Thursday, 10 February 2011

PJ Harvey, TS Eliot and Paul Nash in Dorset

Listening to PJ Harvey on the radio the other night I felt homesick for Dorset. Billy Bragg may have chosen to live in Burton Bradstock but Harvey is Dorset born and bred; I went to nursery school in Wimborne with kids who talked like her, though they were a lot less articulate. Listening to her I wanted to jump in the car and drive to Worth Matravers, have a pint of cider at The Square and Compass and then walk down the green terraced valley to the sea.

This most extraordinary of singers was plugging her new album, 'Let England Shake'. In tone it follows on from her previous outing, 'White Chalk' (2007), which is as fragile and haunted as Nick Drake's 'Pink Moon' (1972). You never get the impression, however, that Harvey is a danger to herself or others. She's an explorer, and in recent years - with the global success of previous records no doubt keeping her bank balance healthy - she's been busily exploring both the limits of her vocal range and her feelings about her homeland.
     White chalk hills are all I've known
     White chalk hills will rot my bones
The new record is much broader in scope and more sophisticated than 'White Chalk'. To her interviewer she gave a rather exhausting list of things she'd read and watched for research, among them the complete films of Stanley Kubrick, and the poetry of TS Eliot. He wrote in 'The Wasteland':
     If there were only water amongst the rock
     Dead mountain mouth of carious teeth that cannot spit
And Harvey in her song 'On Battleship Hill', which is about the disastrous Gallipoli Campaign of World War One, refers to:
      Jagged mountains jutting out
      Cracked like teeth in a rotting mouth

I would love to hear PJ Harvey sing her way through 'The Wasteland'. As well as the linguistic echoes ('the Thames river, glistening like gold'), the dystopian beauty of 'Let England Shake' reminds me of Eliot's poem, which was written during another period of international turmoil. In 'The Last Living Rose' she sings:
     Take me back to beautiful England 
     And the great and filthy mess and ages 
     And battered books and fog rolling down behind the mountains 
     And on the graveyards and dead sea captains
Harvey has the ability (as Eliot did) to make one shiver simultaneously with dread and pleasure.

We shouldn't be surprised to find such a poetic voice coming from Dorset, a hard land and the home county of Thomas Hardy and William Barnes. It was also a favourite haunt of Paul Nash, an artist who thought long and hard about Englishness, and in the process created a unique body of work in which he explored the theories and ideas of the day within and across the landscapes he knew and loved. Nash edited the 'Shell Guide to Dorset', in which he drew attention to the county's dramatic scenery and ancient sites.

He was particularly keen on the seaside town of Swanage, which he branded in the mid-30s a Surrealist town on account of its combination of 'beauty, ugliness and the power to disquiet.' In an effort to express what he felt about the town, he made collages of disparate objects. But he also left for posterity beautiful paintings of the Dorset landscape; when I look at his painting of Worth Matravers I hear PJ Harvey singing about her white chalk hills...

1 comment:

  1. Worth mentioning that the rotten teeth in the Waste Land and those in Let England Shake are more than just vaguely similar images. Eliot's closest friend Jean Verdenal died at Gallipoli []. And James Miller has interpreted many passages of the Waste Land as referring to Eliot and Verdenal's relationship, and to Verdandal's death. So the teeth my well refer to the same mountains in both works.