So Polly Jean Harvey sang a year ago on the Andrew Marr Show, accompanied by a strange stringed instrument and a looped sample of "Istanbul, Not Constantinople," her boa and hairdress suggesting a raven (leaving the tower?) while fellow guest Prime Minister Gordon Brown looked on. At the time Nick Clegg was "soaring" in the polls, Brown was calling voters "bigoted," and people weren't so sure about David Cameron and his friends. But soon the election results were in, Brown was out, and Britain had its first coalition government since the Second World War and its first government involving the Liberals since the Great War. Then came austerity.
Harvey's excellent new album Let England Shake was released a few months ago, and it's my favorite of the young decade (though the Arcade Fire and LCD Soundsystem albums from last year give it a run for its money). Written on an autoharp, it has a more ethereal sound than her punkish early work, it is catchy, accessible, poetic and interesting. The songs are about her native England and about war. Several songs refer to the failure at Gallipoli in 1916, others more generally to the trenches and battles of the Great War. "Written On the Forehead" is about Iraq. Harvey commissioned photographer Seamus Murphy to make short films in England for each song. Harvey explained the reading and research into conflict that preceded the recording of the album ("I was wanting to show the way that history repeats itself, and so in some ways it doesn't matter what time it was, because the endless cycle goes on and on and on... I started wondering where the officially appointed war songwriter was. You have got your war artists, like Steve McQueen, and your war photographers. I fantasized that I had been appointed this official songwriter and so I almost took on that challenge for myself,") and the Imperial War Museum offered to make her an official war song correspondent.
"Goddamn Europeans, take me back to beautiful England, and the grey, damp filthiness of ages and battered books and fog rolling down behind the mountains on the graveyards and dead sea-captains..."
Following Polly's advice, I returned to London, the center of the world, earlier this month after an eight year absence. When I studied there in college, Tony Blair took the United Kingdom into George W. Bush's Iraq War. I watched Bush, Blair, Jose Manuel Barroso and Jose Maria Aznar give Saddam Hussein their demands from the Azores. I marched through Hyde Park in the biggest war protest in decades. I was in Amsterdam on a field trip when the bombs started falling and I had never been more ashamed of my country. In April 2011, Tony Blair is long gone, his candidacy for President of the European Council laughed off the stage (though Barroso rules the Commission blocks away from where I live in Brussels). London had just seen the biggest protests since eight years ago, however, against the coalition government's austerity measures, breaking into small riots. Trafalgar Square had been cleaned up nicely, though. I arrived during a spell of lovely warm weather and there wasn't much of a hint that anything was wrong in England. Indeed, the tea towels had been printed for the April 29 royal wedding.
I enjoyed the Imperial War Museum, which is really worth an afternoon next time you're in London. But Harvey's album is timely, the present moment reminds you that Britain's glory is past, even as cosmopolitan London still feels like the center of the world. The United Kingdom is slowly but surely drifting apart into its constituent nations. Cameron, along with Nicolas Sarkozy, led Barack Obama into a "kinetic military action" in Libya, but within a few days Britain had used up a huge chunk of its missile stockpile. The government had to reconsider its defense budget cuts. The Arab Spring generally represents a crack-up of the mostly British-imposed post-Great War, post-Ottoman order of the Middle East (the shaping of which is excellently described in David Fromkin's A Peace to End All Peace, which I just read). Eight Arab royals, mostly from countries with long and close relationships to London, are attending William and Kate's wedding but the crown prince of Bahrain is staying away to avoid protests as the future of the house of Khalifa is threatened by protests. A relatively modern Gulf state - the first to diversify its economy away from energy - has fallen under martial law because killing its people is the only way for its 18th century monarchy to stay in power.
The Economist's Bagehot columnist last week took the occasion of the royal wedding to suggest a republic to prevent further class-based nastiness in England. Timothy Garton Ash admits that the monarchy doesn't work in democratic theory but has a heritage value, he asks if we'd prefer a President Blair in Buckingham Palace and points out rightly that "Rupert Murdoch is a far greater threat to British democracy than our hereditary head of state." There are probably decades to go before these bright young things take the throne as King William V and Queen Catherine. The forecast in London tomorrow is cloudy with a chance of rain.