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.

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