A Room Of My Own

July 3, 1983
Ena Kendall
Observer Colour supplement

Mike Oldfield developed a liking for tiled rooms during those overseas tours that take up a good half of any successful rock musician's year. Most of his Continental concerts take place in German-style sports halls, whose immaculate dressing rooms impressed him mightily. So when he came to design his own room he decided to have tiles not only on the walls and the floor, but also on the ceiling.

The composer of Tubular Bells, the record that pealed memorably on to the musical scene 10 years ago, lives in a gabled house near Denham in that part of Buckinghamshire whose postcard-ish village settings, convenient for the studios, featured in dozens of old British films. The beech-lined lanes hereabouts continue to lure celebrities in search of privacy, though for Mike Oldfield, moving there from Gloucestershire three years ago along with his plane, the attraction was the Denham airfield. His 12-roomed house, 140 years old, is surrounded by fields with post-and-rail fencing and an outstanding beautiful garden. His room started out as a barn, then became part of a flat and is now in its third manifestation as a composer's retreat, next to a studio filled with an array of electronics that must gladden the heart of the Electricity Board.

He had different acoustic needs in mind when he designed the room. "The far end has cork on the walls so that if I want to practise - say with acoustic guitars - the sound is warm and close. If I move into this tiled section, the sound becomes lighter and there is more echo." The ceiling, embedded with spotlights, is 'stepped' and covered with small ceramic tiles, glowing like mother-of-pearl and edged with scarlet beading whose colour picks up the bright red of the floor tiles.

Only musicians are allowed in this room. It is semi-soundproofed and has strong locks on both doors. Here he composes, sometimes working on a sophisticated, Australian made computerised musical instrument, complete with screen, piano keyboard and light-pen. But nothing can really take the sweat out of composing, and he is likely to scribble ideas on a note-pad or cigarette paper.

The 'soft' half of the room is fitted with olive green shaggy carpet. The tiled end offers more flexibility, and the Pakistani rug can be removed if more echo is needed. Oriental rugs are a passion of Mike's; he bought this one eight years ago out of royalties from Tubular Bells. The executive-style armchairs in soft black leather are recent acquisitions from the West End; the round glass table with brass trim came from a shop in neighbouring Beaconsfield. He is fond of glass tables because they give the illusion of taking up less room.

The boomerang on this table is one of a collection of eight he bought last year in Australia. He is a keen boomerang-thrower. "It takes quite a lot of practice to get them to come back, and then to catch them. But this is a hunting boomerang, not a returning one. The hunters would hurl this up into a flight of ducks or something, it would go spinning round and would be bound to knock one of them out." The smaller table holds a photograph of his daughter, Molly, aged three (he also has a son, Dougal, 18 months) and the gold "Grammy" award from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences for Tubular Bells.

He keeps three of his 25 guitars in this room, cluttered round the bronze lamp with its coloured shade, a King's Road purchase. In the Oldfield household, guitars are treated, understandably with a certain reverence. "They all have different characters," their owner said, "and are used for different purposes." The gypsy-ish looking instrument in the centre, with its scarlet glass fibre body and laminated decoration, is an electric guitar designed to plug into a theatre's public address system. The other two are vintage guitars - about the same age as Mike, born in 1953. "These are antiques now; in 100 years' time, they'll be the equivalent of Strad violins."

The large modern canvas on the wall showing an aircraft flying above thunder clouds is by Gerald Coulson, who specialises in painting warplanes. Mike Oldfield's father is a glider pilot as well as a doctor and it was through him that Mike met Coulson, who used to fly the tug planes used for pulling gliders. The painting was commissioned to commemorate a terrifying flight Mike and his musicians had once, crossing the Pyrenees in a storm. He romanticised the flight in a piece of music called "Five Miles Out".

Mike flies himself, but has switched from planes to helicopters. He kept having unpleasant experiences in his own small aircraft, like flying round and round his house not knowing whether the wheels were down because the indicator light had failed. "I had to fly over the control tower at Denham so that they could look through binoculars. Fortunately, the wheels were down." Now he flies hired helicopters from his front lawn and feels a lot happier.

Musically, too, he's changing vehicles; he has his sights set on composing for the cinema. After a big concert to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Tubular Bells at Wembley Arena on 22 July, he will start work on the music for David Puttnam's new film, "The Killing Fields"; cigarette papers are likely to be much in demand in this particular corner of Denham.

Mike Oldfield Tubular.net
Mike Oldfield Tubular.net