By Carolyn Skelton.
“The Colour of Earth … was dull and browny red”
P j Harvey’s the “Colour of Earth”, is an anti-war song that channels the ghostly voice of a soldier, Joey, who died fighting in an ANZAC trench at Gallipoli – his bones are left lying for two decades on a eery hill. The video positions the song within an English pastoral scene, where the sounds of the ANZAC lament overlays a dehumanised, melancholic landscape.
This song is on an album that is included in a vast array of creative works that Robert McFarlane says depict an eeire uncanny – uncanny here being both somewhat spooky, with various discordant elements that are out of place.
Spectres and ghosts are historically displaced, lurking behind present day landscapes that mix mythology and lived culture. They are exemplified by the early 20th century ghost stories of MR James. In his writing, peaceful rural locations are stripped back by some freaky binoculars that can see the brutal past lurking behind the landscape. The past is temporarily uncovered as spectres or ghosts that eerily appear and disappear – representing the continual forgetting of historical traumas and brutalities.
McFarlane argues that much of the current interest in the eerie uncanny comes from a “dissenting” left against “austerity politics”:
What is under way, across a broad spectrum of culture, is an attempt to account for the turbulence of England in the era of late capitalism. The supernatural and paranormal have always been means of figuring powers that cannot otherwise find visible expression.
The video of the P J Harvey song about a Gallipoli casualty is a dissident visualisation from the (once) imperial centre. The video begins with the band standing somewhat awkwardly and out of place, in front of green foliage, singing the song acapella. The later parts of the video visualise pastoral settings, calm and seemingly peaceful, of “England’s green and pleasant land”, but eerily empty of people :thatched cottages, cultivated woodland landscapes, farmhouses with the tools, chattels and animals of agricultural labour signify activities of the missing people. England flags hang on the farmhouse walls. The images of two men’s weathered faces appear, silently in front of the camera – out of place, and strangely very real.
ANZAC Day & historical forgetting
The dominant way of talking about Gallipoli in Aotearoa/NZ and Australia today seems very different. It’s all independent nationhood, sacrifice and fighting heroically so our country could be free. Here there is a great deal of historical amnesia. This particular instance of forgetting is compounded by historical amnesia about an earlier trauma – the brutal suppression of Māori resistance in the mid- late 19th century Waikato. Consequently, while some Māori joined the imperial forces in the European war, others were opposed to supporting the British Crown in WWI.
However, in recent weeks, beyond NZ’s mainstream media, alternative voices have been challenging the dominant portrayal of ANZAC Day. Chris Trotter for instance, explains how New Zealand went to war, not as some democratically decided vote in parliament, but by an official announcement once Britain decided to go to war:
…all the key decisions that led New Zealand into the First World War were made in London – not Wellington.
New Zealanders officially learned that they were at war with Germany and Austria-Hungary when, on 5 August 1914, the Governor of New Zealand, one Arthur William de Brito Savile Foljambe, fifth Earl of Liverpool, stood upon the steps of Parliament, in front of a crowd of 15,000 Wellingtonians,” committed NZ to support Britain in the war.
Searches on the NZ National Library’s Papers Past website, reinforces this perspective. In 1914, newspapers were the main media through which New Zealanders go their news. The telegraph was the means by which international news was transmitted quickly to NZ news media. Radio did not go fully national until the 1920s.
Prior to Britain’s declaration of war on 5 August 1914, the papers were closely monitoring developments in Europe, and the NZ government was also watching closely, and preparing to send NZ troops, once Britain declared war.
When Britain declared war, it was announced in NZ newspapers with large letters – a way of emphasising the significance in the days before more sophisticated graphics and images.
The proclamation, quoted By Trotter at the above link was met in Wellington with cheers and the singing of the (British) National Anthem.
A Poverty Bay Herald article expressed enthusiasm for New Zealanders going to war in support of the British Empire:
Germany’s overpowering’ ambition to break England’s mastery of the seas and to become Overlord of Europe was ‘bound to produce a crisis sooner or later. … The Motherland has been assured of the fullest support of all the Dominions.
An article in The Colonist gives more of a background to the outbreak of war, citing Germany’s breaking of international conventions, its violation of the independence of the “little state of Luxembourg” and then the setting in motion of a plan to go through Belgium to invade France.
The article then goes on to characterise Britain imperial power in terms we now see attributed to the US: with the (alleged) manifest destiny to protect “freedom” and peace in the world:
Her glorious traditions and her position among the nations have laid upon Great Britain: the supreme duty of interposing to thwart the realisation of Germany’s Bismarckian schemes, which, as Mr. j Balfour prophetically declared in 1912,…
The British nations will make those sacrifices cheerfully, realising that the Empire is fulfilling its destiny and that it has never unsheathed the sword in a more just and righteous cause. The hour of crisis has found the Empire united.
The war that followed was a national trauma for New Zealand and Australia. It is sobering to read the endless NZ newspaper articles listing the dead and injured – mostly young men in their teens and early twenties.
Such trauma, like the earlier ones experienced by Māori as the result of colonisation and land wars, are prone to historical forgetting – diversions, glorification, selective amnesia – because the reality is very hard to bear. And such realities return in cultural forms of eeriness, ghostliness, and spectres that appear and disappear.