Review: Shakespeare in London by Hannah Crawforth, Sarah Dustagheer and Jennifer Young

Shakespeare in LondonThis review first appeared in the August 2015 issue of History Today.

The world might be forgiven for rolling its eyes at the prospect of another book on Shakespeare. Does Shakespeare in London, the latest addition to the Bloomsbury Arden list,  have anything new to say? The answer is a confident yes.

Shakespeare in London is a short book with big ambitions. It weaves together various narratives – Shakespeare’s London career, a physical journey west to east across early-modern London – with vivid readings of eight plays, each of which is used to explore aspects of London life around the turn of the 17th century. So, for example, the book opens with an account of Titus Andronicus, relating it to the culture of punishment, bloodshed and retribution embodied in the site of Tyburn.

The process is not without its difficulties. Where the Merchant of Venice, say, can be mapped closely onto an examination of the law, or King Lear onto early modern ideas of medicine and madness, the approach taken to Romeo & Juliet – marrying it to the domestic wealth and power evident in the great riverside mansions on the Strand – is more subtle, perhaps even metaphorical.

But on balance the flexibility of that approach is one of the book’s greatest strengths. The fact that the book is a wholly collective effort and each chapter is co-authored by all three authors seems commendably appropriate to the collaborative working practices of the theatre they describe.

Shakespeare is one of the least literal of the early modern playwrights. Whereas the work of Jonson, say, or Middleton gains strength and purpose from its precise and detailed evocation of contemporary London, Shakespeare is characteristically more elusive – evasive, even.

The authors both capture and, in some ways, mirror that trait: reflecting on Shakespeare’s writing at the Globe they self-consciously echo their own description of early-modern London as being always and never the same.

The society revealed here, whether focusing on religion or scientific experimentation or economics, is one undergoing a seismic collision of values. Innovation is competing with tradition; modernity with the memorially fixed. This is, of course, as true of the material city, in which the great monastic houses had been repurposed into mansions – as well as the odd theatre or two – if not torn down all together, as it is of the multitude of ideas the city contains.

The book is clearly aimed at a general audience and, as such, benefits greatly from the bold decision to dispense with the compulsive hat-tipping and knee-bending to the vast array of literary critics that so bedevils much contemporary academic writing. That is not to say that the text is unacademic – the ideas and insights of others are scrupulously noted where relevant and there is an excellent selection of further reading and works cited at the end. But the writers’ decision has freed them to create a more allusive, thought-provoking and approachable work that should be required reading for any undergraduate student of early-modern English literature.

Shakespeare in London offers useful insights into Shakespeare’s work and his working practices. But it is also a wonderful, wide-ranging introduction to the richness and complexity of late-Elizabethan and early-Jacobean society. It would be instructive reading for anyone, including young historians, although its play-by-play structure might sadly alienate those outside the silo of English studies who are less engaged by the literary culture.

 

Review: The Black Prince of Florence by Catherine Fletcher

the-black-prince-of-florenceThis review first appeared in the Financial Times on April 29, 2016

Alessandro de’ Medici reigned from 1532 to 1537 as the first duke of one of Italy’s greatest city-states. Yet just as he lived in obscurity until his teens in the late 1520s, he has largely been returned to that obscurity by historians ever since.

Why then, asks Catherine Fletcher, has her subject been so ill-served by posterity? He was by all accounts intelligent and charming, and a great patron of the arts; Vasari was a life-long friend. If he was also ruthless and decadent, those qualities hardly make him unique among Renaissance Italian princes. And while it is true that Alessandro was illegitimate, so was his patron, Guilio de’ Medici — who rose to become Pope Clement VII in 1523 — and his chief rival and cousin, Ippolito de’ Medici.

What role, then, does the colour of his skin play in all this? Certainly, racist pseudoscience served to demean Alessandro in the Victorian era, with one 1875 study describing him as having “all the known features of the delinquent amoral constitutional type: proud, arrogant, selfish, sensual . . . a born criminal”.

The irony, as Fletcher shows in The Black Prince of Florence, is that these kind of pejorative racial distinctions are distinctly modern categories of thought. Alessandro’s father was Lorenzo de’ Medici, the duke of Urbino. His mother, Simunetta, was most likely a servant or slave of the Medici family with a partly African ancestry. Although after his death he was given the descriptive sobriquet Alessandro il Moro, no one seems to have thought the complexion of his skin worth disparaging while he was alive — and enemies were not in short supply, not least within his own family.

In fact, Alessandro’s illegitimacy seems to have been a far more potent issue for contemporaries — and for the duke himself. Alessandro would rule on an inheritance dispute that revolved around the birth of a nephew out of wedlock: “For all that he’s a bastard,” he asked the respondent, “is he not made of flesh, and born of a man and woman like you? . . . Does he not have soul and body like all those legitimately born?”

It is his illegitimacy that accounts for the obscurity of his upbringing, then, and familial necessity that accounts for his dazzlingly swift rise to power. Alessandro’s father died in 1519, which made Alessandro’s older cousin Ippolito the focus of the family’s political aspirations in Florence. But when Clement VII suffered a life-threatening illness in the late 1520s, he made Ippolito a cardinal to ensure the family retained its firm grip on the church. Ippolito never forgave him — or Alessandro, who was next in line.

Indeed, Ippolito never stopped scheming to seize Florence for himself, and his complicity in a plot against Alessandro led to his own assassination in 1535, almost certainly on Alessandro’s orders; Fletcher’s more-or-less verbatim account of the assassin’s interrogation and torture makes one of the more astonishing setpieces in the book.

Alessandro would ultimately be murdered by another cousin, Lorenzino, for reasons that remain unclear. It seems unlikely that Lorenzino, regarded by some contemporaries as little more than Alessandro’s pimp, acted on principle; nevertheless, the lurid allegations of despotism and tyranny used to justify the murder have tainted Alessandro’s name ever since.

Fletcher’s first book, The Divorce of Henry VIII (2012), was a study of Vatican intrigue that demonstrated her ability to use rarely accessed Italian archives to create a gripping and original account of a well-worn subject. Here she has used the same skills to even greater effect, creating a compelling portrait of a forgotten man — himself both brutal and brutalised — once at the very heart of the Renaissance world order. Her narrative follows the extraordinary arc of Alessandro’s life closely, but also uses it to illuminate the bloody opulence of Renaissance Italian politics in all its squalid, operatic glory.

If we think of the Renaissance courts constructed by the Medici as simply corrupt or venal, however, we are missing the point. They merely commoditised power — and sex and art and information and all things besides, but above all power — to an exquisite degree. The Medicis knew the price of everything, but they knew its value too, right down to the last drop of blood.

The decline and fall of Twyford Abbey

This article first appeared in the November 2015 London Historians newsletter. Since I wrote it, the abbey has been sealed away behind high metal fencing, as if to confirm the purposeful neglect of its current owners. 

I grew up in Kingsbury, North West London. I now live in Ealing. Between those two places lies a stretch of the North Circular I must have driven hundreds if not thousands or times.

But it was only recently I noted a wooden fence close to Hanger Lane – on the left as you travel east and roughly opposite the Hoo-Hing Chinese food emporium. Behind the wooden fence, is wilderness – characterised most obviously by an array of Giant Hogweed that more than amply live up to their name. They tower ponderously over the fence like watchtowers or searchlights.
And, it turns out, they hide a secret.

Behind that fence lie the ruins of the Grade II-listed Twyford Abbey, an early 19th-century Gothic revival mansion designed by William Atkinson. Actually, ruins is an overstatement: the building was only really abandoned in the late 1980s. But it will become ruinously impossible to save soon.

At first sight of the name one instinctively assumes the building must be a relic of Henry VIII’s enthusiastic plunder of the Catholic Church. There has been a house on the site of Twyford Abbey since around 1290. It has, at times, been a manor house, a farmhouse and a mansion surrounded by a moat. But there wasn’t a religious order here until around 1902, when the Alexian order of monks took it over and began to use it as a rest home for the elderly.

Ironically, then, the name Twyford Abbey predated its use as a religious house. The man who had the house built in 1806 – Thomas Willan – also responsible for filling in the moat – simply thought the Abbey suffix added a suitably gothic touch to the already gothic vision he had for his grand new home. Which is why he employed William Atkinson. Gothic revival was what Atkinson did.
His is best known now perhaps, for his work on Chequers, the prime minister’s country residence. But he also has many other houses to his credit, among them Lismore Castle, Scone Palace, Bretton Hall, and Hylands.

And it seems appropriate that he worked for Sir Walter Scott on Abbotsford, too. Atkinson’s historicity, like Scott’s, was sentimental and sweeping, unfettered by what we might now call granularity – a true desire to replicate in any detail the forms of Gothic architecture – but deep in romantic sensibility and therefore truer to his own time than perhaps he knew.

It is now sandwiched between the North Circular and the A40, with Diageo’s headquarters and the Central Middlesex Hospital hemming it in closer. Its grounds as much as its buildings, are much fallen from what they were. Parcels have been sold periodically for perhaps 150 years. The Willesden Workhouse, the Royal Agricultural Society and Guinness – hence the presence of Diageo – have all benefited from the desperation of the Abbey’s owners at different times.

And its story speaks sadly to the neglect that comes to property that falls between the cracks of the planning and heritage systems. The house was listed in January 1973, most likely in response to a request from the Alexian order to have it demolished. The order abandoned it in 1988, and it has slowly fallen into neglect ever since.

I recently spoke to architectural historian, writer and urban regeneration specialist Denna Jones, who is passionate about the neglect of Twyford Abbey. Jones was initially drawn to the building by its status as a lost gem of gothic revival architecture.

“In terms of Gothic architecture,  I love it because despite popular and admired sites like Strawberry Hill, I think there’s still a bit of an attitude that gothic revival architecture is de trop. It isn’t,” she said.

But she recognizes that its importance is more than architectural: put to proper use, the regeneration of Twyford Abbey could have a transformative effect on the local community. “Twyford Abbey is a Grade II listed building with central London location on an undeveloped 5.4 hectare site,” she said. “There is huge potential to not only save a fine gothic revival building but to do something imaginative with the site that will address in part London’s housing crisis.”

It is hard to see how that might happen. The site is currently owned by Twyford Properties Ltd, a shell company registered in a tax haven whose owners – in common with far too many property developers in London, are unknown.

Twyford Properties Ltd has applied to Ealing Council on several occasions with different plans for the property. All have included partial demolition. The most recent, in 2012, was to turn the site into a luxury hotel and spa. All its applications have been turned down.

The company has shown no interest in maintaining or preserving or developing the site ever since. All it seems to have done since acquiring it is to put a large fence around those areas that provided access and to put a sign across the gate asserting its ownership.

I asked Denna if she could see a way forward for Twyford Abbey. “The first task is to save it from further deterioration,” she said. “Lack of duty of care by its owners clearly demonstrates their interest in the site is financial not heritage, not history, not as a community asset. There are thousands of examples of historic buildings disappearing because owners relied on benign neglect to do the dirty work for them. Immediate enforcement is called for and the council must issue an Urgent Repair Notice to the owners.

“The second task is to recover this community asset from its current owners whose actions or lack of actions demonstrate they are not suitable care takers of a heritage and community asset. What seems to be missing is a campaign to save the house and property. It’s critical that a third party of enthusiasts steps up to negotiate the future of the site along with the council and owners.
“Given the owner’s failure to maintain the site in even a perfunctory manner, I ask whether there is scope for the Council to pursue either a CPO or EDMO? Or if an Urgent Repair Notice is issued and the owners fail to make good on it, does that open the door to force a sale? I don’t know the answers but these are questions that must be raised and answered.

“The Council’s principles of development include a clause that where there is evidence of deliberate neglect or damage to the heritage asset, the deteriorated state should not be taken into account in the planning decision.”

My personal wish for the site – beyond restoration – would be for it to become a working arts space – part gallery, part studios, part theatre. West London needs an equivalent to, say, Whitechapel Gallery in the east. Twyford Abbey has excellent transport links, after all. What West London very much doesn’t need is another property being renovated and turned into luxury apartments.

Denna’s preferred solution, however, is both contemporary and rooted in the history of urban London. “If we could think beyond traditional housing,” she said, “then I would advocate considering how the site could accommodate light industry with attached artisan housing. These sites are  being lost across London. Peter Guillery’s book The Small House in Eighteenth Century London demonstrates how the London we know was built by small artisans and builders. I’d like to see if we could adopt aspects of that model as the spokes around the hub of Twyford Abbey.”

Whether we can do anything to effect change is questionable though. Again, perhaps more radical and creative thinking is needed. It’s a question I put to Denna. “The site needs community advocates – and I don’t just mean people in Ealing,” she said. “I mean a global community of advocates. Would a new kind of social media ‘public subscription’ work, for instance? Public subscriptions were once common. They allowed for the building of sites such as Devonport’s Column. The Statue of Liberty was built in part by public subscription. “Maybe Kickstarter is the new style public subscription and we could use it save Twyford Abbey.”

Whatever the answer, we urgently need to create a sustained campaign to save this site from the neglect of nature and developers alike.

Denna Jones’ most recent book was Architecture: The Whole Story, published by Thames & Hudson in 2014.

The future is ours to write: some thoughts on Britain after Brexit

Like most of my friends, I was heartbroken by the vote on Thursday. Heartbroken but not wholly surprised.

Let’s leave aside the dishonesty of the campaign.

This was a vote that has been brewing since the crash of 2007/08 when across the developed world governments supported the financial and political elites who created the conditions that allowed the crash to happen – and then demanded that the wider populace pick up the tab.

Elites can only command respect when their expertise and ability work for the common good. When they so clearly and catastrophically fail, and are not called to account in any way, if is not unreasonable for people to become cynical and distrustful.

The EU is an elite entity. It is not the Europe we are broken-hearted at being cast out of. That Europe exists as long as we want it to, as long as we are prepared to fight for it.

But for many, I think the EU – as with governments generally across the West – represented a failed and broken compact. One which looked after its own in the financial sector and punished the people of Greece and Italy and Spain rather than let the failures in the system be felt by those who designed and profited from it.

People feel powerless and a vote against the status quo is a way of expressing that. But it isn’t the EU that robs them of agency, far from it. It is globalisation.

At a local level, change is generational. Globally, by which I mean among the global financial elites, change is technological, and fast.

Globalisation inevitably means that skilled and non-skilled labour will be contracted out to the lowest bidder. The working class of the West will be – and are – the biggest losers.

A vote to “take back control” was a vote against that : against a no-opportunity economy, with low security jobs for now and worse on the horizon, against hollowed out communities starved of resources and starved of attention, which cannot compete with migrant workers in a race to the bottom.

These communities feel voiceless, their concerns unmet in parliament and scorned by many to whom they look for support and representation.

Anti-immigrant sentiment derives in large part from communities which are fearful, insecure and impoverished by forces which benefit the middle and upper classes but strip them of all protection.

Yes some leave voters are racist. Yes most of them were lied to – despicably – by the politicians. And yes, many will find that the EU – flawed as it is – was a bulwark against globalisation, not part of its vanguard. And yes, vote Leave was an emotional decision not a rational one.

But so was Remain. Europe is an idea that transcends the EU. We are still European. The future is far from decided yet. If we want England / Britain to be an open, outward-looking, tolerant force for good in the world, then it is still in our power to make it so.

Some Leave voters may be hateful. But many if not most voted out of fear, fear of a now that offers them little and a future that offers them less.

It is down to us to build the future that we want. It is our future. It is not about institutions and models of government. It is about habits of heart and mind, the generosity and kindness we bring to debate, the hope we believe in and enact.

Fuck what the nation voted one rainy day in June. If we want to pass on the nation that we grew up in to our children, we can still do so. We do not need the EU for that. We need each other.

We can do it – but not by despising those who made the wrong choice on Thursday. But by keeping in our hearts the values that are dear to us, and that we believe are worth fighting for.

The future is unwritten. Europe is a powerful idea of which the EU is a very poor expression – just ask the people of Greece. Let’s write a better future than either the old status quo or this new reality can offer.

Venceremos, my friends. Onwards into the dawn.

Memory and identity: a personal history

My father is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. He will be 90 this year. He grew up close by the docks in Beckton, East London, which are now long gone. He remembers seeing the first wave of German bombers flying over London on September 7, 1940.

He was stationed in the Pacific when he joined the Navy in 1944; he has photos of Nagasaki taken a few weeks after it was destroyed by the atomic bomb.

At Cambridge after the war, he joined the Communist Party only to leave in the 1950s, disheartened by the party’s refusal to fully endorse the democratic process. At least, this is what I remember being told long ago, when facts seemed more stable than they do now.

He spent almost his entire working life in the trades union movement.

I write these things not because my father’s life was remarkable in itself. Every life is surely as full with meaning as a spider is with eggs. My father simply had the fortune – was it good or ill? – to live in more remarkable times than our own.

I write these things because now, when he and I talk, I wonder about what it means to me as a historian, as well as a son, to see those points of personal history that make my father who he is pulled further apart, the way the threads of a cobweb recoil from flame.

It is true, to paraphrase JG Ballard, that the resilience of the decaying mind gives hope to us all: the stubborn persistence of memory and story, the indelible certainties of felt events, of sight and texture and sound.

But if I am honest, oblivion yawns more widely than it did. Yes, a version of his life could be constructed from the record – from material fact and the collective memory of his children.

Yet the things that distinguish his life from countless others of his generation, the stubborn salt of individuality and unexpectedness that gives history its savour, would surely be erased by his greater forgetting – all those numberless thoughts and feelings that have never been recalled to us.

And I can’t help but think now – now that it is too late – that omission is a species of sin for historians, too.

The present – this now of ours – is forever falling from our grasp.

Perhaps, when I have been elsewhere in archives and more distant reaches of the past, I should have been here in the present, finding a way to save more before it is gone, to hold a small beachhead against oblivion, instead of trying to rescue the already lost.

What duty, I wonder, does the historian hold to the present, and to the historians that come after?

After all, this very personal history of my father’s, as with all private histories, weaves its own awkward and often unpredictable dance about the political and intellectual rhythms of public life.

And if history is to have a human dimension, as I would argue it must, then it should surely focus on precisely that: the impact of the private on the public, and vice versa.

I was reminded the other day of Livy’s maxim that the study of history is the best medicine for a sick mind.

I have always thought – perhaps glibly – that this said more about Livy’s anxieties than it did about history per se. But circumstance is making me feel the substance of Livy’s point more acutely.

History is an art, as fiction and poetry and drama are. It is, among other things, a way of contending with what time and decay and death do to human identity.

But history is more than art: history is art plus memory. Watching my father fade from the present into some other, merely somatic life is an acute reminder that memory and identity are the closest of bedfellows.

It is easy to despair. And if I am honest I can catch myself thinking more about the impact of the illness, on the decay of my father’s faculties, than I do about the man still living and breathing in front of me.

I am far from proud of this, either as a son or as a historian; it is, in a way, a denial of history.

If, as Livy said, the study of history is a means of ordering a disordered mind – of restoring its identity, its certainties of self – it is also perhaps a bulwark against a decaying one.

Perhaps it is never too late.

In the end, we all forget and are forgotten, in sum or in part. Remembering, and honouring the remembrances of others, is one of the most human and important things we can do.

As historians, we must believe in the recoverability of data, of sources, of life.

We must all, in our own way, be optimists at heart, however dark the horizon.

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.