Safe spaces and comfort zones

This piece first appeared in the July 2015 issue of History Today. While I still think this makes some good points, on the whole it feels a good deal more ancien regime than I intended it to be, and fails to address some important aspects of the debate. Rachel Moss wrote a blog post in response which I think is a much better – more thoughtful, nuanced and perceptive – take than mine.

The Multicultural Affairs Advisory Board at New York’s Columbia University recently recommended trigger warnings be placed on Ovid’s Metamorphoses – and implicitly other classic texts in the western canon – because it contains material that is difficult for ‘a [rape] survivor, a person of colour, or a student from a low-income background’.

For those who do not know, a ‘trigger warning’ is akin to the descriptive notes that accompany DVD classification ratings. So, for instance, my copy of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is described as containing ‘intense scenes of verbal and physical abuse’.

The immediate cause of this pronouncement was a female student who had been sexually assaulted finding a discussion of the Persephone and Daphne myths traumatic in the classroom environment, which is entirely understandable.

Yet it is not to demean her pain when questioning whether the anxiety and distress she felt is sufficient reason to remodel the course for all students; or whether, more generally, we have the right to go through life without encountering texts, opinions and experiences that we find too emotionally difficult to deal with. As individuals we are surely entitled to evade distress. Whether we are entitled to demand society remodel itself around our trauma, to expect absolute public obeisance to the private tyrannies of our hurt is much less certain.

It is only a matter of time before such sensibilities are brought to the study of history, where we do not have the comfort of fiction or the consolations of literary aesthetics with which to distance us from the darkness.

The advisory board at Columbia was well intentioned, but to avoid discussion of sexual violence, racism and oppression is not to fight such evils; it is to pretend that there are public spaces in which they cannot exist. To live in a prison of your own design does not make you any less of a prisoner.

Is this not contrary to what the study of literature and history is about? Surely both are at least in part concerned with understanding how and why horror rises in the human heart, about the ebb and flow of power and resistance, of humanity against inhumanity, the moral and political struggles of individuals and societies, the fight of hope and faith against hunger, fear and death? Are not both subjects ultimately about the infinitely complex varieties of experience flowering endlessly into events, patterned yet unique, as we all are?

This desire to dissociate from reality is not a problem unique to education. It seems endemic in society, from the section of the US population which turns to Fox News or the Drudge Report for information, to the echo chambers of the bourgeois political elite which led the UK Labour party to its worst electoral defeat since the war. No party has a monopoly on moral squalor. It is a human characteristic, not a political one.

Characteristic of the mindset is the othering of your opponents, delegitimising contrary and challenging opinions by demonising those who hold them. There seems to me little intellectual difference between those who consider Barack Obama a socialist dictator because he believes in the efficacy and virtue of government and those who privilege the most reactionary elements of Salafi Islamic thought over women’s rights because opposition to any aspect of Islam is de facto Islamophobic. How far are we from declaring parts of literature or history hate speech? Not far enough.

It is the historian’s duty as much as the novelist’s or poet’s to understand what people think and why. We must resist anything that pushes us towards the comfortable and the familiar rather than challenges us with the arbitrary and exceptional.

Neither serenity nor strength come from avoiding difficult thoughts and feelings. Experience inures us; only by accepting reality can we begin to change it. Safe spaces and comfort zones, whether emotional or intellectual, may be invaluable for dealing with personal trauma, but they diminish us all if they do not equip us for the multiplicity of the world as it is.

Thoughts among the noise: talking poetry with Rachel Stirling

Earlier this year I talked with writer and reviewer Rachel Stirling about the writing and reading of poetry. The conversation appeared on Rachel’s blog in June, so I’m reposting here now on mine.

RACHEL:  When did you know that you wanted to write?

MATHEW:  Quite early on I think. I can’t really remember a time when I wasn’t really entranced by books of one kind or another – or when I didn’t want to write in some way. Who inspired you to write?

RACHEL: The author of every book I have ever read and those I haven’t reached yet. Reading is joyful. I was, am, and always will be, such a bookworm. What led you away from the short story form, towards poetry?

MATHEW: Good question. Fear. Self-doubt. Those are the negative reasons. And they definitely have some purchase. But I also like the concision of poetry. The fluidity of form. The reduction of an idea or an emotion or a narrative -however you want to define narrative – into its barest possible expression. That’s very appealing. I am beginning to write more fiction now – short and long form. We’ll see what happens. The things that prompt creation are different for all of us, I think. My imagination tends to be both quite visual and – paradoxically maybe – concerned with interior spaces. How about you? Are the catalysts that motivate you to create the same for writing as they are for sculpting or painting?

RACHEL:  I’ve given that one some thought before, and it comes down to one word – reply. I’m a reserved person, a listener rather than a talker. When the world happens to me, as it does to all of us, creation is my response, my reply. It’s that simple and that complex. The writing seems to be reserved for those responses I can begin to articulate. It’s usually my way of finding my own thoughts among the noise.

MATHEW:  Who do you think of as your audience for each?

RACHEL:  I don’t. I never give a thought to the audience when I’m working. Does that sound awful? I simply work. The only exception to that rule would be in the case of a commission, which I take on rare occasions. The audience my work finds, if it finds one, is always a pleasant surprise.

I’ve been wondering which poets you like to read.

MATHEW:  The poets I go back to mostly are probably Auden, MacNeice and Tennyson. Especially MacNeice. But I go through phases of reading a lot by different poets at different times. Marianne Moore, Sylvia Plath, Amy Clampitt, Derek Walcott, Billy Collins, Yeats, Byron, Rilke, Neruda…I could go on. I used to read the imagists a lot and I think you can see their influence clearly in my work. HD in particular. Which contemporary poets do you read most?

RACHEL:  I have a great deal of time for Robert Peake, George Szirtes and Mark Fiddes, but I am blessed with being able to read a vast amount of poetry. Sometimes I actually spend the most time with poets I understand the least. In that sense the question works differently for me. I spend my time working with the difficult to follow. My favourite poets? Rilke, Keats, Mary Oliver, Byron, Frost, Auden, Heaney – so many.

MATHEW: Szirtes is wonderful. His Twitter feed is a joy too! What do you look for in a poet?

RACHEL: They are all so different! [laughing] Poets and poems are a glorious puzzle. Here you have a person who has, often with great skill, distilled the experience of a lifetime into a few lines, and they are asking you to see them. I see the job of a reviewer as being willing to take the time to do that. I take every poet as they come, a new life, a new experience, a new approach, I don’t like to comment on anyone’s work until I have read quite a lot of their poetry. I do enjoy elegance of language. I also appreciate the usual courtesies and promptness goes a long way to helping anyone with a deadline, obviously.

How do you define a poem?

MATHEW: That’s difficult. A frame of words and phrases that allows the reader to respond imaginatively, emotionally and intellectually? Form is important. I don’t write too much in formal metres or structures but one of the things I list out for- or feel for – is the shape a poem is going to have, how long the arc of it is. I sometimes have to wait for that, even if I know I have the outline of what is going to be in the poem and what its core images and phrases are going to be. Rhythm is very important to me – not just the rhythm of the lines but the way that the ideas and images are interspersed. I think of my poems in spatial terms. I don’t know how usual that is. Phrase-making matters a lot to me too, the ability to put words together in a way that is both new and memorable and startlingly true. That’s what I look for in other writers and it’s something I strive for in my own work.

What do you look for in a poem?

RACHEL:  Effortlessness. There is a kind of beauty, as gentle as breathing, when a poet finds the right words to express their thoughts. The thoughts don’t have to be beautiful, and the poet may have wrestled the words to the page as if bringing down a wildebeest, but when they are the right words, everyone can breathe. Then the near misses interest me. Of course, to work these out you first have to work out what the poet is trying to achieve and how. Sometimes in the pursuit of this you also stumble on the why, but not always. It’s necessary to understand the what, the how is where it gets technical and the why is a gift of comprehension beyond the page. Sometimes a poet gives away more of the why than they intend and other times next to nothing, they are a barely open book and we get a sideways glimpse at the pages. Sometimes what a person doesn’t tell you is the most interesting thing of all.

What do you look for in a poem? How do you start? Do you begin with very structured intentions or do you write and see what arrives?

Mathew:  It varies to be honest. But what usually comes first is a line, or a phrase, or an image. i collect them – and at some point one will come along that seems to pull the others into its orbit and I will piece a poem together from those basic elements. I don’t know if that makes sense. What I start with doesn’t necessarily end up in the finished poem though. There are lines and images that have been in and out of various drafts of different poems before I find what feels like its home. The process can take years. Sometimes a poem will come more or less whole, of course. And other times I will have a sense of precisely what I want or need to say. But usually it is more worked at – and more allusive. How do you critique a poem? Where do you start? How important are formal considerations? – or do you prefer to focus on thematic and verbal issues?

RACHEL:  I begin by putting aside all thoughts of critique and reading the poetry. I usually make three passes through the whole body of work. The first pass is for pure enjoyment. It usually leaves me with an impression of theme, rhythm and ideas. I make a brief note of these and any obvious poetry forms, such as sonnet or villanelle, then I go back through the work again to check that I haven’t caught the wrong end of the stick, or indeed the wrong stick. On this pass I pay more attention to the language and technical considerations all the while asking myself what the poet is doing or attempting to do. Again, I make short notes. On the third pass I choose one or two of the poems that I consider to be typical of the collection, or particularly interesting, and I take them apart, very gently, looking at the rhythms and sounds and the technical aspects of construction. Often at this stage that it will occur to me which poetry a poet likes to read, a bizarre side-effect of having read a lot of poetry. At the end of the process I usually have enough information to write my review. I don’t consider any structure or classical form to be better or worse than any other and I don’t prefer classical forms over modern interpretations. I do like to recognise each poem for what it is and think about whether it is a good example of its type, and how it differs. The interest often lies in the difference. Sometimes a structural hiccup is a poet’s exclamation point Your writing interests me because you have such a broad range. You have fiction and non-fiction work running side by side with your verse. How do you divide your time between journalistic or historical writing and the intricacies of poetry?

MATHEW: Ha! Well, copywriting, journalism, editing, etc are all there in order to pay the rent. The noise of it kills the ability I have to write creatively, well certainly as far as poetry goes. Poetry requires a kind of intellectual space – I need to withdraw a little inside my head so I can hear the words clearly, get a sense of rhythm and weight, and also hear or feel the way they resonate for me intellectually and emotionally. It’s a separate thing for me. It’s also a space to reflect on myself – my thoughts and feelings, my responses to the world. I hesitate to call it a form of therapy because it isn’t, but the two things occupy similar states of mind I think.

RACHEL:  You’ve published several books written largely from a historical non-fiction perspective, most recently The Favourite. How did, or did, the research for that book feed back into your poetry work?

MATHEW:  I’m not sure that it did, necessarily. At least, not yet. I can see that the theme of my previous book Impossible Journeys resonates subtly here and there in my poetry. The idea of impossibility, hope against hopelessness, is something I can see I’ve returned to, not always intentionally. And my first book on Tolkien and the ancient history of the English landscape I think helped clarify for me something about how we experience the physical world intellectually and emotionally. But I consciously used poetry to help me with the writing of The Favourite. I worked very hard on the prose of that book at a time when my private life was beginning to go through a fair amount of turmoil. I lost my way quite often – but I found that reading contemporary poets like Medbh McGuckian, Jen Hadfield,  and Jane Griffiths helped me to focus on the clarity of expression. Why do you write fiction as opposed to poetry (as far as I know) while thinking deeply and writing about the poetry of others?

RACHEL:  I did pass through a phase of writing song lyrics but that is as close as I have come to writing poetry. I’m not a poet, as far as I am aware. The things that I need to say simply seem to come out in story form. Poetry is an intricate dance and I don’t consider that I know all the steps. Maybe that will change in the future. I look forward to finding out. I also review novels, short story anthologies and other written work. Poetry is the most beauty in the shortest amount of time. It takes me time to think through work to my satisfaction and so, in order to paint, sculpt and write, I am drawn to the work of poets. Poetry is a great deal of literary feeding in a very small space. It helps to ground me in a creative place. What are you trying to achieve when you write?

MATHEW:  To get the idea out whole, to find its ideal form and expression. I don’t think I ever have or will – but it’s important to try!

RACHEL:  And where do you go from here in terms of creative writing?

MATHEW:  I have more non-fiction projects to pursue and, as I said earlier, I’m working on some fiction. I don’t necessarily think of them as very different as writing projects. I try to make my non-fiction writing a pleasure to read and as a historian the human elements in  any story are very important to me. I’d like to start publishing my poetry properly and working towards a collection. How about you? You do so many different things. What is on your horizon creatively and critically?

RACHEL:  This year I will be making headway with my Tower-of-Babel-sized review pile. I have a great deal of reading to do. I will be reviewing poetry every month for Sabotage Reviews, and I will be working on my own novel ‘Indigo’. My spare time, should I find any, will be spent completing a sculpture that I started about a year ago. She is currently wrestling her way out of the stone, which looks uncomfortable, bless. The lovely thing about sculpture is that you can simply down tools and walk away, safe in the knowledge that the piece will keep. It isn’t quite that easy to shelve a painting in progress…

Rachel Stirling can be found online at http://stirlingwriter.com/

Follow Rachel on Twitter at https://twitter.com/Stirlingwriter

My poetry blog is online here.

Canada AM: the Prince Charles letters

Those who follow me on Twitter may already know that I was TV twice last week. The first appearance, to discuss Prince Harry’s career, was on Sky News. Unfortunately – or perhaps fortunately, depending on your point of view – I can’t link to that. But I subsequently appeared on CTV’s breakfast show Canada AM talking about the propriety or otherwise of Prince Charles’ letters to the Blair administration, as revealed by The Guardian after a long legal battle. The link for the latter is here.

Review: Merchant Adventurers by James Evans

merchantsThis review appears in the current December/January issue of  Management Today.

The recent media coverage of the discovery of Sir John Franklin’s flagship, the HMS Erebus, on the sea floor in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, is a reminder of the public’s abiding fascination with the Age of Exploration and of its huge cost, in terms of both blood and treasure. Neither the Erebus, nor HMS Terror, the other ship under Franklin’s command had been seen since 1845. A search party found three graves in 1850. The other 126 bodies have never been found.

With this in mind, James Evans’ new book Merchant Adventurers: The Voyage of Discovery that Transformed Tudor England seems particularly timely.

Franklin and his men were among the last to perish in the centuries-long quest for a North-West Passage over the top of the Americas to the rich markets of the east, and in particular to China, or Cathay as it used to known. While many books have been written about that quest, Evans has, quite literally, gone in another direction.

At the heart of his book is a 1553 voyage, seeking to find a North-Eastern route to China over the top of Scandinavia and Russia. It is one of the great untold tales of English exploration. Three ships sailed out of London on May 10th that year under the command of Sir Hugh Willoughby a soldier of great character but unremarkable achievements – and precious little knowledge of the sea. More vital to the expedition’s success was its pilot – and also captain of the largest ship – a young man fully versed in the nascent science of navigation named Richard Chancellor.

A year later just one ship returned. It was Chancellor’s. The three ships had become separated by a storm the previous July; no-one yet knew the fate of the others. Chancellor, however, had travelled inland to the court of Ivan the Terrible, initiating the first contact between England and Russia. It was, says Evans, in some respects a model for how England – and the future East India Company – would create an empire.

As for Willoughby, he and his men would die trying to see the winter out. Their bodies were discovered perfectly preserved on board their ships by Russian fishermen the following year. It is often said they froze to death, although Evans persuasively argues that they may have been died from carbon-monoxide poisoning as a result of burning sea-coal and closing all the vents to preserve the heat.

Where Evans’ triumphs is in the breadth of his interest: the story of the 1553 voyage is superbly told, drawing on Willoughby’s surviving logbook and accounts given by Chancellor and his men on his return. But, unusually for a maritime historian, Evans also has much to say on the less viscerally exciting material – the formation, structure and financing of the Muscovy company and, more generally, on the economic climate that made it an attractive investment. It is hard to say which he excels in most.

The Muscovy Company was the first joint-stock company in England. As such, Evans argues, its importance is hard to overstate. On previous international trading ventures, merchants might have come together to fund a voyage, their mutual interest was strictly limited to the period of the journey, and any goods their individual factors bought and sold were always held separately.

But the incorporation of the Muscovy company allowed no individual trading. All stock was held in common. Investors were asked to buy shares not just in the voyage, but in the ongoing trade that the voyage was intended to spawn. The company would exist in perpetuity.

It was certainly an innovative and influential model for England, although as Evans notes it seems to have been based on existing business practices in Italy and was likely introduced to the Company by one of its prime movers, the Bristol-born Venetian explorer Sebastian Cabot. It was also immediately successful: the company quickly found 240 investors at £25 a share.

Evans all this brings to vivid life: not merely the courage and peril of the men who risked and often sacrificed their lives at sea, but also the foment of political, economic and intellectual life. Importantly, he captures the sense of these great endeavours not merely as enterprises but first and foremost as ideas, as projects that grew of the new-born sciences of cartography and navigation, out of the daily reality of world’s map being redrawn, and of the need for men of commerce to adapt their own practices to these bewildering, exciting developments.

In that sense, the subtext of the book might be seen as the battle between traditional thought – the supposed givens of trade and travel – and newer empirical approaches. In their different ways all these men are battling to find a way forward at what Elizabeth I called the unknown limits of the world.

The borders of historical fiction and non-fiction: a conversation with Nancy Bilyeau

The ChaliceUKcoverLast year I reviewed Nancy Bilyeau’s excellent début Tudor thriller, The Crown which is set during the dissolution of the monasteries. Its sequel, The Chalice, is being published in the UK by Orion on February 28; and in North America by Simon & Schuster on March 5.

Nancy has kindly agreed to take part in an online discussion with me comparing the processes of writing historical fiction and non-fiction, trying both to identify common ground and to explore the different ways in which we approach problems such as narrative and character. There is a tendency to look down on historical fiction, but at its best it is trying to tell a kind of truth – more usually an emotional truth – about life in a particular period; and at its best, again, it can do that in a way that it is very hard for straight “history” to achieve.

Mathew: Hi Nancy. Many thanks for joining me here! I’m really looking forward to talking to you! I thought we might start by talking about research.

For me, the research process is the most purely enjoyable part of writing a work of non-fiction because – particularly when you start out – you don’t have to make too many decisions and you can read as widely as you like, following both sense and intuition to find possible sources. It’s a very open process because one of the things I am trying to find is the shape of the book, and that only emerges once you have absorbed a certain amount of information and started to map out a universe – which is the parameters of your area – and a rough sense of where your narrative will begin and end.
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Londonist Out Loud podcast

My Londonist Out Loud podcast with N Quentin Woolf, recorded in the lovely gardens at Hampton Court on Wednesday, is now available for download – either from the Londonist website or from iTunes. We chatted about various London-related matters, including the commercialisation of the Houses of Parliament and the ongoing privatisation of public spaces, among other things. I also spoke briefly about the Elizabethan court – and performed so badly in a quiz on old things in London that Mr Woolf silently dropped about half the questions.

If anyone is interested, my previous appearance on the podcast – recorded at Hogarth House in London earlier this year – alongside Mike Paterson of London Historians,  historian and author Hannah Rennier, and Hogarth House manager John Collins, is still available online here.

Tracy Borman reviews The Favourite in BBC History magazine

The September issue of BBC History magazine carries a really nice review of the paperback edition of The Favourite. I’m particularly pleased with this, since it’s by Tracy Borman, whose Elizabeth’s Women: The Hidden Story of the Virgin Queen is wonderful.

Tracy writes:

The Favourite explores the complex, “narcotic” relationship between Elizabeth and Ralegh, and in so doing the author claims to “rescue them from their own myths”. So often caricatured as a vaguely ridiculous flirtation between an ageing queen and a dashing and flattering courtier, their relationship emerges as altogether more extraordinary than that. Drawing parallels between their upbringings… [Lyons] traces Ralegh’s rise from an obsure Devonshire gentleman to a courtier so high in the queen’s favour that it was rumoured they were lovers.

The dangerous interplay between their equally passionate, imperious and unyielding characters (which are brilliantly sketched by Lyons) made for a stormy relationship, but also a bond which Ralegh’s many rivals feared would never be broken.

The full review doesn’t seem to be up online at the moment, but I will post a link to it as and when it is.