tue 27/02/2024

When Bowie Came to Beckenham | reviews, news & interviews

When Bowie Came to Beckenham

When Bowie Came to Beckenham

In 1969, Mary Finnigan took in a lodger at her flat in Beckenham. The name was Bowie. David Bowie

The original Buddha of Suburbia

This extract from Mary Finnigan’s book Psychedelic Suburbia describes events leading up to the creation of the Beckenham Arts Lab, during the early period after David moved into her flat in Foxgrove Road, Beckenham in April 1969. The book was published by Jorvik Press on 8 January 2016 – three days before David died in New York.

In early May, Hutch comes to stay for a few days and adds the dimension of his refined guitar skill to David’s compositions. David can strum to useful effect, but he has not learned to finger pick.

I never get to know Hutch well, but on first impression he seems to be a modest, slightly shy individual. He is also in a state of painful indecision – torn between staying in London and pursuing his career with David or yielding to his wife’s demand that he return to her and their baby in Scarborough.

David and I do everything we can think of to make Hutch feel comfortable and appreciated, but to no avail (below, Mary Finnigan).

The disappointment at Hutch’s defection gives David the glums for a couple of days. But I have already learned that he’s faced setbacks several times since he embarked on his musical career and has so far always managed to bounce back. I am also aware after sharing my life with him for a couple of weeks that attracting attention to your talent in the music business jungle is not an easy task.

At one point during our conversations he says he’s envious of the way I landed a job at the Daily Mirror with apparently no effort and very little experience.

“Big mistake,” I reply, “to leap before you learn. I blew it because I hadn’t done my apprenticeship, hadn’t learned to fact check as if my life depended on it.”

I also learn that David has a lot of friends. People like me who take to him on first encounter and people who have known him since childhood who stay friends. One evening he’s been off somewhere and I’m dozing on the sofa. There’s a knock at the door – strange because David has a key and I’m not expecting visitors. I open up to find a small crowd on the doorstep, smiling faces and hands clutching bottles and musical instruments. David is front and centre.

“Instant party,” he says. “Can we come in?”

I never manage to remember all the names – except for David’s best friend, George Underwood, and his girlfriend Janine. George plays guitar but while the party swings along David mentions that George’s real talent is visual art (Bowie, the Bard of Beckenham, below).

George addressed the challenge of developing his talent with the same level of single-minded attention that David applied to music. Over the years he polished his work with meticulous attention to detail and in due course created a unique vision. His paintings evoke a spectrum of responses – from discomfort at the surreal, through recognition of a timeless quality to awe at their depth and their beauty. George is now a highly acclaimed artist with a worldwide reputation. His work has been shown at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition since 1998.

The morning after the party I wake with a slight hangover after drinking more wine than I’ve done since the advent of hashish into my life. David, however, has a very sore head. He’d been knocking back barley wine, his favourite tipple, which has a very strong alcoholic kick to it.

Reflecting on the beautifully staged seduction and the kind thought behind the instant party, I realise I am falling in love. But there’s a big “but,” because David has no money and no prospects of getting any well-paid gigs.

I am just about OK with supporting him for a while, but my financial situation is far from brilliant and I have two children to clothe, feed and entertain. My ex, Peter Finnigan, pays their school fees and takes them on holiday but the rest is up to me. As the days pass it becomes obvious that we cannot sustain our lifestyle for much longer. We need an income. Our upstairs neighbours, Barry and Christina, are barely getting by as well.

David falls silent one evening when we are in the upstairs flat and the next day announces: “I’ve been thinking...”

“Yes,” I reply. “I’ve noticed.”

“How about taking a stroll to see if we can find a pub where we can put on a folk club and bring in some cash?” he suggests. “We could do it with Barry and Christina and help them along as well.”

We set off around lunchtime when the pubs are open but not crowded. The first one we pass opposite Beckenham Junction Station is dismissed as too brash, too much of a commuter vibe. The next one round the corner in the High Street seems possible but does not have a function room.

Then we alight at The Three Tuns, a slightly seedy mock-Tudor building dead centre in the High Street. It’s gloomy and old fashioned – in other words, suitably funky. Inside we exchange “this could be it” looks, I order a half pint of cider and David his favourite tipple. We chat up John the landlord, whose personality can best be described as inscrutable (Beckenham remembers David Bowie, above).

He responds to our charm offensive in monosyllables but eventually, to our huge delight, agrees to let us have his back room on Sunday evenings.

The landlord must have a kind heart beneath his gruff exterior, because he tells us that at the start we do not have to pay for it.

 “I can make a profit on the drink sales,” he says.

We inspect the back room. It is dark and dingy and smells of stale beer and cigarettes.

“We’ll have to do something to make this cosy,” I mutter sotto voce.

“Any ideas?” David whispers, with the landlord loitering behind us.

“Sure thing,” I reply. “I know how to transform inhospitable dumps.”

David, however, has a very sore head. He’d been knocking back barley wine, his favourite tipple, which has a very strong alcoholic kick to it

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