For anyone unaware, Radiohead have released a new single called Harry Patch (In Memory Of). Patch, the last remaining British soldier from WWI, died recently at the age of 111.
Rather uniquely for a new single, and for Radio 4, the new song received its first public airing on the BBC radio station this week on the Today programme.
It’s a remarkable, melancholy, eerie and oddly redemptive listen, but the radio interview with Patch – Thom Yorke’s inspiration for the lyrics – are important to hear too.
Delivered in a wheezing whisper, Patch’s distaste for the Great War, and the concept of war itself, are evident.
Having survived Passchendaele, where so many of his friends died, for 80 years Patch did not talk about his experiences, nor did he watch war films.
Only when he realised that the number of Tommies was declining did he speak of his experiences, and he was withering of any notions of glory.
Like some sort of mage from the distant past, Patch’s hoarse prediction of the next war is chilling and affecting.
His is the voice of a man who has seen history play itself out twice before, and grimly, wearily, expects it to happen again.
“They never learn,” he whispers. “The Third World War will be chemical. I don’t want to see it.”
It’s easy to see why Yorke was so affected by the interview. He uses portions of the text from the 2005 segment with Patch verbatim in the music. And it’s easy to see why Yorke thought Patch’s passing worthy of note.
Harry Patch’s words on the utter futility and horror of war are a warning from the past, the like of which we will never hear again. The words of a man recalling one of the most monumental and devastating events in human history – from almost 100 years ago.
It seems impossible, and possibly wrong, to even try to critique the music in light of its subject matter, and wider significance. Fittingly it’s understated, soft and subtle. Patch’s words speak for themselves and Johnny Greenwood’s orchestral score elegiac.
I can’t really explain how affected I’ve been by the music, and by the interview with Patch. I only hope they make other people feel the same way, or I fear Patch’s words will be lost amid the ceremony and noise of a state funeral and accompanying bluster.
“People…the younger generation, can’t image what it’s like. You can’t describe it.”
• All proceeds from the Radiohead track go to the British Legion. It’s a quid well spent. Download here.