Thursday, 2 June 2011

i bury my head in the browny-red earth

A while back I interviewed Fiona Shaw about playing Mother Courage, for a little something accompanying an essay by Tony Kushner in the Guardian. It was one of the more entertaining experiences of my working life, but also a troubling one, because she talked about Britain being at war in a matter-of-fact way that made me realise how little I thought about living in a country at war, if at all. I'm politically naive at the worst of times, but my casual ability to ignore Britain's military manoeuvrings suddenly mortified me, my thoughtlessness tantamount to a support of aggression, because it contained no protest against it.

I found myself thinking through this again on Sunday, somewhat unexpectedly in the midst of a Kitchen Revolution-style cooking session putting together a tray of moussaka, a plum crumble tart, two quiche bases, some caramelized onions, and three meals' worth of pasta sauce for the freezer, feats of domestic goddessry undermined by my failures as a parent that morning and, indeed, through the course of the long weekend. My soundtrack, on repeat, was PJ Harvey's Let England Shake. Harvey is one of those singers I've always admired, but at a slight remove: I have several of her albums, but never listen to them, not even Stories From the City, which I loved when reviewing. Let England Shake isn't nearly as friendly or accessible as I remember Stories being, but it's the album that has taken up residence beside the kitchen CD player, that compels me to play it again and again.

I'm slowly appreciating what makes it so fascinating to me: it's a folk album, its rhythms and language hewn from traditional English music, but it's a folk album that sounds absolutely of our times. Much of its modernity lies in the crafty way that Harvey weaves in quotations and samples from other songs. The most obvious – and the line I find myself unable to stop singing – is her twist on that mock-desperate line from Summertime Blues in The Words That Maketh Murder: “What if I take my problem to the United Nations?”, which she sings at first with wry, eyes-narrowed irony, becoming more furious with every repetition. But there are so many others: on Sunday, for the first time, I caught Blood and Fire coursing through Written on the Forehead, and was startled not to have noticed it before. But this is subtle music, muted and ambiguous. I uncover something new in it each time I put it on, which is exactly what you want from an album.

What I particularly discovered on Sunday morning is that Let England Shake makes me feel like I live in a country at war, almost permanently at war; a country belligerent to its core. Harvey does this not by singing about new wars or modern wars, but by singing about wars fallen from living memory in a way that makes them fiercely present: much as Brecht did with Mother Courage. Harvey's imagery is devastating in its simplicity: she sings of “England and the grey, damp filthiness of ages”, of the country “weighted down with silent dead”, of how “our land is ploughed by tanks and marching feet”, and each line fills me with the horror of recognition. This has happened and it is happening and it will happen. On and on and on.

All that killing

Ancient history

Modern history



Even that of the Titanic I read about in the paper

So many associations images I can't get into my poem

Because I'm still such a really bad poet

Because the universe rushes over me

And I didn't bother to insure myself against train wreck

Because I don't know how to take it all the way

And I'm scared.

[Blaise Cendrars, from The Prose of the Trans-Siberian and Little Jeanne of France]

I admire Harvey, but I'm also intimidated by her. She released her first album when I was in my teens and struggling to shape my identity, using music as my mould. Riot grrrl emerged at the same time and was inspiring and confusing and absorbing to me. Harvey's refusal to associate herself with riot grrrl struck me as bizarre. Where was her sympathy, her solidarity, her feminist spirit? I didn't understand. Now I have more appreciation of her formidable self-possession. She was only a few years older than me, but she already knew how to take it all the way. Nearly two decades on, I still don't.

I was that 17-year-old riot grrrl again later that evening, watching the Drew Barrymore film Whip It. Along with Miss Velvelette Actionette, I've been a bit obsessed with roller derby ever since the 'Ettes performed a benefit gig with the London Rollergirls: we'd both love to join, but we're a bit, erm, wussy to subject ourselves to all that bruising (the unlikelihood of my even remaining upright in rollerskates is a moot point). It's not a great film – the plotting is fairly conventional and predictable – but the 17-year-old in me adored it. And there were a few scenes that made the grown-up me silently cheer: seeing a rollergirl with her son; that delicious slap that Bliss gives her errant ex-boyfriend; Babe Ruthless coming in second to Iron Maven; most of all, the exquisite moment when Bliss guesses that Juliette Lewis's character is 27 and Lewis's face softens before she snaps, “I'm 36.” Drew Barrymore, I salute you.

As for the plum crumble tart, you might have thought that a crumble with a pastry base might be overkill, but you'd be wrong. The pastry was crisp and plain, the crumble soft, with a hint of ground almond and cinnamon, the plums sour-sweet, and it all got eaten far too quickly. Thank goodness the Actionettes are dancing at Duckie this Saturday: all that go-going needs fuel, you know.