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Interview: Ann Wroe, author, journalist, and obituarist

12 June 2020

‘Finding the right word can take hours. Other times, a poem comes unbidden’

In a way, self-isolation is routine when I’m writing a book. For several years, I have shut myself away near Birling Gap, in Sussex, well away from any mobile signal. The minute I get there, the words start flowing. I never even tell my publisher what I am doing. I just put a brown-paper parcel on his desk. To reveal it would be to destroy the bubble-like fragility of the whole project.

The most difficult deprivation in the current crisis, apart from seeing family and friends, is to be shut off from my favourite walking places. I’ve donated the car to my sons, since I scarcely use it in Brighton; but now I don’t want to catch buses, either. Even if I got [to Birling Gap] somehow, I think I would feel guilty, despite the fact that I class walks as “essential”.

Perhaps this pandemic won’t have a long-lasting effect on our society. Still, the Seven Plagues — an alternative tally — of Egypt seemed to have quite a moral, and spiritual, impact on both the Egyptians and the Israelites. I’ve been intrigued by how many thoroughly secular friends have been shaken by the current run of disasters and their biblical feel: fire, flood, war, now pestilence, not to mention locusts.

No, I haven’t been writing more obituaries than usual. The Economist strictly devotes one page to one person per week. Having chosen my subject on a Monday, I go into total immersion until Tuesday at five, when the piece has to be delivered.

The vital thing is to get inside the head of the subject. I’m interested only in them, not what others may think about them. I want to know what obsessed them, what pained them, how they saw themselves and the world. I don’t approach other people, including the family, which would be too intrusive. If they’ve written memoirs or books, I run to the London Library to get them. If they’ve given interviews, I watch as many as I can. On Tuesday, I write.

My chief aim is to be true to the person. If I can achieve that for the dead, I hope it will be acceptable, and not hurtful, to the living. I really do not judge. What they are comes through in their actions.

I’ve recently written about Joseph Lowery. He was one of the last of the great civil-rights figures in America. They are just extraordinarily impressive people who lived through terrible oppression. We shouldn’t forget these times of history, or how people were so barbarous to each other not so long ago.

My Pontius Pilate book [Pilate: The diary of an invented man (Random House, 2000)] came about because I used to go to mass in Westminster Cathedral before work, in the Blessed Sacrament chapel, which contains Eric Gill’s First Station of the Cross. It shows Pilate seated on a high dais and Christ standing, so that their eyes are on the same level, each gazing at the other. We have so many books about Jesus, but what about the other man here?

I discovered that people over the centuries had just invented Pilate; so he was the best subject I’ve ever found. Out of all the fragments, a soldier emerged, out of his depth in Judaea, desperate to keep in with Tiberius, and superstitious or religious enough to be genuinely worried by Jesus. When he asks “Where are you from?”, he knows the answer, geographically. It seems to me he’s suddenly troubled that this may be a god in disguise.

My choice to write about Shelley may seem strange, but I’ve certainly come to believe that the Spirit moves in these things. I was reading a book on holiday in a garden in Sussex when I came upon a segment of “Ode to the West Wind”. It was as if something had seized me and blown me out of my chair. I drove immediately to Brighton, bought his collected poems, and read them for the rest of the holiday, and the greater part of the next three years.

He has plenty of shortcomings as a man, and I found his company completely exhausting. But his greatest poetry describes the revolutionary potential of the human spirit, and the essential divinity of man and the universe, more excitingly than anyone else.

He wasn’t an atheist in the sense we understand it now. He believed in an ultimate intelligence and love that moves the universe; so I cut the man a bit of slack. Yes, he treated his women dreadfully, and, often, he’s just treated as a political poet, but he was much more than that.

I was struck by the beauty of La Verna [the Tuscan hermitage where St Francis of Assisi received the stigmata], and the poverty of St Francis’s life — the stone which was supposed to be his bed — but I didn’t know how to write about him. My husband, Malcolm, wrote poetry, and I didn’t want to trespass on his territory, but poetry rather than prose seemed to suit Francis; so I tried.

I kept seeing shadows of Francis in the modern world. I don’t have a concept of the dead. I think they move on to another state of existence, and the great spirits are very busy in the world still. I found old poems that had a Franciscan colouring, and modern poems came together and made a book in the end.

I’m writing lots of poetry now because I’m working pretty hard — more or less full-time — for The Economist; so it’s hard to do a full-time narrative of someone else. Poetry requires an exactness in language which pleases me. Finding the right word can take hours. Other times, a poem comes unbidden and just sets itself down. I always carry a notebook with me on the bus, to jot down little things I see.

Poetry is the closest art to music, and music is the highest art of all. There’s no barrier between man and God there. It takes you to an extraordinary place.

Moving between history, biography, and contemporary journalism isn’t difficult, because human nature is so unchanging. The obituaries seem to me very much like writing history. I apply the same techniques, principally in searching out the tiniest telling details. As for editing, I try to keep up grammatical standards, but language is living and always changing. What I won’t accept is ugliness: “woke”.

I was brought up in Surbiton, and went to convent schools. My parents were both pharmacists, and ran a chemist’s. I was mad about words, reading newspapers before I went to school. I was also a great tomboy, roaming alone round the Green Belt, catching tiddlers. The best times were staying with relations in Kent, fruit-picking, lambing, bird’s-nesting.

Home now is in Brighton, in a little flat with a sweeping view of the sea, though until the crisis happened I was also commuting regularly to London for half the week to work. Malcolm died six years ago, but the Brighton flat was our scheme to have the most fun possible for the remaining time he had, and we certainly did. I’m happiest when I’m walking on the Downs: I love the sound of skylarks; and jotting down scraps of thoughts — and playing with my very small grandchildren.

My parents were both ardent Catholic converts; so I can’t recall a time when God and Jesus didn’t loom very large in life. I took them both for granted, as if they were members of the family; but I felt very moved by the thought that God was in the tabernacle, behind all that silk, with the candles burning round him.

I’m still very moved by Catholic ritual, though I actually attend St Wulfran’s Anglican church in Ovingdean. Malcolm has his grave in the churchyard — and though, of course, he is not there, it’s still good to keep company in that way.

My idea of God is now simply Dante’s: “The love that moves the sun and the other stars.” It’s nothing that we can comprehend, visualise, or analyse, and therefore we can adore it all the more. Love’s what gives me hope. Amor vincit omnia, as the Wife of Bath says.

I suppose going through the last stages of Malcolm’s illness was the most courageous thing that has ever been asked of me, though it didn’t seem like courage at the time, simply doing what had to be done. And, of course, he was a good deal braver than I was.

Thoughtlessness and ingratitude is what makes me angry.

I’m always praying to find lost things. St Anthony’s ears must be worn out, but he always works.

If I was locked in a church, I’d like Bach with me, to make the gloom as heavenly as possible.


Ann Wroe was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

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