Ben Bransfield, teacher of English at King’s College School in Wimbledon, introduces sixteen boys to their first Arvon experience – a decade after his own first course with the same tutors.
April, 2005. A Shropshire lad, seventeen, nervous, bag in hand, sets off for Devon; after three trains, one bus, and a taxi with strangers over hill and down track, he arrives at Totleigh Barton for an open poetry week with Ann Sansom and Peter Carpenter that will set him on an unexpected course.
Looking back on my first Arvon encounter involves sorting through a patchwork of moments: I’m standing, talking to Ian Marchant about donkeys, drinking tea with Monique Roffey and burning the crumble, swapping poems with a house of strangers more than twice my age; Sean O’Brien towers over us all, tolling cantos from manuscript papers, his translation of Dante’s Inferno; I’m writing around that table with Allison McVety and Maggie Sullivan, both now published with several collections, and there are Ann Sansom and Peter Carpenter, steering us through exercises at an unthinkable, electrifying pace.
One decade later it’s April 2015 and I set off from Wimbledon with sixteen of my own students, register in hand, for Lumb Bank; I’m now twenty-seven, just as excited, and off leading a school’s poetry week with Ann and Peter Sansom. On the train one boy has borrowed my copy of O’Brien’s Inferno, others are lost in Hardy, Joyce, Burgess. After landing at Hebden Bridge, taxis climb Heptonstall cobbles and fly down the lane where we arrive to cake, tea, the fire going, that Lumb Bank welcome, and in more than one way it feels like coming home, full-circle.
Although these young men span four year groups and don’t all know each other, school drops from conversation and that Arvon magic starts weaving its quick web. Before long, the youngest are teaching the oldest how to strip pears, to stew rhubarb, and the sixth form in return introduce younger boys to Jim Morrison, Bob Dylan, weigh up Ginsberg’s Howl against Gunn’s Man with Night Sweats. How do you zest a lemon? What’s in a sestina? Someone’s in the library at Apollinaire before breakfast, the rowers have gone jogging up the Slack, and others write morning pages over bacon sandwiches as pheasants crow out the window. This isn’t class. This is a family who have gravitated to this centre, all beginners, for one purpose: to write poetry.
Our lines are honest, urgent, unexpected; we surprise ourselves with instant gems – ‘that’s a real poem, a gift’, Ann reminds us. The laughs come but there are also pieces that leave us stunned, silent. This is the creative zone that you just can’t whip up in a classroom, could never hope to find in a sixty-minute lesson. Thank God for Arvon. The lid’s soon lifted: poetry is a lifeline we did not realise, until now, that we cannot do without. Scary, really.
The week cartwheels past and our notebooks fill, find themselves up on the Pennine Way in glorious sun, down at Sylvia’s grave by torchlight, in the garden (bucketing it down), the coal shed, the library. Peter Sansom plays us Ted reading ‘Wind’ in the barn. When Peter Carpenter visits on Wednesday to share his work round the fireplace, it reminds both of us that a decade can – and did – go in a blink.
My colleague and I hide Easter eggs with the Sansoms at midnight to be claimed the next morning (if you find any strays, they’re yours), hear young poets respond to others’ stanzas found in the library, perform our best work from our new anthology. It’s the end of the week too soon and as we pull back into King’s Cross, a bit shell-shocked, we
‘Let the world come back, like a white hospital
Busy with urgency words
Try to speak and nearly succeed
Heal into time and other people’ (‘Go Fishing’, Ted Hughes)
but before handing back to the parents, there’s just enough time to lay down the gauntlet: in ten years time, you’ll have to come back with your own students. You’ll have to pass it on. It bears all the hallmarks of an opening line.
Ben Bransfield, April 2015
Ben Bransfield received an Arvon grant towards his first course in 2005 and was the first member of his family to attend university, where he was lucky to work for a short while under the late poet Jon Stallworthy. He has had poems commended by UA Fanthorpe and Carol Ann Duffy and now teaches English at King’s College School in Wimbledon, where he runs a weekly creative writing society and a poetry community project on Friday afternoons with two local schools and an historic home.