LIVE REVIEW: PJ Harvey @ Fire Station, Sunderland (27.10.22) | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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When you’re as far from home as I am, any chance to hear The Best Of All Possible Accents live is a delight. When it’s Polly Harvey, Dorset’s greatest export, reading and discussing her recent book of poetry, Orlam, well – wild horses etc etc. I did worry that a nearly-full Fire Station full of Geordies, Mackems and the rest would struggle with a reading of the first Dorset dialect poetry to be written in decades, but Harvey had kindly provided a projection of the words in regular English for the back of the stage, adorned with some of her simple, gorgeous drawings from the book.

Orlam is an astonishing piece of work: no rockstar dilettantism, this, but an eight-year project using archaic rural dialect to tell the coming-of-age story of a nine-year old, Ira-Abel Rawles, set in a landscape that is equal parts rural Dorset and somewhere more liminal, more magickal. It’s dark and enchanted and bawdy and alarming and often very funny, and it called to mind nothing so much as Max Porter’s Lanny. Harvey read a selection of the poems (that in the book take place across a whole year) in a vivid and lusty manner, foreboding or playful as the words required. The dialect is rich and warm and deeply onomatopoeic and sounded wonderful. 

Sandwiched between the two sets of readings, there was a brief Q&A with poet and collaborator Sean O’Brien that felt a little stilted, but which among other things demonstrated quite how immersed in the project Harvey was. She had even recorded a subtle soundscape of field recordings and such to accompany the readings, although her voice unadorned would have been plenty. There was a sense the evening could have been longer – I could have spent days in that world, in that voice – but it was excellent nonetheless. Like my old school song has it, “Dorset is beautiful where ever you go”.

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