Wild Court

An international poetry journal based in the English Department of King’s College London

Measured economy: ‘Whatever You Do, Just Don’t’ by Matthew Stewart

Matthew Paul

Admirers of Matthew Stewart’s first collection, The Knives of Villalejo (Eyewear, 2017), will undoubtedly remember how its intense, tightly compressed poems navigated the overlaps and tensions between memories of his upbringing in Farnham, deep within ‘Stockbroker Belt’ Surrey, and the adult life he’s made, as a wine-trader in Extremadura, with his wife and son. Good though the individual poems were, their abiding quality for me lay as much, if not more, in the way they powerfully cohered as a whole. If there was any nagging shortcoming, it was that the book’s important themes – above all, the concepts of inheritance, belonging, displacement and home – occasionally felt a little under-explored, as if, in seeking to walk a tightrope between explicit statements and a restrained implicitness, Stewart erred, by natural inclination, slightly too much towards the latter. Fortunately, though, that understatement left space for those themes to be revisited, and more fully, in this, his long-awaited follow-up, Whatever You Do, Just Don’t (HappenStance, 2023).

From the off, in ‘Los Domingos’, the new collection examines what it means to be an ‘extrajero’ in Spain, where they do some things differently, of course (‘You’ve taught me to sip a café solo, / to let its bitterness seep through my gums’), and other things in a familiar way, such as the Sunday ritual of visiting parents-in-law:

Perhaps this week she’ll suddenly repeat
her suspicion of a neighbour’s illness.
Or we’ll sit here without the need for words
till your father stirs and cranks the volume
to signal kick-off at the Bernabéu.

This unadorned description has universal resonance, as if to say that, whatever our nationality, it is what unites us that is important. There is also real joy to be found in the quirky cultural differences which Stewart highlights: ‘‘‘There’s washing on the line” is a code / used only by adults at a pivotal point / in a conversation, just when someone’s starting // to spill the juicy bits of their messy divorce / or their quarrel with neighbours.’ (‘Hay Ropa Tendida’). Though talk isn’t for young ears, ‘Everyone glances at the kids, who watch cartoons / as if they haven’t soaked up every word.’ As ever, Stewart draws the reader in with the straightforward accuracy of his word and line.

We see, too, a comic incident, in which the Englishman abroad moves to get in to the righthand seat at the start of a driving lesson and is freeze-framed ‘groping for / a quick change of gear’, a metaphor, perhaps, for the exigencies of his self-selected exile.

The Knives of Villalejo was published in 2017, only a year after the UK’s calamitous referendum, and its poems therefore didn’t reflect the result and consequent havoc and nonsense, particularly concerning the bureaucracy of trade to and from EU countries, and critically so for Stewart’s wine shipments. In Whatever You Do, Just Don’t (a nod perhaps to ‘Don’t mention the war’ in Fawlty Towers?), he takes the opportunity to make his viewpoint regarding the unmentionable B-word abundantly clear, with his emotion – a scarcely contained sarcastic anger – uncharacteristically, but effectively, bubbling to the surface:

Slouching on their fork-lifts
the warehousemen watch me
trying to tell them why
40,000 bottles
must be shifted by hand

[. . .]

I’m the one to blame now,
of course, británico,
a reluctant spokesman
for my country, supposed
to explain our folly.

(‘The Pallets’)

As in his first book, he also writes movingly about his son, who has ‘ended up being labelled / English in Spain and Spanish in England’ (‘David’). A stand-out, eminently anthologisable poem, ‘Crazy Golf’, sees father and son do battle on a course, presumably in England – ‘He loves the tunnels, bridges, ramps— / the mixture of skill and fortune’ – but the former’s concentration is broken by his business head:

I wonder who’s lagging behind
on placing their latest order,

whose invoice is pending—and why
my pointless fretting never stops.
Never lets me simply play.

The way the poem turns is exemplary in how to combine complex, contrasting emotions to make a satisfying whole. The double edge of that ‘why’ is nicely achieved.


At the centre of the book is an idiosyncratically brilliant sequence of 12 poems about watching Aldershot Football Club in the bottom two divisions of the then four-tiered English Football League in the 1980s. The first 11 are literally that: each a pen-portrait of an Aldershot player from that time, constituting a team of stalwarts and irregular regulars.

Underlying the sequence is the moral high ground of Stewart the fan: he’s no glory-hunter supporting the likes of Liverpool or Man. United, or even upper-echelon teams geographically closer than them, like Chelsea, Portsmouth or Southampton; he and his fellow fans follow their local side through thick and thin, as the cliché has it, building their own sense of community as a microcosm of small-town life. Among these portraits, you won’t find glamorous, ultra-rich superstars – though even at the big clubs in England then, wages for the top players were much closer to those of ‘ordinary’ people than they are now – and instead we encounter the journeymen who mostly never quite made the big time and just about scrape a living from the game, always fearful that their contract might not be renewed, but who still give their all:

Released by Charlton at twenty
after barely going beyond
the reserves, he prowls our goalmouth,
a specialist in one-on-ones,
staring strikers down and waiting
to pounce as soon as they commit.

(‘1: Tony Lange’)

Stewart has no need for overt metaphor here, because the details of the players’ qualities and actions collectively provide a wide metaphor for society at large: for those who had grand ambition but have to settle for grafting and nonetheless fulfil their responsibility to entertain and inspire their club’s supporters. If they weren’t footballers, they’d be utterly normal: ‘If the fans cherish him / it’s because we can picture him // on Monday in an office / or warehouse or shop. At work. / One of us.’ (‘2: Paul Shrubb’)

These poems contain, too, those instances when the fans could actually believe that the unlikely dreams – the cup upsets, promotions and, above all, the existential elation of being caught up in the ecstatic moment – would come true; and, moreover, they capture superbly the ‘jizz’ of the fans’ favourites; the skills which make the best of them no mere mortals:

We love his knack for bringing long punts down
from shoulder height and playing passes blind,
weighing them so teammates never break stride.

(‘10: Ian McDonald’)

The precision of Stewart’s wording and syntax here perfectly matches the player’s control and deft touch. The eleventh poem in the sequence concerns Ian Stewart, whom I saw terrorising defences for QPR in the (then) Second Division and the top flight, performances which led to 31 caps for Northern Ireland, including a winning goal against the then European champions, West Germany, in 1982 and three appearances at the 1986 World Cup. How he ended up only two years later dropping divisions to play for Aldershot is a mystery. Judging by Stewart’s poem about him, it was also a mystery to the player himself. Stewart catches very well the sorry end of a once notable career: ‘Hiding from his teammates’ passes, / this wisp goes through the motions’. The present-participle opening here exposes the player’s shortcomings which become a tangible bitterness when a defender gets his goat:

He’ll square up

and get sent off for an early bath,
or take the piss, beating him

and then going back to beat him
twice more—for the hell of it.

(‘11: Ian Stewart’)

There are faint echoes here of the desultory lives of the faded, once-heroic characters in Robert Lowell’s classic poem ‘Waking in the Blue’ – the ‘victorious figures of bravado ossified young’, including ‘‘Bobbie’’, the ex-Harvard star-student, who ‘swashbuckles about in his birthday suit / and horses at chairs’. As a study of footballers at the lower end of the professional game, these twelve poems are unique, and must be among the very best ever to be written about the beautiful game. The reader, though, does not need to love football to admire their beauty and finely-observed sensitivity.


The final two sections distil, respectively, poignant memories of Stewart’s parents and then the roads, byways and baggage of his times in Farnham, both back in the day and on recent returns. The former include the high comedy of ‘Grecian 2000’, beneath which lurks the serious theme of aging. Stewart magically evokes events of the long-gone past; his mother’s occasional secretarial work for example – ‘Her fingers danced to rhythms / of rattles and pings, to steel keys / hammering ink on paper’ (‘Touch Typing’) – and her recollections of the war:

She was still proud her class had raffled it
for the war effort, still slightly mournful
at it turning black on her teacher’s desk
long before they drew the winning ticket.


However, these aren’t the dreary exercises in nostalgia that they might otherwise be, because Stewart knows how to select and depict particular memories and show, without over-extrapolation, exactly why they are sufficiently important to be preserved. But this isn’t just poetry-as-social-history either, because Stewart treads with elegance his trademark balance between an inherent English reserve and an admirable wish to universalise. In one, fine poem, ‘Aveley Lane’, Stewart’s eye is cinematic in its scope and wonderfully so:

Here’s another mother getting supper
in Neil’s kitchen. Here’s another father
parking his car in Adrian’s driveway.
They go about their family routines
as if they’ll never be replaced.

Without fanfare and with measured economy, Stewart impeccably, and unbeatably, encapsulates the impact of time and culture on the minutiae of everyday life as it both was and now is.