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Remembering David Bowie at St Germans

Bowie, Eliot, Jago, Coco, and Carinthia relaxing in Cornwall in 1981.
(Photo courtesy of Hugh Gilbert)

Yesterday, on the train from Penzance to Paddington, as I passed the tiny station of St Germans, I looked back, and high over the the estuary bathed in the searing dawn light, was a perfect rainbow stretching over the rolling green lawns of Port Eliot, ancestral home of the Earls of St Germans. Port Eliot itself
is not visible from the train, but so very visible in my mind’s eye and my memories. It was here I introduced Peregrine St Germans, the owner of Port Eliot, to David Bowie, in 1981. It was on this lawn I photographed us all smiling and laughing in anticipation of a relaxed country weekend. David had a great love of Cornwall, its myths and its legends, so when I heard he was planning to take his son Joe (as he was then called) on a sojourn to the south-west, and knowing that my friend, Peregrine, was keen to have him play at his festival, the Elephant Fayre, I suggested a long weekend at an historic country house would give them the opportunity to discuss the possibility, plus a chance for me to catch up with my dear friend, Corinne Schwab, (known to friends as Coco), who was David’s longtime PA, right hand, and trusted companion.

I had met David through my friendship with Coco in the late 1970’s, and had shared many good times with them both.I’d travelled with them on a chartered boat up the Italian coast, watched David and his band perform at several concerts from the stage side wings, visited some of his film sets, hung out in homes in New York and Switzerland, and mine in Warwickshire, play Grandmother’s Footsteps and Scrabble, and even be styled in London by David for my first model shoot with a then unknown photographer called Mario Testino. (David had seen my portfolio of photos and pronounced them all ‘rubbish’. “Rinthy”, he said (his pet nickname for me), “there’s this young Peruvian guy who’s just done some pictures for me – I think he’s really good – will you let me arrange a shoot for you?”. One of the attributes that David had, and I have not heard enough about in all the tributes and obituaries that poured in last January when the world woke up to the news of his tragic and untimely death, was that David was SO kind. He did not have to arrange anything for me, I was not his girlfriend, nor his protege, just a friend of his own best friend, Coco, and that was enough for him. He was also very funny, with a wicked sense of humour. Once on the set of ‘The Hunger’ a very old man approached me and said he was terribly sorry to bother me, but he was David’s father and as David couldn’t be on the set that day, he had been asked to look after me. It was only because everyone around us was sniggering, that I realized it was in fact David in full ageing Methuselah make-up. Later, when I left the modelling and acting world to be an unknown journalist in Los Angeles, he allowed me to do an interview with him in a music magazine. That interview put me on the journalistic map in America, and (in pre-internet days!) brought more commissions and just enough money to put the down payment on an apartment. He was always doing kind acts for people he liked, and the Testino shoot was just one. To my eternal regret, (and Mario’s embarrassment) the negatives were lost at the lab, so David’s hand at tweaking my Anthony Price dress, and Coco’s assurances that my lipstick was not smudged, were lost forever, however the memory remains, and surely that is what matters in the end.

So we gathered at Port Eliot, David, Coco, myself,Joe (then about 10, and later to become the respected film maker Duncan Jones), and Marion, Joe’s nanny and family friend. The weekend did not start auspiciously. Peregrine had some fixed views on children eating with grown ups and assumed that the four of us would sit down for dinner on Friday night (under the Rembrandt and drinking Leoville Barton) and Marion and Joe would “eat in the nursery”. When I found out – minutes before their arrival – I was horrified. “David is here on a family holiday – he’s a post divorce dad, and the whole point is that he sees Joe as much as possible. Marion is an integral part of the family. There is no way that David will want to eat in separate rooms”. Peregrine was adamant and put on his best ‘I am the 10th Earl of St Germans – this is my house so what I say goes’ expression. “I have lunch at one and dinner at eight, and a no-children under 15 rule at each”. I threatened to leave and take my friends with me to a nearby Cornwallian hotel, and grudgingly, Peregrine agreed, but the stage was definitely not set for the two men to bond. For all Peregrine’s great charm and (much publicized) “ eccentric hippie lifestyle” , he was in fact deeply old-fashioned in some ways, and as the weekend progressed, despite some interesting trips like a visit to a local arts and crafts house, David never did play the Elephant Fayre. “Rinthy” said David conspiratorially to me, as Perry showed him the Robert Lenkowitz mural on his drawing room wall, and the maze with the bulls head buried at it’s centre, “I discovered the word ‘Lucifer” scrawled in red on a mirror this morning. This place is too weird, even for me!” To be fair this probably had nothing to do with Peregrine, as the mirror was in the rooms of the playwright Heathcote Williams, who at that time was lodging in a wing of the house…

So, as my London bound train glides over Brunel’s aqueduct in 2017, I look back to Port Eliot’s lawn in 1981 and I remember that I took a photograph of us all that weekend. I took it with the camera on a tripod, then whipped round to sit on the grass. There’s David with Coco behind him, me shading my eyes from the sun, and Peregrine with his son Jago. I suppose it was an original “Ussie”, David died a year ago in the week of his birthday, just before releasing his final album, Lazarus, and Peregrine died in August, just before his beloved Port Eliot Festival opened. Jago too had sadly died, a few years ago, much too young. As the train pulls in to Plymouth, the rainbow recedes, and a whole bunch of cheerful yet rowdy football fans board, (deeply unconcerned with anything other than the beautiful game) my moment of reverie has passed. Putting on my headphones, I bed down in my seat and listen to Lazarus, David’s last album, and the title song with the extraordinarily prescient lines “Look up here, I’m in heaven, I’ve got scars that can’t be seen, I’ve got drama can’t be stolen. everybody knows me now”, which, of course, is true. They know the very public David, the multi-talented musician, singer, song writer, actor, alchemist etc. His death caused a huge outpouring of tributes from fans. Lazarus, the play, opened in New York and London, and various pieces of his art collection were sold at Sotheby’s, raising millions, and no doubt the spotlight and tributes will roll in again on the anniversary of his death. His extraordinary legacy will live forever, but on the morning he died, so elegantly and quietly with not even some of his closest friends knowing (how like David) when I heard the news on the radio like everyone else, apart from the shaft of pure sadness that shot through me like a spear at the loss of someone I had personally known, , I thought (rather selfishly on reflection) “no one will ever call me ‘Rinthy’ again”…..

Carinthia West

Carinthia West is a photographer and journalist. “The aim of showing my photographs is to give a glimpse of how we lived then. I think of it as an affectionate archive of a more innocent time. It is intended to inspire the young photographer to look around at their world and capture that fleeting moment before life moves on as it always does.”

 

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5 comments

  1. What a beautiful story and so touchingly written. Thank you so much for sharing this tiny piece of him with us.

  2. Beautiful written piece…..thankyou.

  3. What a nice story. Thanks for sharing!

  4. Thank you so much. Beautiful story from a beautiful person. Many Thanx.x

  5. One of best tributes I’ve read because it is about David. This seems obvious, but in way too many, the tributes just use David as a touhpoint to talk about themselves. It’s personal, but your focus is cear. Thank you.

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