In the latest issue:

Real Men Go to Tehran

Adam Shatz

What Trump doesn’t know about Iran

Patrick Cockburn

Kaiser Karl V

Thomas Penn

The Hostile Environment

Catherine Hall

Social Mobilities

Adam Swift

Short Cuts: So much for England

Tariq Ali

What the jihadis left behind

Nelly Lahoud

Ray Strachey

Francesca Wade

C.J. Sansom

Malcolm Gaskill

At the British Museum: ‘Troy: Myth and Reality’

James Davidson

Poem: ‘The Lion Tree’

Jamie McKendrick

SurrogacyTM

Jenny Turner

Boys in Motion

Nicholas Penny

‘Trick Mirror’

Lauren Oyler

Diary: What really happened in Yancheng?

Long Ling

Sonic FoamIan Penman
Close

Terms and Conditions

These terms and conditions of use refer to the London Review of Books and the London Review Bookshop website (www.lrb.co.uk — hereafter ‘LRB Website’). These terms and conditions apply to all users of the LRB Website ("you"), including individual subscribers to the print edition of the LRB who wish to take advantage of our free 'subscriber only' access to archived material ("individual users") and users who are authorised to access the LRB Website by subscribing institutions ("institutional users").

Each time you use the LRB Website you signify your acceptance of these terms and conditions. If you do not agree, or are not comfortable with any part of this document, your only remedy is not to use the LRB Website.


  1. By registering for access to the LRB Website and/or entering the LRB Website by whatever route of access, you agree to be bound by the terms and conditions currently prevailing.
  2. The London Review of Books ("LRB") reserves the right to change these terms and conditions at any time and you should check for any alterations regularly. Continued usage of the LRB Website subsequent to a change in the terms and conditions constitutes acceptance of the current terms and conditions.
  3. The terms and conditions of any subscription agreements which educational and other institutions have entered into with the LRB apply in addition to these terms and conditions.
  4. You undertake to indemnify the LRB fully for all losses damages and costs incurred as a result of your breaching these terms and conditions.
  5. The information you supply on registration to the LRB Website shall be accurate and complete. You will notify the LRB promptly of any changes of relevant details by emailing the registrar. You will not assist a non-registered person to gain access to the LRB Website by supplying them with your password. In the event that the LRB considers that you have breached the requirements governing registration, that you are in breach of these terms and conditions or that your or your institution's subscription to the LRB lapses, your registration to the LRB Website will be terminated.
  6. Each individual subscriber to the LRB (whether a person or organisation) is entitled to the registration of one person to use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site. This user is an 'individual user'.
  7. The London Review of Books operates a ‘no questions asked’ cancellation policy in accordance with UK legislation. Please contact us to cancel your subscription and receive a full refund for the cost of all unposted issues.
  8. Use of the 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is strictly for the personal use of each individual user who may read the content on the screen, download, store or print single copies for their own personal private non-commercial use only, and is not to be made available to or used by any other person for any purpose.
  9. Each institution which subscribes to the LRB is entitled to grant access to persons to register on and use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site under the terms and conditions of its subscription agreement with the LRB. These users are 'institutional users'.
  10. Each institutional user of the LRB may access and search the LRB database and view its entire contents, and may also reproduce insubstantial extracts from individual articles or other works in the database to which their institution's subscription provides access, including in academic assignments and theses, online and/or in print. All quotations must be credited to the author and the LRB. Institutional users are not permitted to reproduce any entire article or other work, or to make any commercial use of any LRB material (including sale, licensing or publication) without the LRB's prior written permission. Institutions may notify institutional users of any additional or different conditions of use which they have agreed with the LRB.
  11. Users may use any one computer to access the LRB web site 'subscriber only' content at any time, so long as that connection does not allow any other computer, networked or otherwise connected, to access 'subscriber only' content.
  12. The LRB Website and its contents are protected by copyright and other intellectual property rights. You acknowledge that all intellectual property rights including copyright in the LRB Website and its contents belong to or have been licensed to the LRB or are otherwise used by the LRB as permitted by applicable law.
  13. All intellectual property rights in articles, reviews and essays originally published in the print edition of the LRB and subsequently included on the LRB Website belong to or have been licensed to the LRB. This material is made available to you for use as set out in paragraph 8 (if you are an individual user) or paragraph 10 (if you are an institutional user) only. Save for such permitted use, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt such material in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department.
  14. All intellectual property rights in images on the LRB Website are owned by the LRB except where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited. Save for such material taken for permitted use set out above, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt LRB’s images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department. Where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, reproduce or translate such images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the copyright holder. The LRB will not undertake to supply contact details of any attributed or credited copyright holder.
  15. The LRB Website is provided on an 'as is' basis and the LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website will be accessible by any particular browser, operating system or device.
  16. The LRB makes no express or implied representation and gives no warranty of any kind in relation to any content available on the LRB Website including as to the accuracy or reliability of any information either in its articles, essays and reviews or in the letters printed in its letter page or material supplied by third parties. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) arising from the publication of any materials on the LRB Website or incurred as a consequence of using or relying on such materials.
  17. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) for any legal or other consequences (including infringement of third party rights) of any links made to the LRB Website.
  18. The LRB is not responsible for the content of any material you encounter after leaving the LRB Website site via a link in it or otherwise. The LRB gives no warranty as to the accuracy or reliability of any such material and to the fullest extent permitted by law excludes all liability that may arise in respect of or as a consequence of using or relying on such material.
  19. This site may be used only for lawful purposes and in a manner which does not infringe the rights of, or restrict the use and enjoyment of the site by, any third party. In the event of a chat room, message board, forum and/or news group being set up on the LRB Website, the LRB will not undertake to monitor any material supplied and will give no warranty as to its accuracy, reliability, originality or decency. By posting any material you agree that you are solely responsible for ensuring that it is accurate and not obscene, defamatory, plagiarised or in breach of copyright, confidentiality or any other right of any person, and you undertake to indemnify the LRB against all claims, losses, damages and costs incurred in consequence of your posting of such material. The LRB will reserve the right to remove any such material posted at any time and without notice or explanation. The LRB will reserve the right to disclose the provenance of such material, republish it in any form it deems fit or edit or censor it. The LRB will reserve the right to terminate the registration of any person it considers to abuse access to any chat room, message board, forum or news group provided by the LRB.
  20. Any e-mail services supplied via the LRB Website are subject to these terms and conditions.
  21. You will not knowingly transmit any virus, malware, trojan or other harmful matter to the LRB Website. The LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website is free from contaminating matter, viruses or other malicious software and to the fullest extent permitted by law disclaims all liability of any kind including liability for any damages, losses or costs resulting from damage to your computer or other property arising from access to the LRB Website, use of it or downloading material from it.
  22. The LRB does not warrant that the use of the LRB Website will be uninterrupted, and disclaims all liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred as a result of access to the LRB Website being interrupted, modified or discontinued.
  23. The LRB Website contains advertisements and promotional links to websites and other resources operated by third parties. While we would never knowingly link to a site which we believed to be trading in bad faith, the LRB makes no express or implied representations or warranties of any kind in respect of any third party websites or resources or their contents, and we take no responsibility for the content, privacy practices, goods or services offered by these websites and resources. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability for any damages or losses arising from access to such websites and resources. Any transaction effected with such a third party contacted via the LRB Website are subject to the terms and conditions imposed by the third party involved and the LRB accepts no responsibility or liability resulting from such transactions.
  24. The LRB disclaims liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred for unauthorised access or alterations of transmissions or data by third parties as consequence of visit to the LRB Website.
  25. While 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is currently provided free to subscribers to the print edition of the LRB, the LRB reserves the right to impose a charge for access to some or all areas of the LRB Website without notice.
  26. These terms and conditions are governed by and will be interpreted in accordance with English law and any disputes relating to these terms and conditions will be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales.
  27. The various provisions of these terms and conditions are severable and if any provision is held to be invalid or unenforceable by any court of competent jurisdiction then such invalidity or unenforceability shall not affect the remaining provisions.
  28. If these terms and conditions are not accepted in full, use of the LRB Website must be terminated immediately.
Close
Vol. 36 No. 8 · 17 April 2014

Sonic Foam

Ian Penman writes about Kate Bush

A dream,​ just before waking. It’s a day or two after Kate Bush’s unexpected announcement of her return to the concert stage for a series of shows later this year. In my dream, Bush takes the form of a child’s tiny hardback book: solid, substantial, not too many pages. On the front cover is a menagerie of cartoon animals, all Smartie-tube colours and toothy smiles. (It looks a bit like the sleeve of Kate’s album Never for Ever, from 1980, but not nearly so borderline sinister.1 In the air, a singing ringing chorus: ‘This Easter egg, full of rain!’ Then Kate, talking as or through the book, says: ‘I want so much to attack them, before they …’ Then I woke up, and her conclusion escaped me.

Kate Bush performing ‘Wuthering Heights’, 1978.

Kate Bush performing ‘Wuthering Heights’, 1978.

The only other performers I recall dreaming about are Les Dawson (I was having breakfast with the genial comedian and his wife, as if they were my real, lost parents), and the underground rock group Coil, now sadly no more since the deaths of its two founding members, Geoff Rushton and Peter Christopherson, whom I knew, though not especially well. When I interviewed Rushton (a.k.a. John Balance) in 2000, one of the things that came up was his deep, abiding love for Kate Bush. Actually, it was more like he saw her as some form of household deity or guardian spirit: ‘She’s so hidden … she’s definitely one of the aspects of the Goddess.’

Coil were an out gay, flagrantly druggy, openly occult band, who wove quotes from Aleister Crowley and spells from Austin Osman Spare into their work, forging music of scary abandon and sometimes almost unbearable sadness. They were interested in music as an altered state. You might think no one could be further from England’s chart-music rose, Kate Bush; but peer closer into her work and there are intriguing hints of a sub rosa Bush with Luciferian wings, even (pure speculation on my part) Bush on drugs. If anything sounds like music made in the first disarming glow of Ecstasy, an MDMA honeymoon album, it’s Hounds of Love, from 1985. (That’s MDMA as gateway to a sincere spill-your-secrets relationship rap, rather than a gurning, Duracell bunny rave.)2 Kate’s middle period work is wormholed with leftfield references, quasi-alchemical clues, dark emblems half hidden in the leaping, sparkling songs. (Example: the deeply unsettling, off-kilter ‘Big Stripey Lie’ from her LP The Red Shoes.) Even as recently as 2005, on the more subdued Aerial, such traces remain: the huskily whispered love for mystical geometry in ‘π’,3 the oddly downbeat dream of aetherial flight that is ‘How to Be Invisible’.4

Rushton was very coy about it (as you had to be in those days) but I got the feeling Coil had sampled Bush’s voice and used it, heavily disguised, on their album Astral Disaster (1999). ‘Hidden’, I think, was a good choice of word. There was a long absence between The Red Shoes (1993) and her return in 2005 with Aerial, but the more distant she got, the more public interest and devotion seemed to increase. She was hidden in that she wasn’t one for overdoing things, like publicity, or modishly ‘edgy’ promo images, or explaining her work. And hidden in a way that’s more subtle, difficult to pin down. Her work often recalls (and refers to) a certain lineage of quasi-mystical British art that owes much of its power to never quite spelling things out. My own list would include Powell and Pressburger, Nic Roeg, Paul Nash, Derek Jarman, Anna Kavan, as well as under-celebrated British surrealist painters like Ithell Colquhoun and Emmy Bridgwater. This art revels in the threshold places, the hidden rivers and eerie copses of the British landscape.5 At first it may feel rather chilly, but with time, it provokes an altogether more fearful, feral, intemperate dreaming.

We know all the essential passport application stuff about Bush, and down the years she’s dutifully done the odd unrevealingly bland Q&A, but there’s an immense amount we don’t know. Has she ever taken psychedelic drugs? Has she had therapy? (Reichian, Jungian, marriage?) What music makes her cry? Is she actually a lifelong Rosicrucian? I could make a list fifty items long. Her appeal crosses age, gender, taste; she’s taken on a quite distinct mythic life in our collective dreaming. People who would usually have nothing to do with mainstream rock music (like Rushton) are smitten. She has a huge gay following (queer pagans, radical faeries). Ex-punks and one-time surly troublemakers line up to hymn her praises, when not so long ago she would have been the very model of everything they professed to despise, what with her taste for fuzzy ‘spirituality’ – ley lines, yetis, orgone energy – and tendency towards heavy concept albums. (One side of Aerial has both a Prelude and a Prologue.) Women of all political stripes adore her for the control she has exerted over career and image, for all the easy options she refused; though in fact, she may be the bloke-iest woman in rock. (More of that in a moment.) Rock blokes themselves seem to have an en masse crush on her, though how much this is to do with the real middle-aged mum and canny businesswoman, and how much is down to a long-ago teenager’s tight-leotard dreams, is sometimes hard to judge.

Kate is perceived to be more ‘one of us’ than other pop/rock figures, one of the extended family. There’s a feeling that she’s ‘stayed the same’, that success ‘hasn’t spoiled her’. She’s someone you might have known at sixth-form college, or at your Saturday job (the artier kind, obviously: knick-knack stall at the local market); but definitely a scream down the pub, with her packet of Silk Cut and pint of proper scrumpy. At the same time, people are drawn to her peacock’s-tail otherness, the slightly recherché taste for odd bods like Ouspensky, Gurdjieff and Wilhelm Reich. She has the soul of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, but the robust mien of Mrs Thatcher at a 1980s cabinet meeting. Obviously, no one maintains a position somewhere near the top of the music biz for three and a half decades by being entirely nice and floppy and whichever-way-the-wind-blows. From the off, she was the beneficiary of her parents’ middle-class smarts. A precociously dreamy, sky-eyed teen daughter, she was wisely shepherded. Family and management were merged, became one and the same: Kate Inc., a well-tended cottage industry. Her decision, after 1979’s one exhausting and ill-fated outing, not to tour again, removed yet another plank from the algae-hued drawbridge over the moat. (Consider a few tropes from Aerial: fond dreams of invisibility; pained bafflement at Elvis’s trashy reclusion; the self-imposed exile of Charles Foster Kane; and Joan of Arc, ‘beautiful in her armour …’) Ever since, she has lived a life in many ways more like a writer’s than a modern pop star’s: pop’s own J.K. Rowling. (With her Roman Catholic background and taste for bittersweet mysticism, other names suggest themselves here too: Muriel Spark, Penelope Fitzgerald, Angela Carter, Fay Weldon.) She slowly assumed the status of national treasure, despite or maybe precisely because of the cannily maintained, resonantly low profile. There are forms of politesse and prevarication that can slot very well into a wider tactical scheme. Pragmatic business smarts and keeping the wider world at one remove: why shouldn’t they go hand in hand? Other rock stars may be called out for losing touch with real life; when Bush betrays the same distance it’s thought admirable, soulful, apt. Whatever the soil that sustains this particular English Rose, we obviously consider it healthy.

She gets away with (indeed, gets praised for) things which, presented by other members of the rock aristocracy, would be strafed with scorn. All her albums from The Sensual World to Fifty Words for Snow got far kinder reviews than the patchy material really merited. (I had to consult the track listing of The Sensual World when I realised the quietly awesome title song was literally the only thing I could remember.) It’s hard to dispel a suspicion that were she one more Rock Bloke (a Peter Gabriel, Roger Waters or Brian Pern), critics would be far less kind to her mistakes. Imagine a reclusive Rock Bloke foisting on his impatient public the following: long waits for concept albums full of ‘great mates’ from the 1970s; songs about Bigfoot and snowmen and Stephen Fry reciting daffy gibberish; unadventurous marking-time remixes of old material. Someone, in sum, who displayed every symptom of having let zero new music into his manor house for twenty or thirty years. I’m not convinced our huffy Rock Bloke would get the same across-the-board critical hosannas as Bush. There’s a song on Aerial about her son Bertie: ‘Lovely lovely lovely lovely Bertie! The most wilful, the most beautiful, the most truly fantastic smile I’ve ever seen!’6 Would Sting, say, be as gently indulged, should he trill something similar? Granted, we may look more kindly on a mother’s paean to her first child; but there is a line between a song about maternal psychology and just plain yuck, and Bush comes perilously close to country dancing all over it. (The song is smarter than it might at first seem, and involves balancing her shameless gush against a rigid classical line – an interesting idea that suggests both selfless love and disciplined nurture. But in the end that’s what it remains: an interesting idea.)

Family is important to her; not just in the way it is to most people, but as a protective screen that has kept her relatively compos mentis in an insanely topsy-turvy, id stroking industry. Her first long-term partner, bassist Del Palmer, still works with her in the studio, as does her husband, guitarist Dan McIntosh, alongside her two brothers Paddy and John. Consult the small print of Hounds of Love and you’ll find that even the slightly risqué photos of Bush were taken by brother John. And on Aerial and Snow her son Bertie emerges as both subject and vocalist. She’s fanned a duplicate family out around herself in art as in life. Which seems like an eminently sane thing to do; even if a small, quiet voice in my head wonders if it’s maybe not too nice and comfy and convenient. The very thing that has presumably sustained her, kept her sane, may also be the thing that’s softened her edges. Being always surrounded by family and mates in the studio may be a great recipe for solid longevity, but you do sometimes wonder what might result from a collision with a more wilful, uninvested, unpredictable producer who could prise her out of her comfort zone. (Controversial opinion: the best Kate Bush track of recent years is in fact ‘When I Grow Up’ by Fever Ray.)

I used​ to dream of a Bush-Coil hook-up: Bush reflected in a darker mirror; mercurial, androgynous, on fire. It wasn’t actually that much of a stretch: if you compare middle-period works such as her Hounds of Love and their Love’s Secret Domain, the sonic palette isn’t so dissimilar.7 There are the strange chthonic voices on Bush’s ‘Waking the Witch’. Her quoting of ‘It’s in the trees, it’s coming!’ from Night of the Demon, a film all about a Crowley-esque mage, recalls the sampled voice (Charles Laughton reading from Night of the Hunter) on Coil’s own ‘Who’ll Tell’. The edge of the labyrinth. Demons on the living-room carpet. Innocence come to grief.

If you go back to Hounds of Love, the first thing you notice is that in those days she took far more risks with her voice: there was far more higher register and far more lower register, far more affectation (in a good way), far more play. It often sounds like she is obeying the pulse of a very personal ceremony, with its time signatures and textures all over the place. These days she relies more on default settings: there are too many songs with just Kate and her rainy-day piano. ‘We become panoramic,’ she sings, but the music never does, quite; it’s mostly ‘qualidy rock’ that’s a smidge too smooth, predictable, homogeneous. All her guest artistes are men of a certain age, from either Saturdays-gone-by light entertainment telly, or 1970s rock. If you can gauge someone’s taste for artistic risk by consulting their visitor’s book, then – well, let’s take a look: Lenny Henry, Rolf Harris, Dave Gilmour, Nigel Kennedy, Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, Lol Creme, Gary Brooker, Andy Fairweather Low … I can’t be the only Kate fan who puts their fingers in their ears when Rolf Harris and Stephen Fry come in as guest vocalists.

‘Hounds of Love’, though, is quite simply one of the most beautiful songs pop music has ever produced. It’s not just a song about abandon, but one that embodies feelings of anxiety and abandon, smallness and bigness, in its dizzying drive and texture and in Bush’s joyously unhinged singing. Her keening vocals suggest adult poise on the verge of helpless childhood fall. The whole song, but especially the line ‘his little heart, it beats so fast,’ still automatically reduces me to tears. The arc she makes of ‘hold’ in the yelp of ‘hold me down’ is truly overwhelming: at once pained and lost and powerfully erotic. Listen to the closing minutes of ‘Running Up That Hill’, with its muted chorus of multi-tracked Kates: screaming, grieving, witchy, shattered, a sonic foam rising above the song’s jagged tribunal.8 It’s a very odd song indeed. At the very least, it claws and rubs at the dissolute line between ecstasy and abjection in a way that was, shall we say, uncommon in mainstream 1980s pop: ‘Tearing you asunder … do you want to know it doesn’t hurt me?’ Or listen to the way she enunciates the line ‘you never understood me’ in ‘The Big Sky’, her voice somewhere between a caress and a storm warning. Listen to the bizarre chorus she makes of her voice, how it conveys utter exhilaration at its own just glimpsed possibilities. Such wayward joys begin to explain why some of us were so entranced by her to begin with. (I clearly remember hearing ‘Running up That Hill’ for the first time, on the radio in 1985, on what happened to be my birthday. I immediately rang several people to tell – or maybe warn – them about it.)

We don’t necessarily expect artists to keep taking such giant leaps throughout a long career; but the wild glee and panic play seem to have all but evaporated lately. At the end of a long, gently rocky sequence on side two of Aerial there’s a brief, silvery glint of multi-tracked Kates, but they’re promptly flattened by some awful, hackneyed ‘rock out’ guitar. Then right upon Aerial’s crest and end, she unexpectedly bursts into joyful, pealing, baffled laughter, apparently away with the birds and their morning song. ‘What kind of language is this!?’ It’s one of the only times in late-period Kate with the same gawky, light-headed charm and strangeness of the early days. A small thing, easy to overlook, but on the tiny sticker attached to the CD of Aerial it’s referred to as ‘the new double album’ – as if we were still in the gatefold 1970s, not the digital download 2000s. The Bush home studio, far from being a safe place for risky play, seems to have become a playhouse for her roster of greying rock chums and light entertainment panjandrums. All deeply nice blokes and everything, I’m sure, but maybe a certain fluffy-slipper retreat behind ‘nice blokeness’ is one of the problems here.

There’s an odd thing about both Aerial and Snow, though: under that chummy, soft rock exterior a lot of her new songs sound mournful, even desolate – full of characters middle-aged or older looking back with wistful disappointment and regret at what might have been. They’re figures who can’t come together or stay together or who just missed staying together: adrift, vainly searched for, trapped between or beyond worlds. There’s a sense of lost or frozen time: of double-sided or divided people, who at some point let their more reasonable selves take control, and lost inestimable treasure through the deal. ‘A sense of nostalgia for what never was,’ as Pessoa put it, ‘the desire for what could have been; regret over not being someone else.’ And, just maybe, the ambiguous cue for her own return to the spotlight.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

letters@lrb.co.uk

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.