Totleigh Barton at nightfall. The two poets leading the course have switched off the lights in the drawing room and we are sitting in the kind of inky blackness you only get in the rural sticks. I wait for my turn with the match box. Each of the participants strikes a match in turn, holds it just below their face and – in the few seconds it takes for the flame to burn – we introduce ourselves. I am second to last.
‘I’m Julia and I’m twenty. I’ve just got back from Italy where I was a nanny. I wasn’t very good at it.’
The flame is scorching my fingers. I blow it out and pass the box to the person sitting next to me. She introduces herself as Retta. In the faint glow of the match, I admire her spiked hair and mis-matched earrings.
On the Friday evening, after we’ve all read our poems aloud and worked our way through the Arvon wine cellar, I drunkenly throw my address book at Retta – my shy way of saying I don’t want to lose the friendship which has formed in the workshops where, in between looking at each others work, we’ve also found plenty in common aside from poetry.
During the years that followed that course in 1999, I’d visit Retta in London and we’d often talk until the small hours. Once, I fell asleep in the middle of a sentence at three in the morning; there was never enough time to explore all we had to say. At the time, Retta was co-editing an anthology of poems, Poem for a Day Volume II. Later, she’d go on to publish a pamphlet called The Ornamental World with Tall Lighthouse Press. Meanwhile, I crossed the stream and started to dabble with prose.
When I was 24, I moved to London just a short walk from Retta’s flat. I worked part time in a literary agency so that I could spend a day a week volunteering and also try to move my writing forwards. Mindful of how important Arvon had been in fostering that important friendship, I called up the head office to see if there were any ways in which I could volunteer.
I can picture now the day I met the administrator, Philip Cowell. He sat across the table from me, snappily dressed and fresh-faced, a stack of lever-arch files in front of him. He never opened them once. I think it was clear to us both that I was volunteering to be his friend rather than to help him with his filing.
Before I left London to raise a family, I made sure to introduce Philip to Retta; they are now great friends in their own right, joined by the common thread of Arvon. Because that is just one of many hidden benefits of attending an Arvon course: yes, it is about writing and finding your voice and honing your craft. But Arvon is also about finding those friends who are not just short flashes of light from a struck match: these friendships, you find, can also illuminate a lifetime.
What a Way to Go by Julia Forster is published by Atlantic Books (£7.99)