‘Oh! England, My Lionheart’

The first poster of a musician I ever had on my wall was of Kate Bush. I had just started primary school in a small country town on Melbourne’s western outskirts, an area that has since been swallowed up by the ever-expanding urban spread.

I remember this poster vividly: Bush wore a white baggy jumpsuit with blotches of multi-coloured paint splashed over it, playfully wielding a paintbrush towards the camera. I carefully cut it out from an issue of Women’s Weekly using my mother’s good sewing scissors, the latter an act of small childhood rebellion in itself.

I adored this image of Bush, and despite far from having a complete grasp of the politics of pop cultural consumption and the role of gender in the formation of my burgeoning identity, it was still sacred. Out with the Miffy alphabet frieze, in with Kate Bush.

Even at this very young age, I was conscious of some degree of importance to the adoption of this totemic image of this particular British pop star. As I grew up, the posters changed as teenage fads came and went. But as the recent pandemonium surrounding the announcement of Bush’s first live shows in decades indicate, there was something immovable about Bush’s legacy. Like so many other people I know, I simply never grew out of her.

Buying flights to the UK and a ticket to see Kate Bush perform live later this year ranks highly on the list of irrational and irresponsible things I have done in my adult life, but it is a decision I made in seconds and have no doubts about whatsoever. It extends well beyond the realms of indulgent nostalgia or the hysterics of adolescent fandom, locking instead into some near-primal sense of who I am and where I came from.

The ethereal world of Bush’s iconic ode to Emily Brontë may seem as far from Melbourne’s western suburbs as can be imagined, and it is this precise distance – both literal and figurative – that is the point. My sister is only five years younger than me, but she does not have the same memories of the elderly primary school teachers who staunchly forced their students to obediently sing ‘God Save the Queen’ in assembly, nor does a mention of the Falklands War trigger the same spark of disquiet in her that it does for me.

In the 1980s, from my young working-class Australian eyes, Britain haunted my imagination as much as the Cold War tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union. My comprehension of Australia’s past – one I was increasingly discovering was riddled with an ugliness elided by the sanitised versions in my schoolbooks – was inextricably linked to British colonial power, and the almost suffocating symbolic omnipresence of what my step-grandfather called ‘mother England’ seemed surreal to a child who had never ventured further than Sydney and Adelaide.

But most of all, the world in which my political awareness developed was one where Margaret Thatcher reigned as the Monstrous Feminine Supreme, a looming, hardened bouffant of malice and cruelty.

If there is a single moment where I can pinpoint the birth of my political self, it was not during the lengthy lectures from my mother about the virtues of Gough Whitlam (paralleling papal infallibility in her eyes), nor was it my father’s vivid explanations of why the Gordon-below-Franklin Dam project in Tasmania was such an outrage. It was this short poem in the late Sue Townsend’s The Growing Pains of Adrian Mole:

Mrs Thatcher by A. Mole

Do you weep, Mrs Thatcher, do you weep?
Do you wake, Mrs Thatcher, in your sleep?
Do you weep like a sad willow?
On your Marks and Spencer’s pillow?
Are your tears molten steel?
Do you weep?

Do you wake with ‘Three Million’ on your brain?
Are you sorry that they’ll never work again?
When you’re dressing in your blue, do you see the waiting queue?
Do you weep, Mrs Thatcher, do you weep?

With Townsend’s passing a few weeks ago, this poem circulated in her memory around social media, a fitting reminder of the power and charm of her work. I read it today as a sharp, perfect little replication of the smug hyperbole of the politically conscious early teen that Adrian Mole typified – ‘I think my poem is extremely brilliant,’ Adrian concludes, ‘It is the sort of poem that could bring the government to its knees.’

As a kid, however, I took it to heart: it was overblown, sure, but these were times where surely such passion was fully appropriate.

In my tiny developing mind, Kate Bush’s Britain was the antidote to one governed by Thatcher’s molten steel. A postmodern Pre-Raphaelite, Bush and her music represented a collision of softness and strength, past and future, and passion and tranquillity.

In my mind, she was the anti-Thatcher, a colonial mother who used the force of music, myth and magic rather than violence and hatred to comfort, not dominate. As an adult, my vision of Bush (and, for that matter, of Thatcher) has altered substantially: my own life experience now leads me to marvel at Bush’s remarkable path, one where she maintained a hugely successful career as a musician but still effectively opted out of the limelight, instead choosing to have a family and make increasingly sophisticated and honest music.

There was a twelve-year gap between the release of her albums The Red Shoes (on which she collaborated with everyone from Lenny Henry to Prince) and 2005’s Aerial, but in ‘Bush time’, it felt like a mere heartbeat. Like everything else surrounding the near-mythic figure of Bush herself, temporality becomes malleable and seductively indistinct, a vague poetic notion to be toyed with rather than conquered.

The series of live shows in London later this year are Bush’s first in 35 years. Much has changed in that time. During the 1980s, Bush gave a number of interviews where she voiced a clear discomfort with the popular usage of the word ‘feminism’, considering it representative of a particularly aggressive type of gender politics that risked being fundamentally anti-male.

In 2014, Bush represents a feminist ideal that is wholly contemporary: she has carved her own niche her own way. She has controlled her image and the public consumption of that image. Most of all, she continues to do what she loves doing.  Like so many others who are travelling great distances to see her perform, my journey to see Kate Bush play live is a personal pilgrimage of sorts. At its heart lies a woman I consider a type of spiritual mother and an aspirational role model – and a reconciliation with the complexities that lie within my own imagined childhood fantasy of Britain itself.

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is a film critic, research academic and the author of seven books on cult, horror, and exploitation cinema with an emphasis on gender politics. She has recently co-edited the book ReFocus: The Films of Elaine May for Edinburgh University Press, and her forthcoming book 1000 Women in Horror has been optioned for a documentary series. Alexandra is also a programming consultant for Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas, the largest genre film festival in the United States.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. Perhaps if my own birthing of my political self had been through Kate Bush (I was already a fan) and not David Byrne (Talking Heads), I would not have wrestled with Angela Carter’s writing and Greenham Common might have been a little less confronting so reluctant was I to relinquish the rescue fantasy. And the last thirty years of my life would have been very different. I really like the notion of Bush representing a feminist ideal. Thank you.

  2. Terrific piece on Kate Bush. My husband and I will be traveling from Boston to see the show–which night will you be there? Interesting that you first experienced Kate Bush via the Thatcher years. I suspect I’m a bit (just a bit) older than you; and, first experienced and began adoring Kate as Jimmy Carter was leaving the U.S. presidency and Reagan was coming in. Your piece reminds me so much of the person I was “way back then” even though I was living in a suburb of Detroit, Michigan, U.S. where watching Merle Oberon and Laurence Olivier in WUTHERING HEIGHTS and Moira Shearer in THE RED SHOES was an absolutely MUST in my home. Then Kate Bush crept in while my family and I watched a 1979 CBC ABBA program during which Kate was a guest artist. In love, as I was, with ABBA, it was Kate Bush that stunned me. Yes, yes, yes, I’m gay and why that matters, or doesn’t, I can’t say or care to analyze here. Yet your piece really touches me “in a soft spot.” Am I prepared for what the concert will conjure up inside me? No. I have a hard time even imagining all of this! Kate Bush performing live? BAH! It’s a dream come true when I least suspect it. That aside, thank you for helping me remember 1979, again. Enjoy your time in London.

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