Putting words in his mouth

The Daily Telegraph - Review - - In This Issue -

Polly Sam­son has writ­ten lyrics for her hus­band, David Gil­mour, for 20 years. They tell Helen Brown why it works so well – what­ever Pink Floyd might think

‘Get­ting the wife to write the lyrics? How tragic!” Roger Waters’s ver­dict on Pink Floyd’s 1994 al­bum, The Di­vi­sion Bell, was ex­actly what Polly Sam­son had been dread­ing since her hus­band, David Gil­mour, had con­vinced her to take credit for her con­tri­bu­tion.

The cou­ple can laugh about it now. As Sam­son says, Waters would never be able to get away with his sex­ist jibe in 2016. But the mem­ory still makes her curl into a pro­tec­tive ball: “At the time, it felt aw­ful. It stung.” The Di­vi­sion Bell was only the sec­ond al­bum Gil­mour had made with the band af­ter Waters’s ac­ri­mo­nious de­par­ture in 1985.

The daugh­ter of two writ­ers, Sam­son was working as a jour­nal­ist when she met Gil­mour. “I had never felt ner­vous about writ­ing,” she says. “But I did feel ner­vous about be­ing known to be writ­ing lyrics. I was a 30-yearold woman, writ­ing for a band of blokes in their mid-40s. It felt like stick­ing my head above a very par­tic­u­lar para­pet.”

Sam­son, whose mother is half Chi­nese, was “re­ally fright­ened” she’d find her­self on the re­ceiv­ing end of the “misog­y­nist, Ori­en­tal­ist bull----” meted out to Yoko Ono. “To­day I’d love to be com­pared to her. She’s an in­spi­ra­tion: a woman in her 80s, still mak­ing great art. She shoul­dered all that s--- for some­thing she didn’t do. We all know she didn’t break up the Bea­tles. It’s ridicu­lous.”

But surely, by 1994, the Onobash­ing was over? Gil­mour shakes his head. “Even in the Nineties,” he says, “the rock’n’roll busi­ness was the pre­serve of un­re­con­structed, tyrant men. Not nec­es­sar­ily in the band, but the peo­ple run­ning it. There was a con­stant nig­gling at­mos­phere.” He shrugs, ex­as­per­ated. “Polly suf­fered.”

The gui­tarist gives his wife’s knee a com­fort­ing pat; she flings a hand to her brow in mock anguish. Sit­ting side by side on a blue vel­vet sofa in their airy, Lon­don mews house, they make a thought­ful and en­ter­tain­ing dou­ble act. Gil­mour, who turned 70 this year, is 16 years older than his wife. Be­tween them, they have eight chil­dren: four from Gil­mour’s first mar­riage, one from Sam­son’s re­la­tion­ship with the poet Heath­cote Wil­liams and three more to­gether.

Sam­son, now the au­thor of two highly ac­claimed nov­els and three short story col­lec­tions, is a lively racon­teur. She draws out the “ret­i­cent” Gil­mour, who wishes he could “speak only with my gui­tar”, as he qui­etly gets things done: open­ing the door, mak­ing tea, fix­ing the smoke alarm.

He de­flects the ques­tion when I ask about the bent pro­pel­ler stand­ing be­side their grand pi­ano, but Sam­son ex­plains it’s a me­mento from “an early date in ’92 when he flew me to France in a Har­vard – a Sec­ond World War plane that looks like it was made on Blue Peter – and on our re­turn we had what is termed a ‘good land­ing’ be­cause, ap­par­ently, any land­ing you can walk away from is a good land­ing. We lost a wing, the un­der­car­riage, sev­ered sev­eral branches from a chest­nut tree and nar­rowly missed an old folk’s home.”

When they ap­pear at the Hay Fes­ti­val to dis­cuss the song­writ­ing col­lab­o­ra­tion that has stretched from The Di­vi­sion Bell to Gil­mour’s 2015 solo al­bum, Rat­tle That Lock, Gil­mour says: “I’ll do a bit of strum­ming and play snip­pets of songs on my iPhone. Polly will do the meat of the talk­ing and I’ll in­ter­ject with the condi­ments.”

Sam­son is a “proper fan” of Roger Waters’s lyrics – “he al­ways finds the right image to il­lus­trate a point” – and never set out to re­place him as Pink Floyd’s chief word­smith, al­though she does hate An­other Brick in the Wall be­cause she thinks the world needs more ed­u­ca­tion.

The role evolved nat­u­rally. In the early days of her re­la­tion­ship with Gil­mour, when he was jam­ming with his Pink Floyd band­mates for the first time since the Sev­en­ties, Sam­son was “suf­fer­ing from a hor­ri­ble bout of glan­du­lar fever, just ly­ing there sweat­ing”. “I would bring you chicken soup,” says Gil­mour, “and play you the tracks. One day we were hav­ing a great big ar­gu­ment and I prob­a­bly did shout: ‘ What do you want from me?’ [a fa­mous line from The Di­vi­sion Bell] and I was won­der­ing what the next line should be and Polly started sug­gest­ing things. Try­ing to gee me up.”

Sam­son says she could see what he was try­ing to say, so she would throw out clumsy lines in the hope that he’d pol­ish them into what he wanted. But once the fever had passed, she found – to Gil­mour’s re­lief – that she’d caught the lyri­cal bug. “In­evitably, the power in the ar­range­ment slid gently side­ways,” he says. “There’s ab­so­lutely no rea­son she shouldn’t have been do­ing it. She can write.”

Sam­son says “the odd­est thing” about the ar­range­ment was that Rick Wright, the band’s key­board

Ret­i­cent Gil­mour wishes his gui­tar could do all the speak­ing for him

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