Just before noon on a recent Monday, a queue stretched from the doors of Conway Hall, the central London home of the Ethical Society. The 400 or so people awaited an unusual pairing: PJ Harvey, one of our most enigmatic musicians, in conversation with Frank Skinner, one of our most familiar comedians.
Harvey – the only artist to have won the Mercury Prize twice, for her albums Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea (2000) and Let England Shake (2011) – was born in Dorset in 1969. The West Country is the setting for her narrative poem, Orlam, a folkloric coming-of-age story and her second poetry book. Harvey, who wore an embroidered dress and heeled, white, lace-up boots, read aloud from the book, which she wrote in the rural Dorset dialect. “This is how the wordle is” – this is how the world turns – she sang, lullaby-like, over a rugged, ambient score that she had composed.
Harvey and Skinner then discussed Orlam. In the eight years it took her to write the book, Harvey studied William Barnes’s 1867 Glossary of the Dorset Dialect. Many of the words, she said, were familiar to her: she remembered the older people in the village where she grew up using them. Skinner noted how apt so many of the terms are – such as “bard” for bird – and revelled in the poem’s lessons on the natural world. “Do rooks really kill newborn lambs by scooping their eyeballs out first?” he asked. Harvey assured him that they do.
They compared superstitions. Skinner showed Harvey how best to salute a magpie, and she told him that one should not eat blackberries after September: “the devil spits on them”. It is only relatively recently that folklore has stopped being an everyday part of English life. Today, a preoccupation with such local traditions is deemed eccentric. What a joy it is, Harvey said, to bask in the transcendent in a world that too often leaves it out.
“Orlam” by PJ Harvey is published by Picador
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This article appears in the 09 Nov 2022 issue of the New Statesman, On the brink