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Best of 2011: Songs of England at war

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Let England Shake, PJ HarveyWilfred Owen, the Englishman now famous for being a war poet, set the standard when in 1918 he denounced 'the old lie: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori' ('It is sweet and fitting to die for one's country' ).

Our thinking about war was changed by the experience of the First World War, men in trenches for years having to unlearn the Horatian motto, that it is not sweet and proper to die for one's country. Owen himself nevertheless went on to die bravely, unavoidably, in the last days of the War.

War and love of country are the subjects of a new collection of songs, Let England Shake by chanteuse P. J. Harvey. The album title is a warning of what is coming, the worn out language of rock music ('shake, rattle, and roll') finding new life in the dark double meaning of England at war.

As the songs progress we see that she could be singing about any war, before or after the Great War, and the present itself is very present when she sings about 'People throwing dinars / at the belly-dancers, / in a sad circus / beside a trench of burning oil.'

The title song utilises the 1950s novelty tune 'Istanbul (Not Constantinople)'. The jaunty melody does not obscure the fact that Constantinople is Istanbul because of wars over many centuries, the crucial juncture of East and West.

Harvey makes the connections with minimal artistic fuss. The original lyrics draw effortlessly from sayings, verse and popular music, as when she asks 'Smile, smile Bobby, with your lovely mouth. / Pack up your troubles, let's head out / to the fountain of death.' The singer sets up a relationship with those who have gone to war: 'some of us returned, / and some of us did not'.

It is an imaginative act that any of us makes when starting to meditate on those who are caught, and who die, in the irrational circumstances of battle, whether now or in the past. Historically this relationship was commemorated by the tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Meditation, like art, is usually a good deal removed from the world of official statements and political gestures. We are talking necessarily about personal loss and grief, about individual decisions made, and futility endured.

Rock music is not renowned for such extended meditations on war. We are used to the anti-war protest of slogan songs like 'Give Peace a Chance' or bravura pieces like 'Khe Sanh'. The challenge has always been the same since Wilfred Owen, how to avoid jingoism, how to avoid sentimentality, how to say it straight without becoming morbid, how to get at the truth without making righteous speeches. Expression can collapse in pathos.

Harvey has found her own means of dealing with the subject. The words are unremitting: 'I have seen and done things I want to forget / coming from an unearthly place.'

The music though is among the most melodic, even catchy, she has ever composed, with a huge array of instruments. Muted and discordant, driving and then fractured, it acts as a soundscape enhancement of the words, but is also subversive and ironic. Her sampling ridicules triumphalism. The form is at odds with the solemnity of a requiem, but we are made to reflect.

Istanbul was the improbable objective of Winston Churchill's Dardanelles Campaign of 1915 and three of the songs are about Gallipoli. Bolton's Ridge, Battleship Hill and other landmarks of the Anzac attack are named, but Harvey is not interested in the language of selfless heroics or the birth of young nations. Gallipoli is described as 'Death's anchorage'.

In one song an Australian remembers his dearest friend, killed in action, in terms that are realistic and laconic. The process of remembering is critical, about the only thing the soldier can take with him. Elsewhere a Gallipoli veteran tells how 'a hateful feeling still lingers / even now, 80 years later. Cruel nature has won again', while in another song there are only the small comforts 'where you rolled a smoke / or told a joke', but death was everywhere, 'in the laughter / and drinking water'.

The experience of war degrades everyone: you reach for any kind of simple self-respect. It is a process that continues today, a process that we live with and come to terms with, whether directly or indirectly.

The Dardanelles was a disaster and a minor conflict, in relative terms, to the events of the Western Front, but it is upon such 'minor' conflicts that Empires are built and sustained. For Harvey, this is very much the issue. The closure of Empire has been one of the main tasks overseen by our current monarch. Memory of past glories lives on inside the English today and these songs are also about this sense both of achievement and loss.

The songs go to the heart of a contradictory dilemma: the dichotomy of love of country on the one hand and the ugly extremes of patriotism it can engender, on the other. 'Goddam Europeans!' she sings at the start of 'The Last Living Rose', 'Take me back to beautiful England.' But the English don't fare much better than the Europeans in these songs and England, for all Harvey's love of the place, is full of 'grey, damp filthiness of ages and battered books'. She continues:

Let me walk through the stinking alleys
to the music of drunken beatings,
past the Thames River, glistening like gold
hastily sold for nothing.

It is a place of 'graveyards and dead sea-captains', the same sea-captains who opened up the Empire. The voice could be that of a soldier or sailor from any era in English history, lonely and far from home. Or we can hear it as someone now, craving the absurd contradictions of their own homeland. For ultimately contradiction is the reality these songs try to contain in their fragile words and sounds. 


Philip HarveyPhilip Harvey is Eureka Street's poetry editor and head of the Carmelite Library of Spirituality in Middle Park, Victoria. 

Topic tags: Philip Harvey, PJ Havey, Polly, Let England Shake



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Existing comments

Philip, Thank you for that interesting assessment of the songs and your thoughtful comments about our attitude to war.

Jean Sietzema-Dickson | 09 January 2012  

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