I was never a mad David Bowie fan, though I liked his music and admired his creative genius. Anyone who saw him perform live or saw the show of his designs at the V&A a couple of years ago couldn’t doubt that.
But after the announcement of his sad death at the age of sixty-nine, I’ve realised something about him that I think is really wonderful – that he epitomises fundamental aspects of what (I hope) it is to be British.
To millions of people across the world over decades he gave people the confidence to be different, odd and quirky. He gave people confidence about their strange and original thought. He gave people confidence to see the world differently – through music, art and even their own sex and sexuality.
He gave people – perhaps men particularly – confidence to break out of the constraints of gender and express the ambiguous nature of their sex and sexuality through performance, dress and make-up.
I think therefore, he helped us appreciate some fundamental values we now take for granted – particularly the values we now share about gender, sexuality, identity and the right to musical and artistic expression.
That’s the nature of values in a free society – particularly those like individual liberty and tolerance – we soon take them for granted and forget where they came from and who fought to establish them for the rest of us.
But the individual liberty and tolerance we take for granted around artistic expression is extremely fragile – you only have to go back as recently Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union to realise that. And how long do you think someone like David Bowie would last under the so-called ‘Islamic State’?
In my view, David Bowie gave us something every bit as valuable as democracy and the rule of law.
He gave us the right to be ourselves and to live and let live – as unique, strange and odd a concept as that may be or may appear – and that is individual liberty and tolerance of the deepest and most fundamental kind. And (I hope) if that’s not being British, then I don’t know what is.
Alan Newland worked as a teacher, teacher-trainer and headteacher in London for over 20 years and then for a decade with the DfE and the GTC. He now lectures on teaching professionalism and runs the award-winning social media network newteacherstalk. You can follow him on Twitter at @newteacherstalk and book him for a talk. His book “Working in Teaching” (Crimson Publishing) was published in March 2014.