By Gabriela Blandy, Assistant Centre Director, The Hurst
‘Don’t leave The Hurst!’ John Osborne was to say to his wife shortly before he died.
On the anniversary of Look Back in Anger, which was described by Kenneth Tynan as a ‘minor miracle’, we opened The Hurst to those who helped make the £2.3 million renovation possible. Filled with the party spirit of the day you could see the house come into its own. After John Osborne’s death, The Hurst was a place of separation: there was his widow, Helen, separated from the man she’d been able to make happy, and the house itself separated – half the rooms inhabited by Helen (some falling into decay), and the other half occupied by Arvon and its writers who come each week and try their hand at creating their own minor miracles within its lichen-flecked walls.
John Osborne’s instruction for Helen to stay at The Hurst was not the only legacy he left. There was also a rather large, unpaid, tax bill. How was she to remain when the only way of raising the necessary funds was to sell the building John Osborne had come to love so?
As Assistant Centre Director at The Hurst, I am unravelling the history of the building. There are boxes of photographs, showing John and Helen, romping with their dogs, or rosy cheeked and laughing with the blurred top of a champagne bottle in the foreground. There are the housekeeper’s stories of weeks going by with John Osborne holed up in his study, working – finally, the day when Helen would urge her to get in there quick and tidy because John had emerged. And then there are some of the vital figures in Arvon’s bid for The Hurst who I have been lucky enough to speak with – Graham Whybrow who would turn up mid-morning, Helen offering him a gin and tonic, before they would sit and talk. David Pease, the former director, who told me how watchful Helen had been the first time they met. What she wanted was assurance that the house would not simply be filled by women in dirndls who were more effective at stitching wool than sentences.
As I stood in what was the Osborne’s kitchen, with all the other guests who had attended the Grand Opening, the feeling was of pride – of working for Arvon, of being gifted with The Hurst.
I hadn’t expected this – not because I didn’t think it was possible, but because my mind had been so focused on the importance of the day. The building itself had only just re-opened for business in January and there have been some teething problems – cold showers, the discovery of an unplumbed toilet, insistent leaks and fuses. And yet miraculous things have happened too, such as the fact those writers who have come each week have walked away, leaving comments such as ‘life-changing’, ‘stellar’, ‘memorable’, ‘spacious’. Some life-force is at work here, locked within The Hurst, allowing creativeness to triumph.
But the Grand Opening was a day beyond the running of courses. Who were all these people in the house going to be? I wondered, having only worked for Arvon for a few months. All I knew was that they would be generous people, people who had given to Arvon in any way they could: time, money, both. Or simply just through thoughtfulness, in their desire to be present with us on this day.
All these people gathered in the dining room as the afternoon deepened. There was a moment in the speeches when Nigel Pantling, the Chair of the Board of Trustees, was delivering an admirable speech. There wasn’t a single um, not one syllable tripped upon. But this wasn’t simply clinical poise; here was a man, speaking from the heart. I realised then what it was all about: everybody there was from the heart.
Staff from our London office turned up the night before – respectful of our space, congratulatory as well, saying The Hurst was now becoming a home.
Our London staff contributed richly to the day, bringing their own creative projects to prepare – a handful of them taking the downstairs rooms and producing exhibits. George Palmer, our Communications Manager, stopped me in the office, commenting on how strange it must be with all of them descending with their undertakings.
On the contrary, I told him – this is what this building is for: to be filled with people who are doing their thing. It’s what John and Helen did, and it’s what they shared with all their guests: a chance to be photographed in their tux with John’s Oscar, movie nights in the Library, watching one of the films Helen had been sent to review – her falling asleep for the entire thing and then waking up at the end, saying: ah, well, err, that was a load of old rubbish.
Don’t leave The Hurst.
Would Arvon be here now if John hadn’t left this final instruction?
I heard a similar voice in my head 6 years ago when I came to The Hurst for a non-fiction course. I had my own story then. The farm where I grew up was seeping into everything I did: my dreams, my short stories, my diary, my conversation. I wanted to relive it, as much as possible. It makes me think of John Osborne when he first came to The Hurst. He was still writing plays then, though his material had become a rather ugly parody of itself. He couldn’t seem to bring back his former glory. Harold Hobson called Look Back in Anger a landmark in British Theatre, but now John Osborne’s work was a landmine, capable of blowing everything up.
Helen showed him a way out, persuading him to write his memoirs. No more plays, thrashing about for a style he had coined, because in doing so he was destroying it. His glory had been his distinctiveness, but in its re-citation John Osborne was extinguishing his legacy. Helen showed John a way back to the past as The Hurst did for me in the week I spent with Jay Griffiths and Rory Maclean. I stood above the house one afternoon, surrounded by the landscape that John Osborne had loved and watched from his study window each day and I knew that I had to find a way to stay. Arvon has made that possible – that dream – by having me at The Hurst, giving me such a creative opportunity. I feel so nurtured. Both by my manager, my team, but also the walls that surround me – The Hurst, the idea of John and Helen.
The grounds are a wonderful source of inspiration. As I walk them each week, I always discover something different, usually a new way to approach life, work or my writing. We have a course here later in the year that promises to offer such insights, which I highly recommend for those of you who like the idea of using your own experience of journeying as a tool for navigating the blank page and the hard task of writing. Often we can become stagnant when our ideas refuse to come – we can behave a little like John Osborne, battling with old material, when really what we need is to allow ourselves a new perspective. Sarah Salway and Shaun Levin will show you inventive ways to journey through your work – the most important principle being: never be afraid to get lost!
Last week, over a hundred of us gathered – clapping, toasting, joyful with giving and receiving. Many of these people were strangers to me, and yet they too had made this part of my life possible.
‘Don’t leave The Hurst!’
Not only did John Osborne find ‘the best view in England’ here, he was able to cure the frustration that his glory days were over, by penning two witty, readable memoirs. For those who have your own stories to tell, come for a week – though I’m sure you’ll want to stay longer!
We are proud to present the latest addition to The Clockhouse and an extension to John Osborne’s vision, the Writers Retreat. Now open for six-day weeks and long weekends we are offering four apartments to writers who would really value from the time and space to write. Find out the full benefits of the Writers Retreat here.