The Glorious Land Polly Harvey release from April 2011 is a compact poetic view of the United States of America. Or is it England? Or both? The song proceeds in call and response where Polly is the caller and Polly is the responder –
How is our glorious country ploughed.
Not by iron ploughs.
Our land is ploughed by tanks and feet.
Modern English war poetry – this time subject the Afghan war. Some of the lines are based on extracts from Russian folk songs.
She makes a link to England as the mother country – and as with the British Empire and its Imperial Power and Overpower and Overburden and Overspend so goes its most splendid, prosperous, courted, envied and feared child ‘America’.
The music accompanies this with faint recurrent bugling of the Regimental March and an acoustic light electric accompaniment again too with the rare autoharp of which she strums and wails. There is also a sample of The Police’s shuffling beat ‘The Beds Too Big Without You’ song of many decades past. Though I have listened to both the sampler and sampled song numerous times and struggle to hear the one in the other.
Nearly five minutes in length it is several minutes before Polly Harvey sings the opening salvo of The Glorious Land.
The video for The Glorious Land commences with an autumnal tree and ends with it Wintered intervened with other unfolding English rural scenes cut against shots of Polly Harvey rehearsing the song. Also entrenched are soldiers preparatory battle scenes.
Polly believes that what makes the USA what it is is not its Protestant work ethic but its Protestant war ethic – not the toiling of its land but the military adventurism in lands of other peoples – not of its working people but its ruling elites – elected politicians and unelected advisors; and other high-salaried members of this crony family – Wall Street, the military industrial complex, the compliant cheerleading media and judiciary. That war not peace drives the USA. And bemoans this fact ‘Oh America, Oh England’. England because America is its child – and where she traipsed before it they now traipse again. But then too as the child follows the parent so the parent follows the child intimately umbilically bound, the special relationship sending both in tipsy lockstep after each other.
But then perhaps England is more her focus that the USA – as she always sings of ‘our’ not ‘your’ – ‘What is the glorious fruit of our land’ – and Polly is a Cornish daughter. So perhaps indeed it is England that is primarily chastised (and notably not Britain with its Parliament, Financial Markets, Media Hub all resident in England, all in London indeed – we Scots and other Northern Britain’s innocent passengers of it all – and the cry of ‘America’ is because they are our offspring ‘Its deformed children’, ‘It’s orphaned children’.
These sentiments are also echoed by English war poets like TS Eliot and Wilfred Owen and Polly Harvey herself specifically cites Harold Pinter and like them all Polly Harvey is taking some poetic license. The sweat of our land not blood and tears is still contemporary but also less prevalent – the sweat of our land today is much more urban than rural, industrial than agricultural. Even heavy industry itself is taking a lesser role to the softer industry of our information age.
The military adventurism itself does still avail if less traditional defending of our physical borders from country-enemies instead from individual and collective terrorist groups and imagined and rhetoricised intellectual frontiers – overturning of dictatorships in far of lands that we believe are a threat less directly to our lives and liberties and to the lives and liberties of the inhabitants of those lands and our allies that neighbour them than to our commercial interests.
That Russian folk songs are sampled too merely reminds that imperial powers wherever they are in space and time put their own prosperity in peril with their over-reaching hands.
And here we are today and the US Debt Ceiling is a climbing and both the USA and England awash in credit, overcome by debt and the solutions from the Conservatives to reduce spending (to the poor and the many) and from the Liberals (or Sky Blue Conservatives) to do the same but also raise taxes (to the very rich and few) but no mention from either of cutting back the huge expenditure on the military both at home and overseas and which makes up most of the deficit spend.
An unnecessary hubris – the USA is mighty and wealthy – it need not flex its muscles so – but it continues to do so and who does it make weak and impoverish in so doing? Itself. Living and warring beyond its means – England too the country equivalent of trying to keep up with the Joneses by borrowing to the hilt and punching above its weight – and not borrowing so much for development of its infrastructure and in jobs – not ‘in ploughs’ but ‘in tanks’.
So though I quibble, the gist continues to ring true – the priorities are still to militarism, still to ‘War War’ not ‘Jaw Jaw’ – and pride comes before the fall, of empire – that itself the USA could learn from its ancient parent.
So yes Polly Harvey nails it. Her poetic words nail this delirious animal spirit to the wall.
- Mercury rising for Tom, Tinie, Anna, Polly… and Sir John (independent.co.uk)
- PJ Harvey Posts Her Final ‘Let England Shake’ Video (informalflick.wordpress.com)