Two winters ago I was told a story by a friend of mine. A true story, about an episode from his childhood he’d never mentioned before.
‘I met David Bowie once. It was in London, it was Christmas, and I’d won a competition. We sang a song together…’
It was a magical encounter, and I didn’t stop quizzing my friend until he gave me all the details, and then said he didn’t mind if wrote an account of it for my blog.
It was story I knew that people would love: the tale of the shy, clever, autistic boy and how he met David Bowie, who was kind to him, and as magical as anyone could hope for. And who told him about the wearing of invisible masks…
I wrote a short piece about it and, within twenty minutes of posting it on my blog, it had gone viral. Somehow it had been noticed by people. David Bowie’s widow retweeted it with hearts, and so did his son. And then, suddenly, thousands and tens of thousands and then hundreds of thousands of fans were retweeting it. It made them remember how wonderful Bowie was: and they were pleased to hear that he was magical in real life, when you got as close to him as the character in my true-life story.
By the end of that day a huge number of people had read and shared that blog piece. Amanda Palmer and Neil Gaiman tweeted it at each other, almost simultaneously, and all their followers went on to read it.
It was like having David back – just for a moment. That’s what some people said to me. And that was true for me, too. I’d had a second-hand glimpse of that scene from back in 1987… but somehow the words that were spoken back then came to me very clearly. I felt like I was eavesdropping on the past. The expanded version of the tale that I started writing as soon as I posted the original piece felt very much as if it was writing itself.
I had to write an expanded version because my friend – delighted and mystified by all the attention his memory was getting – had carried on talking to me, and he gave me further details. He told me more about the Christmassiness of the whole scene, the snow and the crowded streets of London, and how the film showing took place in some old Victorian school, closed for the holidays. He told me that the Jim Henson puppeteers were there, with the actual characters from ‘Labyrinth’, and they came to life in that school hall, entertaining the competition winners until the star guest strolled in.
Many more details: what David was wearing, even how he smelled (like ice cream, said my friend.) I learned about the small side room where they played piano together, and where David knew that the boy and his chaperone relative would feel happier, rather than among the hurly burly of all the other children.
I spent a week hammering this material into what I felt straight away was the best short story I’d ever written. I tinkered and shaped it like Bowie worked on the magic dust in the air, when he fashioned it into his mask.
When I had my story finished ‘Stardust and Snow’ slotted perfectly into place as my title.
I’d always wanted to write a Christmas story. I have dreamed of writing something that could be taken down from the shelf once a year and read with great, nostalgic pleasure. For me, it’s Truman Caopte’s ‘A Christmas Memory’ and Dylan Thomas’ ‘A Child’s Christmas in Wales’ and the most wonderful moments from John Masefield’s ‘The Box of Delights.’ Or Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘The Fir Tree’, or the festive chapter from ‘Wind in the Willows.’ Something like that would do for me! Something that readers could take out each year with as much joy as they brought out old boxes of treasured tinsel and decorations…
I tried out my new story on friends and other writers I knew. As the days went on their reactions came back, and people really loved it. They felt touched by the magic it described. People sat still in the middle of their busy days to give it their attention, and that, in turn, touched me. What was more, I got lovely quotes from people that could accompany the book as it went to editors and others involved in the world of publishing.
Well, the story went out into the world – and some people got it, and some didn’t. Some thought it too short, some thought it too long. Was it fiction or non-fiction? Was it for adults or children..?
And yet to me all the answers to those questions were easy: it’s exactly the length of story it ought to be. It’s true in the way that fairy tales are always deeply, magically true. And it’s for everyone, no matter who or what or how old they are.
Most readers felt as if they were meeting a wonderful Wizard at Christmas and watching him do magic, just for you. That’s how the child in the story feels, and that’s the feeling people take away. David Bowie is more than just a rock star – he’s a mythic figure. He’s a pagan spirit of midwinter in this story. He’s Jack Frost. He’s a beguiling Christmas Elf. He’s here and gone in a twinkling of a green wizard’s eye.
Last Christmas I made a tiny edition of the story, just to give out to a select few friends. I sent it like I would normally send out Christmas cards.
This year however, Obverse is making my story public. It’s coming out as a perfect little hardback in time for Christmas.
Just in time for every Christmas in the future.
I hope that each time it’s opened up by the people who buy it, or the people who receive it as a gift, it’ll send out a little shower of stardust that will remind you of the first time you read it, or the first time you heard it, or the time you bought your first David Bowie record, or the time you met someone you always wanted to be wonderful… and that’s exactly how they turned out to be.
That’s the feeling I want this little book to hold for people.
And now that it’s ready to go out into the world – courtesy of the wonderful Obverse Books – I look forward to hearing just how Christmassy and stardusty it makes you feel.
Paul Magrs, October 2019.
Stardust and Snow
Available from www.obversebooks.co.uk