The first scene in my yet-to-be-written novel is based on an actual rendezvous between Mary Godwin and her future husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley. Mary, 16 years old and altogether smitten with the larger-than-life poet, had been forbidden from having any contact with Percy by her father, so they were obliged to meet in secret to profess their love and plot their elopement. Although Somers Town, the area of London where Mary lived, has changed greatly in the wake of the Industrial Revolution, the site of Percy and Mary’s 1814 tryst still stands: the grave of Mary Wollstonecraft, who was Mary’s mother and the author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.
Shortly before 4pm on my birthday, I strolled through the St. Pancras graveyard (which is also a Beatles mecca, for unrelated reasons), making notes and trying to imagine the encounter between Percy and Mary, reenacting Romeo and Juliet as only a pair of over-educated Romantic authors could. It was easier once I’d cast myself as the voyeuristic third person present — Claire Claremont, Mary’s stepsister, who ended up tagging along on the elopement, too. All authors are voyeurs.
My visit to Wollstonecraft’s grave was inspiring, but it also raised a lot of questions. What was the state of industrialization in 1814 London? What sort of trees are those behind the old church? Did Mary consider herself more or less attractive than Claire? Happily, there was a building very close by that contained all the answers, and more: the main branch of the British Library. I tucked my coat into a locker and rode up the escalator, ready for some serious browsing. But here, things got Douglas Adamsy: I quickly learned that the actual use of books required registration and a pass card. “Well,” I thought, “if I’m going to spend part of my birthday filling out forms, at least I’ll get to do it here, 100 meters away from a manuscript in Shelley’s own hand.”
To get a BL card, you need proof of address (no prob) and your vital statistics (a cinch), and you need to be able to justify your need to access the books (well…hmm). Fortunately, the secretary told me that “brainstorming a vaguely historical novel” was sufficient justification, provided I had an actual pull list. 15 minutes of catalogue searching later, I submitted the somewhat random list for approval, and was sent to a different area to await processing.
The gentleman whose job this was embodied every British bureaucratic stereotype — stuffy, curt, and humourless. “Identification.” “Read and sign.” “Look into the camera, please.” But moments later, his whole demeanour changed. “It’s your brithday!” He realized, and promptly challenged me to choose between the Charge of the Light Brigade and the Battle of Agincourt (two historical events that occurred on October 25). Once I proved myself at least passingly familiar with these events, he sang me “Happy Birthday” and then — best of all — told me which wing I could visit to obtain my pull list titles. “The Retrievals Department closed at 4pm, of course,” he said cheerfully, “but if you request them now, they’ll be ready first thing tomorrow — Sir Thomas More appointed Chancellor.”
My luck was with the Light Brigade, not with Henry and his band of brothers. I was leaving London first thing in the morning. Ah well — surely this was fate’s way of giving me full license to make shit up.
I had barely enough time for a burger and a pint before my evening show: Lazarus, a musical stage sequel to The Man Who Fell to Earth, starring Michael C. Hall (Dexter, Six Feet Under) as Thomas Jerome Newton, the earthbound alien first played by David Bowie. And it was Bowie who co-wrote, and provided the entire soundtrack — an eclectic selection from his wide, eclectic catalogue. Many choices seemed only vaguely related to the plot — and even saying “plot” is generous, in this case, since the play moved seamlessly in and out of dreams and visions, dropped characters abruptly, and left Newton exactly where we found him — trapped in his apartment, adrift in memories and regrets.
All in all, it seemed like a sad tribute to such a forward-moving artist. But on the other hand, a lot of Bowie’s music (indeed, a lot of rock music, period) is about yearning and loss. And maybe it’s too soon, still, for an upbeat Bowie jukebox musical (did he really only did this year??). If nothing else, Lazarus made me want to explore Bowie’s catalogue in greater depth. The man released 27 studio albums and 9 live albums over the course of his career. If I gave myself one album per year on my birthdays, I’d be 78 by the time I got back around to “Lazarus” on Blackstar. Ch-ch-ch-changes.