”I don't care what I see outside. My vision is within! Here is where the birds sing! Here is where the sky is blue!”
- 'A Room With a View'
Just as the big splash of Kate Bush returning to live performing has subsided again, the time seems ideal for a belated post about her. (I will almost certainly be late for my own funeral. In fact, if I should be there now please let me know via the mailing comments.)
'Oh England My Lionhearted', to give the song its full title, appeared on Kate Bush's second album in '78. As with many of her early songs, Bush is not thought to look back on it favourably. But at the time it not only gave the title to it's album, the lyrics got the personalised handwritten treatment while all about them were typescript. The inevitable embedded YouTube video (below) makes it look like she saved the song for her encore. At the time, it mattered to her.
In the clip Bush is sporting a pilot's uniform. For the song takes the perspective of a Spitfire pilot, shot down over Wartime London. But from there, as you might well expect from a Kate Bush song, things start to get strange...
“The soldiers soften, the war is over
The air raid shelters are blooming clover”
Highly melodic, the song lives in the juxtaposition between that kind of pastoral imagery and the knowledge of the destruction of war. Notably the Spitfire is coloured black when they were normally camouflage green. (Did they even make black Spitfires?) No matter, this blackness allows it to become the funeral barge, while the flowers and blossom of the garden of England become the garlands and wreaths which decorate it.
The reference to war being over might suggest the crashing plane has somehow time warped to somewhere the other side of VE day. Seen this way, the song revolves around the paradox of the soldier who fights for peace. Fighting a war he never wanted, he has become a sacrifice to a peace he will only ever get this glimpse of. (He's presumably been shot down during the Battle of Britain, the main air battle over London, which happened in 1940.)
And one of the appealing elements of this interpretation is that it places the bucolic dream England not in the past but the future. “Dream England” songs are virtually a sub-genre by now, but they normally overlap with state-of-the-nation songs. Think for example of June Tabor's 'Place Called England' or the Waterboys' anti-Thatcherite parable 'Old England' with it's refrain “old England is dying”.
But what about Peter Pan stealing the kids in Kensington park? Where does that fit this narrative? And yet the line does seem to match the haunting music, which Bush described as “madrigally”. All too often songwriting is talked about in terms of the writing, with scant notice paid to the fact this writing comes to us in the form of a song. Unusually for a modern song, 'Lionheart' has no real bass parts. Instead there's Bush's high-pitched voice, some high-pitched piano, a high-pitched harpsichord and even-higher pitched recorders. It's music which couldn't do more to sound ethereal, to suggest at the immaterial.
...all of which might suggest the pilot is not fast-forwarded to the future, but transported into a spirit world. Bush punned on the Fairy King name Oberon on the later track 'Cloudbursting', and things here have something of a 'Midsummer Night's Dream' feel – of another world alongside ours, separated only by a permeable membrane.
Yet that's probably not really it either. The ending makes it clear the pilot doesn't end up in this spirit world, like some pastoral happy hunting ground. He's “in your garden” but “fading fast”. He just perceives if, before being taken aloft. (The final line, with its reference to the gathering shepherd, is an unusually Christian image for Bush.)
Moreover, quite mundane images appear among the more esoteric stuff, such as the flapping umbrellas on rainy London Bridge. And take the reference to “wassailing”. These days we tend to take the term as a reference to singing carols, but she specifies the context is an apple orchard. It's the tradition of singing the fruit into bloom. Similarly the Thames is compared to Shakespeare, but described as itself a “river poet”, flowing like stanzas.
How about this? The pilot crashes in his contemporary London. He probably grew up there, the smog-ridden streets and rainy bridges over-familiar to him. But in his last few minutes of life he sees things the way they always were. To paraphrase Huxley, his doors of perception are given a bit of a wipe.
Crucially, it's not a song about passing into some pure Platonic realm where flowers smell sweeter, but about the interconnections. Notably, Bush sings about the natural and constructed landscape, the Thames and the Tower, interchangeably.
“Our thumping hearts hold the ravens in
And keep the tower from tumbling”
...is perhaps the key couplet to the song. Most tourists to London learn the popular tale - should the ravens fly away from the Tower, the building will fall and Britain with it. (These days they’re kept captive with clipped wings, so we’re probably safe.) The superstition may originally have been based on the perception that, prior to the invention of flight, climbing a tower was the nearest a human could ever get to a bird’s perspective.
But of course its continuing popularity is because it acts as a kind of a fable. Why would a mighty tower need a few birds to stay up, rather than just acting as a perch for them? Because it suggests a symbiosis between the human and natural worlds, that however big we build our towers we remain dependent on nature. The tower stands for the physical world and human body, with the ravens/ hearts as the spiritual - and each is contingent on the other.
For ultimately, its a song about the thing its made of - language. Language is not a mere labelling system for the physical world, a signifier to hang on the signified. We don't just look at the landscape, we impose language upon it, we inscribe it with meaning. The world out there enters into an inter-relationship with the world going on in our heads. Language and reality are conjoined, perhaps each is just one side of the other. (As Bush later sang, in the self-same track she punned on Oberon, “just saying it could even make it happen”.) The garden of England, the rolling landscape of patchwork fields and summer lawns we like to imagine, it mostly just exists in our imaginations. But language allows us to connect it to the real world. That's how we do it – that's how we make home into home. We just need to be reminded sometimes that's what we're doing.
Late addendum! My old mate, and knower of such things, Lee Brimmicombe-Wood, contacted me on Facebook to say there were black Spitfires. But as these weren't launched till after the Battle of Britain, where air combat became a nocturnal affair, I was sort of right. In a gormlessly literal sort of a way.