|Rachel Kelly © Matt Writtle|
Rachel Kelly is on a mission to make poetry accessible to the e-masses. Married to merchant banker Sebastian Grigg, the oldest son of Baron Altrincham — most famous these days for being one of the faces alongside David Cameron and Boris Johnson in THAT Bullingdon photograph — her Lansdowne Crescent house is at the heart of the Notting Hill set. Her annual Christmas party is a fixture in the calendars of smart west London folk, including Sebastian Faulks, George Osborne and David Cameron, and is believed to be the inspiration for Sophie Topping, the society hostess in Faulks’s novel, A Week in December. In the novel, a dinner party is being held by Sophie and her husband, Lance, who are described as close friends of the most “dynamic and powerful people” in fashionable society.
Her new anthology of verse, iF: A Treasury of Poems for Almost Every Possibility (Canongate £20), the book version of the successful poetry app, was launched this week and is testimony to her own dynamism and networking skills. She and co-editor Allie Esiri signed up Natasha Law, sister of Jude, to do the illustrations. The book itself had two launch parties: one for children at Foyles with the poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy as guest of honour with readings by Sam West; and one for adults at Daunt Books, where Education Secretary Michael Gove composed two clerihews in honour of the editors: “Rachel Kelly is much more entertaining than anything on the telly/ She invented a brilliant poetry app/ Compared to which everything else on computers is crap....Allie Esiri makes reciting poetry seem easy/ Her wonderful anthology is almost as beautiful as she is/ In tribute to evolutionary biology.”
After St Paul’s Girls’ School (where her contemporaries included Rachel Johnson and Joely Richardson), Kelly read history at Oxford and worked for 10 years at The Times before leaving journalism to bring up her family. She is the mother of five children (Edward, 17, George, 15, Katherine, 12, Arthur and Charlotte, nine-year-old twins). She says she was introduced to poetry by her mother, who gave her Louis MacNeice’s Apple Blossom to console her at the age of 15 after she broke up with a boyfriend. “I liked poetry as a child but thanks to my mother I realised a poem could be your friend in times of trouble.” Was the troublesome boy in question Boris? ”No. I never went out with Boris, thank you very much, unlike all of Rachel’s other friends. I thought that was clever of me at the time. It was not a good idea to go out with Boris.”
Three years ago Esiri approached her to set up a poetry app. “She had this idea for an app, she loved her iPad and she came to me because she knew I liked poetry. So we got started.” From their Notting Hill kitchen tables they devised iF Poems: The App for children. Since its launch last November tens of thousands of poems have been downloaded in 29 countries. It was chosen as one of Apple’s all-time favourite educational apps, and one of the Sunday Times’s top 500 apps.
Its appeal owes much to the fact it is user-friendly and interactive. Readers can search poems by 12 categories (War and History, Bedtime, Humour etc), or age group (0-90), and parents can record poems for their children and vice versa. It also uses the voices of the finest British actors of their generation. Esiri, a former actress whose entrepreneur husband was one of the original backers of Smythson, persuaded her friend Helena Bonham Carter to come on board, and Bill Nighy, Harry Enfield, Tom Hiddleston and others followed. Ten per cent of the sales go to the Save the Children Fund, of which Bonham Carter is an ambassador (HBC has also given a lovely quote for the dust-jacket of the book — “poetry is chocolate for the soul”). “It was an attempt to revive the oral tradition of poetry,” says Kelly. “For example, Charlotte, our nine-year-old, loved Double, Double, Toil and Trouble. She does it in the voice of Helena Bonham Carter. These little mini Helenas are sprouting all over.”
Another appeal of the app and anthology is its emphasis on poetry as self-help. “We believe poetry can help with every situation.” Hence Kipling’s If is recommended for disaster, Emily Dickinson’s Hope for hope in adversity, William Henley’s Invictus for courage (“i am the master of my fate, i am the captain of my soul”) and so on.
Kelly, who describes herself as an enthusiast rather than an expert, found poetry particularly therapeutic after trying to combat post-natal depression. “I had it after the birth of George, our second child. I had it very badly after the twins. It began with an overwhelming exhaustion and then took on a life of its own. Poetry was really important as well as prayer, because I am quite religious. In a way prayers are kind of poems. A lot of the Bible is the most wonderful poetry.
“When I got ill that’s when poetry began to be important to me. I was lying in bed unbelievably sick. We had tried everything: drugs, therapy. Then my mother read the George Herbert poem Love (III). ‘Love bade me welcome...’ To me that was the beginning of the turning point.”
Last week Kelly, 47, gave a poetry workshop at Wormwood Scrubs for 20 prisoners with B H Fraser, the poet grandson of Frank Longford, under the auspices of the Longford Trust. “A few prisoners left halfway but they did come back,” she says, laughing. One of the most popular poems with the inmates was Christopher Logue’s To a Friend in Search of Rural Seclusion — “When all else fails/try Wales”.
As for the future, she plans to expand the app’s poetry repertoire and do more workshops in prison. “This has been a wonderful thing for me. If it can help one person, if one of those prisoners found one poem that made one minute’s difference, it’s worth it. There is a common humanity to all of us that poetry connects with, whether you are a prisoner or a child. It’s about essential truth and that speaks to every type of person.”
iF Poems is available on iPad, £2.99, and iPhone, £1.99, from itunes.apple.com.
(Sebastian Shakespeare for standard.co.uk)