Elspeth Sandys finds that a room of one’s own – no matter where or next to whom – is still something to write home about.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a writer needs a room of her own and an income of £500 – or, rather, its current equivalent – a year. From June 2005 to June 2006, that is exactly what I had: a rent-and-council-tax-free cottage, with all expenses, bar food and internet-phone, paid, and a stipend of £50 per week. I’m not sure whether all that translates into Virginia Woolf’s £500, but it must be close.
I first heard about the residency on a working visit to the UK in late 2004, applied on a whim, was told I was on the short list, attended the most bizarre interview of my life (more of which anon), and a few weeks later, back in New Zealand, heard I had been selected. For me it was, both personally and professionally, an answer to a prayer.
The residency is open to women (sorry guys, but if you met the woman who set up the trust you’d understand!) over the age of 40 – a tacit acknowledgment that for many women, busy with families, the writing life doesn’t begin till 40 – who have the right to live in the UK. This last requirement could admittedly be a stumbling block for Kiwi writers, but the trust is still in its infancy, and I have a feeling there may be ways around it. The only other requirement is that the applicant must be a published writer with, preferably, more than one play/novel/collection behind her. Novelists, playwrights, poets, short story writers are all encouraged to apply.
Intimations of what was to come were definitely in the air at that selection interview, an event worthy of a Monty Python sketch. I was summoned, along with the five other short-listed writers, to Church Cottage, where the successful writer would be living, in the oddly named village of Clifford Chambers, just outside Stratford-upon-Avon. Having lived in the Cotswolds for more than a decade during the 70s and 80s, driving into the village felt at first like a homecoming.
The cottage was delightful: small, as only English terraced houses, built in the 18th and 19th centuries for working families, can be: one up, one down; bath in the bedroom; loo through a dividing door in the same room; kitchen a wardrobe-sized alcove off the downstairs room. But Olive (not her real name), founder and administrator of the trust, had made the most of the limited space. The furniture was of vaguely antique origin; the curtains and wallpaper William Morris designs; there was a working fireplace complete with firedogs and brass tongs; and the external walls were covered in wild roses and wisteria. As I and the other writers were taken on a tour of inspection, accompanied by Olive’s dog and three of her six cats, I said to myself, “I want this. I want it very badly.”
As the day progressed, the surreal nature of the occasion threatened to tip the whole thing over into farce. Olive was in her element, booming like Joyce Grenfell at a St Trinian’s school assembly, telling us all how wonderful we were, and how much she wanted to award the residency to all six of us. In between times she threw (literally!) whichever animal got in her way onto a chair, liberally spreading, as I discovered later, the fleas which all her animals were hosts to.
“Not sure I could live near that woman,” one writer hissed in my ear, as we struggled to eat lunch standing up, with cats poised to pounce on tit-bits, and our hostess hovering to re-fill our glasses with sweet sherry. Another writer worried about living in a village where the only person she would know would be our garrulous patron. A third expressed concern that, despite the apparently generous terms, there might not be enough to live on. All of us, when we could grab a moment away from Olive, agreed it was unusual, not to say slightly sinister, to invite six people competing for the same prize to lunch, in a room scarcely large enough – despite Olive’s antics – to swing a cat.
I’ve written elsewhere about my first two months in Church Cottage, and the often painful readjustment I had to make, returning to a country I’d not lived in for 15 years. But I was in the cottage to write, and that, no matter what, I was determined to do.
I’m happy to say that two of the reservations voiced at that extraordinary lunch proved not to be prescient. I did, thanks to grants from both Creative New Zealand and the UK Arts Council, have enough to live on, and I was content, after some initial hiccups, to be living back in an English village. Not that I’ve fallen in love with Clifford Chambers, as I did with the village I lived in when my children were young, but I’ve made friends, entered into village life, and experienced moments of ecstasy walking along river paths, and through fields and woods that were almost certainly haunts of the youthful Shakespeare.
And not just Shakespeare: George Eliot, who it transpires is a distant relative of mine, was brought up in nearby Nuneaton. Staring into the murky waters of the River Stour from the bridge over one of Clifford Chambers’ two weirs, the tastefully restored mill house a brooding presence behind me, I could feel the power these rivers, with their working mills and busy daily traffic, exercised on the imaginations of writers like Eliot and Dickens and Hardy.
Which brings me to the third reservation expressed at that lunch: “Not sure I could live near that woman.” I don’t profess to understand what it is about the human mind that determines some people are inimical to health and creativity. While I have loved living with the ghosts of Shakespeare et al, and have delighted in having a graveyard on the other side of my window, I have struggled to come to terms with the ever-present reality of my patron. Being on the receiving end of a “gift” like this, my first response was to try to show, in practical ways, how grateful I was. This was a mistake. I immediately became “her” writer, paraded in the street and at village gatherings as a trophy. At one event Olive declared that not only was I her writer, she had created me!
But these were minor difficulties compared to Olive’s daily intrusions and her insistence that I become party to her various quarrels in the village, the most serious of which involved visits from the Stratford police, and ended with Olive being told she would be sued for wasting police time if she brought any more complaints against her neighbours. Perhaps a tougher writer would have dealt with all this better. The previous incumbent simply ceased communicating altogether, a situation which provoked much mirth and some reluctant admiration in the village. Olive, I was assured, is not a person you can ignore and expect to get away with it. One of the juicier tales circulating when I arrived was the one that had Olive confronting my predecessor, demanding to know why she didn’t talk to her. “Why don’t you like me?” was her less than subtle approach to the problem. When Barbara (not her real name) remained stumm, Olive slapped her soundly across the face!
Now the year is over I can truthfully say that, while I might have written more and better if Olive had not been an almost daily presence in my life, the fact remains that I have written 30,000 words, and (I hope) broken the back of the research necessary to my project, a novel about George Bernard Shaw and the early years at the Court Theatre in London. There are dangers inherent in a long and rather isolated residency of this kind, (the possibility of living next to a mildly sociopathic patron being one of them), but there is surely cause for celebration that such opportunities exist. A room of one’s own and £500 a year still takes a lot of beating.