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P.J. Harvey, singer turned poet

A novel birthday celebration at the Southbank Centre in London

Hazel Sheffield | October 20th 2015

P.J. Harvey recently celebrated her 46th birthday. But she did not have a quiet meal with friends, or go for a walk on the beach at home in Bridport, Dorset, and look at the stars. She did something she has never done in more than 25 years as a professional musician: she stood onstage at the Southbank Centre in London and recited her own poetry.

In flat, devastated tones, she read from “The Ministry of Social Affairs”, a poem about Afghanistan: “There must be something in the air/there is fighting everywhere.” When it was done she strapped on her guitar and played the same poem as a bludgeoning rock song, replacing fear with fury. Harvey’s poems have just been published by Bloomsbury in a collection called “The Hollow of the Hand” alongside photography by Seamus Murphy. Over two nights at the London Literary Festival they presented poems, photos and ten new songs that will become P.J. Harvey’s next album.

Murphy and Harvey last worked together on 12 videos to accompany her album “Let England Shake” (2011), which explored the grey filthiness of England, its dead sea captains, bloody battlefields and orphaned children. For this new project, she was on his turf, travelling to the places he documents as a war photographer. They visited a monastery in Kosovo to return icons to Serbian monks who had fled ethnic cleansing at the hands of the Albanians. They took tea with locals in Afghanistan, where Harvey wrote poems about the street life she had seen from taxi windows. In Washington, DC, they visited the deprived neighbourhood of Anacostia and met gangs hanging out in cars in parking lots, whiling away time.

“I was worried about the project,” Murphy confessed onstage at the Southbank Centre. “I certainly didn’t want to be the one to get P.J. hurt.” Harvey, though tiny, looked the very opposite of vulnerable. She sat spread-legged on a piano stool behind a mellotron, a kind of keyboard from the 1960s that plays tape loops, her huge black boots stomping out the beat during songs.

Murphy’s photography, spanning the length of his career, showed the true devastation of war. One black-and-white image showed a torso in the sand, the victim on his back with his hand upturned, an abandoned truck in the background. “The word airstrike sounds quite clinical, but this is the reality of it,” Murphy explained. “The bodies are always naked because during a blast, the clothes get blown right off.”

“Children bring us tea and bread,” Harvey remembered of the same visit, in her poem “Guest Room”. “I hope that we know when to leave.” She could have been talking about the allied forces in Afghanistan, or she could have been talking about Murphy and their entourage. Her monotone left it up to the listener to decide.

It was a lot to cram into an evening. By the time they started on the work from Washington, DC, some of the impact of the poverty that exists among the city’s marble monuments had been eclipsed by what had gone before. It was striking how little self-consciousness Murphy and Harvey displayed, dealing with these disparate conflicts in one project. It felt like each photograph and every poem required the same unyielding eye, the same engagement with horrible truths, no matter where they went. For P.J. Harvey, that’s a commitment that has got stronger as she has grown older.

The Hollow of the Hand Out now from Bloomsbury

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