Philip Hoare is Thomas Jerome Newton

David Bowie_Man Who Fell to Earth_1
The Man Who Fell to Earth

Philip Hoare was born in Southampton and is the author of seven non-fiction books. His latest work, the magical The Sea Inside (published by Fourth Estate), is an invigorating tour of the sea, its islands, birds and beasts. Along the way, Hoare meets a cast of recluses, outcasts and travellers, from eccentric artists and scientists to tattooed warriors, as well as marvellous creatures, from a gothic crow to a great whale. Philip is a keen sea swimmer. Even in the depths of winter. Philip Hoare’s filmic alter ego is Thomas Jerome Newton from The Man Who Fell to Earth. Eithne Farry

There is no contest as to my avatar. He is Thomas Jerome Newton, the flame-haired, paper-skinned, grounded angel in The Man Who Fell to Earth. In 1976, when Nicolas Roeg’s movie came out, I went to see it three times at the cinema. I even took my cassette recorder and taped the soundtrack. I so identified with Newton that friends accused me of making my nose bleed in a Tube lift to emulate a similar scene in the movie. I also wore plastic sandals like Newton. I nearly fainted at the private view of ‘David Bowie is’ at the Victoria & Albert Museum earlier this year when I came face to face with the black suit and white shirt Bowie wore for the film.

But it wasn’t just about my adulation for the Thin White Duke (whom I saw for the first time that year on the Station to Station tour at Earl’s Court; the opening act was Bunel’s Un chien andalou (1929), and Bowie performed in a similar black and white outfit, lit by Dan Flavin-like white strip lights). Roeg’s fantastical film has elements of Powell and Pressburger as much as it has of science fiction or surrealism.

The film’s references to Auden and Icarus echo Bowie’s shape-shifting personae (as well as 1970s dystopia). At one point, Newton is being driven through the American wilderness (a sequence inspired by the Cracked Actor (1975) documentary, which prompted Roeg to cast Bowie) when you suddenly hear a burst of hillbilly banjo and see, through a weird watery sepia, a vision of 19th century sharecroppers.

Newton crosses zones and cultures, an existential figure, a stranded alien in search of water for his parched planet. The scene in which he stands at the end of a dock was, to me, a direct echo of Jay Gatsby standing at the end of his Long Island dock, looking out to a green light and ‘the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us’.

For someone addicted to swimming in the sea every day, often in the dark and lonely hour before dawn, Newton’s predicament still strikes me, long and deep.

More information about Philip Hoare can be found here.

Philip Hoare