Q&A with Nicholas Royle, author of David Bowie, Enid Blyton and the sun machine

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Questions by Annabel

Hello Nicholas, it’s great to ask you some questions about your fascinating new book which I enjoyed reading so much. I fondly remember our previous encounter for your novel An English Guide to Birdwatching. (Click for review and Q&A.)

Annabel: I must admit you had me at the title! I, along with half the world it seems, have thought and read a lot about David Bowie since he died, although I don’t listen as obsessively as you have. I was only 11 when Hunky Dory came out, finally getting into him heavily at about Aladdin Sane once my David Cassidy crush had dissipated, so apart from the big tracks, his earliest couple of albums largely passed me by back then and now. So I was fascinated that you went back to the very beginning for your lockdown listening. Thank you for seeding in me ‘Memory of a Free Festival’, from which the ‘sun machine’ comes, a track that was peripheral to me previously, now on my playlist, (listen here). What was it about this era Bowie that struck a chord so?

Nicholas Royle: I’m not sure. There’s a lovely phrase from Wordsworth’s ‘Intimations’ Ode that I quote in the new book and also in Mother: A Memoir (2020): ‘moving about in worlds not realised’. When I think now about what I was like as a teenager, I feel the force of Wordsworth’s phrase very strongly. It wasn’t that songs like ‘Memory of a Free Festival’ struck a chord that I was aware of at the time. It was just one of the things I listened to. But things change over time, what a piece of music means to you, how you come to realise what worlds you were and weren’t living in, and so on. To write about the past is to encounter the unexpected, it’s a process of discovery: you see connections, things come back to you, often in a strange way, but you also realise things for the first time, in the act of composition.

The book is in part a meditation on H. G. Wells. It’s about the idea of a book (which might be a novel but could also be a work of non-fiction) as a time machine. I got very interested in the idea of a ‘layered’ writing. Bowie used this word (‘layered’) in relation to paintings like Frank Auerbach’s, but also to evoke what he was trying to do in his music. He was talking about the mid-nineties album 1. Outside, but there is also a layering that happens with the accumulation of work over the decades. What’s wonderful about some of Bowie’s later music (‘Love is Lost’, ‘Where Are We Now?’ and ‘I Can’t Give Everything Away’, for example) is how it resonates with but also adds to earlier work. I was interested in the idea of a book that is layered in a way that complicates the experience of an era, that engages readers with a sort of veering about in time. I wanted to try to convey and reflect on the strangeness of passing time (‘the years, the years’, as Thomas Hardy laments in his marvellous poem ‘During Wind and Rain’), on the nature of memory-work, and on how we don’t really see or realise things at the time they are happening.

I am a very slow kind of person really. At some level, I feel as if I literally embody the name of my grandmother and as if I have lived all of my life (certainly my writing life) ‘on slow’. In terms of writing, I am rather a tortoise. A Lawrentian tortoise, with luck, but very slow anyhow! My grandmother, who is arguably the central character in David Bowie, Enid Blyton and the Sun Machine, was the painter Lola Onslow. I never knew her because she died before I was born: she was and is a sort of dream or fairy grandmother, a granphantasma as I call her at some point in the book. So David Bowie, Enid Blyton and the sun machine is an attempt to acknowledge and inhabit ‘worlds not realised’, both in terms of my own life as a teenager (to which I hardly gave any thought at the time), and in terms of my grandmother’s life and the life of my father. The book seeks to tunnel down into what Enid Blyton called ‘the undermind’, what Kafka called ‘the burrow’ and what Hélène Cixous calls ‘the mines of language’, to explore new possibilities in life writing, autobiography and memoir.

My attachment to Bowie’s music began with Hunky Dory (1971) and Ziggy Stardust (1972), but then came to include earlier albums such as the second David Bowie album (now usually known as Space Oddity), The Man Who Sold the World (1970) and The World of David Bowie (1970). My relationship to his music is somewhat an experience of living backwards, in that sense. But what surprised me, as I was writing the book, was discovering how deeply certain Bowie songs were unconsciously embedded in me, so that listening to them in the solitude of pandemic lockdown really was like a kind of ‘open sesame!’ return to my youth.

There was something of an encounter with ‘a lad insane’ (unquenchable sorrow for the early death of my brother, who loved Bowie’s music too), as well as the sense of a magical Aladdin’s cave (drawing out of glittering but faint memories of some Christmas pantomime production, in Croydon perhaps, or Sutton, rather than up in ‘town’ as we used to call London). My brother and I would listen to these songs (‘In the heat of the morning’, ‘Memory of a Free Festival’, ‘All the Madmen’, as well as many others from later albums) time out of mind: listening again in lockdown resurrected and released so many memories and feelings. And trying to write about that also led to a new and deeper appreciation of how Bowie’s own youthfulness, his candour, his curious innocence and his ‘sensual vulnerability’ are all so strongly evident in the ‘era’ to which you refer.   

Annabel: And that brings me to Blyton and the amazing intertextual links you find, far beyond the fact of both having grown up in or around Beckenham. We know from the book that you were listening to Bowie in the evenings and reading The Famous Five books to your sons, but how did you start riffing (if I may use that term) on the similarities between them? Coincidentally, I’ve just read Nick Hornby’s Dickens & Prince, which was fascinating too, but his links are more obvious, whereas yours are playful!

Nicholas Royle: I don’t really know how it started. Serendipity, I suppose: I love that word, invented by the author of The Castle of Otranto, Horace Walpole. Serendipity, as you perhaps know, is a fairytale word, from a story by Walpole called ‘The Three Princes of Serendip’ who keep making discoveries by accident. What is a fairytale? What is a fairy? What is the relationship between memoir and fairytale? These also emerge as key questions in the book. But basically the riffing as you call it was determined by the Covid-19 pandemic, which came to impose itself on me as a kind of strange oscillation: Blyton by day, Bowie by night. At some point I started thinking about the importance of Beckenham and it went from there.

Like more or less everyone else (apart from party-goers like Boris Johnson, perhaps), being in lockdown prompted me to think a lot about place, to feel the importance and effects of place in a new, even unprecedented fashion. (Parenthetically I would just note that when you suggest that I was listening to Bowie ‘obsessively’, really that was only part of the story. I was working on another project during this period – a collaboration with the philosopher Timothy Morton, a sort of ‘plague journal’ which has not yet been published but amounted to some 235,000 words, written over two years from late March 2020 to April 2022. That project is also very much about the experience of place, of location and dislocation.)

Another, inevitably related thing that emerged very forcefully for me in the process of writing was a concern with questions of nationality, nation and belonging. David Bowie, Enid Blyton and the sun machine is a book about Englishness, about what being English might mean. Bowie and Blyton are both in a sense very English and in their work (whether songs or stories) they are amazingly energetic and inventive in what they do with the English language. I became very interested in the idea that Bowie and Blyton, in their quite different ways, have something to tell us about what’s perhaps valuable or worthwhile about Englishness or being English. In this respect I see the book as a political as much as an imaginative project. Bowie and Blyton were both what I call education system escape artists. They are strangely united by their sense of humour and irony, their interest in the fairy and magical or alien and otherworldly, their bisexuality, their love of theatricality and mimicry and so on. In a discreet but I hope clear fashion, the book seeks to foreground the comedy of nationality, a history of England as comic.

Annabel: I must mention ‘The Croydon Effect’ – something writ large upon my own life. I was born in Purley, a few miles south, but Croydon featured in everything I did until I escaped to uni (but only as far as London initially). Indeed, the rest of my direct family apart from my eldest brother still live there, and he only escaped to Banstead by marrying a girl from Cheam! Everywhere I go, I bump into people linked to Croydon and its environs, I can’t escape it, even in Oxfordshire. It always feels as if Croydon is unique in this – but surely it also applies to other conurbations? However, it seems to me that it is somewhere to move on from – as Bowie and Blyton did – but as you say, Croydon follows you. Does it still do that to you, as it did Bowie undoubtedly at times, although Blyton less so perhaps?

Nicholas Royle: The ‘Croydon Effect’ is of course meant to be funny. It seems comical, the idea that a place could follow you around, and then how the Effect proliferates. It is comically apt that the Bowie Bandstand park in Beckenham is called the Croydon Road Rec, and that there was a wonderful secondhand bookshop that wasn’t in Croydon but was called the Croydon Bookshop. Bowie’s idea of ‘Croydon’ as a derogatory adjective is quite hilarious too. But for me, as also for Bowie and D. H. Lawrence, getting away from Croydon felt like a real and pressing thing to do.

The Bowie Bandstand

I drove to Beckenham for the first time in my life in March this year: this was in order to meet up with my editor Matthew Frost and visit the Bowie Bandstand and one or two other sites. It’s striking how many of the places where Bowie lived and spent time have either been demolished or significantly changed. Haddon Hall and the house on Foxgrove Road are gone altogether, while the Three Tuns (the pub where he set up the Beckenham Arts Lab with his girlfriend Mary Finnigan) is now a Zizzi pizza restaurant. The Bowie Bandstand, by contrast, is a grade 2 listed building. It’s where the free festival of August 1969 took place and also where, as Bowie was sitting on its steps, ‘Life on Mars?’ came to him one ‘really beautiful day in the park’. But even the bandstand is painfully in need of some tender loving care. When Matthew and I were photographing it, there was really no one around. You perhaps noticed how strange and forlorn it looks, in the picture at the back of the book.

In response to your wondering if Croydon is still following me, it’s a resounding yes! Very recently (on 16 July to be precise), I became grandfather to a beautiful baby girl called Upe. She was born in Croydon University Hospital and lives close by it. Her coming into the world altered and enriched my sense of Croydon overnight!   

Annabel: I loved your playfulness with language in Birdwatching, and frankly expected more of that in your lectures – and I wasn’t disappointed. I particularly like your neologism ‘memoirish’ which you use to describe your sort-of-fictionalised sections of the book bookending the lectures, seen through a narrator’s eye telling the story of Mummy, Daddy and their young sons during lockdown. It seems to me that ‘memoirish’ could also be a very useful word to describe those moments of distraction from pure memoir into digressions and other anecdotes, as you do in your memoirish memoir Mother. I wondered how strictly you’d thought about this; can I use it in this additional sense?

Nicholas Royle: This is a funny thing. Part of me is quite earnest about trying not to play with words, and I really thought as I was writing this book that it was less playful than other books I’ve done. At some point I fantasized about the idea that I’d finally managed to write a book that could be easily translated into French, German and so on. But then I went back to the book again and saw that there was paronomasia all over the place. Agh!

It’s a matter of the aleatory again (I love that word partly because my name is, in a random and quite meaningless way, anagrammatically inscribed in it, a bit like Bromley!): I think ‘memoirish’ had been in the undermind of the book from its very inception, but it only drifted into view near the end. One of the specific charges that the word carries for me is as a portmanteau of ‘memoir’ and ‘Irish’. Its appearance in the final lecture (‘Fairy’) may recall the Irish inscription on Spike Milligan’s gravestone that’s mentioned at the beginning of the first lecture (‘Memory of a Free Festival’).

What is Irish in English and English in Irish, in particular as concerns my relation to my Irish grandmother, her voice (which must remain phantasmatic, since it was not recorded anywhere and so I never heard it in real life), but also her voice in my father’s voice? That’s where the tethe implex comes in – an encounter with the question of the importance of grandmothers, whether alive or dead. But the neologism ‘memoirish’ of course harbours other possibilities too. There’s a hint of the more-ish (as one might say of something good to eat), as well as a whole swathe of thought and experience concerning the ‘ish’ as ‘somewhat’. It’s a gentle way of gesturing towards the genre-bending or genre-dissolving. I welcome your own playful picking up of this word. 

Annabel: One theme that runs through the book is the offer of voluntary severance from the university where you’re a professor. The choice of the word ‘severance’ rather than usual redundancy seems very deliberate, a painful thing being done to you that you are not yet ready for. I suppose lockdown gave you a kind of in-depth rehearsal for post-uni life, and the idea for the virtual lectures gave you the freedom to say what you want. How is it going – no compulsion to answer!

Nicholas Royle: Yes, it is a book in part about the painful nature of ending. But it is mixed, I hope, with comedy and joy. The other day I went out for a walk with a dear friend, Rachel Bowlby, who recently took voluntary severance from another university, and at some point as we were making our way down a very windblown seafront here in Seaford she said something like: ‘The thing is, most people in earlier generations (our grandparents and great-grandparents, for example) were dead by our age!’

We are undead friends, to recall another phrase she went on to use, and that is a joyous thing.

But it is also true that, in a somewhat mysterious way, I feel I have always written in a kind of posthumous mode. I’ve never really expected my books to be read in my lifetime. Absurdly perhaps, I’ve always been mindful of a future without myself. At the same time ‘retirement’ is a bit like returning to one’s youth, though of course there’s also been some physical ageing going on! As a teenager I envisaged that I would write poetry: I began as a poet, and I hope to return to that, if I’m granted the time. But in the meanwhile I have other projects underway, including a detective memoir or some such memoirish thing, various collaborative projects with friends, and a book about narrative theory.       

Annabel: I’ll finish by asking if you could just pick one Bowie album to listen to in perpetuity – which would it be? (Mine is too obvious in Ziggy, but ‘Rock & Roll Suicide’ is my favourite of his songs).

Nicholas Royle: I think it would have to be Station to Station. There are numerous other albums to which I feel a deep attachment, but the first time I saw Bowie was the Station to Station concert in London in May 1976 and, as I say in the book, that was the greatest music event I have ever experienced.

Annabel: It’s been a pleasure talking to you about this fascinating book. Thank you too for indulging my rather rambling questions.

Nicholas Royle: I’ve very much enjoyed thinking about them: my warm thanks to you. I’m very grateful for your continued interest in my work.

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Read Annabel’s review of David Bowie, Enid Blyton and the sun machine HERE.

Annabel is one of Shiny’s co-founders and editors.

Nicholas Royle, David Bowie, Enid Blyton and the sun machine, (Manchester University Press, 2023). 978-1526173638, 256pp., paperback.

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