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Review: Financial Times


These songs, says Kitty Macfarlane, are “loosely bound by our clumsy ties with the land”. In her case, the land is Somerset: the opening track, “Starling Song”, sees the banks of the River Brue (which runs past Glastonbury through the Avalon Marshes to the Bristol Channel) “folded in pleats”. Later, “Seventeen”, with its narrator musing on the “table we built [having grown] lichen and weeds” and a classmate about to enter the army, is a pitch-perfect portrait of rural rites of passage. The massive floods of 2014, which inundated the Somerset Levels, are remembered on “Man, Friendship”. “There’s not much that’s sweet and simple about this place”, she sings. “We’re told that the seas are rising/but this stretch of language I will defend.” But Macfarlane’s imagination runs wider than the parochial. “Sea Silk” sees a Sardinian seamstress making thread from the filaments of endangered clams. The songs stretch backwards as well. The title track celebrates Luke Howard, the 19th-century pharmaceuticals manufacturer and amateur meteorologist whose classification scheme for clouds, as Macfarlane puts it, “gave the abstract world a meaning”. As in Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon, mapping is a hostile act: “How did we become so bold”, asks the last verse, to “seize the heavens, claim control?” The same questions arise in “Glass Eel”, as European eels migrate from the Sargasso Sea to the rivers of Somerset. The music assumes an epic sweep as the eels are “compelled to move”; a quiet last verse highlights “the irony that/while patient science adds fact to fact/Hasty man draws lines on maps”. The Victorian ballad “Frozen Charlotte”, about a young woman who disdains her mother’s advice to wrap up warmly, and freezes to death during a sleigh ride, is set to frostily sparkling guitar. There is a moment of genuine horror when the heroine says faintly that she is “growing warmer now” with the minutest pause, as hypothermia sets in. There is a historical irony in “Wrecking Days”, contrasting the shoreline harvest when wreckers would deliberately draw ships on to the rocks to plunder their cargoes with a modern crop of flotsam, of plastic bottle tops and tangled fishing lines. The last words go to Gerard Manley Hopkins, with a stark setting of “Inversnaid”. “Let them be left, wildness and wet.”

David Honigmann

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