Totleigh in the Springtime

Photo: Where I've been all week...

What a perfect week at Totleigh Barton – the Arvon Foundation’s gorgeous, pre-Domesday-Book retreat in Devon. It is settled in this wonderful valley full of orchards and cow fields and it feels old, really old. When I think about the different types of English those walls have heard spoken, I’m overawed by how ancient and historic the house is, and what a privilege it was to spend time there with other writers in such gorgeous spring weather.

It’s the first time I’ve been on an Arvon course about prose – previously I’ve been exclusively interested in poetry. I felt that I’d gone back to Square One, with no real idea whether I can even write prose; but the encouragement of the marvellous Maggie Gee and Nii Parkes was a tremendous boost – and my fellow students also seemed to like the excerpts I read for them.  A novel about the pharmaceutical industry? Crazy – but it just might work!

The very first things they asked me, floored me.  What’s the theme of the book? What’s the climax of the plot? Well, the theme may be twofold: 1) Science and scientists are interesting, and creative, and 2) how knowledge is lost if we don’t take care if it, but may be found again. And the climax of the plot, well, you will have to wait and see, but at least I’ve got one, now…

It was a great treat to have Hisham Matar visit us and read from his new work. He’s writing a dramatic monologue, for performance, which hovers between prose and poetry, and hearing it read by the author was a stunning experience.

It’s always simplistic to say that someone is “the new whoever” but this week I heard echoes of Barbara Pym, David Lodge, Helen Fielding, Orhan Pamuk, Janet Fitch and Ian Fleming. I look forward to seeing these wonderful stories in print.

I feel I can get on with the book now. I know where I’m going and I’m much more confident that I’ll get there. That is, after a few alcohol-free days and a big catch-up on sleep.

I LOVE Arvon.

The Clockhouse Mystery

photo (10)A Collection of Poets, various and strange; staff who flit, almost silently, from room to room; mysterious, Svengali-like tutors who exert a magical influence on their hapless charges.  Several inches of snow. No way in, no way out. No footprints.

We wondered if, one morning, one of us would fail to appear around the large communal breakfast table, perhaps found stabbed through the heart by an icicle, the murder weapon having vanished in the toasty heat of the victim’s room. The perfect Murder Mystery…

While we waited for the screams, we wrote. We wrote our last wills and testaments, we wrote kisses, lectures, sex tips for the dead*. We turned our loved ones into furniture. And at the end of the week, we spoke, we gave evidence, we bore witness. Gathered in the library, the denoument was delivered. Each of us was somehow involved, said Miss Bird, exercising the little grey cells. Each of us was responsible, each of us compelled, somehow, to write.

This has been an Arvon Production at The Hurst. Please don’t have nightmares.

* ‘The earth has to move first’ – said Bob.