Words Kirk Truman
Photography Astrid Schulz
“I suffered quite badly with dyslexia when I was young. I really struggled to learn to read. And writing was even more difficult. And yet I had this odd sort of compulsion towards books and the literary life – even though I had very little ability with which to achieve it…”
His hands are laid together, the paper and ink sit under his nose, the writer waiting patiently at his desk. He looks about the room – what is that sound? That ringing and dancing sound he hears? The sound of ideas. A thought of Aubrey Beardsley is quickly silenced by one of the incomparable Oscar Wildes stomping about London. The rattle of a bike making the turn into Warren Mews where the wheels begin to totter and shake over the cobblestones is familiar – he wonders if it is his wife, Rebecca or just the postman late again. Writer, critic, biographer, fellow Fitzrovian Matthew Sturgis explains to me his early days in Fitzrovia, his writing method and current endeavour; a biography of the essayist, writer and poet Oscar Wilde.
Raised in London, Matthew was born, as he would put it, ‘just up the road’, in Gloucester Crescent, Camden Town. After reading History at university he decided to look for work, finding it in publishing. “It gave me an insight as to how books were made and published, though really I wanted to be on the other side of the fence; making mistakes rather than correcting them.” Matthew laughs. Soon after, he received a commission from just over the border in Bloomsbury. The publisher was in a panic: they needed somebody to write the words to go between the pictures of a new publication: “It was to be a book about cats and I love cats. They were rather desperate and needed somebody urgently. I said ‘yes could do it.’ It gave me the courage to stop being a publisher and begin as a writer.” The book in question is The English Cat At Home and has had the honour of being a Christmas bestseller, Matthew says that it has probably sold more copies than any of his other publications.
Matthew’s most recent book, When in Rome, is an account of how the Latin city has been visited as a tourist destination for the past 2000 years, exploring what people have looked at during each century and why. But he is best known for his books about the rich cultural world of the fin de siècle such as Passionate Attitudes, a study of the English Decadence in the 1890s and acclaimed biographies of the artists Aubrey Beardsley and Walter Sickert (also another great Fitzrovian). Such texts take a huge amount of labour and research alongside long hours in libraries and at his desk. So as a diversion, and a necessary financial supplement, he also writes a bit for the papers and magazines. Anything from book reviews in the TLS (“even less remunerative than writing biographies of cultural figures from the late Nineteenth Century”) to articles on art and travel for the in-house magazine of a luxury Swiss watch brand. He has also dabbled as a football reporter for the Independent on Sunday.
Fitzrovia has long been a part of Matthew’s life and he recalls its slightly seedy, exotic flavour in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, a time in which his father, an architect, worked just off Fitzroy Square. “It seemed un-English, and that made it an exciting place to be. I also remember the excitement of watching the post office tower being built and then the greater excitement of going up it – only to the viewing platform, the revolving-restaurant remained a dizzying and unattainable ideal.” He first came to live in the area in the early 1980s, after his years at university. He found a small flat on Cleveland Street opposite the former Middlesex Hospital where, he tells me, “There was a fine view of the men’s respiratory ward. The sun never came in through the windows, except for a small sliver that pierced the gloom at noon on mid-summer’s day. It was thrilling, though, to be in there in the heart of town.” he reminisces, echoing the thoughts of many living this central to the city. It was only a few years after this that Matthew met his wife, the gallery owner Rebecca Hossack. Today the two live together on Warren Street.
Matthew mostly writes from a small study at the top of the Warren Street house, where he sits at a desk and works away: he still uses a pen and paper. Sturgis goes on to tell me of this slightly anachronistic working style: “Sometimes, if I have trouble with a page, I will go and sit in another chair, or maybe write with a pencil rather than a pen, just to trick my mind.” He continues, explaining why he only uses his computer as a word processor when preparing his manuscript for publication: “I notice I write in a very different way if I type opposed to writing by hand. The sentences form themselves differently. As soon as you sit down at a keyboard, I stop being left-handed and become ambidextrous. That must have an effect on the way thoughts travel from the brain down to the hand, or the fingers.ˮ But of course, as with any biography, the research is an even larger task as the writing and not everything can be done with a pen in the study: “One of the great things about living in Fitzrovia is that I’m very close to the British Library,” Matthew says.
At present, Matthew is in the early stages of working on a new biography of the famous Irish poet and writer Oscar Wilde, a text which is set to be published by John Murray publishers. Wilde made frequent forays into Fitzrovia, visiting the high-minded artistic community at 20 Fitzroy Street (which was, at the time, presided over by Herbert Horne and Arthur Mackmurdo) as well as seeking out the brothels around Cleveland Street that offered questionable services relating to the author’s oft quoted “love that dare not speak its name.”
I myself write fiction novels, when I’m not working on Fitzrovia Journal, each taking around 9 months at best to write. From research, to writing, to editing through to publication, Matthew estimates that a biography like his current project will take about six years.
A wonderfully renowned figure in the Fitzrovia neighbourhood, Matthew Sturgis is one of the many writers to have walked through our streets shadowing the likes of George Bernard Shaw, Arthur Rimbaud and even Oscar Wilde. The writer watches about the room again, it is decided that the distinct tottering of the bike wheels along Warren Mews could only be those of his wife’s.