Dr. Natalia Nowakowska is a Tutor & Lecturer in Early Modern History at Somerville College, University of Oxford.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Landscape, Memory and the Mercury

Last night (don’t ask how) I ended up with a ticket to the sort of event Oxford dons don’t find themselves at all that often, the Barclaycard Mercury Music Awards. This is a big annual shin-dig for the UK music industry, where the best album of the year is announced in the massively crowded Great Room of the Grosvenor House hotel on Park Lane. It made even Christ Church hall at full capacity look rather small.

The 12 albums nominated for the award were very varied – from the Fife folk singers King Creosote and Jon Hopkins, to the hiphop singer Ghostpoet, to the jazz pianist Gwilym Simcock. I was very much struck by how many of them took as their themes the British landscape and, indeed, British history. My Somerville English colleague, Professor Fiona Stafford, has recently written a prize-winning study of the sense of place in English poetry, Local Attachments: the Province of Poetry. There was an acute sense of place in these music albums too – in Metronomy’s electro-pop hymn of praise to Devon (The English Riviera), King Creosote and Jon Hopkins quite meditations on coastal villages of Fife in Diamond Mine, in Elbow’s recollections of their Manchester childhoods in Build a Rocket Boys!

But these songs aren’t just about an English or Scottish physical landscape, but also about nostalgia and a British sense of past. Diamond Mine includes field recordings of Fife oral history as part of the album, and the most historically-conscious album of all, PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake, was in fact the winner. Harvey’s bold album is a meditation on English identity as expressed (this is my reading, at least!) through the experience of English military interventions abroad – it’s about WWI as much as it’s about present-day Afghanistan. Harvey recorded the album in a 19C Dorset church, but apparently spent months researching British military history, reading up on the Gallipoli campaign of 1915… So it was fantastic to see such careful readings of history married to cutting edge, and indeed prize-winning, forms of cultural expression.

1 comment:

  1. How strange! I shall have to get Ms Harvey's latest. I wonder if she's been talking to Motörhead :-)