had a wife and a baby at home. The mundane reality of Bowie’s life was nappies, and trudging from Derby to Huddersfield and the like on a tour bus with burly roadies.

Bowies’ image was a triumph of artifice, theatricality, irony over truth.

Pic 9

wpid-img_20150404_1605161

 

High heels/wedge sandals

This is from Bowie’s 1973 live version of “White Light/White Heat.” which I think you’ll see in the final Ziggy Stardust show next.

Ziggy’s impact was due to Bowie’s provocative use of androgyny and bisexuality as viable marketing tools. He set the scene much earlier with The Man Who Sold the World‘s album cover (1970) where he reclines on a chaise-longue wearing what he assured people was a “man’s dress”.

Pic 10

7d019e6a37efc1d62c14d364ad05f577

 

I want to finish on this favourite picture of mine. So please indulge me! This photograph of Bowie and Mick Ronson is so much tamer than Rock’s risqué performance shots of the two. 

Rock says of the image, “Shot in a British Rail dining car, between London and Aberdeen. I travelled up and down the UK during the final Ziggy Tour, but until my book Moonage Daydream, this photo was never published. It’s now one of the most popular things in my exhibitions—something to do with the mundanity of the meal and the ridiculously exotic look of the diners!”

Initial gigs for Ziggy took place at such glamorous epicentres as The Toby Jug in Tolworth & The Friars in Aylesbury. Pretty soon the show was upgraded to the plush environs of The Rainbow Theatre in Finsbury Park! I love the way they look like gangsters.

Now these suits are hugely important and Bowie’s gone on to sport bright zoot suits throughout his career. Bright zoot suits are the ultimate in subversive and ambiguous fashion because they directly replicate clothing worn by dandies since the 1700s – the macaronis in England, and the young black zazous in France. Subcultures using style to challenge the status quo. And hasn’t he done that ever since.



But when Ziggy was killed off at Hammersmith Odeon in 1973 – as you’ll see next in the glorious film of the gig -Bowie has reached a turning point. This was a seismic moment in Bowie’s personal and creative life and you get a glimpse of it here (IN PIC) I think. Whereas before he was writing the characters, by then they were writing him. It was interesting that even after that date, Ziggy and Aladdin still lurked in his work as the Young American. But now he was to become a dandy in a fedora, dressing exactly to look like the Black youth who used fashion as a weapon of subversion against their oppression by white conservatism across the globe.

 

Bowie said in interview on the BBC that he could help people find characters within themselves no matter who they had been conditioned to think they are. Just as Ziggy was from his own universe, Bowie was saying we all are if only we are willing to take a space ride into our own psyches. I think it is so fascinating to watch his latest videos as for once he does not use make up. He still uses mirrors a lot but the reflection now is of a very well-preserved and handsome man in his 60s with a few wrinkles and a bit of sag. But no maskery. Back in 73 he wore a mask of his own face.

Now he seems to have found himself.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Psychology of androgyny

 

Back in the 1970s, psychologist Sandra Bern observed that society tends to discourage the development of both male and female characteristics within the same individual. – but that psychological androgyny can expand the range of behaviours available to everyone. And it’s especially associated with creativity.

 

Freud identified cross-sex identification in Leonardo Da Vinci. Other famous British androgynes include Keats, Coleridge – even Shakespeare. Virginia Woolf was fascinated by androgyny in men but she said Tolstoy was too male and Proust too female.

 

The renowned giftedness researcher Ellis Paul Torrance published a paper in 1963 showing that creative boys possess more feminine characteristics than their peers. The psychologist Abraham Maslow – the guy with the dogs! – remarked how creative people tend to often display a healthy balance of what appears to be opposites: selfishness and unselfishness; thinking and feeling; work and play; maturity and childishness. In reality, these so called opposites, like stereotypically masculine and feminine traits, can be viewed as two points on a single dimension and can be experienced by the same person at different stages of the creative process.

 

In the last decade, there’s been some fascinating research into graffiti artists – apparently they tend to show androgynous traits! It’s all about crossing boundaries.

 

Androgyny is ideal for male pop stars as we’ve seen with the likes of Prince who is undoubtedly heterosexually charged but simultaneously sensuous and non-threatening.. And if we think about it, the ambiguity of pop stars’ sexuality – are they straight or gay – enhances their charisma and star quality because they seem rather inaccessible from mere mortals. This inaccessibility may in turn heighten our longing for them, if only we could be the one to break the spell.

 

 

 

Standard

The Rise of the Saganauts

My eyes lit up when I saw her – I’d dreamt of seeing her in the flesh since I first laid eyes on The Bridge’s detective Saga Noren. Long, fashionably uncombed hair, ethereal beauty, flicking crumbs from her cinnamon bun off her ankle-grazing khaki military coat and leather trousers – this bewitching brunette was the ultimate Saganaut right down to her lace-up ankle boots. Welcome to Nordicana 2014, a pop-up cathedral for the disciples of Scandinavian crime detective fiction, film and TV.  Thank goodness Saganaut was well wrapped up, as the day couldn’t have got off to a chillier start…

Despite arriving nice and early to the venue, a former brewery in London’s trendy Shoreditch, a queue of shivering ticket holders snaked right round the corner down Brick Lane. The negative tweets to the organisers started just as early, especially when, after over an hour shuffling outside we faced a further queue for wristbands inside. As the crowds crammed into Screen 1 for an audience with the stars and writers of Danish political drama Borgen, necks craning to catch a nano-glimpse of lead actor Sidse Babett Knudsen, the sound system crashed. Luckily I’d only downed one Chokolad Boll; a second and I’d never have squeezed through the frowning throng into my seat. It’s true to say my fellow Scandifans were mainly affable white, middle class, middle aged BBC Four types – a bit like Hay Festival-goers but more Helly Hansen than Barbour. They were as politic and polite as their gentle, slow edit on-screen heroes. For now.

An hour or so later, I feared an actual murder or two might occur in that appropriately industrial backdrop while someone tried and failed to work out how to play the much-hyped Bridge preview episode. The factory lighting burnt through my corneas like Sarah Lund’s interrogative torch.

My micturally-challenged mate Kim put out an SOS tweet for a ‘She Wee’ during this lengthy ‘technical hiccup’ (as it was dubbed by the organisers.) As seasoned marathon runners, we found comfort in the knowledge that the urge subsides as you become more dehydrated.  After all that, my view of the subtitles was blocked by Mount Fairisle sat six inches in front of me, but I took comfort in the fact she seemed to be having a good time.  And I was now, finally, as warm as a Swedish meatball amidst the now calmer seas of Scandilovers.

Thanks to this sudden thaw, the Helly Hansens were shed faster than you could say gravadlax, to reveal a cacophony of fairisle jumpers, hoodies and accessories. Even the delightful Danish Ambassador’s salt and pepper beard looked knitted.

My fascination with Scandi Noir was sparked by Krister Henriksson’s Wallander a few years ago. As a Merseysider in landlocked exile, I identified with his penchant for staring out at sea flanked by his canine sidekick, Jussi. Just as my own home port has had a rocky record on race relations, the Malmo of Henning Mankell’s Inspector Wallander mysteries is, according to Matthew Engel in the Financial Times, one of the ‘most racially divided cities in Europe.’ Asked to reflect on these explicit themes in Mankell’s work, an otherwise candid Henriksson would not be drawn on politics. But he revealed he is drawn to tough, serious characters after suffering playground bullying: “I decided I never wanted anyone to laugh at me again.”  Never mind the narrative, though, just look at Krister’s tailoring. Who knew he’s such a Scandi Dandy?

Eventually, the real and regal Sofia Helin came into view, and she could not be more unlike Saga Noren. Sofia looks uncannily like Grace Kelly, while Saga’s manner’s much like C3-PO’s. Sofia’s smile alone made her unrecognisable, her gentle voice and graceful gestures a far cry from Saga’s abrupt stompiness. Though during the Q & A, as she cocked her head to one side and furrowed her brow inquisitively to hear an inaudible query, the chap behind me piped up: “There! Saga-face”.

I sensed, in the queues for the Ladies at close of Day 1, that a few women now regretted sporting their Sarah Lund sweaters – cream with blue bands of intricate Nordic patterning – embarrassed at how many of their Lundite sisters were in the same gear. Heads down, jackets were pulled across bosoms rather than displaying their affiliation loud and proud. They knew it – the Sarahnauts are ‘so last year’. Saganauts are the new black.

Image

Standard

When tragedy strikes on campus: some thoughts on student journalism

When bad news breaks on university campuses, student journalists and their tutors face particular pressures when reporting.

For students, it balancing being an observer with also being part of the community you’re reporting on. For tutors, it’s about protecting students’ right to report at all, whilst also educating them to work ethically.

Last week at my university, news spread swiftly via social media that a student lay seriously injured after apparently falling from a hall of residence building in full view of dozens of passers-by. Images were circulated from phone to phone of paramedics administering CPR, presumably thinking this wasn’t a fatal incident. But, sadly, he didn’t and was pronounced dead at the scene shortly after.

The reaction from our student journalists was interesting, with some condemning any coverage of the incident whatsoever. Some argued that real-time coverage of such a tragedy is prurient, while others suggested that campuses are such tight-knit communities that the ethics of mainstream media are deficient.

For two days, late into evenings, I was mediating between various university personnel, students and fellow journalism staff who all had particular views and approaches – all valid but in many cases conflicting.

The first question asked by many was whether student journalists should be reporting such an incident at all. This was the view of many in the university community – and indeed some journalism students – who believed it to be a very private matter. But the fact that many witnessed the event, were sharing via social media and were also looking for sources of support, students and staff needed clear factual information. The university posted a paragraph online later in the day confirming there’d been an incident, but by this time social media and indeed the local press were reporting on it. So the case for sensitive, responsible factual reporting was made.

But in providing ongoing web updates, it was vital not to speculate on the cause of the death. Students needed urgent guidance on vocabulary so as not to pre-empt any coroner’s decision. The fact that some local media were using particular technical terminology did not mean our students should follow suit or see real-world media as setting the standard. Real-world media get it wrong and aren’t always the exemplar students should aspire to.

Students also had to be very mindful of identifying the deceased before his next-of-kin was informed. One image in wide online circulation depicted an open window above the spot where he lay. There was no evidence at that stage to suggest he had fallen from that window, but more important was the fact that it narrowed down the ID to one of six occupants of that flat before family had been informed. A significant number of families find out about their loved ones’ deaths from the media, and I didn’t want that to happen because of our student journalists.

Then there’s the issue of being a student and a reporter. The lines can be blurred when caught up in the moment and it was evident that our students found the situation complex, fast moving and harrowing. As part of the university community, there were subjected to abuse for deigning to report on the incident as if it amounted to betrayal. Then again, members of the community – like the home-grown beat reporters on local papers – are ideally best-placed to reflect the feelings of their own locale and report with due sensitivity.

A student reporter covering an event on campus has to ensure they are mindful of how they are perceived. You cannot slip in and out of reporter-mode. If you are reporter then that’s how you will be perceived by all – you cannot take a 10-min break and be a campus citizen then become a reporter again. Everyone will assume you are taking notes for your story even when having an innocent chat with a bystander.

One of the big questions our students faced was whether you have to act with greater sensitivity when reporting on your campus community than you might covering a story off campus. This was made particularly evident when the aforementioned image went viral. It wasn’t generated by journalism students but was re-tweeted. There was no consensus amongst staff and students as to the journalistic ethics involved in distributing the image. Some felt it was a factual depiction, taken from far away, which did not identify the student and was within the realms of taste and decency. If the event was off-campus or in a war zone, we would not hold back from depicting the aftermath, they said, so what’s the difference? Others felt it was an invasion of the man’s privacy and had the capacity to harm those who knew him by forever being online.

For my own experience covering some particularly shocking and harrowing stories such as the aftermath of the Hillsborough tragedy, the local press do strike a different tone to the nationals. The question I always ask is: does the image add anything? Is it in the public interest to see it? You always have to consider the specificities of your audience, not apply a one-size-fits-all approach. What might work in the Mirror won’t necessarily work in a local. This was borne out by the fact that a national and regional newspaper covered the event on campus in gratuitous detail, yet to date that coverage has not been openly criticised like that careful reporting by students has. People have different expectations of student journalism, perhaps.

Post-Leveson, it’s clear just how anti-journalist even informed academic communities have become. One of the many calls I received from across the campus was a senior manager imploring me to stop student journalists harassing residents of the hall in question. When CCTV images of the miscreants were scanned and sent to me, it was apparent they weren’t our students but staff from those very national and regional newspapers who had used misrepresentation to get in and gain access to the deceased’s flatmates. But the gut reaction of university staff was that this was how student journalists would also behave. Maybe some would, but minimising harm is always the mantra in our teaching. It shows that student journalists are viewed in the same light as national tabloids and perhaps have to work doubly hard to build bridges.

So how should student journalists cover tragedies close to home? In community reporting you need to reflect the campus mood, the support available and create a greater awareness of the pressures of student life. You should report the facts in a non-sensationalist way to put paid to rumour and speculation, but also ensure that people are aware of support and resources on campus in the immediate aftermath. You need to allow people a shared space to express the emotional impact of the event. Where there may have been a suicide – and we don’t know that in this case – it is responsible journalism to speak with charities and support groups for guidance both on reporting styles, facts and advice for the community. Providing helpline numbers is essential. And ask the question ‘what happens now?’. How is the university supporting its students, staff, the deceased family? How is it preventing further tragedy, if indeed it can? What can the wider staff/student community do?

The idea that journalists are just reactive fact-disseminators in community reporting is rather misguided, I feel, and ignores the potential role reporters have to bring different parts of a community into useful dialogue.  Journalists are under pressure to rebuild trust and local journalism’s been particularly affected by the mistrust wrought in the wake of the Leveson Inquiry. While student journalists should not hold back from reporting the truth, however unpalatable or distressing that might be to some, you have do so mindful of your context. Keep reminding yourself why you are reporting this – what is your purpose? – and you’ll hit the right note. In this particular case, students have a unique insight into the specificities of the campus community and I am really looking forward to learning what positives may emerge or what public interest might be served out of this unfortunate tragedy.

For more resources see:

http://www.dart centre.org

http://www.samaritans.org/media-centre/media-guidelines-reporting-suicide

Standard

One step beyond

Circadian rhythms, seasonal affective disorder – call it what you will. But after more than 20 years teaching in higher education, September always feels like the real new year for me. And this New Year is starting like no other. On Saturday (September 14) I run my first ultra-marathon.

London Marathon 2013 and my brush with Clodhopper Kate – the name I have semi-affectionately given to my mis-directional foe (see previous post) – was merely the warm-up to achieving my long-held ambition. So the start of the new academic year’s going to herald fresh in-built confidence in me that I can overcome any obstacles and turn any glitch into an opportunity.

And this seems a good message to instil in new and returning journalism students in two weeks’ time. To find success, you have to work on two levels – your inner and outer worlds.

I have learnt a lot from the sports people I encounter as a runner and Crossfitter and amongst colleagues and especially students at Brunel University.  One of my graduating MA Journalism students is a middle-distance runner in his spare time, and has also cycled hundreds of miles back and forth in his quest for a career in sports reporting. His focus is incredible. He didn’t have a humanities degree so the shift to major skills and knowledge development was an immense shift. But he stayed resolutely calm and determined with his eye on his goal, spending hours honing his shorthand, news and feature writing and video skills while gaining expert knowledge in law, theory, ethics and public affairs. Sure enough, by May he had sports bylines across a raft of local and regional newspapers. He also excelled at sport alongside.

As well as unswerving focus – I’d say at least 50% of your success is dependent on a positive mental attitude – it also takes energy. If you really want to make it in journalism then you have to put the hours in and go beyond the basic day to day requirements of the degree or MA. Networking, blogging, finding your own stories and pitching. It’s all about going beyond

I take a lot of inspiration from interviews with runners – including the world’s fastest sprinter Usain Bolt who trains and inspires at Brunel frequently. What makes a true champion is keeping going when every fibre of your body and brain is telling you to stop. When it gets hard – KEEP GOING – as it is in those moments, however short or slow, that major gains are made.

if you’ve ever run 26.2 miles, you’ll know that from 19, 20 onwards you go into battle with your body and brain to get to the end. Sensibly, your brain is telling you your body is under too much stress and needs to stop. So you learn techniques for over-riding that, in my case thinking about how I will celebrate at the end, and the sense of achievement I will feel at running a whopping  32 miles and raising loads for the NSPCC.

If you are a journalism student struggling with the rigours of daily Teeline practice, learning law by rote, mastering nifty 20-word news breaks, then just imagine your future self doing your dream job. How to you feel? Do you want to cast that dream aside for the sake of a few more minutes in bed?

I am going to start the new academic year by helping students work on that inner resolve, their self-confidence and their daily training plans for success. Because writing this just four days before I run that ultra marathon I have no doubt whatsoever in my ability to reach my target because I have trained my brain and body meticulously. And now I want my students to feel the same way about their goals.

Standard

I am NOT a London Marathon finisher

The first omen was the crow on the window ledge peering in at me two weeks ago, its beady eye an inky portent of the piercing pain I would feel when some woman somehow managed to stomp her clodhopper right on my Vibrammed foot at mile 21. And if that physical pain – which resulted in me retiring from the Virgin London Marathon at 35.5 kms – yes just under 7kms left – having smashed that distance in just 3 hrs 20 on nothing but a millimetre of rubber, ground up chia seeds and sea salted water – the mental poke in the craw was to follow at Covent Garden.
You remember the feeling you had on Jubilee Day or Kate and Wills’ wedding when you thought just you and Morrissey were the only republicans left? Well I felt it again when I saw reality star Amy Childs, caked in make-up, strolling through with her posse, not a hair out of place or an eyelash extension uncaked. She’d made it to the end whereas I had ‘retired’.
I am not marathon noob. My first was Paris two years ago, which was a cinch. The route takes you through the most beautiful parts of the city lined with passionate supporters but with woods at either end to provide calm and quiet from the fray. I still reminisce fondly about all the runners stepping backwards off Eurostar the next day, their thighs pulped from their battering along cobbled boulevards.
I am especially proud of my performance at Brighton last year. It entails running to Shoreham power station, around it then back to a pier that seems to move further and further away the closer you get to it. People who run that race are never the same again. That’s why I call it Shore’Nam.
So with marathons aplenty across the UK and Europe almost every weekend, I’d always been a bit dismissive of the clamour to run London. It’s very hard to get in for a start. And a Channel 4 Dispatches investigation in 2010 http://www.channel4.com/programmes/dispatches/articles/tracing-the-marathons-millions-producer-feature questioned whether charities benefit as much as thought by the runners, many first timers dealing with personal tragedies. On the other hand, fellow running club members told me it was the ‘best, magical, special’ so I duly entered the ballot expecting to get a rejection just so I could lay that one to rest. But by sheer fluke I got a place. That was weird. I am never that lucky. That was the second omen, or should have been if I hadn’t been swept along by the glee, which escalated to a sense of duty after the horrible loss of life and injury in Boston.
I saw it as such a once in a lifetime opportunity that I felt compelled to make it as memorable as possible. So I trained hard in my barefoot shoes which I’d spent the best part of the previous year transitioning into. I researched and refined my marathon nutrition. I obliterated stomach problems and improved my endurance with a home-made concoction road tested many times over. I lifted heavy weights to increase muscle mass and speed trained like a demon. My final long run was three weeks before – a comfortable 37kms to wrap up a 60-70km barefoot running week with no aches and pains the next day. So I convinced myself that powering through London was a formality, just ‘doing the admin’.
But there is a world of difference between London and most other marathons and that was something I hadn’t researched or prepared for. Firstly, although it’s in the city I live, getting to the start takes ages and you are crammed into buses and trains with other runner and supporters from 6.30am. I was caged next to an especially dreary club runner who bored the carriage senseless with his monotonous ‘advice’ to all in earshot. So much so I stuck a finger in my ear. In Paris I just walked up the road to the Arc de Triomphe arriving a nice 15 mins before it kicked off. Brighton was also easy – despite the early start you can nap on the train and eat your breakfast. Today, I ate my porridge on a packed Victoria Line train to Green Park to stick to my usual timing.
The other thing I wasn’t prepared for was how crowded the route is with slowish, inexperienced runners; the weaving, the emergency stops for exhausted walkers, it all takes it out of you mentally. I ran the first half as a series of intervals rather than at a constant pace, grabbing bare bits of grass verge or pavement to overtake. I was foolish aiming for a PB – it’s great for one-off charity experiences but I didn’t find it a satisfying running race as it was so much hard work politely creating spaces to overtake. All this drains your mental energy and makes you more prone to ‘the wall’ if you aren’t robust.
People had told me that the support is incredible and there’s no doubting it is. Barely a foot of that route isn’t lined three deep with families, colleagues, running comrades and tourists proffering encouragement, jelly sweets and even the odd slurp of cider. But it is unrelentingly noisy which is hard to prep for and there’s no respite from it like there was in Paris, a space to collect your thoughts, exorcise any niggling doubts and blast to the end with renewed vigour. Hell, even Shore’Nam’s a bit meditative. Vibram running is a bit hippy – you connect with the ground and your surroundings which sensually drive you forward. I go into a trancelike state. The London route snakes back and forth round the Isle of Dogs which isn’t as evocative or as visual as a London circuit might be. But I can’t fault the organisation and I am sure the planners have good reason for all this.
So all the more frustrating that I fell not far from the more visceral finale stretch from Tower Hill to the Embankment then Westminster and the Mall. I was looking forward to upping my pace and powering the final 6.7kms, the glorious riverside vista just reward after the miles trudged round corporate London. I was about to enact the grand finale I have rehearsed on many a chilly Sunday mornings. I turned a slight bend and felt another’s foot bear down on mine, which had little more than thin fabric on top. As I fell I twisted to my left to see a slightly older pink clad, fair haired female runner, sporting sunglasses Deidre Barlow would wear to soften a hangover on a sunny day in Weatherfield. “Sorry” she muttered without emotion, probably in pain herself, and plodded on seemingly nonchalantly. I think she’d spotted the water station ahead and made a pre-emptive move. By that stage your legs are less deft and can pull you hither and thither. I got up sharpish so as not to trip anyone else and managed to plod on adrenalin for 500 meters but the pain grew.
I glanced down at my foot which was a bad move, and you should avoid the next couple of lines if you are eating…. my first reaction was that I must have stepped on a watermelon. But that was my actual flesh, not just blood, oozing out of the mesh of my left Vibram.
St John Ambulance at 22 miles isn’t a happy place despite the cheerfulness of the skilled volunteers. I felt very guilty asking for their help when they were stabilising a chap who was unconscious. I cleaned my shoe with a babywipe and thought through the options, watched over by a small crowd (maybe Holby City fans?) who seemed bizarrely to have assembled simply to watch the first aiders, not the race. I realised that if I took off my Vibram I would never get it back on again, and certainly could not fit a dressing inside. I thought about going completely barefoot for the last few miles but why injure myself further now there were bottle caps and other detritus to manoeuvre? So I made the tough decision to retire, and literally hopped back to Shadwell, not daring to see the full damage till I had collected my bag from The Mall.
There I was ushered firmly with a hand on my shoulder to the Desk of Shame. ‘This lady chose to retire’ announced the man as they took my timing chip and number. And that was it. No check I was OK, just silence. I didn’t take a medal but I sure as hell nabbed a Finisher’s T shirt – as a daily reminder that I am NOT a finisher.
Quite the opposite. Reviewing my timings on my pedometer I could see that with a brisk nan jog (as I like to call my 6mins per km auto- trot) I’d have easily achieved a sub-4 hr. But at the pace I was doing, I’d probably have snooked in a good-for-age 3.50 or close to. Embankment’s downhill, scenic and atmospheric and I can usually muster a sprint at the end. So I did a killer time over the miles I ran, and I will complete the job with another 26.2 miles ASAP as soon as my wound heals. I am not sure whether it will be an organised marathon somewhere or a re-run taking in as much of the London route as I can with cars streaming past. Or I might just do the 50k ultra I have been hankering after. Apart from the gashed toe joint and a sore hip where I landed, my body feels totally unscathed by the distance and I have much to be grateful for, not least the holistic expertise of my Synergy running trainer Sarra Dally who got me into minimalist running in the first place, and CrossFit North London coach Ged Andrews whose gruelling weightlifting sessions have built strong muscles and mental endurance. I have improved so much in the past year that I was about to shave nearly 40 mins off my personal best.
Either way, the London Marathon, despite the challenges and the abrupt ending, was a success. It has confirmed for me that I love distance running in Vibrams (though admittedly wearing them in a race as packed as London is risky). My lack of concern at bailing out has taught me how resilient I am. Many would have been in emotional shreds whereas I can only see the positives. Next weekend, I begin my first round of training towards becoming an accredited psychotherapist and I am aiming to specialise in sports motivational coaching. I firmly believe, through first hand experience as well as talking with others, that distance running is a powerful form of emotional healing. But to realise the full benefits you have to be willing to go though the highs and lows to build resilience and self-confidence. It is hard self-work but healthily addictive because it is so transformative, and the results are almost immediate. Whatever fears my future clients present, I’ll have been there and come back fitter and stronger both physically and mentally.

Standard

‘Glam Slam’: musician Prince’s 30 year reign as a pop fashion icon

He makes regency ruffles rock and gets down-and-dirty in diamante, but there’s a whole lot more to Prince’s style than glitz and glamour.

Since he strutted on stage more than 30 years ago in his G-string and flasher mac, Prince has made his mark as master of his visual appeal as much as his incredible sound. While there have been acres of newsprint devoted to Madonna’s conical bras and gender-play, very little attention has ever been paid to Prince’s unforgettable and enduring image.

But all that is set to change this weekend (Dec 14/15) when London’s Institute of the Contemporary Arts pays homage to the icon by tagging PrinceFest. I will be taking to the stage on the Saturday afternoon to analyse some of Prince’s most powerful fashion and style statements, showing how subversive as well as seductive he can be.

Right from the outset in the late 1970s, Prince sought to defy the generic pigeonholing of other Black musical artists – and he did it through style.

Rather than follow in the visual trajectory of successful Black male soul stars such as Teddy Pendergrass, Prince’s early album covers were closer to those of Gloria Gaynor. In fact his cover shot for the 1979 studio Prince looks uncannily like that on an earlier Donna Summer release.  Prince once explained that while he loved the look of the Jackson 5, “they all wore flat shoes and it didn’t work”.

So from the early 80s onwards, Prince fashioned himself as a baroque dandy, resplendent in those aforementioned ruffles, thighs festooned in lace, powdered and mascara’d. The tabloid press recoiled at the idea of a diminutive, Black hyper-feminised young male attracting the attentions of thousands of white women and created a mythology of Prince as a rather animalistic, lascivious creature. As with so many Black artists, the media focused on his physicality and sexuality and comparisons with Michael Jackson

What they didn’t grasp was how Prince was using style as a political statement at the height of the Thatcher/Reagan period. Not only was he commenting on the banality of white, heterosexual western masculinity, but also drawing on a rich heritage of earlier style-as-protest movements.

He emulated the dandies and their class-based assault on the privilege of aristocracy. He channeled the zoot suiters, young Mexican and African American men from the 1940s whose giant jackets and voluminous trousers symbolized freedom and self-determination to them but rebelliousness to their white counterparts.

Prince’s aligned himself with femininity to the extent of creating himself as the ultimate diva in his motion picture Under The Cherry Moon. Draped in ornate brocades, hair sculpted into a vertiginous, curled bouffant, Prince’s to-be-looked-at-ness totally upstages the decorous presence of Kristin Scott-Thomas and Francesca Annis.

While today, the avowedly spiritual icon has abandoned his midriff- or even backside-baring outfits to the back of the wardrobe, his penchant for sumptuous fabrics, colours and textures is very much in evidence. He was a muse for the late Gianni Versace and is as regular and conspicuous a presence next to the Fashion Week runways as Anna Wintour.

To book a ticket: https://uk.patronbase.com/_ICA/Seats/NumSeats?prod_id=PF4&perf_id=1&section_id=M&seat_type_id=S

Standard

Princefest at ICA

Prince: Style and Subversion

15 December 2012

£8 / £6 concessions / £5 ICA members

Weird, repulsive, sexy or glamorous, the image of Prince is as sensual and unforgettable as his sound. Author, journalist and academic Sarah Niblock examines how Prince is a master of the power of imagery in marketing, self-styling himself as someone ethically ambiguous, androgynous and aspirational.

Whether he is stealing the limelight from the models in tomato satin and sunglasses at Paris Fashion Week or reclining seductively in brocade and doe-eyed mascara in one of his films, Prince commands our attention. How could this 5ft 2ins multi-ethnic feminised male make such a profound and memorable visual impact? A visual journey through some of his most iconic fashion moments shows how Prince utilises a dazzling array of visual signifiers from head to toe. Whether he’s sporting that iconic lavender raincoat in Purple Rain to adjusting the cufflinks of his immaculate jazz suits, Prince’s exuberant campness, full of visual puns, comments on the banality of white, mainstream, Western masculinity.

His theatrical ethnic masculinity offers a powerful visual and symbolic assault on the mainstream. His dandified zoot suits harness the raw energy and anger of hard-time street fashion coupled with decadence and indifference to aristocratic mores. Mapped against the vigorous representations of white American rock, Prince’s preoccupation with gender bending, the feminine and the effete is startling. Over three decades his look, with all the indisputable signifiers of femininity, class and ethnicity, has helped reconfigure our views around sexuality, race, gender and normalized behaviour.

Sarah Niblock is Professor of Journalism at Brunel University, London. She is the author ofPrince: The Making of a Pop Music Phenomenon (Ashgate 2012, co-written with Stan Hawkins) and several other books, chapters and journal articles on journalism and visual culture. She has been a journalist for more than 20 years, writing news and features for the national and regional print media including Company and Cosmopolitan magazines. Her latest book, Media Professionalism and Training, is due to be published by Palgrave Macmillan shortly.

http://www.ica.org.uk/?lid=35454

Standard