Sunday, 23 October 2016

Talking the Lingo

'I'd like you to have a word with Mike,' said the email from my colleague, 'who is trying to discern the Lord's hand upon his life.'

I felt like replying 'Do you mean, "he's trying to work out what God wants him to do?" ' but I am rather fond of my correspondent and thought that would be a bit snarky. But I do hope nobody falls into this sort of language when speaking to real people, as opposed to just clergy.

Saturday, 22 October 2016

A Journey with a Singer, Part 6: 'Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea' (2000)

More nonsense is talked about Stories than any other bit of PJH’s output. It was her ‘New York’ album, it was her discovery of optimism and contentment after years of misery. It’s true that she said she wanted it to be ‘sumptuous’, ‘lovely’, and ‘beautiful’, and the music was much more conventional than any of her work thereto. It’s true, also, that it’s still, far and away, her most commercially successful recording. But close listening reveals how, beneath that, it’s deeply conflicted and ambiguous, asking, over and over again, whether love is really enough to counter the horrors of existence, and never reaching a clear answer.

At the time I didn’t really give Stories the benefit of a close listening. I was too much biased by all the ludicrous pre-publicity which seemed to be intent on crowing about Polly’s new-found ‘normality’, which, it would turn out, was as much of a mask as any of her other guises. A mainstream music world was rejoicing in the apparent capitulation of one of its sharpest thorns-in-the-side. I also found Thom Yorke of Radiohead’s presence on ‘This Mess We’re In’ entirely troubling, as I’d concluded from the example of Kate Bush’s The Red Shoes some years before that getting your famous chums to perform on your records is a sign of impending creative exhaustion (PJ fans like to praise the demo version of this track which only has her voice on it). I could tell that Stories was beautiful, and I could thoroughly enjoy some of the pieces, not least the way ‘This Wicked Tongue’ hurls bitter accusations against God and yet locates existential conflict inside as well; but the album’s subtleties would pass me by until much later. At the time it felt rather as though we were on the brink of losing a fellow trenchmate in the war for truth and beauty. I wouldn’t have been at all surprised if she’d decided to go out on a high note and hang up her guitar afterwards. I was, of course, and thankfully, very, very wrong – although, as it transpired, the guitar’s days were indeed numbered.

[The picture is the one Harvey and Maria Mochnacz suggested as the cover for the record. Had Island Records agreed, I wonder whether all the reviewers would have taken the view of it they did. In the event, as we know, Island threw up their hands in horror, and Harvey & Mochnacz sent instead a snap of the singer in New York which they contemptuously described as 'Posh Spice out shopping' - and so the die was cast ...]

Friday, 21 October 2016

This Hasn't Gone Away

Loathe the Brexiteers as I do (and especially the smug, arrogant, deluded fantasists on the Tory backbenches who seem to think that the rest of the world will give Britain whatever it wants simply because we’re so brilliant), I can’t join in with the desperate hope that the Referendum is going to be reversed. I know people make themselves feel better by sharing stories suggesting that might be a possibility (and perhaps it is); but simply overturning what happened in June won’t make the divisions in this country go away. A great part of the population of the UK has felt ignored and marginalised and has expressed that in pathological ways, and some of them will have been my parishioners who I have a responsibility for: those opinions won’t magically dissipate if we somehow stay in the EU after all, and in fact may well intensify as the poor (mainly) have their wishes trampled over by the well-off yet again, and are told once more that they are ignorant and unacceptable. We have a problem, a problem which isn’t essentially to do with the EU. Even behind what seems to be brutal and nasty opposition to ‘immigrants’ lies genuine resentment about change, inequality and powerlessness. We still need to deal with this, don’t we? The only alternative is just force, that one side ‘wins’ and enforces what it wants. Is that really the way forward? The Civil War option? And if it is, what do people who think of themselves as ‘liberal’ make of it?

If the vote does get reversed, it won’t be any kind of triumph. The defeat has already happened. I still haven't worked out what, as rector of Swanvale Halt, I might do to mitigate it.

Thursday, 20 October 2016

A Journey with a Singer, part 5: Is This Desire? (1998)

By 1998 I was working at Wycombe, settled and secure and in a much more stable state than I had been when Polly Harvey first came my way. As the time came to release her next album she claimed in interviews to be a lot happier, too, not that when Is This Desire? finally emerged there was much sign of it. The record marked a new departure into electronic sound, and a different texture of (mainly) dreamy, blurred-edged images and scenarios which seemed to slip past the listener one after another, but underlying it all was the same focus on the malign and uncomfortable, occasionally lapsing into the old violence. But what struck me most powerfully was one of the quieter, most intricate tracks: the third, ‘The Wind’.

On my bookshelf now there is a framed postcard of St Catherine’s Chapel at Abbotsbury. We’ve been going there since I was little: my mum sent me the postcard in 1991 when I was at college, and when Polly was just strumming her guitar for the first time as an independent artist having left John Parish’s band to set up her own, and nobody outside her immediate circle had heard of her. That place meant something undefinable and deep to me, as did, strangely even before I was a Christian, the saint to whom it was dedicated. In my old university notes there are scattered Latin lyrics to blessed Catherine of the Wheel, copied from obscure works on liturgy and medieval poetry. Why her? My spiritual director asked me that, and I don’t really know. Something to do with her bloody legend (which isn’t that bloody at all compared to some virgin martyrs), her strength, her intelligence – a big part of the story – and that brooding chapel on the hilltop above the chill of Chesil Beach, in some ways my spiritual home.

So I listened to ‘The Wind’ – a low blush of synthesisers, and then, the devastating, whispered voice: ‘Catherine liked high places, high up on the hills’. The hair on the back of my neck prickled, and still does. ‘She built herself a chapel – with her image – her image on the wall’. Could it be true? This person who meant so much to me, singing about this place that meant so much to me, and this figure (albeit turning that figure imaginatively inside-out)? It couldn’t be otherwise, could it? Could I have got it wrong?

Of course I hadn’t. The chapel has found its way into Polly’s art; she mentions it to journalists who have come to Dorset to smoke her out (as she does St Catherine – ‘patron saint of spinsters’, she remarks deliberately); she visits it, as I do when I can. Obviously it’s nothing special: it’s merely that two disparate people have developed the same kind of relationship with the same landscape and the charismatic features within it. It’s no surprise, and I’m hardly alone: twenty years later, that landscape is now bound inseparably to the lyrics of ‘The Wind’, for everyone from Goth novelists (Miss Gish, look her up) to the Dorset tourist board. So I tell myself, at least, to keep my head.

Naturally I enjoyed the rest of the album, too.

Rising to the Challenge

Something actually churchy to vary the current diet.

Hornington Junior School, unlike Swanvale Halt Infants, is not a Church school and so our links with it are much more tenuous. I never assume that I have a right, as such, even to go into the Infants School, and there is always the possibility that the head teacher might eventually decide I am an idiot and not want me around. So my sense of being granted a privilege is even stronger on the rare occasions that I’m invited into Hornington Junior: lots of our Swanvale Halt children progress there when they leave the infants, and it’s good to be able to meet them again.

Year 3 were asking ‘What do Christians think God is like?’ in their RE class, and as their class teacher is an agnostic she decided to ask us whether we might come in and talk to the children. I put together a little presentation about how the ancient peoples knew what their gods looked like because they made statues of them (the children had recently been studying ancient Egypt so they gleefully recognised Anubis and Horus), but the Israelites believed there was only one god and that he didn’t look like anything at all, that he was everywhere all the time. We talked about the difference between answering the question ‘what is X like?’ by referring to appearance or to character (not in such terms, for 7/8-year-olds), Moses and the burning bush, the Psalms, and how meeting Jesus had changed people’s minds about what God was ‘like’. I showed them pictures showing how people had tried to imagine the Holy Trinity and said that if they were a bit confused by that idea they weren’t the only ones.

Finally I tried introducing RS Thomas (having tried Dante for six-year-olds back in Lamford, this seemed no more ambitious). ‘He says “God is the footprints on the shore” … what do you think he might have meant by that?’ I asked. Frankie, whose family are fairly regular congregants at Swanvale Halt, put up his hand. ‘I think he meant’, he said, ‘that God is always there but we can never quite see him.’ It couldn’t get any better than that, could it?

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

A Journey with a Singer, Part 4: Dance Hall at Louse Point (1996)

After the huge success of To Bring You My Love, Polly reacted rather typically by doing something defiantly uncommercial, something that without that success under her belt she’d never have got away with. Her collaboration with her friend John Parish imagined an end-of-the-line sort of place where lost souls gathered to relate their melancholy memories against some strikingly avant-garde musical and vocal accompaniment. Her determination not to market the record as ‘a PJ Harvey album’ meant it slipped past a lot of people, including me. I found out about it from my friends Sadie and David, who’d shared that astonishing night in the Chatham flat, and who went to see it performed, with a dance company, in Oxford, a show that left most critics bemused. When I got around to hearing it, I found Louse Point hard going, although with the passage of time I’ve come to realise how clever and interesting it is (that would be the case with Harvey and Parish’s next collaboration 13 years later, too). There was no missing the dark glee of the piece though, not when it included such songs as ‘Taut’, in which Polly hisses maniacally in character ‘Even the Son of God had to die, my darling!’, more than once.

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

A Journey with a Singer, Part 3: To Bring You My Love (1995)

Around these years I was first identifying myself as both a ‘person of Gothic sensibility’ and as a Christian: I was confirmed in May 1995. Not unnaturally I looked around for kindred souls who might give expression to similar interests. That sort of combination was there in Diamanda Galás, it was there (mildly as far as religion was concerned) in Siouxsie Sioux, it was there in Nick Cave whose music I’d been introduced to by a university friend five years before. I wasn’t sure the punky, aggressive Ms Harvey quite belonged in that company, though I would have been very pleased to think she did.

The Banshees’ final album, The Rapture, came out early on in 1995, followed within a month by To Bring You My Love. It was a complete, gorgeous shock, as though the baton had been handed on. Harvey had – not for the last time – almost completely reinvented her musical approach, having ditched her band and producing a silken, velvety record which exchanged rage for sorrow and anguish, a soaking swamp-blues soundscape that, as if to confirm everything I so wanted to be true, was drenched in Gothic and smoked dry again in a desperate, deathbed religiosity. ‘I’ve lain with the Devil, cursed God above’, Polly growled on the title track: Well, haven’t we all one way or another, I thought. ‘He came dressed in black with a cross bearing my name’, she moaned on ‘The Dancer’, and the overwrought, luscious melodramatics made me fall apart a little inside. It was everything I could possibly have wanted it to be, and I felt like swooning whenever I listened. This was the baleful soundtrack to my heart (or a part of it).

A few months later I and two visiting friends were sat in my flat in Chatham watching my ridiculous tiny black-and-white TV: a late-night music show, I can’t recall what. We looked on open-mouthed as PJ Harvey and Nick Cave duetted on ‘Henry Lee’, coiling round each other as they crooned about vengeance and murder. Oh, come on. What was happening? Was she somehow psychically following a script that we were all writing for her?

Of course it didn’t last, and that pitch-perfect Polly-and-Nick haute Gothique coupling was over within months, very much not fun for either of them. What remained was the sense that we were all part of this uncanny community of feeling that was locked together by what she was doing. But she wasn’t going to be contained by our expectations: she had other places to go, and it was up to us whether or not we followed.