There’s a well-known photograph of Polly Harvey showing her standing in a room which is unremarkable at first glance but somehow slightly threatening – made the more so by the large spider on a table in the foreground, pooled in the light from a lamp. It’s from early on in her career – it could be from 1991 and is certainly no later than 1992. She doesn’t look quite as skinny as she became a bit after that. I knew that the photo had been taken by a gentleman called John Miles, and that he’d used PJ as a model a few years later as well: in one image (‘Man and Woman’) he dresses her in a floaty white dress anticipating her White Chalk-era outfits, and also in a man’s black suit which hangs off her, and has her hold hands with herself in an otherworldly dance. I utilised another of the ‘spider’ photos when talking here about Polly’s first album, Dry: it must be John Miles’s, though you can’t find it attributed anywhere.
It was only very recently that I looked at Mr Miles’s website and discovered he was based in Dorset; I thought I might buy his book, Tumulus. I have to confess I gibbed a bit at the price it would have taken to import it from the publisher in the US, but found a second-hand copy on Abebooks, which turned out, when it arrived, to be ex-library stock from Dorchester, rather a nice synchronicity. There’s an independent film-maker called Sarah Miles a couple of whose productions PJH had taken part in; she plays a dangerously thin bunny girl in one, and in another, an inconclusive tale about two teenage Japanese girls who unaccountably find themselves going to school in Lyme Regis, she’s what appears to be a white-draped Japanese ghost. I’d speculated whether John Miles might be related to Sarah, and so it turned out: he’s her father. I’d wondered whether Ms Miles had met Ms Harvey at art college, but as she’s about ten years older that’s not very likely. Again, although John Miles taught at Beaminster Secondary School where Polly was a pupil, he’d left long before then, so that can’t be the connection, either. In his description of how the ‘Spider’ photo came about, he merely says that he planned to do it after his son gave him the spider in a case, and she sort of turned up at the right time, which I don’t quite believe. He says nothing at all in explanation of how David bloody Hockney is in one of the other shots.
It’s a peculiar book, it turns out. In the title photo (one of the ones Mr Miles is proudest of in his career, he says) a little girl looks mischievously – sinisterly – off to the right, the eponymous burial mound behind her, while on the left hand side is what seems to be a cupboard door with a mirror reflecting two older figures, one of them a woman whose face is obscured. There’s not much obvious Dorset material, though apparently the great majority of the photos were taken close to Mr Miles’s base in Loders – one snap of a wedding party shows Loders church, while another has a young girl framed against the toothy ruins of Sherborne Old Castle, just poking over the grass behind her head. The tumulus itself could be anywhere, really. A lot of the photos are collages, compiled from multiple exposures; many have an unsettlingly dark humour to them, and in most you have no idea what might be going on. The Loders wedding is possibly the only one that’s pure reportage, recording a fleeting moment in local life. Or is it? Having looked through the others you become increasingly unsure of anything. Given that the images in this collection were taken over a long while, you start to wonder whether this adult is the same as this child with the addition of 15 to 20 years. It’s a world recognisably our own, yet skewed and unfamiliar: morbid would not be an unreasonable word. Mr Miles favours locations which increase the sense of breakdown in normality, rubbish-strewn sheds, unkempt rooms, barns with holes in walls and roofs – the Other Dorset, maybe, the world behind the mirror. Ms H seems at home here.
In this interview with fellow photographer Robin Mills, John Miles describes how he set up the Bettiscombe Press in the late 1960s with Michael Pinney, who he found ‘having a firework party in my back garden’. Mr Pinney was the owner of Bettiscombe Manor, home of the infamous Screaming Skull of Bettiscombe which is beloved of every book on Dorset folklore you can cite. The Press was designed to ‘publish work in the way the artist would like it to be published’ (a very Harveyan sentiment) and produced a series of small-run books of poetry, photography and art in the early 1970s, some of which you can pick up quite cheaply, while others are a little more exclusive, prices edging towards £2 a page. I’m quite intrigued by Michael Pinney’s own book, Clothes in a Museum; his wife Betty’s elaborate doll’s house – a work of art in its own right – is in the collection of the Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood.
Just as a final little aside, that interview with John Miles appeared in the independent West Dorset magazine Marshwood Vale, another of whose contributors is Clive Stafford-Smith – Shaker Aamer’s lawyer who also did a piece about the County Hospital at Dorchester for PJH’s notorious edition of the Today programme in 2014. Dorset mafia ahoy.