Peter Stanford meets a late-blooming poet whose work draws on the faith of her celebrated Recusant family
Life is conventionally lived as a kind of funnel. It begins wide, with every possibility, and then gradually narrows down over the years, via education, employment and family responsibilities, into something hopefully satisfying, but often, at least once 70 is passed, tried, tested and familiar. The poet Angela Kirby, though, is one of those rare souls who seems to have done it all in reverse.
The youngest of eight children of a famous family of Lancastrian Recusants, the Birtwistles of Huncoat Hall near Accrington, she started out 75 years ago with “dead-beat” governesses, then emerged from finishing school without a single qualification and so did the expected thing and married young and had five children. It was only when her marriage ended, when she was in her 40s, that she began to make her own unique way, writing, studying for a PhD and winning herself a national reputation as one of our feistiest poets – “an older woman with attitude” is how she describes herself as she publishes her second collection of verse, Dirty Work.
“I was terribly shy as a child,” she recalls, settling in on a cold winter’s day next to a roaring fire in her south-west London home, surrounded by books, paintings and pictures of her siblings, children and grandchildren, “but I’ve found belatedly that I do really enjoy standing up and reading poetry in public.” Being a conspicuous late bloomer in circles usually frequented by the young doesn’t seem to be a problem at all, she reports. “I was recently at a rap event in America, quite by accident. I was booking in to a hotel in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and someone came up to me and said they’d heard me read somewhere else. Would I like to come to a poetry reading that evening at a place called the Lizard Lounge? I was very flattered and said yes, only to find myself on stage with a group of rap-poets. I didn’t win the prize on offer, but I stood up and read my work and they received me very warmly.” She tells it as a joke against herself, but it is clear that she loved every minute of it. It’s hard, though, to imagine quite what this rap audience must have made of an elderly woman with a cut-glass English accent. But there is something about Kirby that transcends age. As we are talking, the phone rings. “I can’t talk,” she tells her caller, “I’ve got The Catholic Herald here.” There is a pause while she listens. “Well, I’m wearing jeans and a lumberjack shirt. I hope that will appear disreputable enough,” she says, before hanging up. Her latest collection reflects the many, varied and sometimes conflicting influences in her long life. There are, for instance, several poems on faith, including “A Firm Purpose of Amendment”, a typically witty account of her return to the confessional after a long absence. “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned (or should that bit have come first?) it’s funny what you forget.” “Catholicism is my hinterland,” she reflects: “I love ritual, incense and Latin Masses but I’m afraid I’ve no time for the modern translation, or the kiss of peace, because I just want to get on with it. I wouldn’t mind if it was at the start or at the end, but where it is now, it gets in the way.” She grew up with a deeply religious mother – “her family, the Marwoods, were very Catholic, her brother was a monk at Ampleforth” – but a father who had abandoned the Birtwistle tradition of holding firm to their allegiance to Rome. “The Birtwistles had always been on the wrong side since the Reformation as Catholics and Royalists and so had been fined many times and fallen on hard times. They’d produced priests for Douai and Valladolid but for some reason in the 1850s the family had lost the faith, just when they suddenly became prosperous again as mill owners.” She laughs. “I don’t know if the two were connected”.
Her father, she recalls, though Anglican, never stood in the way of her mother’s desire that their children should be raised as Catholics. “When she was ill, he would even take us to the Catholic church and certainly home life revolved around the Church’s calendar. My mother had a particular devotion to the Stations of the Cross.”
The last of the brood, her education suffered. “I was a sickly child – hard to believe it now, I know – and so was kept at home with old governesses who pre-dated the First World War until, finally, at 11 I was finally allowed to go to convent boarding school. But I was so homesick that I came back after a year and stayed until I was 14. I finally emerged from Errolstone – the finishing school part of St Mary’s, Ascot – with no qualifications at all and was married by the time I was 20, had eight pregnan
cies in 16 years, gave birth to six children, of whom five survive.” The pattern of her life seemed set, but then her marriage ended and she was unexpectedly thrown back on her own resources. At first, it was out of necessity. She hired herself out doing the practical things the nuns and raising a family had taught her – cooking and gardening. Then an old friend, the literary agent, Serafina Clarke, suggested that she put her ideas on food and garden design down in writing and a series of successful books followed in the Eighties and Nineties.
But she had also been writing poetry for as long as she could remember – inspired by her oldest sister, Iris, 14 years her senior, who in the Fifties had herself made quite a name as a lyric poet, fêted by the likes of Robert Graves, Muriel Spark and Cyril Connolly. With new-found confidence that came with establishing her own successful career, Kirby began attending poetry workshops, and then performing and publishing her verse, sharply
observed, often funny but always full of questions. It has brought her the esteem of her peers – she features in anthologies and has even been translated recently into Romanian – but she remains frustrated that poetry struggles to get an airing or much of an audience in the mainstream. “Too many people have this idea that poetry is difficult to understand. Part of it is because they have been badly taught at school. But my experience is that when they finally sit down and hear poetry, they like it.” Her influences she lists as Walter de la Mare, Dylan Thomas, W H Auden and Louis MacNeice, the latter in particular currently undergoing quite a revival in interest. And, of course, her sister Iris, who published as I M Birtwistle. “When I was a child in the war and she was away serving with the Wrens, she’d send me parcels of secondhand books to read – mostly poetry.”
There is therefore another kind of poetry in the simultaneous publication of When Leaf and Note Are Gone, I M Birtwistle’s
collected poems, lovingly edited by Kirby. Iris Birtwistle wrote little after 1960 – being occupied bringing up her three sons and running a series of successful but eccentric modern art galleries in East Anglia, latterly from a caravan on the north Norfolk coast. Her gallery was the first outside London to sell David Hockney, and her championing of contemporary artists such as Mary Potter, Mary Newcomb, Jeffrey Camp and Philip Sutton made her reputation in the art world. “Don’t go to this gallery unless you appreciate the qualities of good art,” the Art Review used to warn, “Mrs Birtwistle is an enthusiast and takes no prisoners.” When, after losing her sight in the Eighties, she carried on working with the same exquisite good taste – she said that she felt a kind of spiritual connection to the pictures she held, but would also worry that she was just “an old fraud” – she drew an ever-increasing circle of friends and admirers, including the Australian rock star Nick Cave and actors Ralph and Joseph Fiennes and their film director sister, Martha.
“Iris’s poems are more complicated than mine,” Kirby says, “more subtle, perhaps, but I know she had been longing to have them collected in a single volume for some time. Appearing in magazines is somehow so ephemeral. There was going to be a collected version in the Seventies but it fell through and then, just before she died, came another offer. My great regret is that she didn’t live to see it happen.” I M Birtwistle – known to her friends as Lilla – died in 2006. The picture on the jacket of When Leaf and Note Are Gone shows her, over 50 years earlier, sitting on the steps of Robert Graves’s house in Mallorca. “He wanted her to be one of his muses,” Kirby says, casually, “but she had a very strong faith and rather recoiled from what she saw going on there.” There is in the photograph, however, an unmistakeable independence of spirit about Birtwistle. And, though the sisters did not look alike, it is there too in Kirby. Perhaps it was in their genes, the result of all those generations of Recusant Birtwistles refusing to fall in line with the crown and break their link with Rome.
When Leaf and Note Are Gone: The Collected Poems of I M Birtwistle, is published by Buff Press, 20 Clovelly Way, Orpington, Kent BR6 0WD at £8. Dirty Work by Angela Kirby is published by Shoestring Press (www.shoestringpress.co.uk) at £8.95. Angela Kirby will be reading from her own and her sister’s poetry on Saturday March 28 at the Granary Theatre, Wells-next-the-Sea, Norfolk (Tickets: 01328 711813)