Former BBC Folk awards winner, Karine Polwart releases her new album Traces on Monday (13 August) and with the record owing “a big nod of thanks and respect to the Occupy Movement, especially at St Paul’s in London, for ringing a bell that needs ringing”, she’s written us a guest column about the record’s lead single King Of Birds, the cathedral, its dome and the protest.
When the Occupy movement kicked off last year in the shadow of St Paul’s Cathedral, what struck me most was a sense of collective purpose and belief. Anger and indignation too, of course, but also something beautiful and symbolic: all those gaudy, higgledy-piggledy, soggy tents under the eye of an ornate, stoic and magnificent cathedral, and one that reeks of centuries of power, loss, hope and collective rebuilding.
Even as an atheist, St Paul’s is a genuinely awe-inspiring place. I visited it for the first time earlier this year in order to experience the sonic weirdness of The Whispering Gallery. Arriving at 8am I purchased my ticket and clambered the 257 steps until it dawned on me: you can’t whisper at yourself.
Fortunately a stout, wee cathedral security guard stood at the entry to the dome space and it quickly transpired “Terry” was only too delighted to help me. Demonstrating his technique for holding an ear against the stone he ushered me round the edge of The Dome before motioning me to stop. “Karine” he whispered, in his best Michael Caine voice, “can you ‘ear me?” Of course, I could, and just like he was right there against my cheek. It was a gorgeous wee five minute exchange between total strangers, a mere whisper in a dome.
After that, I knew I had a song in me, and I think I knew instinctively from my experiences that if I wanted to write something that connected Occupy with St Paul’s I needed to write something more akin to a secular hymn than an edgy rant. Something a little elusive, rather than an assault on the ears.
In legend, the “King of birds” is the wren. And so like a tiny fluttering bird the cathedral’s seventeenth century architect, Sir Christopher Wren, flits through the song as the core motif, and as a witness to the events that have shaped that place and its meaning to people over the years. From the modern cathedral’s origins following the Great Fire Of London, through its iconic survival of The Blitz, right up to its uneasy nestling on the London skyline alongside “the towers of smoke and mirrors” of the City, St Paul’s has represented survival and fortitude; getting up and getting on; making something better. Of course there’s much more – and much that’s less admirable – that it represents too, but I just wanted to capture a wee sliver of that optimism and leave the rest to others.
There’s a common notion that the only way to convey anything of political or social relevance in a song is to shout. And certainly, some of the most powerful songs ever written are songs of justified anger and despair.
I’m a shouter, but I believe in whispers too. King Of Birds is just a whisper, really, but lots of whispers – together – can sometimes carry a message much further than a single voice shouting.
For more on the Occupy movement, read our guest column from Rage Against The Machine’s Tom Morello, or hear more from Polwart at Karinepolwart.com.