Ottawa to Sarajevo…via London

The last month since leaving Canada has been a whirlwind back in London. And it’s been great to be back, mid-summer, with that cool airy sunshine that June in southern England carries with it, and which makes me glad to be home.

As usual I’ve been cramming writing in around work – this time back at the Foreign Office language school – where I’m refreshing my Bosnian en route back to Sarajevo. It’s great to see my old langauge teacher, Ana, who – for three hours a day – bends my mind around complex irregular case endings and idiomatic figures of speech, nearly all of which it turns out I’ve forgotten.

Writing-wise, it’s been a month of both finishing up and looking forward. After four years, and eight complete re-drafts, including two word-for-word complete redrafts with my playwriting group this past year, I have finished my stage play, The Claudius Principle. It’s been hard going in part because of my unabashed ambition for the piece, which is to dramatise what I think is our instinctive reaching for faith at moments of extreme crisis. That and-contructing – in almost a Cubist way, block by block, perspective by perspective – the key dramatic charge of Hamlet, namely Hamlet’s relationship with Claudius.

It’s fitting that both the first few and last drafts were written holed up in a tiny flat in the Lake District, which – probably of all places I know –seems to be the place from which I seem to work best as a writer. I think it’s both the natural beauty and the chance to re-charge steps from the front door – whether in an old pub, or running on the fells – that makes it really special.  That and the light: light is important for a writer, I think: it makes you raise your eyes from the page to the window, and lose yourself in possibilities.

I’ve also been using the time to catch up with the poetry crowd, including a short gig at the Poetry Café in Covent Garden. Now that the play is done, I’m looking forward to turning back to poetry in the autumn, and to start thinking about the shape of a new collection, and what it might contain. I’m interested in the idea of three couples walking around a museum, but it’s early days, and not much is yet down on paper. I’m hoping to find inspiration in Vancouver, which is where I head next…

Reading in Toronto

I’m very much looking forward to being back in Toronto on 20th May, this time for a reading. I’m reading as part of the Pivot Reading series, with three local Toronto poets, whose work I greatly admire: Ben Ladouceur, Jeff Latosik, & Jimmy McInnes. Be great to meet anyone who wants to come down.

May 20th, Pivot at The Steady Café:

Matthew Henley, Ben Ladouceur, Jeff Latosik, & Jimmy McInnes

The Steady Cafe
1051 Bloor St West, at Havelock St.
Every other Wednesday
8 PM

Heading Home

So, today I’m sitting in a café in an unusually sunny Ottawa, Ontario. We’ve gone straight from a cold, cold winter into basking weather – 20 degrees, perfect blue sky and every shrub and tree suddenly racing into bloom. Even for someone who likes winter (when else can you ski?) this year it was a long one. The snow arrived in late November and didn’t leave until April. Even the fabulous opportunities to cross-country ski (day or night) couldn’t alleviate the feeling that just once, it would be nice to walk to the pub without having to don five layers and brave -20. Everyone in Ottawa seems now to have visibly relaxed: even sedate Parliament Hill has become awash with sunbathers and lunchtime yoga parties. It’s a great time to be here.

Even so, my thoughts are turning to home. I’ll be back in London between postings for little over a month, before deploying out to Sarajevo, my old home and where Beetle is set. I’ll get to Sarajevo in a future blog, but for now I’m looking forward to a month of seeing family and friends, re-joining the London’s poetry community for a brief while, and getting as much out of the fabulous cultural life that London has to offer.

First up is launch of Templar stable-mate Tom Weir’s new collection ‘All That Falling’ on 2 June at Keats House. I met Tom when we read together at the Derwent Poetry Festival last November, when he launched his pamphlet. I really like his poetry and can’t wait to see what he has in store in the collection.

I’m feeling guilty about not writing enough new poetry myself. It’s been an incredibly busy six months since the launch, and being on this side of the Atlantic hasn’t made it easy to get word out about Beetle, or to book readings. Need to get back into the slightly dreamy frame of mind it takes to write decent poetry. Doesn’t help that my entire life is currently admin lists and freight boxes.

I’ve also been immersed in writing my first stage play, tentatively titled ‘The Claudius Principle’. It’s taken a long time to get to the finish, line aided by Stephen Hunt and my UBC playwriting workshop, to finally feel that I’ve crossed the finish line. When I look back through the previous drafts I can see that only the name of the play has remained constant. Everything else – the characters, the dramatic hooks, the beginning the ending, everything – has changed. And I’ve learned so much about drama from being in the workshop.

So when in London, I’m going to spend as much time as I can getting under the skin of London theatre, from the perspective of a new playwright. I know from when I was living there last, and starting out on playwriting, that there’s an incredible range of opportunities. Being away has just reinforced that: even New York, great though it is, doesn’t have as many opportunities for first-timers as London. The Hampstead, the Bush, the Soho, the Royal Court, there’s a long list of great theatres with support for new playwrights that I hope to tap into. And even though I won’t be there for long, a month’s immersion is a whole lot better than nothing.

So here’s a summary of the play that I used when sending it out to a couple of theatres in New York (I figured why not, seeing as I’m currently on this side of the pond). See what you think. Fingers crossed I can find someone who is interested!

A successful but troubled actor, Charlie Marshall, returns to London not long after the death of his father. Charlie has been thrown off the set of his latest film in LA, and has been recently released from rehab. He carries with him a last letter from his father, a Cambridge philosophy don. The letter purports to prove that Charlie’s stepfather, the successful psychiatrist and author Dr Richard Atkins, has stolen the material for his treatise on religion and spiritual belief, ‘The Claudius Principle’, from his former friend and collaborator.

The book is now a bestseller, and Richard a minor celebrity. Richard has celebrated his success by divorcing Charlie’s mother in favour of a much younger woman. Charlie tells himself he wants the truth about how much Richard has stolen. But what he really wants is revenge.

Charlie tracks Richard down in London to his office in The Shard high-rise, on the bank of the Thames. He worms his way into Richard’s busy schedule by seducing his secretary, JANE, not coincidentally the object of Richard’s affections. Charlie has a plan: confront Richard with the letter, and shock him into a confession.

Charlie has enlisted Jane in a desperate back-up scheme. If Richard won’t confess when confronted by the letter, Jane will shut down the elevator as they try to leave the building. There they will hang, while Charlie elicits a confession out of Richard, by fair means or foul. But not everything goes to plan. When threatened with moral free-fall there is a limit to what each is able to inflict on the other. And a limit to what each is able to bear.


At the launch reading for ‘Beetle’ at Keat’s House in London late last year, someone asked me why I’d written a collection of poetry, mostly about war, mostly set in Bosnia. Why choose Bosnia? Why now?

To answer, I went back to a cold sunny morning in early Spring in 2006, and to a dusty mining town called Prijedor, in northern Republika Srpska, Bosnia, about half an hour from the Croatian border. I stepped out of my car into a cold north wind, in front of a high wire fence surrounding a compound of unremarkable single rise buildings. At the far end of the compound, set slightly apart from the others, was a white wooden shed. On 5 August 1992, Guardian reporter Ed Vulliamy saw the same sight, when he and colleague drove up to the Omarska concentration camp. The following day the world saw it too. The shed – an unremarkable tool shed by all accounts – served as the torture chamber for the camp. It was the sight of unspeakable atrocities by the Bosnian Serb guards against their Bosnian Muslim prisoners, many of whom came from villages minutes away. And there it still was, years later. The same white wooden shed.

I met a lot of people with different stories about what happened during the war. In my two years in Republika Srpska, I met some wonderful people, and some people who almost certainly had blood on their hands. All had stories to tell. Some were personal histories. Some were hearsay. Some were outright lies. Many were steeped in national myth, or past slights, or past atrocities serving as justification. Others came from a place of regret, of sorrow. A few – surprisingly few – were steeped in shame.

But none of them explained fully how that white shed came to be. My time in Bosnia affected me deeply. It made me realise how fragile civilisation is. Whether in Bosnia, Afghanistan, or the Canadian wilderness a matter of minutes away from where I currently live.

I wanted to explore that fragility. How some decide to kill, and others to save life. How some, like Hasan in the book, do both. How friendships are made and broken. How the power of imagination can be used for good or ill. Everything to do with the war in Bosnia is inevitably political, and I didn’t want to get entangled in that, so I made the friends from a variety of ethnic backgrounds. Writing it in poetry helped give history, myth and imagination – literally – voices of their own, to help me make sense of the journey of each of the characters.

And the white shed at Omarska? Nothing can ever excuse or justify it. But answers as to why are to be found, I think, in the interplay of personal history, moral choice, circumstance and national myth. We are all our histories, but nowhere more so than in the Balkans. And this matters, because Bosnia & Herzegovina, to give it its full name, was – on the surface – one of Europe’s most successfully multi-cultural polities. In that sense, we should all care to understand Bosnia, even twenty years after the war. Because we are all, in some sense, Bosnian.