Top 50: the best David Bowie songs of all time, ranked

22 Mar
Bowie Time Out covers

Ch-ch-changes: some of Time Out’s Bowie covers over the years (mine in the centre)

This weekend The Guardian published a list of the top 50 Bowie songs. I mostly loved Alexis Petridis’s choices, but, inevitably, started griping about the omissions. I mean – no Ziggy Stardust?! Anywhere?!?

I heard a voice say to me, “If you think you know so much, why don’t you make your own list?” So I did.

Those who know me know I’m a Bowie nut. I could sing most of his albums (the good ones!) word for word. I spent over an hour interviewing him in a hotel room (for the central Time Out cover, above). I’ve seen him playing Wembley Arena, and I’ve seen him playing to just 20 people when recording Later With Jools Holland. I bought a biography of him in my teens and then tore out the portrait pages to hang on my bedroom wall. He has visited me in dreams.

So whether or not you agree, know that this list is informed by at least dozens and in many cases hundreds of listens to these songs.

50. Various

I was left with a list of 20 “possibles”, from which to choose just one as my No. 50. It’s as random and doomed a task as pinning a tail on the Don Qui-xote at this stage, but I’ll pick… um… oh, sod it. I’ll say The London Boys, Prettiest Star, John I’m Only Dancing, Velvet Goldmine, Time, Lady Grinning Soul, Stay, Fascination, Breaking Glass, Move On, Yassassin, Because You’re Young, Blue Jean, Absolute Beginners, Slip Away, I Would Be Your Slave, Stars Come Out Tonight, 5.15 The Angels Have Gone, Seven Years in Tibet, Loving the Alien, Buddha of Suburbia and Blackstar.

49. Please Mr Gravedigger

I felt I should have something from Bowie’s early years, and chose this over sweet tunes like Love You Till Tuesday or the nearly great The London Boys because it’s a good example of Bowie’s storytelling – and his very dark streak. It starts off as a simple character study of a gravedigger: “He seems to spend all his days puffing fags and digging graves/ He hates the reverend vicar and he lives all alone.” It gets a little darker when the narrator reveals he’s seen “Mr. GD” take a locket of a girl’s hair; and darker still when the narrator reveals why the gravedigger sees him every day standing at her grave: “Mary-Ann was only 10 and full of life and oh-so gay/ And I was the wicked man who took her life away.” There’s one final dark twist I won’t spoil if you don’t know the song… Bowie was just 19 when he recorded this – and 69 when he recorded his final album.

48. Somebody Up There Likes Me

I hope so, David. I do hope so. But Somebody Up There is not in fact a religious paean, as you might think if you listened only to the chorus, rather a warning against charismatic, telegenic, autocratic leaders – “Hugging all the babies, kissing all the ladies… he’s the savage son of the TV tube.” If only US radio stations would play it before the next election. Extraordinary, soulful backing vocals from a trio that includes Luther Vandross, later a huge star in his own right.

47. Jump They Say

Bowie’s sputtering comeback after the failed experiment of Tin Machine is not one I’d play over and over, but its lyrics – “My friend don’t listen to the crowd/ They say ‘Jump’/ Gotta to believe somebody/ Got to believe” – are more affecting when you realise they are inspired by his schizophrenic half brother, who killed himself several years before.

46. Memory of a Free Festival

This song hit the news in 2013 when a fan started a campaign to save the Beckenham bandstand that inspired it. It’s some of Bowie’s best writing: essentially a poem set to music. “The Children of the summer’s end/ Gathered in the dampened grass/ We played our songs and felt the London sky/ Resting on our hands”. And the end: “And we walked back to the road… Unchained…”

45. We Are The Dead

One of the refugees on Diamond Dogs from Bowie’s failed 1984 musical project, this counterpoints garbled dystopian lyrics with some exquisitely tender verses about forbidden love. I particularly love Bowie’s breathy voice and dramatic delivery.

44. I’m Deranged

Bowie’s dreamy, siren-sinister vocals – “I’m deranged/ Deranged my love/ So cruise me cruise me cruise me baby” – sit over typically bonkers Mike Garson piano and a driving beat. The song sticks with me partly because David Lynch used it, in a tougher remix by Trent Reznor, above footage of a night-time road unfurling in the opening and closing credits of Lost Highway, Lynch’s weirdest and most baffling film – and there’s some pretty stiff competition for that title. If you’d like to read my interview with David Lynch on Lost Highway, in which I play “word association” with the director, it’s here.

43. Cat People

I remember this getting hella radio play in North America, where I lived at the time; it’s probably less well known in England. Giorgio Moroder wrote the music, Bowie the lyrics. It was originally released in a superior seven-minute version as the theme song to Paul Schrader’s 1982 horror movie of the same name, and later re-recorded, shorter, for the Let’s Dance album. It was also used over the opening credits of Atomic Blonde (really fun film, incidentally) and, thrillingly, over the arson scene of Inglourious Basterds.

42. Lazarus

Blackstar, Bowie’s last album, came out on January 8, 2016. Two days later, Bowie was dead. “Look up here, I’m in heaven/ I’ve got scars that can’t be seen” is how Lazarus begins. It ends: “Oh, I’ll be free just like that blue bird/ I’ll be free, ain’t that just like me.” I don’t know what else to say 😦

41. Fashion/ Fame/ Let’s Dance

Right, let’s get all these out of the way in one go. They’re all big and enduring hits, from successive albums (Young Americans, Scary Monsters, and Let’s Dance). They’re all brilliant in their own way. So I feel I have to include them. And I’m sure they “ought” to be higher. But tbh, after hundreds of hearings, I’ll usually skip past them if they come on. And Let’s Dance, despite the title, you can’t even dance to, despite Nile Rodgers’ best efforts, which pissed me off at the time. Despite their “classic” status, I’ve found them more and more irritating over the years. So sue me.

40. Queen Bitch

Inspired by Velvet Underground (a debt acknowledged in hand-writing on the sleeve of the album Hunky Dory), this is a precursor to glam rock, but the guitar riff also sounds thrillingly like punk – four years early. Great lyrics, too: “She’s an old-time ambassador/ of sweet-talking, night-walking games/ And she’s known in the darkest clubs/ for pushing ahead of the dames.”

39. Hallo Spaceboy

Another return to Major Tom, and to Brian Eno as producer. The album it’s from, Outside, also marked Bowie’s first real return to form since Let’s Dance. That was 12 years in the musical wilderness; 12 years treated as a figure of fun (anyone remember The Heebeegeebies parody “I think that I’m losin’ my miiiind/ I’m disappearing up my behiiiind”?), rather than a chameleonic genius. Something people gloss over, these days. But I remember vividly. I’d become Editor of Time Out, which meant I could realise a cherished dream: meeting and interviewing my teenage icon. But with a star of Bowie’s stature, it would have to be a cover. And I couldn’t in all conscience do that with the dross he’d been putting out. The experimental, baffling, often brilliant pseudo-concept album Outside was the excuse I’d been waiting for. My interview then is now enshrined in the book Bowie on Bowie, or you can read it here. Oh, and check out the Pet Shop Boys remix of Hallo Spaceboy. It’s a banger.

38. Soul Love

My favourite lyric is actually a misheard: “the bleeding hours of morning” brilliantly captures the raw sensitivity of staying up all night till the small hours, mixed with the look of the dawn sky. Years later, I looked up the lyrics and found it was the more prosaic “fleeting hours”, not “bleeding”. I told Bowie this, when I interviewed him. He laughed, agreed that would have been better, and said he’s always delighted when people read things into his songs that he didn’t intend.

37. Sweet Thing/Candidate/Sweet Thing

Absolutely not a clue what most of this apocalyptic love song is on about, mostly, but it features some of Bowie’s campest, most over-the-top vocal pyrotechnics, some wonderful imagery, and a skirling saxophone (played by Bowie himself) following the closing lines that always send a chill up my spine: “I guess we could cruise down one more time/ With you by my side, it should be fine/ We’ll buy some drugs and watch a band/ Then jump in the river holding hands.”

36. Sense of Doubt

I’ve got a soft spot for an album with an all-instrumental side, like Caravan’s gorgeous The Land of Grey and Pink, or Pink Floyd’s pretentious Atom Heart Mother or (apart from some brief singing) their lovely Echoes, whose seascape Sense of Doubt calls to mind. A repetitive series of four descending piano notes set an ominous tone, washed by simulated waves and the creak of ropes, giving away to a piping keyboard as though shafts of sunlight are breaking tentatively through the clouds. Eno’s ambient influence is clear.

35. It’s No Game

My God what an opener to the Scary Monsters album. In stark contrast to China Girl, co-written with Iggy Pop three years before, which presents Asian women as submissive victims of Western Imperialism, this starts with an assertive woman barking a string of Japanese. The usual dystopian worries follow, except this time it’s clear Bowie is talking about the present day, not some imagined future, and it all ends with a discordant guitar over which Bowie screeches, as to the voices in his head, “Shut up! SHUT UP!” It’s as ballsy as Muse starting Absolution with Apocalypse Please.

34. Quicksand

Pretentious, lui? I like to burst Bowie’s bubble by calling this “The Philosophers’ Song” – after Monty Python. I’m sure I thought it was deep in my early teens, and I got a thrill whenever I came across anything connected with the lyrics, but now I just love those blissful “aaah-aaahs” and Rick Wakeman’s swirling piano.

33. TVC15

The lyrics are hilariously preposterous: they are said to have been inspired by Iggy Pop hallucinating that his girlfriend was being eaten by the television. But it’s got the most extraordinary, tipsy-sounding boogie-woogie piano, courtesy of Roy Bittan of Springsteen’s E Street Band (so, yes: the God-like genius behind the piano on Jungleland and Thunder Road), who says Bowie asked him to play like Professor Longhair.

32. Always Crashing in the Same Car

I was tempted to include Breaking Glass, also from the album Low, but in truth this is the one I’d rather actually listen to. It’s the dreamiest evocation of alienation and isolation this side of Sound and Vision, worth it for the “yeah, oh oh ooh-ooh ooh-ooh ooooooh-oh” alone, which starts anguished and ends as an accepting croon.

31. Five Years

One of the most straightforwardly short-story-like of all Bowie’s songs, this details public reaction to the news that the end of the world is nigh. Which feels rather topical now… There are some detailed character observations and some wonderful lines: I particularly like the meta-ness of “Don’t think you knew you were in this song”, and the self-awareness of “It was cold and it rained so I felt like an actor”. But jeez – “Five years, what a surprise/ Five years, my brain hurts a lot”. Couldn’t someone have asked him for a rewrite?

30. Cygnet Committee

What a glorious mess this is: an overblown, relentlessly building, near ten minutes of pseudo-psychic-revolutionary dystopian babble. The lyrics are preposterous, pretentious, Sixth Form stuff, aspiring to Depth and Poetry and Meaning but never quite delivering, but God I love it all the same, and can sing along to every word.

29. Drive In Saturday

There are some awkward rhymes and lyrics in this evocation of a future world whose jaded inhabitants have forgotten how to have sex (“We’ll try to get it on like once before/ When people stared in Jagger’s eyes and scored”), but the massive chorus more than makes up for it. And I love the line, “She’s uncertain if she likes him/ but she knows she really loves him.”

28. China Girl

Nile Rodgers takes the credit for re-arranging this song, originally co-written by Bowie with Iggy Pop for his album The Idiot, into a commercial hit for Let’s Dance. It’s one of Bowie’s most assured vocal performances, and has some of the most coherent lyrics. The chorus is a straight love song to a man-pleasing Asian girlfriend, while the verses are a warning: “My little China girl/ You shouldn’t mess with me/ I’ll ruin everything you are/ You know it/ I’ll give you television/ I’ll give you eyes of blue/ I’ll give you a man/ who wants to rule the world.”

27. Modern Love

Bowie keeps reinventing himself. Even when dead. This time it’s as a meme that’s been circulating for the self-isolation, social-distancing age, that references Modern Love’s opening: “Bowie knows when to go out, and when to stay in. Be more like Bowie.” Gorgeous harmonies, great saxophone (not by Bowie himself this time). Side-note: I modelled my hair (and trousers) on Bowie’s at the time.

26. Jean Genie

With a blues-inspired riff nicked wholesale by labelmate Sweet on Blockbuster (though all concerned swear it was a coincidence), Jean Genie is a seemingly effortless, throwaway pop classic – the sort that would be a one-hit wonder in anyone else’s hands.

25. Slow Burn

I adore the album Heathen (his 24th studio album including Tin Machine!), and this is perhaps its most commercial song. It benefits from a virtuoso guitar part by The Who’s Pete Townshend, and lyrically returns to Bowie’s comfort zone of unspecified dystopia: “Oh, these are the days/ these are the strangest of all/ These are the nights/ these are the darkest to fall.” His voice on this album is stronger than ever: controlled, abandoning the pretentious pyrotechnics of yore, and justly nominated here for a Grammy for Best Rock Male Vocal Performance.

24. Boys Keep Swinging

A proudly silly song, all strut and swagger and mocking faux-machismo, but I love it, from the opening drum beat to the wandering bassline to a guitar solo by Adrian Belew so crazed it can still make me burst out laughing. I also love the story that, to get the garage band feel they wanted, they adopted a suggestion to swap roles from Eno’s deck of Oblique Strategies cards: guitarist Carlos Alamar played drums, and drummer Dennis Davis played bass.

23. Ashes to Ashes

Uniting ‘80s synth and a New Romantic look in the video with a crisp funk bass and off-beat percussion, the bits of the nonsense lyrics that are comprehensible (Bowie has described it as a “nursery rhyme”) are a dreamy revisit of Space Oddity’s Major Tom. Less “important” than it seemed at the time, it’s still accessibly strange and ethereally beautiful.

22. Where Are We Now?

Just when you thought Bowie had retired into a life of domestic bliss in New York, he comes back, aged 66, with his first album in ten years – crashing the internet by releasing it without any advance warning. This was the plangent, meditative, quietly beautiful single, and with hindsight it sounds like a man who’s heard he’s terminally ill – and is okay with that. The closing lines break my heart: “As long as there’s sun/ as long as there’s sun/ As long as there’s rain/ As long as there’s rain/ As long as there’s fire/ as long as there’s fire/ As long as there’s me/ As long as there’s you.”

21. Everyone Says Hi

A welcome return, on his 2002 album Heathen, to the days when Bowie was a fine short story writer, and not jumbling his lyrics with a computer programme inspired by Burroughs’ cut-up technique. This is incredibly British, with a world of repressed emotion beneath an apparently simple postcard to a friend who has gone abroad. You can see it in “Shoulda took a picture/ Something I could keep” being immediately undercut, as though realising he has been too bold, with “Buy a little frame/ Something cheap”. And, conversely, the platitude of “Hope the weather’s good/ And not too hot” is tenderly bookended by the single line, “for you”. He finally reveals himself in the doo-wop bridge, “If the money is lousy/ You can always come home/ We can do all the old things/ We can do all the bad things… We could do it, we could do it we could do it”, before retreating back into the polite, platitudinous chorus of “Everyone says hi”. <Sigh.> Only Springsteen and Dylan can match Bowie as a storyteller in song.

20. The Man Who Sold The World

Long before Kurt Cobain covered this song, helping to rescue Bowie from the remainder bin of uncool has-beens in which he was then languishing, I was obsessed by it. “We passed upon the stair, we spoke of was and when/ Although I was not there, he said I was his friend.” WTF? All with Mick Ronson’s hypnotically repetitive riff allowing the bass, unusually, to carry the tune.

19. Look Back In Anger

“‘You know who I am,’ he said/ The speaker was an angel/ He coughed and shook his crumpled wings/ Closed his eyes and moved his lips/ ‘It’s time we should be going’.” That opening line alone justifies the song’s inclusion, let alone the furious chorus and the driving percussion. I bought Lodger when it first came out, and was so baffled by the album that I assumed it was a joke, an unlistenable experiment/contractual obligation like Lou Reed’s recent Metal Machine Music. I took it back to the record shop (which was still a thing, back in the day), and swapped it for Diamond Dogs. Now that’s music, I thought. I say this because it’s hard for younger listeners to realise just how alien and experimental so many of Bowie’s albums were at the time, even to ardent fans – especially after they have influenced subsequent generations of bands and passed into the musical lexicon.

18. Oh You Pretty Things

Youth is wasted on the young, they say. I once conceived of a thriller set in two time periods – teens and middle age. I thought then, I have no idea what middle aged people are like – I’ll shelve it till I’m older. Now I have no idea how I felt back then. Bowie wrote with wry detachment about being young while he yet was, here counterpointing the deliriously beautiful chorus about pretty things driving their mamas and papas insane with the deep thoughts that are actually going through their supposedly pretty little heads.

17. Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide

What an extraordinary opening: “Time takes a cigarette/ Puts it in your mouth.” We’re all in front of the firing squad, we just don’t know when the trigger will get pulled. This is probably a song best listened to in your troubled teens, but it stands in good company with the anti-suicide ballads of REM (Everybody Hurts) and ELO (Living Thing) – and in contrast to Blue Oyster Cult (Don’t Fear the Reaper) and The Only Ones (“Why don’t you kill yourself, you ain’t no good to no one else”). But I digress. Bowie just about teeters on the cliff-edge of ridiculousness without toppling over in the “Give me your hands” finale (not helped by the bathetic backing vocals), and that final violin note that ends the whole Ziggy Stardust album is a tribute, I like to think, to the resounding piano chord that closes The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s.

16. Teenage Wildlife

Absurd, camp, overblown, over-dramatic, and utterly glorious. An anthem to all the young dudes who are cut down in their prime, it has moments of real poetry amid the bombast: “You fall to the ground/ Like a leaf from a tree/ And look up one time/ at that vast blue sky/ Scream out aloud as they shoot you down/ ‘No… I’m not a piece of teenage wildlife” still has the power to affect me, with that swirling, keening guitar. Though I could never get my kids to understand why “As ugly as a teenage millionaire/ pretending it’s a whizz-kid world” was a great metaphor. “Why would that be ugly?” they asked, dollar-signs lighting up their eyes. Somehow my friend Frank Wynne and I always end up singing it at two in the morning.

15. The Bewlay Brothers

This is supposedly about Bowie’s mad brother, but really it sounds like the gayest of his songs bar John I’m Only Dancing and Queen Bitch: “I was stone and he was wax so he could scream and still relax – unbelievable. And we frightened the small children away.” “The dress is hung, the ticket pawned, the Factor Max that proved the facts is melted down.” Not to mention “the crutch-hungry dark”. It’s mysterious, tragic and haunting: “Sighing they swirl through the streets like the crust of the sun, the Bewlay Brothers.” Another favourite late-night singalonga with my friend Frank.

14. ‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore

If Bowie proved anything over a career spanning six decades, it’s that he always has another surprise up his sleeve. But how the hell could a 69-year-old come up with this? Long-time producer Tony Visconti says they were listening to a lot of Kendrick Lamar, which perhaps accounts for the hip-hop beat; Bowie had long experimented with jazz, hence the chant of the ever-circling skeletal sax; and it’s a fantastic, expectation-defying melody. Every time you think Bowie will soar up, as he so often does, he goes down instead. As to the lyrics, the title obviously comes from the Jacobean tragedy; the second line, “‘Hold your mad hands,’ I cried”, from a 1797 sonnet by Robert Southey; and Bowie has said the song was inspired by the destruction of the Vorticist movement by World War I. Hmm, if you say so, David. I just like “Man, she punched me like a dude.”

13. All The Young Dudes

Sorry, David: Mott the Hoople’s version of your song is way better than when you recorded it yourself. So it’s that one which makes this list. The way John Travolta walks down the street at the beginning of Saturday Night Fever – that’s how Ian Hunter sings this. You can hear the swagger. I particularly love the later remix with added Bowie where, as on Lou Reed’s Satellite of Love, he proves that even as backing singer he can lift a chorus to the heavens.

12. Ziggy Stardust

It was Alexis Petridis’s wilfully perverse omission of this song from his Guardian Top 50 that inspired me to compile my own. I get that it’s “nothing more” than a great classic rock song. It doesn’t innovate musically. But I love every note, down to the loud exhale after the thundering drums of the intro. And it’s a key part of the Bowie mythos: the first time he’d invented a character to “be” (followed by Aladdin Sane, Thin White Duke etc), and one that proved strangely prophetic. “Making love with his ego/ Ziggy sucked up into his mind” is pretty much what happened to Bowie in his coke years. “When the kids had killed the man/ I had to break up the band” is just what Bowie did (minus the killing) to the Spiders on stage at the Hammersmith Odeon, much to the surprise and dismay of the drummer and bassist, who had not been informed in advance. Extra points for inspiring the Rosette of Sirius on the forehead of The Mighty Tharg, editor of the sci-fi comic 2000AD.

11. Golden Years

What a beautiful, languid, honey-voiced dreamboat of a song, from the finger-snap, doo-wop opening through the soaring “Nothing’s gonna touch you” to the casually whistled outro – with it Bowie became only the second white guy (after Elton John) to appear on Soul Train. Superficially it’s one of his happiest, most optimistic love songs: “Look at that sky, life’s begun/ Nights are warm and the days are young”… “I’ll stick with you baby for a thousand years/ nothing’s gonna touch you in these Golden Years.” But you soon realise he’s pleading, not stating, and that the object of the song is a depressed, past-it diva: “There’s my baby lost that’s all/ Once I’m begging you save her little soul”… “Don’t cry my sweet don’t break my heart/ Doing all right you gotta get smart”… “Some of these days and it won’t be long/ Gonna drive back down/ Where you once belonged/ In the back of a dream car/ Twenty foot long.”

10. Lady Stardust

I so love this song. It’s partly because I read, way back, that it was about Marc Bolan, whom I had a crush on. But also, just everything. The held note on “stare”, the soaring “ooh” in “ooh how I sighed”, the piquancy of “I smiled sadly at a love I could not obey”, the depths hinted at in “Lady Stardust sang his songs of darkness and dismay” (quite at odds with Marc Bolan’s lyrics, that description, but never mind), the top piano note following “he was alright”. Perfection.

9. Starman

I’m amazed by the number of people I speak to who don’t know what this song is really about. So let me spell it out for you. The imminent descent of beneficent aliens is a cosmic chat-up line, an excuse for a young (I hope!) boy to get his end away with a credulous young girl. He tries to convince her that “He told me let the children use it [ie their dick], let the children lose it [ie their virginity], let all the children boogie [‘boogie’, or ‘rock’, is always a synonym in songs for ‘have sex’].” Still not convinced? Try “If we can sparkle he may land tonight/ Don’t tell your papa or he’ll get us locked up in fright.” So there you have it: the most original chat-up line ever committed to music. Have sex with me now, little virgin, or the nice alien man won’t visit. Oh, and the soaring chorus was, famously, nicked from Somewhere Over The Rainbow.

8. Changes

Oh my god, what a delirious chorus, underpinned by that gloriously descending bassline. It never gets old, no matter how many thousands of times I’ve heard it. Some of the lyrics are trite – Bowie was never a good editor of his own stuff – but THIS: “So I turned myself to face me/ But I’ve never caught a glimpse/ How the others must see the faker/ I’m much too fast to take that test.” Later, when David Live came out, I enjoyed the change of lyric from “these children that you spit on” to “these children that you shit on”.

7. Station to Station

This song! This long, long, crazy song! There are fully three minutes of guitars and keyboards somehow coalescing into train noises before Bowie even starts singing. And when he does, what the hell is he on about? Mystical Kabbalah stuff, he’s said in interview. Whatevs, it sounds amazing – that repetitive, slow-building beat, his purring vocals, then suddenly leaping ecstatically into “mountains on mountains and sun birds to soar with”… to hear that for the first time, discovering it in a rented house in Aix-en-Provence not long after release, was one of the most joyful and mind-blowing moments of my life. “It’s not the side effects of the cocaine,” he sings, self-referentially. Oh, but it is, David. It most certainly is.

6. Life on Mars

I admit it. This is finally getting old for me – a few years ago I might have placed it higher. I blame the radio stations who seem to have chosen this as the only Bowie song they will play. But it’s extraordinary, of course. Rick Wakeman’s “marzipan piano”, as Charles Shaar Murray memorably called it… that sudden octave jump in the chorus… and the near-nonsense lyrics of all the crazy stuff going on on the silver screen while the poor girl tries to escape her dead-end life and parents who don’t understand, but can’t – because she’s “lived it ten times or more”… then going all meta when Bowie changes the lyric at the end to “I wrote it ten times or more”. See, it’s not just because of the “take a look at the lawman beating up the wrong guy” lyric that the TV series chose it as a title.

5. Sound and Vision

I love that Alexis Petridis put this short, perfect song at No 1. As he says, “musically it transcends time: completely original, nothing about it tethers its sound to the mid-’70s”. It’s also, as I recently had to explain to a friend, one of the most beautiful songs ever written about depression – a state the song’s protagonist has slipped into acceptingly, almost gratefully, like a warm bath. “Blue blue, electric blue/ That’s the colour of my room/ Where I will live”… “Drifting into my solitude/ Over my head”. Major Tom recurs in several Bowie songs, and here it’s in spirit: the mind-set in Sound and Vision is the same as when Major Tom is “floating in my tin can”.

4. Diamond Dogs

What. The. F. Is this song. It makes more sense when you go to the V&A exhibit, and see the lavish musical Bowie conceived this as a part of. But my God! For a sci-fi obsessed teen, to hear this absurd, overblown post-apocalyptic romp was purest heaven. “Just another future song”, he sings at one point, in a typical meta self-reference. Perhaps, but it’s one of the rockin’est.

3. Space Oddity

In one of the great examples of the squares not listening to the lyrics (see also Reagan adopting Springsteen’s Born in the USA as a “rousing” campaign song), NASA made this its theme tune. It’s so well worn that it’s hard to listen to it fresh, but try: there’s the counterpoint between the urgency of Ground Control in the verse and Major Tom’s dreamy acceptance of his imminent death in the chorus; the pathetic fallacy in “Planet Earth is blue and there’s nothing I can do”; the dig at the tabloids in “the papers want to know what shirts you wear”. The stripped-down, orchestra-less version, which I still have somewhere as a B-side, is well worth checking out.

2. Young Americans

Lyrically one of Bowie’s most coherent and mordant songs. You’ve heard it a million times, but how often do you actually listen? Just the opening lines: “They pulled in just behind the bridge/ he lays her down, he frowns/ “Gee my life’s a funny thing/ am I still too young?”/ He kissed her then and there/ She took his ring, took his babies/ It took him minutes, took her nowhere/ Heaven knows, she’d have taken anything.” It’s all that good. And with backing vocals on the chorus to swoon to. When it came up, uncut, over photos of the Great Depression in the closing credits of Lars Von Trier’s remarkable, brilliant, exhausting Dogville, I could have died of happiness.

1. Heroes

It’s hard enough to whittle Bowie’s songs down to 50 (what other artist could you say that of, except perhaps The Beatles?), let alone pick the very best. But this crowd-pleaser stands the test of time. Where Bowie mostly does intimate songs that whisper stories in your ear, or sonic experiments that assault it, this is an unashamed, fist-in-the-air stadium anthem. The fact that it was inspired by seeing two people kissing under the Berlin Wall gives it an enduring resonance. But though the Wall has since been torn down, making the song sound prophetically optimistic, it is the reverse. The ironic quote marks around “Heroes”, the naked anguish with which he sings “Nothing could drive them away”, and the codicil that they could be heroes “just for one day”, show that the singer knows their love, and their defiance, and indeed life itself, are fragile, fleeting things. Unlike this song, which, 43 years later, still has the power to drag the odd fat tear from my eye on long drives.

In memoriam Polly Higgins, lawyer who inspired Extinction Rebellion: never before published interview on Ecocide

22 Apr
Ecocide campaigner Polly Higgins, back in 2011

Ecocide campaigner Polly Higgins, back in 2011

Shockingly, the lawyer Polly Higgins has died at just 50. She devoted the last decade of her life to trying to pass a game-changing, planet-saving law on Ecocide. This law is one of the key demands of the current Extinction Rebellion movement — as well as paralysing central London, Extinction Rebellion protestors occupied the International Criminal Court in the Hague a week ago to demand the adoption of Ecocide as the fifth international crime. Below is an interview feature I did with her in 2011, when her Eradicating Ecocide movement was in its infancy, for an eco-magazine which, sadly, folded before publication.

“Of course the slave trade is justified. It’s only subjugating blacks and heathens; and besides, it’s vital to the economy.” It’s hard to believe that, just two centuries ago, this was the prevailing view. Who now could look back on it with anything but abhorrence?

Yet, according to the lawyer and campaigner Polly Higgins, our children and grandchildren will regard our own era with similar disbelief. Multinational corporations have been allowed to strip the Earth of natural resources that have taken millions of years to build up, while climate change threatens a global disaster of unguessable proportions. And these companies haven’t merely a licence to do so, but practically an obligation: a CEO will be voted out if he fails to make the most profit he legally can for his shareholders.

“In essence,” Higging sums up wryly, “the law says ‘go ye and destroy the planet if you can make a profit out of it’.”

The slave trade was abolished in large part due to the efforts of William Wilberforce, who saw that economic arguments would always favour slavery, and that businesses were incapable of self-regulation despite their promises. Instead, he argued the legal case for abolition on moral grounds. Put simply, the slave trade was just plain wrong.

Higgins has come to a similar realisation. The quantifying of environmental damage, and the international trade in carbon credits, leads only to a mindset in which anything is permitted to those with a big enough cheque-book. Fines are simply built into a company’s balance sheets. A recent UN-sponsored survey placed the global cost of environmental damage by business at $6.6 trillion in 2008, predicting that this figure would rise to $28.6 trillion by 2050. Yet the majority of this is down to greenhouse gas emissions and climate change, an argument susceptible to endless counter-argument and speculation. Governments have been debating the point for decades, and show no signs of action.

Instead, like Wilberforce, Higgins proposes simply that environmental damage be termed a crime. Because it’s just plain wrong.  She is calling this crime “Ecocide”, and wants it enshrined in international law alongside Genocide – which, lest we forget, has itself been a crime only for the last half a century. And just as army generals and heads of state are accountable for crimes of Genocide, Higgins proposes that company directors be prosecuted directly for crimes of Ecocide. Only then, she argues, will they be forced to clean up their act.

Higgins has written a powerful manifesto, “Eradicating Ecocide”, which in July won the 2011 People’s Book Prize. Reader comments start at 10 on the dial — “inspiring… best book of the decade” — and go way past 11 to “probably the most important book in all history”.

Ecocide mock trial

She makes an unlikely eco-campaigner. There’s not a whiff of patchouli in her des res in Islington. Even the graffiti in this area is posh: a Banksy-style stencil of Wills and Kate adorns a nearby wall. Her mother was an artist, her father a scientist. It’s a winning genetic combination. There is a lot of woolly thinking around environmental issues, but she’s done her research.

Higgins has already pitched Ecocide as an international crime before the United Nations. And on September 30 the case will be debated in a mock trial in the UK’s Supreme Court. The trial has no legal standing, and the CEO in the dock will be fictional, but everything else about it will be real: some of Britain’s foremost lawyers and expert witnesses will present a real-world case – the Deepwater oil drilling disaster, perhaps, or the Alberta tar sands – before an impartial jury.

According to Simon Hamilton of the non-profit Hamilton Group, who is staging the trial, “This is very much not an event which is openly in favour of making Ecocide a crime. It’s to raise awareness of the issues, to have a debate.”

The event will be streamed live on the internet (including the deliberations of the jury), and Hamilton hopes also to make it the centrepiece of a bigger documentary. The event will cost £20,000 to stage, with half coming from corporate sponsors and half from individuals. A week before we spoke, he entered a plea for donations on the Crowdfunder website. With 44 days left to go to reach his target of £10,000, he had already raised £3,440.

It’s clear that the issue has captured the public imagination. And this, says Higgins, is vital. “Governments will not move unless public pressure gives them permission to move.”

She desperately wants this issue to build up a head of steam. Next June is the Rio Earth Summit: 194 delegates from around the world, most of them heads of state, will be debating issues such as Ecocide. It will be the 20th anniversary of the gathering in Rio where a whole raft of environmental legislation was on the agenda, but taken off again thanks to corporate lobbying.

“The businesses said that they would self-regulate,” says Higgins, “that there was no need for laws. Well, that gave birth to climate negotiations, and the concept of CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility), and 20 years on we’re in an even worse position. Just like Wilberforce said, voluntary mechanisms do not work. So, they’ll be looking at all this again, and this is our chance.” Bolivia, she says, is very much on board, and swinging the rest of South America behind it.

All the same: she can’t really believe this could actually happen, can she? The Ecocide debate is a great way of raising public awareness, but the things she is calling for – jail terms for CEOs who flout the rules, potentially even for the bankers who fund them; an eventual end to the exploitation of non-renewable resources such as oil – are surely too radical ever to reach international agreement.

“Absolutely I believe it can happen,” she retorts. “But I can’t do it alone. It’s about finding the voice of the people, but I am also trying to find someone higher up who will take it to the next level.”

Again, she cites the slave trade. “Wilberforce had a friend, Charles Grant, the CEO of the East India Company – the Shell or Exxon Mobil of its day. It derived enormous profit from slavery. All the same, Wilberforce got Grant on board, and he eventually went public, saying: ‘This is adverse to my company’s interest but still we must stop it.’

‘Today, I’m looking for the Charles Grants of industry. Richard Branson perhaps – at the climate negotiations last year, Branson said, ‘give us the laws and we’ll work with them’. I’m like the Apache Indian, creating smoke signals. Others will get it, and pass it along. And then hopefully the cavalry will ride into town.”

Yes, and we all know what the cavalry would do to the Indians. It’s a rare slip in an otherwise impressive flow. In conversation, Higgins demonstrates a winning combination of passion and logic. Of the controversial surface mining of Alberta’s tar sands, she says: “Shell says that the tar sands deposits only affect 1.5% of Canada. They say that to minimise it, but that’s a huge territory. It’s kind of like saying, ‘We only killed 1.5% of humanity, and they’re Jews so it doesn’t matter.’ It does.”

When asked how we would replace fossil fuels, Higgins has an answer for that, too. Desertec is a non-profit foundation dedicated to harnessing solar power on a massive scale, using solar panels in the world’s deserts. “Within six hours,” points out research leader Gerhard Knies, “deserts receive more energy from the sun than humanity consumes within a year.” This means that concentrated solar plants covering just 0.5% of the world’s deserts could, theoretically, power the whole world’s energy needs.

As to the expense, Higgins points out that the fossil fuel industry currently receives $600 billion in subsidies. “It’s the last gasp of a dying dinosaur,” she says. Both literally and figuratively.

Climate change eureka moment

Higgins had her Eureka moment on stage during the climate change debates in Copenhagen in 2009, when someone in the audience commented that we need a whole new language to deal with environmental destruction. “The word ‘Ecocide’ came into my head,” she remembers. “I went home buzzing, immersed myself in the problem, and didn’t come up for air for three months. By then, I’d convinced myself the argument was water-tight.”

The ground covered by her resulting book is wide-ranging. Nuclear waste dumping is “one of the great unarticulated problems of the future”, and it’s estimated that the use of warheads tipped with depleted uranium during the first Gulf War will cause 500,000 additional cancers in Southern Iraq over the next ten years. Not for Higgins the argument that nuclear power can be green. Pesticides have helped deplete the mineral and vitamin content in fruit and vegetables by up to 75%, yet up to 31,000 tonnes of pesticides are used in the UK each year, filling food with poison which we then ingest.

How much of this would be covered by the crime of Ecocide would be open to legal argument, though her definition is simple enough: “Ecocide is the extensive destruction, damage to or loss of ecosystem(s) of a given territory, whether by human agency or other causes, to such an extent that peaceful enjoyment by the inhabitants of that territory has been severely diminished.” There are existing precedents for defining terms such as “extensive” and “severely diminished”.

The key to deterrence is, she maintains, to prosecute individuals, not companies: to make CEOs personally liable for environmental destruction. Ignorance would be no defence. Witness the worst oil spill of recent times, the Deepwater disaster. In 2009, BP’s Environmental Impact Analysis stated that it was virtually impossible for an accident to occur. Yet occur it did, with catastrophic consequences. If Ecocide were a crime, BP chairman Tony Hayward would be in jail right now.

Not everyone’s heart will bleed for the fat cat on over £2 million a year who grumbled after the spill, “I want my life back” — but is it really fair to hold him personally accountable? Can you prosecute crime without intent? ”It’s completely fair,” Higgins shoots back. “Think of it as the difference between death by dangerous driving, and murder. If you’re driving too fast, you’ve still caused death. The sentence will be less, but you’re still going to jail.

“That said, I have no appetite for locking up CEOs; I have an appetite for changing what they are doing. These multinational companies have a colossal infrastructure, some great brains working for them. We need those leaders in the field. I want to turn the causes of the problem into the solution. BP at one time were genuinely going to go Beyond Petroleum, but they didn’t have the legislative framework to encourage them to do so.”

Her second book, which she has blocked out the whole of August to write, will deal with the practicalities of getting businesses onside, properly motivated and compensated. Like Wilberforce, Higgins is prepared to devote her life to this cause, though she is hoping that the internet age, with its ability to mobilise pressure groups, will speed things up. Just look at how quickly a simple Twitter campaign to pressurise the News of the World’s advertisers resulted in the closure of the paper and Rupert Murdoch being hauled up before the House of Commons.

Of next year’s Rio summit, she says: “Of course, all the campaigners can turn up and speak, and nothing happens. Everyone has a jolly good conference, everyone claps, and everyone goes home. Or we can give our leaders a mandate to act, by bringing pressure to bear, by the public, by the youth, by children having a voice and saying we want this.

“People can go on my site, sign on to the newsletter. We will have a tool kit up there soon to help pester politicians and heads of state, which can be very powerful. It’s about getting more and more people to use the language of Ecocide, about changing the emphasis to ‘I owe a duty of care’, not ‘I own’. Remember that children and wives used to be covered by Property Law. But now children are about trusteeship. Your child is not your property. If you abuse your child you can go to prison. It should be the same for the Earth.

“It all comes down to building a campaign. I have a year.”

She’ll need all the help she can get. The Slave Trade Act of 1807 imposed a fine of £100 for every slave found on board a ship. As a result, some captains simply threw their slaves overboard to escape prosecution. No matter what the law says, big business will be slow to change its ways.

Further information about “Eradicating Ecocide” can be found at https://eradicatingecocide.com/

 

Solo: more Star Bores than Star Wars (spoiler-free)

25 May
A young Han Solo and an already ancient Chewbacca in Solo: A Star Wars Story

A young Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich) and an already ancient Chewbacca in Solo: A Star Wars Story

Oh dear. This is the origin story of one of the most iconic characters in cinematic history? One that Lawrence Kasdan (who co-wrote Solo as a duo, with his son) has had 40 years to prepare for?

It’s by no means a bad film, despite the ill omens of the original directors leaving due to “creative differences” to make way for the solid, dependable but seldom inspired Ron Howard. But it is the worst so far in the Disney-era Star Wars franchise. I can’t think of a single stand-out scene that would make me grab a friend by the lapels and say, “you gotta see that!” It also returns uncomfortably to a past action era of “no consequences” – when a character suffers a tragic loss, it’s all forgotten by the next scene.

If, like me, you’re a Star Wars die-hard, you’ll see it anyway, so I won’t detail any of the plot – not that there are too many surprises to spoil. But here’s a thing that strikes me as curious. It has been said for some time that actors can get cast to some degree for their social media presence. But the casting of Solo: A Star Wars Story takes brand synergies to a whole new level. Look at it this way:

–Woody Harrelson (typically good as a cynical, “trust no one” adventurer) brings in the Hunger Games crowd.

–Thandie Newton (magnificent, if underused, as his partner in crime) adds a dash of Westworld appeal.

–Emilia Clarke (Han Solo’s love interest) brings in the fanatical Game of Thrones fan base.

–Paul Bettany (the bad guy) adds a dash of mighty Marvel.

–And Phoebe Waller-Bridge (great as an independent-minded robot)… well, she’s no franchise star, but Fleabag made her the coolest and edgiest woman on screen since Lena Dunham, so she brings Solo a hip transplant.

–As does the multi-talented Donald Glover (as Lando Calrissian), currently tearing up social media with his new Childish Gambino video.

A recipe for success, then, you’d think. Sadly, you’d be wrong.

Disney and diversity: Thandie Newton on the BFI trainees with Solo: A Star Wars Story

24 May
Thandie Newton as Val in Solo: A Star Wars Story

Thandie Newton as Val in Solo: A Star Wars Story

With diversity the current buzzword in Hollywood, there is one major studio that is actually walking the walk. Disney, previously pilloried on social media for churning out pretty princesses who need saving and villains whose inner ugliness is telegraphed through physical deformity, has undergone a radical change of philosophy: making inclusive animations such as Moana, and even feature films with black leads such as Queen of Katwe and, having acquired Marvel Studios, Black Panther. These are the films which, watched by children now, will shape the global citizens of tomorrow. The importance of Disney using its enormous influence for social good can hardly be overstated.

The Star Wars franchise was desperately in need of such a makeover from its new parent company to banish the shuddering memory of Jar Jar Binks. The latest, Solo: A Star Wars Story, always had to feature Lando Calrissian (played by the multi-talented Donald Glover), since one of the few canonical pieces of Han Solo’s back story is that he won the Millennium Falcon from Lando in a card game. It also throws in the magnificent Thandie Newton as partner in crime to Woody Harrelson’s cynical, “trust no one” adventurer.

Even more impressively, Disney is also seeking to effect change behind the camera. At a special preview at BFI Southbank last night, Disney fielded an impressive panel composed of Thandie Newton, Phoebe Waller-Bridge (of Fleabag fame, playing an independently minded robot) and producer Simon Emmanuel, together with the BFI’s Ben Roberts and Gaylene Gould. They were there to talk about the BFI Film Academy Future Skills programme, which aims to counteract decades of under-representation by attracting trainees who might otherwise never have considered a career in film: 75% of their intake last year were women, 45% BAME, 68% from outside Greater London, and 36% from poor households that received free school meals.

“If you live in the North of England,” said BFI CEO Amanda Nevill in her opening speech, “the notion of working in the film industry is quite fantastical: in fact it’s far more than a galaxy far, far away.”

“Diversity always has a huge impact,” said Waller-Bridge. “We instantly grow from a diversity of voices. It results in less stereotyping, better characters, and the truth can sing.”

Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Thandie Newton with BFI trainees Nathan Lloyd and Maria Moss at the preview screening of Solo: A Star Wars Story

Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Thandie Newton with BFI trainees Nathan Lloyd and Maria Moss at the preview screening of Solo: A Star Wars Story

Thandie Newton brought her own personal experience to bear on the subject: “Growing up in Cornwall, I didn’t see other people like me anywhere. I grew up deeply insecure as a result. My sense of self-worth was crippled by not seeing other people like me, because the characters of films and television are our heroes, they are a way of feeling less alone.

“I have three children,” she continued, “and they’ve always played with dolls, and when they do it’s important they are exposed to diversity. I will go in with felt-tip pens and change the colour of characters’ skins in story books!”

There was an emotional moment when Newton mentioned Oola, “one of the few people of colour” in the original Star Wars trilogy: Oola was a Twi’lek slave who was killed by Jabba the Hutt when she resisted his advances. “She’s here in the audience!” someone shouted out. “I know,” Newton shot back. “I invited her!”

It transpired the actress, Femi Taylor, had also played Newton’s mother in her debut movie, Flirting. (Newton was so good in that 1991 Australian drama, incidentally, aged 16, that I insisted on running an interview feature with her in Time Out at the time).

But starry as the panel was, the greatest applause was reserved for two young trainees in the BFI Film Academy Future Skills programme. Neither had known during their interviews, indeed not until they walked on to the set, that the film they would be working on was not some indie drama but the latest behemoth in the Star Wars franchise.

Nathan Lloyd, a black youth from Birmingham, was inspired at being put to work as a camera trainee for Bradley Young, only the second black cinematographer ever to win an Oscar, and has since worked on Sky One’s Bullet Proof and Gurinder Chadha’s Blinded by the Light. Maria Moss, a half-Filipino girl from Manchester who said how surreal it was to take tea to “Chewbacca” and have him respond in a Liverpudlian accent, will be working as assistant director on the Wonder Woman sequel over the summer.

It was an inspiring evening. And following the success of the pilot scheme, in which 28 trainees were put to work on Solo, 30 more youths are to be given a new hope (see what I did there?) by working on the next main Star Wars film, Episode IX, from July.

Change won’t come about through talk and good intentions. It will come about through training a new generation with the necessary skills. Big up the BFI, and Disney, for starting the ball rolling.

The 10 films that changed my life

21 Apr

the-rocky-horror-picture-show-1975I was asked to do this Facebook thing of “In no particular order, list 10 all time favourite films, which really made an impact on you. Post the poster and nominate a new person each day.” But a) I’ll only forget each day and b) I imagine it all started as a way to harvest data on sharing and friends. So here it is as a blog instead.

NOTE: this about impact, not objective quality. The dates are when I saw these films, not always when they were released. Inevitably, they are concentrated in my formative years. I have seen many brilliant films since, but nothing can rock your world and change your life like films you see in your youth.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975). When I won a scholarship to Winchester, my dad said he would take me to London, where I could do or have anything I wanted. I chose to see this. I had never laughed as much. But mostly, it’s here for the father-son bonding thing. And the Black Knight. And the questions three. And the shrubbery. And the farting in your general direction.

Star Wars (1977). Blew my head clean off and made me swear to be involved with film in some way for the rest of my life (leading me to Time Out, and later to write shorts of my own).

Aguirre: Wrath of God (1979). My first art-house film in a rep cinema. Realised belatedly there was a whole world of film out there, which I spent my uni years devouring.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1979). Any film you’ve seen 40+ times has got to be on this list. This was in the early days of call-and-response and dressing up at midnight screenings. I’ve shown it to people since, and they’re like, “Nice songs, quite fun, but what’s the big deal?” People forget, now, how liberating and transgressive and attitude-changing the film was at the time. I’ve since been sung to by both Richard O’Brien and Patricia Quinn (now Lady Stephens) 😊

Apocalypse now posterApocalypse Now (1980). I saw this loads of times at the Towne Cinema midnight screenings in Ottawa, with bongs being passed up and down the aisles. Epic sweep that never loses touch with the human drama; very much of the drug culture but with a coherent plot; horrifying and hilarious and equal measure.

Napoleon (1983). I saw the restored version at the Barbican with, if memory serves, triptych screens and a live orchestra. I’ve seen it in cinemas twice since, as well as on TV. I studied the French Revolution for my degree, but more than that, it is astonishingly modern for a film made in 1929 – and started me off on a whole silent movie kick.

Blue Velvet (1986): Because obviously. I mean, imagine seeing it on first release, with no expectations or preconceptions about what David Lynch was capable of. It was, to quote Colonel Kurtz above, “like I was shot… like I was shot with a diamond… a diamond bullet right through my forehead. And I thought, my God… the genius of that! The genius! The will to do that! Perfect, genuine, complete, crystalline, pure.”

Akira (1988). My gateway to the astonishing world of anime.

The Lion King (1994). It amuses me that the plot is filched from Hamlet, but really this is here because it makes me think of my boys. I took Theo to the premiere at the Odeon Leicester Square when he was seven months old! Start ‘em out young. He slept through much of it, but we watched it a gazillion times subsequently on DVD. My mum would take me to films when I was young, and I’ve extended this to the next generation. Sam’s even made two excellent shorts of his own, one a nominee for student film of the year.

animalcharm-posterAnimal Charm (2012). The idea for this 20-minute featurette came to me in a flash in the gym: a fading fur fashion designer kidnapped by animal rights activists, with a grand guignol horror twist ending. Sadie Frost and Sally Phillips starred, with Michael “Ugly Betty” Urie and Boy George in small roles. It was really good. Kate Moss came to the premiere the W Hotel and sat in the aisle as there were no seats left. Director Ben Charles Edwards (who also co-wrote) has since gone on to make two feature films, while I have gone back into paid journalism, but it was still the culmination of a life-long dream to see something of mine up on the big screen. Thanks, Ben. You’re an extraordinary film-maker.

 

 

R.I.P. Stephen Hawking, and what he teaches us about the little things rather than the big

14 Mar

Stephen_Hawking_picIt’s sad to hear of the death of Stephen Hawking, but how extraordinary that he lived to the age of 76: a testament to his strength of will. In 1963, when diagnosed with motor neurone disease at the age of 21, he was given just a handful of years to live.

I met Stephen Hawking once, on the set of Errol Morris’s documentary about him. This was in 1991, when Eddie Redmayne, who would later win an Oscar for playing him in A Theory of Everything, was not yet 10. What struck me most was that however much Hawking’s mind was focused on the great mysteries of the universe, he still made time for the little things in life. Though he could “speak” only by laboriously tapping out the letters one by one by twitching one finger on a toggle of his wheelchair, he would still say “please” and “thank you” to the assistants who helped him. That’s more than can be said of many able-bodied stars I have seen on film sets.

No one who ponders such things can fail to reel in terror at the thought that the universe is so vast and its epochs so long, while we are but a mote in the blink of a cosmic eye. Hawking knew this better than anyone. But he knew, too, that the reaction to this should not be to despair at our unimportance and impermanence, but to seize every precious moment and savour the warmth of every human interaction as though it was your last. I found his example inspiring, then and now.

One thought haunted me for years after my encounter with Hawking. Here he was, wrestling within his planet-sized brain with the problem of uniting conventional physics with quantum physics – the Grand Unified Theory. What if his disease progressed, and he became unable to communicate at all? What if he discovered the ultimate secret of the universe but, unable to move or speak, trapped within a failing human husk, he could not communicate this to the outside world?

By the time of his death, the only muscle left in his body that he could consciously move was a tiny twitch in his cheek. It was still enough to send signals to his computer – but for how much longer?

So farewell and R.I.P., Stephen Hawking. And if the theory in the final chapters of his bestselling book A Brief History of Time prove correct, and the universe ends in a Big Crunch after which time winds backwards all the way back to the Big Bang again in an endlessly recurring cycle, then he and I will meet again, in a billion billion years.

Hawking will have blinked into life and consciousness as an old man in a wheelchair, trapped in a body which could twitch only one cheek muscle. He would then have slowly recovered the use of certain muscles until he could move his fingers; appeared (talking backwards) in episodes of The Big Bang Theory, Simpsons and Futurama; and then we would meet as he reversed his chair towards me on a film stage.

The next year he would start to live with the love of his life. The relationship would at first be fractious and bitter, but would grow more loving with time. Their children would get younger and cuter until they disappeared with a gurgle and a giggle back into their mother’s womb. And Hawking himself would get stronger and more mobile, eventually stepping up from his wheelchair to stand proudly at the altar with his bride.

The surprising link between Black Panther and X-Men

14 Feb
black-panther-reasons-watch-pic1

Welcome to Wakanda: the key cast of Black Panther

Black Panther has tapped into an audience normally uninterested in superhero blockbusters. It was striking how, at the first night’s screening at the Brixton Ritzy, the usually overwhelmingly white crowd was majority black.

For my part, I went with my young niece (actually first cousin once removed, but that’s a bit of a mouthful, so we’ll just go with niece). She doesn’t know her Marvel from her DC, and thinks she might have seen Thor but on second thoughts maybe it was Troy, so you can safely say she’s not usually first in line for such films. Black Panther is different. Black Panther is a cultural event, the first mainstream, massive-budget superhero film to feature a largely black cast. As the joke circulating Facebook goes, the only other actors are Martin Freeman and Andy Serkis, who both featured in The Hobbit, which makes them the Tolkien white guys.

Does it work? As a film, not altogether. There are huge gobbets of exposition shoved into the first act, all of it daft – a crashed meteorite has left a deposit of “vibranium” in the small African nation of Wakanda, a metal which somehow accelerates technological development and even heals wounds, creating a highly advanced civilisation hidden from view of the wider world. The special effects are occasionally hokey. The filming feels excessively studio-based. The pace lags in parts, as origin stories tend to.

On the plus side, the performances are top-notch, notably Letitia Wright as Black Panther’s sassy scientist sister, and Michael B. Jordan as Black Panther’s rival – more on that in a second. The production design, too, is magnificent. Some of the set pieces and battles are thrilling. Four stars, if I were to reduce it to a score.

But as a seismic cultural event, it’s a very big deal. It shows (hopefully!) that a black cast can find a mass audience. It presents a futurised ideal of African culture, without any attempt to dilute it for a Western audience: from the superb music curated by Kendrick Lamarr, to the fighting styles based on African martial arts, to the set design, costumes, hair and accents. It even has strong (if a tad one-dimensional) female roles.

Before the film, my niece pondered the irony that Hollywood, the biggest propaganda machine for the Western capitalist system, now seemed to be selling revolution. But notwithstanding Black Panther’s huge cultural impact, it seems to me to have a much less radical message.

The central conflict in the film turns out not to be between Black Panther and Andy Serkis’s pantomime villain with a plasma gun for a hand, but instead with a figure from Wakanda’s past who challenges Black Panther for the throne. Black Panther wants peaceful rule, perhaps opening up his kingdom slightly in order to help the poor and the oppressed in the outside world. His rival wants to smash the system, arming the disenfranchised with Wakandan technology to slay and overthrow their rulers across the world. The film clearly presents this as A Bad Idea, and a benevolent, non-democratically-elected king as A Good Idea – so not so revolutionary after all.

As my niece said, one is effectively Martin Luther King, while the other is effectively Malcolm X – which, intriguingly, is the same dynamic that powers all the X-Men films, by pitting Professor Xavier against Magneto.