Thoughts on Wind Resistance by Karine Polwart
SPOILERS (IF YOU HAVEN'T SEEN THE SHOW)
Isn’t there a way in which we are all alone inside our brains, brains whose singular purpose from birth is to recognise patterns and make links between things? And as well as seeking help in making meaningful connections between things aren’t we also programmed to seek genuine real connections out of this solitary place to other real, thinking, feeling, caring people in order to feel less alone and afraid?
The way people share their inner worlds with others varies hugely - some never do it or hardly at all. Some do it in a way that reveals something others might call madness - ie the urgent linking together of, and finding meaning in, links that to others seem mere accidents or trivial coincidences. And others share links that evidence a view of the world one just instinctively feels isn’t true or honest, or is actually plain wrong or even malevolent.
Great observational comedians do this thing where they talk about something mundane and done a thousand times and find the humour or surreality in it. Your laughter is one of recognition of truth, of something shared and confirmed, of the comedy of our everyday reality, plus an admiring recognition of “I missed that but you didn’t”.
Karine Polwart (and her collaborator Pippa Murphy) do this wonderful thing of showing us great vistas by sharing what they see when they stare at what is beneath all of our feet. By using their skill, inquisitiveness, craft and intelligence they weave a presentation of the small, the personal, and the local and by doing so they present a compelling view of two great, interconnecting and important arcs - that of human history and progress to date and that of the natural world, our relationship to it, and our effect on it.
And by telling the personal story of the central human protagonists’ journey- a couple named Will and Roberta - through a different turbulent war-riven time, a story gleaned from their daughter Molly who was Polwart’s neighbour - they make those arcs personal and real, and give a sense of both looking back at real people inside their history and how we might contemplate ourselves inside our own.
The other star of this show is Fala Moor itself. We hear from the tiniest waterboatman making shaker noises only audible if a pair of female geeks shove a hydrophone into a small pool in a peat bog not visible from the A68.
We see the different kinds of seed dug up from the archaeological site of a nearby medieval hospital run by monks and midwives, seeds from plants used for pain relief in pre-NHS childbirth.
We see in lovely back projected visuals, and hear the sound of, geese migrating and hear the sound of floorboards and bedsheets burning on a 1920s Midlothian farm’s bonfire.
We hear the story of the birth of Karine’s son Arlo and feel the sense of the frightening timeless mystery of her own body as it enters labour, and how midwives and obstetricians and epidurals helped bring Arlo safely into the world.
And this is juxtaposed with the story of Will’s beloved Roberta’s post-partum tragedy in their farmhouse with her blood soaking the floorboards, which after her death he ripped up and burnt with the bed linen. And we could hear the sound of the cracking and splitting of the burning wood through the speakers and imagine so much more.
And delightfully on the night we went to the show Arlo was in the audience, as was Roberta’s granddaughter.
This isn’t fiction.
Of course they aren’t geeks - there are carefully considered reasons they are collating these sounds and stories and showing them to us. Just looking and listening to what is there is a political act, telling the stories that get missed or forgotten, whether that of the water boatman or medieval healers and midwives, or the brutality of death in childbirth for women like Roberta with no access to modern medicine.
The connections and links you look for, see and then share is telling a story for a reason, and the skill and care in how you tell that story matters. The stories one chooses to tell is a political act, and the bigger darker stories one doesn’t mention directly but alludes to just the same is an act of political skill.
This is a week when 60,000 young people march in Warsaw chanting “clean blood” or some variation thereof. There are nativist stories afoot whose goal is mobilising people, telling them a story as if it is theirs and saying it is the one that has really been forgotten, that the connections they are making are true, the choices they must make are clear, and that they have reasons to march. These young people aren’t irretrievably lost, any more than is an otherwise marvellous young French person I know who supports Marie Le Pen - much to my shock and worry. A story is powerfully speaking to her and someone needs to counter it with different stories. One can feel there are malevolent forces pushing narratives of divisiveness, hatred, and ethnic purity, and we don’t know if we are entering a time as turbulent, bloody, and disastrous as that which Will and Roberta lived through. I fear we really may be.
There is a big complex laugh in the show, a show which has lots of laughs (some much simpler than others), when Karine mentions in passing that her beloved Fala Moor Peatbog is protected by EU legislation.
It was a rare overt nod at the changing uncertain political times we live in actually in the show, and the laugh was part recognition that there was a lot Karine wasn’t choosing to discuss, part relief that we were able to escape from the 24/7 unfiltered churn of our current affairs to this calmly curated journey into a enchanting world of migrating geese and robins with a broken wing conversing with larch trees. And also part recognition that making sense of our dark times was exactly what this show was about. That was my take on the laugh anyway!
The marvel of a Karine Polwart song has always been her skill and craft of choosing and placing words about something local or personal or everyday to make poetry and beauty, partly in the pure pleasure of the words and language itself, but also to reveal something deeper or more widely resonating. This combined with the exquisite choice of chord and cadence and melodic hook, plus her wonderful voice and calm, unassuming, very scottish delivery. And it all happening so perfectly and seemingly effortlessly to make something so richly pleasurable.
And in this show that craft is only displayed on a bigger scale, with a range of similarly skilled collaborators, with no sense at all of overreach. She shows more of herself as a performer, adding a mastery of spoken word, and unselfconscious dance-like movement, and comic timing, and the ability to hold an audience. It is very impressive.
And like a Russian doll, there is a nesting set of core metaphors, or layers of meaning, in this show centred around, and named for, migrating geese.
So a skein of migrating geese are an example of nature’s fundamental belief in socialism because of how these animals instinctively work together rotating who does the hard work of leading the V formation. The lead bird's toil creates the pockets of wind resistance reducing the workload for those flying behind, enabling them together to make incredible journeys no goose could do alone.
And inside that is the vision of two women Polwart and Murphy camping on Fala Moor and looking up at the geese and making these connections to share with us, by their work carving out of our turbulence pockets of meaning, nuance, and clarity for us to fly into.
And inside that is the history of the ecology of that Moor, and the nearby medieval hospital, and the nearby farm where Roberta died and Will and their daughter Molly lived on and the ways those stories and the research set off our present in much-needed perspective.
And inside that is us (or at least me!) sitting in the theatre, escaping from the turmoil and anxiety of the seemingly brand new instability of our world, and the fear and disorientation of recognising that many people in our world are also fearful and uncertain but are either making irreconcilably different connections and identifications to ours, or worse are being manipulated to do so. And they are almost certainly thinking the same about us....
So thank you Karine Polwart , and Pippa Murphy, David Greig and all the other skilled storytellers who contributed to this. Thankyou for sharing the content of an artist’s mind in this way. It felt rare and special.
And for once seeing inside someone else’s head is warm, magical, thought-provoking, inspiring. I found being so skilfully and gently shown these vistas of history and nature, and reminded of our place in these very long arcs, both inspiring, very moving, and somehow reassuring - despite the dark forces and powerful tides that are still there waiting when we leave the theatre.
This too will pass. There are worse times behind us. There is wisdom, constancy, gentle power, and progress in this world.
But there is much work to be done and a long journey ahead, and stories to be heard and told and passionately opposed, and we must find our own reasons to fly in formation and share that load of leading.
At the Edinburgh International Jazz Festival at Soundhouse.org stage. July 2017. DJ Dolphin Boy on decks Graeme Stephen guitar Martin Kershaw saxophone Tom Bancroft drums filmed by Betty Boop