BOOK REVIEW: Simon Schama’s A History Of Britain Volume II

A History of Britain - Volume 2: The British Wars 1603-1776: Amazon.co.uk:  Schama, Simon: 9781847920133: Books

In his second volume of the history of Britain, Simon Schama proves himself way ahead of the early-noughties curve and presents a thorough dissection of modern(ish) British politics

Edition Published By: The Bodley Head, 2009

Regular readers of the blog will remember I reviewed the first volume of Simon Schama’s History of Britain a few weeks ago. In it, the legendary art historian leans on his effortlessly poetic tendencies to deliver a fulsome, zinging reading of early and medieval British civilisation.

In Volume II: The British Wars 1603-1775, his emphasis is more on an era that built the foundations of so much of modern Britain. It makes for slightly dryer, date-heavy reading. But Schama’s thorough understanding of the magnitude of this period and forward-thinking sensitivities make it just as intriguing.

The Union

In March 2021, it’s in no way unfeasible that the United Kingdom may not be a thing for much longer. Independence movements in Scotland and Wales now seem to have the strongest grips on their respective populaces than at any point during my lifetime.

It’s incredibly pertinent then, that in The British Wars, Schama spends so much time considering the Union in the 17th century. Alarmingly, that prophetic sense he showed in the first volume feels even more forthright here:

‘‘The obsession with ‘union’ and ‘uniformity’ that consumed both James and Charles I turned out to guarantee hatred and schism’.

But instead of extensively focusing on the mainstream, ‘classic’ stories that we’ve all heard a thousand times, he focuses on how relations between Scotland and England were a crucial catalyst for the Civil War, or political engineering by players largely side-lined by the usual narrative.

That does mean that a genuine and deep interest in this era is probably a requirement. But if you have that interest then Schama paints a fascinating fresco.

Nicola Sturgeon, the leader of Scotland’s Independence-favouring Scottish National Party. Image Credit: Scottish Government Flickr.

Modernity And Revision

The main focus of Volume II is how these two centuries set the ball rolling for everything to take off in future Britain, for good or ill. For example, Schama showcases this as the first golden era for propaganda and the printed press, both often used nefariously.

There are also reappraisals of various figures – particularly the likes of Oliver Cromwell and several major colonial players in later chapters – who really have no business being considered game-changing heroes. There’s a quote about Cromwell in the chapter ‘Looking for Leviathan’ that’s likely to ignite fuses on either side of the political divide in 2021, describing Cromwell’s statue outside the House of Commons as ‘a joke in questionable taste’.

Oliver Cromwell’s infamous statue outside the House of Commons in London. Image Credit: UK Parliament Flickr.

The Trouble with Colonialism

Where Schama really drives the nail regarding revisionism is in the final chapter, ‘The Wrong Empire’. It’s here that he describes the Transatlantic slave trade in suitably depressing detail and offers a proverbial middle finger to anybody who might try and claim it as innocuous.

And he makes up the shortfall in lyricism with strident, righteous opinions:

‘The idea that an empire so noisily advertised as an empire of free Britons should depend on the most brutal coercion of enslaved Africans is not just an academic paradox. It was the condition of the empire’s success, its original sin; a stain that no amount of righteous self-congratulation at its eventual abolition can altogether wash away.’

A statue of Queen Victoria, who presided over the British Empire, outside Windsor Castle. Image Credit: SouthEastern Star Flickr.

Whilst it’s arguable that, despite his efforts, Schama never really goes far enough to condemn Empire, he goes further than most would’ve done in the early noughties. It’s still uncommon to find passages like the following in books by white historians today:

‘Beyond the opportunism of personal plunder lay a much deeper question and one that the British Empire would face time and time again in its march across the globe. Was its military power to be used to strengthen or to weaken the native government they claimed to be ‘assisting’?’

And you get the sense that Schama, like me and many others, believes that time has proven it to be unwaveringly the latter.

The same belittlement that ran through Imperialist attitudes then still exists in the way many Westerners feel about Africa & Asia today. And if Schama’s endeavour here isn’t to expose that full-on, then he at least asks plenty of questions to that end.

You can buy A History Of Britain Volume II: The British Wars 1603-1775 here.

BOOK REVIEW: GARY DONELLY’S NEVER ASK THE DEAD

The third in Northern Irish writer Gary Donelly’s D. I. Sheen series, Never Ask the Dead is a nail-biting, exhilarating piece of Belfast noir that has great drama and terrible truth in spades.

Edition published: Allison & Busby, 2021

‘Sometimes the past, just like our childhood, comes back and finds us, whether we’re ready or not.’

So writes Belfast-born, London-based writer Gary Donelly in his scintillating new thriller Never Ask the Dead. The third novel in his Owen Sheen & Aoife McCusker series, it’s unbelievably tense and exciting, the shadow of Belfast’s past looming large while the book examines and excavates the Troubles’ lingering impact.

Colleagues in the police’s Serious Historic Offences Unit – or SHOT – Sheen and McCusker get thrown into Britain’s murky involvement in The Troubles when a walk-in turns up looking for his missing father. A warning note, difficult police chief and several re-opened cases later, our protagonists are locked in an intense game of cat-and-mouse, battling rogue elements on both sides of the conflict’s divide.

A Realist Sense of Menace

Gary Donelly clearly knows the history of the Troubles inside out. And given the impact of early 2021’s Brexit complications for Northern Ireland, this is certainly a timely release.

But the story’s sense of grit is timeless. Whether he’s depicting dilapidated Belfast suburbs or stalking paranoia, he’s totally realistic.

He writes in a typically acerbic, dry Belfast scrawl, rich in bleak humour and colloquialisms. And while his emphasis is more on blood-quickening chase sequences and destructive hypocrisy, he writes about domestic and commonplace themes – alcoholism, romance and parenthood, for example – with knowing aplomb. His understanding of claustrophobia and one-on-one menace, too, is as vivid as in any BBC drama.

‘Belfast’s Vortex of Violence’

‘In Belfast, history usually spelt the Troubles and this case, it seemed, was no exception’.

Given that sociological divisions in Northern Ireland are simmering once again, any novel which deals with the province’s politics needs to be sensitive. The book manages to tread the centrist line impressively, excavating the horrific part played by British Special Branch agents whilst never shying away from the maleficent nature of the IRA.

Readers should be aware that the violence itself is often gruesome and inspired by real-life atrocities – just like how the characters are sometimes reminiscent of real-life players. Many of the novel’s more sinister instances will be likely to ring bells.

What is the truth?

The main emphasis of the book is on being a nail-biting, haunting story. But like all the best detective mysteries, Never Ask the Dead consistently navigates the meaning of truth. And in the context of the ‘Dirty War’, the meaning is always muddied, bloodied and soaked in sadness.

Crucially, you don’t need to be avidly aware of Northern Ireland’s history to enjoy the book. Donelly’s ‘alternate Belfast’ is privy to dark secrets as much as it is blood-raising drama. So whilst there are constant questions in Never Ask the Dead, the author prioritises a brilliantly page-turning story.

You can purchase Never Ask the Dead from Allison & Busby now.

BOOK REVIEW: Raven Leilani’s Luster

Luster by Raven Leilani | Waterstones

US debutant Raven Leilani comes firing out the blocks with Luster; a brilliantly funny, artistic and painful portrayal of modern womanhood

Edition: Picador, January 2021

As far as first sentences go, Raven Leilani’s debut novel Luster lands on an absolute gold mine:

‘The first time we have sex we are both fully clothed, at our desks during working hours, bathed in blue computer light’.

It’s the sort of opening that tells us exactly where we are without telling us much. Almost immediately, we’re plonked down in a world of millennial dread, dating anxiety and a thoroughly modern prism. And that’s perfect. Because although we don’t quite know it at this stage, the novel’s protagonist Edie lives in that prism too.

A 23-year-old assistant at a New York publishing house, Edie finds herself dating a man twice her age, eventually becoming entangled in an open marriage. On a surface level, it’s the story of being the ‘other woman’, albeit in 21st century suburbia and not wild and despotic Thomas Hardy English countryside.

But the battles Edie has to fight – a deep sense of self-loathing, being an orphan, the struggling artist routine and normalised bouts of racism – are huge. And the novel’s prescience seeps and ekes out of nooks and crannies, rising at the most unexpected moments, slithering tenaciously from loose mundanity; a visit to an art exhibition for example (parenthood), or taking an adopted daughter to her martial arts classes (attraction, isolation AND parenthood).

Power Imbalances In An Unbalanced City

The beauty in Leilani’s writing is that it makes existential anguish and prejudice hit just as they should; like a sledgehammer. The sinister moments, executed in that blink-and-you’ll-miss-it style, reflect how absorbed into everyday consciousness many biases, injustices and inaccuracies are.

The way Edie approaches the power imbalances in pretty much every aspect of her life, presents her as a personality who soaks inequity up like a sponge. Someone who doesn’t necessarily believe bad things happen to her for a reason but struggles to express internal righteousness in her shape-shifting, often unfinished self-portraits.

The mythical grandiosity of New York is unpicked in Luster. Image Credit: thenails Flicker.

Things get fascinatingly bleak in the book’s final third, where ruminations on motherhood, police brutality and a sense of belonging sting particularly hard. By this point, there’s very little humour left, Leilani instead using resonant pathos to depict a reality that is often overlooked but never – in New York’s ‘bounty of holes’ – uncommon.

Much has been written about the book’s theorising on art and the machinations of craft in particular as a mirror for life. And there’s always that sense of dogged determination in Edie, as art becomes the necessary documentation of survival that creatives will always recognise.  

Womanhood As Solace In the 21st Century

It’s a definably assured debut novel. Often as hilariously filthy as it is acerbic, Leilani has done a grand job of presenting stream-of-consciousness and unflinching trauma just as it might appear in one’s brain.

As a white man I can’t claim any of these experiences for myself. But Luster is also a unifying piece of work; Edie’s confusion eventually finds solace in womanhood, what it should and should not be, and how it has moulded survival to its hands in a unique way. The novel itself is similarly singular.  

You can buy Luster here.

BOOK REVIEW: Bhanu Kapil’s How To Wash A Heart

How To Wash a Heart' by Bhanu Kapil -Reviewed | The Blue Nib

Bhanu Kapil’s T. S. Eliot Prize-winning collection is a phenomenal dissection of a clash of cultures and multi-varied senses of identity

Originally Published: Liverpool University Press, 2020

Poetry obsessives will recognise How to Wash a Heart as the winner of the 2021 T. S. Eliot Prize. They’ll also recognise that poetry criticism is often laced with a sort of authoritarian, imposed worth. The idea that T. S. Eliot’s work itself is the high watermark of poetic substance is problematic at best. But in this case, Bhanu Kapil’s latest collection really *IS* that good.

In an interview with Liverpool University Press, Kapil said:

‘The culture of detention and family separations on the U.S.- Mexico border, repatriation protocols in the U.K., and the aggression towards minority populations in contemporary India are the water of this book…’

In that light, the dangerously homogenising term ‘immigrant experience’, the dynamic between guests and hosts and multitudinous senses of ‘belonging’ slot together seamlessly. Though they may not have been the collection’s original impetus in terms of imagery, they’re bought to life with beautiful urgency.

Bhanu Kapil. Image credit: kellywritershouse Flickr

Identity, Surrealism and Poetic Perfection

The lack of ownership here, it’s possible to read, is reflected by the fact that all the poems are untitled. But the notion of reclaiming a life and identity is central too.

Throughout the collection, conversations between heart and head, culture and personality, Westernisation and assimilation all mirror the confusion. There’s a deep sense of a wholesome figure throughout, though its spirit is fraught with fractures. It’s a beautifully refreshing, watery and translucent assertion of self and home.

Kapil’s real magic is capturing a resonant moment in the simplest of phrases. See, for example, how a comment like ‘when you left’ denotes her exposure to new cultures and environments that are openly hostile. Or how ‘on the windowsill’ repeatedly illustrates that sense of being on the inside looking out, or vice versa.

Anxiety, paranoia and the predatory nature of colonialism are constant mines of thought and are encapsulated by surreally perfect phrases: ‘Am I your queen?’, or ‘Psychosis creams the air giving it a peculiar richness and depth.’ Those anxiety attacks are sometimes brilliantly conjoined with surrealist humour too, such as:

‘When was the last time you saw a werewolf? It’s extraordinary how afraid I am all the time.’

A werewolf is just one of the manifestations of Kapil’s insecurities. Image credit: Mr Evil Cheese Scientist Flickr.

Where Does the West Really Stand?

She also checkmates the western approach to immigration and ‘otherness’ in genuinely novel ways. With well-balanced anger she references the wilful ignorance of questions about her life that completely disregard her Indian heritage; ‘I want to hear what happened afterwards not before’.

She hands the disingenuous western sense of altruism back to us on the plate – we may act as if we’re doing immigrants a kindness or favour, but when that altruism is fake, the receiver sees right through it.

A short version of this review would read simply that this is one of those collections that makes you feel loose-limbed and liquid with how beautiful it is. It unremittingly deserves all its plaudits, but the platitudes of winning a prize don’t go deep enough in mining its cultural worth. It’s a phenomenal piece of work.

You can Purchase How To Wash a Heart here.

BOOK REVIEW: Jackie Wills’ A Friable Earth

A Friable Earth: Amazon.co.uk: Wills, Jackie: 9781911469940: Books

Jackie Wills’ beautiful ode to ageing womanhood is strangely relatable in a world smothered by Coronavirus

Originally Published by: Arc, 2019

Ageing womanhood is still a taboo in Western society. Frequently misrepresented and oftentimes ignored, the perspectives of women over 60 should be another bolt in the educational foundations of life.

As a woman in that demographic, legendary British poet Jackie Wills is succinctly placed to dictate the mental and physical realisations of that stage in life. But A Friable Earth casts its net wide, and like all the best poets, she teases those realities – sometimes beautiful, often excruciating – out of both big societal discussions and matters that seem pedestrian in comparison.

There’s also plenty here that’s relevant to many of our current realities. The places her mind wanders, the uncertainty about the future and constantly evolving approach to time are all easily accessible to those currently living in a lockdown. But almost all the poems here, whether they ooze quiet humour or real despondency, take Wills’ identity and transcend it to something that needs to be perceived.

The Natural World Can Help Us

There’s a hefty helping of ecological love in A Friable Earth. For example, in Watering she manages to encapsulate facets of love and missed opportunities via the outline of humanity’s relationship with nature:

‘the city’s staggered roofs house chicks who mew like cats, how earth sends back the sounds of rakes and spades, that you and me can blur somewhere in between’

In the staggering Road From the North she expertly uses spaciousness and contrasting language to reflect the beauty of nature, its relationship to humans, a deep spiritual connection with it and racial apartheid. Tortoise is an ode to looking for/finding purpose in the later stages of life. The obvious connotations of its title aside, this collection ultimately seeks recovery in the beauty of the natural world.

Are we more akin with Tortoises than we think? Image credit: Chris Parker Flickr.

Life Through an Experienced Lens

It being A Friable Earths default purview, there are essences of ageing on almost every page. Where they really stand out is when they’re used to highlight universal prejudices. In Glamour she wonders whether women who refuse to pluck their bodily hairs are the truly glamourous ones, taking a hammer to the Hollywood-affirmed definition of beauty.

Wandering womb is a beautiful discussion of womanhood’s purpose after having children, when shallow, misogynistic attitudes can no longer physically apply:

‘compared to a womb, which is now joined in its ambling by a kidney, eye, spleen, all of them nomads seeking relief from a 24-hour contract to remain in the same’

Vho Mjedzi – one of many poems where Wills conveys her South African experience – wonderfully explores the relatability of women across cultures, but also the ways in which femininity excels in those cultures – and they’re often ways that ours doesn’t.

South African & nature are almost constant muses for Wills. Image credit: Water Alternatives Photos

Pocket St. Anthony is an almost maudlin take on ageing, before Silver Inkwell counteracts it brilliantly, playing on the ‘you decide what to do with your time’ motif.

There are myriad other strains and resonances – revolving around death, racial prejudice and motherhood – that I’ve barely touched on here. But throughout A Friable Earth, Wills has a graceful nuance that whether in short or long-form verse, she executes with real beauty. It’s a touching and strangely relatable snapshot of a moment in life.

You can buy A Friable Earth here.

BOOK REVIEW: J. O. Morgan’s The Martian’s Regress

The Martian's Regress

Scottish poet J. O. Morgan’s The Martian’s Regress makes some powerful points about ecological collapse, but has a questionable approach to gender politics

Originally published: Cape Poetry, 2020

Last week I wrote a review a Peter Robinson’s Poetry & Money: A Speculation. Throughout it, the link between poets, their art and the thing that dominates their lives became clear. If money has been the muse-du-jour over the centuries though, in the 21st it’s been replaced by something else: our future on this planet.

That’s reflected across all genres; last week The Bookseller reported that publishing houses are expecting massive sales of books about the natural world in 2021. Whereas nature may have been a saving grace for many of us throughout lockdown, it can’t continue to be if we don’t save it first. And that’s what Scottish poet J. O. Morgan argues in his latest book, 2020’s much-lauded The Martian’s Regress.

We’re Running Out Of Time

A narratively arced collection charting a Martian’s return to planet Earth in a Post-Apocalyptic future and his ensuing actions & emotions, it’s a brutal, forlorn piece of work pretty much from the start – though what else would you expect from a collection which opens with a poem entitled A Dream of Planetary Subjugation?

There isn’t much in the way of optimism here, but of course there’s no point in viewing the stats through a rose tint either. Morgan’s emphasis is on the lack of time left we’ve to care for our planet, and The Martian’s Regress is suitably sobering.

Eco-imagery And Cross-Medium Art

Despite the nihilism, Morgan employs plenty of hooks to draw you in. There are immediately variations on classicist poetic language in the aforementioned opener, as well as the breathless pace set by the lack of punctuation. There are instances of no-punches-pulled beauty too, like this from Frequently Asked Questions:

‘We’ve jettisoned so much metal in close orbit you can see its magnificent sky-smear glinting on clear blue midsummer days’.

The imagery in Continuity Rites is positively cinematic, and The Martian Struggles Alone might recall eco-centric horror flick The Hallow, or H. R. Giger’s work on Alien. There’s also a fairly strident anti-imperialist undercurrent that makes the likes of Supplemental Matter and The Martian Visits a Museum damningly righteous.

A sample of H. R. Giger’s artwork for Ridley Scott’s 1979 film Alien. Image Credit: Dreamside Flickr

Gender Politics Problems

There is one big question mark hanging heavily over The Martian’ Regress for me though: the issue of gender politics. The Martian’s companion, characterised as ‘she’, is almost never depicted in a sympathetic light. Either she’s submissive – and it’s impossible to ignore the whiff of misogyny in those cases – or she’s not compatible, emotionless and incapable.

Some readers have interpreted that it is indeed a metaphor for the constant subjugation of women by men. Given the book’s theme, it might be more plausible to argue that ‘she’ is planet Earth and is being decimated just as our home is. And in fairness, Morgan goes as far as to long for a feminine future in A Cautionary Tale. Either way though, it’s never clarified, and it leaves an odd aftertaste.

In terms of eco-poetry and the way the form reflects our immediate reality, The Martian’s Regress is a pertinent, important read.

You can purchase The Martian’s Regress here.

BOOK REVIEW: Porsha Olayiwola’s I Shimmer Sometimes, Too

REVIEW: I SHIMMER SOMETIMES, TOO – PORSHA OLAYIWOLA (BUTTON POETRY) – The  Poetry Question

Boston-based poet Porsha Olayiwola’s debut collection is a phenomenal, moving and fierce assertion of identity

Originally Published: Button Poetry, 2019

To us poetry lovers, it’s the most direct form of expressionism. Having a finite time to say something, as well as the ability to reform and restructure rules, adds to its beauty. Boston’s Poet Laureate Porsha Olayiwola grasps all those dynamics by the horns in I Shimmer Sometimes, Too. A powerful, gut-punching assertion of identity as a black, queer, ‘hip-hop feminist’, the 73 pages here are some of the most fiery, lucid and ambitious poems that you’re likely to read for some time.

Reshaping Identity

Olayiwola combines a disregard for conventional layout and scathing socio-political commentary to rip up the rule book right from the start. The opening poem is essayistic, excavating themes like male sensitivity and the decimation of black culture in breathless prose. And crucially, amidst its full-on presentation she hides golden left-hooks, the type of scabrous zingers whose prescience will stalk and unfurl itself as it progresses, like:

‘He might lay a sheet of cayenne over the flesh – a homeland conquered by sun, a fire gouged between cheeks, eyes watering a flag of surrender’.

As surrealist as she can be, there’s always a sense of frankness masked by deceptively simple techniques. Take Continent, for example, where the breadth of the stanzas begins broadly, only to become far more restricted by the end. Interlude At A Neighbourhood Gas Station: 2001 – a total affirmation of Olayiwola’s gender identity – is thrilling both narratively and in the fluidity of its final twist.

Porsha Olayiwola performing Notorious, from I Shimmer Sometimes, Too, live.

Familiar Ground Given New Life

That surrealism, however, also means that fairly commonplace themes are totally revitalised in her hands. My Brother Ghost Writes This Poem is a damning indictment on the mass incarceration of young black men in America, and Ode To Ex-girlfriend, with its theme of the lingering horror of abusive relationships, is colourfully devastating.

The Bus Stop Is Crowned Motif links grandiose cultural posturing and a grim, multi-layered urban reality:

‘Those who have the least are often offered up at a crossroad. Those in need are often slain in the dead of mourning. Those in power smile, name this a just fate. Palms grip to makeshift knives when we travel as to not be the tale they warned us of.’

And she’s not afraid to tear off any comfort blanket that the white middle class might’ve surrounded itself with, especially on the hyper-sexual one-two of Listen: My Right Hand Is Covered In Blood and I Wish To Eat What My Partner Does Not…The Muse For This Black Dyke Is A Dead White Man is an ingenious counter to T. S. Eliot’s The Hollow Men, espousing how where Eliot continues to be lauded after death, Olayiwola and black women like her cannot expect to be.

Vulnerability and Righteousness

Perhaps the best summation of the entire collection comes in Aladdin’s Genie On Emancipation:

‘not the first time someone has been unarmed by survival’.

I Shimmer Sometimes, Too is the perspective of someone whose identity is as righteous as any, but whose survival is always precarious. But the book is as much a celebration as it is a battle cry. The toing-and-froing within her psyche causing this collection to ebb with power in any context Olayiwola chooses. She uses vulnerability to prepare for the fight, and in a furiously strong way.

You can buy I Shimmer Sometimes, Too here.

BOOK REVIEW: Miranda Kaufmann’s Black Tudors: The Untold Story

Black Tudors: The Untold Story: Amazon.co.uk: Kaufmann, Miranda:  9781786071842: Books

Miranda Kaufmann’s exploration of African presences in Tudor/Stuart Britain is an evergreen, educational powerhouse

Originally publication: Oneworld Publications, 2017

We all know that 2020 was a seismic year for race relations. The murder of George Floyd by a policeman in the US sent decades-old discussions into fever pitch. In the UK, it was the Brexit vote that triggered a rise in hate-crime and xenophobic sentiment. That’s something that Miranda Kaufmann touches on late-on in Black Tudors: The Untold Story:

‘As debate about immigration becomes ever more vituperative and divisive, it is vital to understand that the British Isles have always been peopled with immigrants’.

And throughout the preceding pages, she expertly exposes and navigates the huge but unsung contribution African immigrants made to British society throughout the late Tudor/early Stuart periods. She focuses on 10 characters who moved through the echelons of English life, whether that be in royal courts, circumnavigating the globe with Sir Francis Drake or weaving silk in Southwark.

She turns her thorough research into fluid prose and often hits on imagery so vivid that you can almost smell the places coming off the pages. The way she writes about prostitution in Westminster, or dairy producing in Gloucestershire, for example, showcase the kind of connectivity you’d expect from classicist fiction.

Miranda Kaufmann recounting the research behind Black Tudors, the book and her reasons for writing it.

And whilst some of the stories – like that of Edward Swarthye, the first black man to whip a white man on British soil – lead us to ‘question whether the development of racial slavery in the English colonies was inevitable’, she’s not afraid to shy away from the injustices faced by many of Swarthye’s counterparts, especially women. She does this in pleasingly acerbic, on-the-nose fashion too, like in the chapter about the Westminster-based Anne Cobbie:

‘Few women voluntarily chose prostitution as a career. Many recounted that they had been tricked into it by ‘fair words and great promises’. Some had received guarantees of marriage that proved as worthless as the men who gave them once the deed was done’.

The overwhelming feeling you might come away from Black Tudors: The Untold Story is one of exasperation that you weren’t taught this previously. Part of that may be to do with the fact that much of the ground-breaking research – in which Kaufmann has been involved since the early 00’s – wasn’t widespread until recently. And while the documentation on many of these figures remains scanty, this book is as much about our education as it is reclaiming their stories.

Its impact since publication in 2017 has been massive. But its message will continue to be important until sections of society are willing to become less ignorant about our collective past, and how much we owe to those from other cultures.

You can purchase Black Tudors: The Untold Story here.

BOOK REVIEW: Peter Robinson’s Poetry & Money: A Speculation

Poetry & Money - Peter Robinson - Oxford University Press

Celebrated poet and academic Peter Robinson casts his eye over the way money has impacted poetry through the centuries in often riveting style.

Poets will tell you that their art is a valuable key to unlocking life’s secrets. They’ll argue that poetry is as essential as anything else when discussing cultural and personal worth. I believe that’s true; but the elephant in the room is what gives our lives material, physical and tangible value. Money has always been at the root of that value, whether poets admit it to themselves or not. And with his new book, Poetry & Money: A Speculation, Peter Robinson removes the cobwebs on that very subject.

Well, some of the cobwebs. At a brisk 233 pages (excluding a bibliography and index), Poetry & Money’s scope is somewhat limited. There are no considerations of foreign language poetry, for instance (something Robinson notes apologetically in his introduction). There’s not much analysis of female poets throughout the centuries either, and pretty well nothing published post-2000. But there’s plenty to sink your teeth into here all the same, and when Robinson is assertive, he’s often bang on the money.

Setting his stall out early, Robinson describes the aim of the book as to ‘explore two very different, but inextricably interrelated, human instruments for the attribution of value to the world’. That exploration includes things like notions of ‘trust’ and multi-faceted ideas of exchange, the constant ways in which poetry, money and life reflect each other, shifting attitudes towards paper money and more. There are studies of ‘begging poems’, the mysterious South Sea Bubble of the early 18th century and poetry’s often misguided idealism.

If all that sounds niche and a bit dry, then probably this book isn’t for you. And it being an academic book, there’s no shallow end here. Poetry & Money assumes that its readership is well-steeped in its subject matter and focus. But if you’re interested in poetry, and its connection with the major thing that dominates all our lives (for good or ill), then there are rich and riveting pickings to be had.

A bust of D. H. Lawrence in Nottingham, close to where he was born. Image credit: Elliott Brown Flickr

For example, there’s an immense dissection of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s ‘Sea Dreams’ in ‘For a vast speculation had failed’, as Robinson takes its multitudinous readings, dynamics and Tennyson’s own financial context into his stride. As he hones in on Ezra Pound’s proto-fascism in ‘Going off the gold standard’, it’s hard to imagine how Pound could be more dislikeable, but the analysis is still rewarding. And he’s not afraid to land subtle punches either, for example:

‘It’s not the medievalism that’s the problem: it’s the assurance of a special insight into a global conspiracy’.

His discussion of D. H. Lawrence’s ‘Money-madness’ in ‘Contracts and prophets’ expertly deals with the pitfalls of overly-romanticising the relationship between any individual and money. And the web of influence he weaves when discussing W.H Auden’s ‘Casino’ is pretty spellbinding.

He saves the best for last in ‘Getting value out of money’. There are a few stellar observations here, like his perceptive brilliance when discussing Frank O’Hara’s Adieu for Norman…, or delving into the hypocrisy of poetry ‘prizes’, or discussing relationships that form out of the function of ‘feedback’.

Ultimately, Poetry & Money is preaching to the choir, and doesn’t pretend that it’s any other way. But if you’re genuinely interested in the way money has shaped poetry and several writers’ souls, then this is a must-read.

You can purchase Poetry & Money: A Speculation here.