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Best of 2011: Songs of England at war

  • 05 January 2012

Wilfred 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