When I arrived at The Hurst three years ago, the world was a different place. The UK was still very firmly “in” Europe and the Whitehouse was occupied by America’s first black president. My daughter was five, still so little that she wholeheartedly believed in Fairies-“Mum I think the fairies must live here”, she said when I brought her for a walk through the snowdrop covered-woods at The Hurst in early 2014. When I arrived The Hurst was a building site but it had every promise of transforming into a beautiful light-filled Arvon centre thanks to a hefty grant from ACE and some private donations. I had left the glitz and glam of a career in Television and Film Producing for the rural beauty of South Shropshire and a role at the extraordinary charity that is Arvon. One of my goals when I started was to blog at least every couple of weeks, to share in the delights and challenges of what working at a residential creative writing centre is like.
Cut to three years later and over 130 courses, around 770 tutors and guests, about 102 “in loco parentis” teachers and an incredible 1,772 writers (participants) of whom around one third were young people and partnership groups. As the UK prepares to exit from Europe I awoke today to the unbelievable news that the 45th American President will be a former reality-show host with no previous political experience. The world truly turns in mysterious ways. My daughter now says “if there are fairies they would probably live somewhere like here”, of the woods at The Hurst and I have glimpsed the first signs of her “preenager” mood swings as she is on the threshold of her 9th birthday. This will be my 3rd blog since I took up the post of Centre Director of The Hurst. It’s all consuming, never-ending, a rollercoaster and no two days are the same. I have experienced some of the most glorious moments of gratitude as a writer leaves transformed by their Arvon week, I have had the great privilege to be part of the team that has launched the writer’s retreat at the Clockhouse and together with the mighty team Hurst we have weathered the challenges of the building, of Arvon as an organisation facing the challenges that all small arts charities increasingly deal with and the weekly challenge of ensuring our offer to writers is the very best it can be.
Things I have learned in the last three years include:
- The look of joy and wonder of children when they walk through the door of The Hurst is enough to get you through the toughest of weeks
- The laughter that echoes from the Workshop Room is warming on a cold winter’s day
- Too much about Ground Source Heat Pumps, over full sumps and intumescent strips
- That the Arvon team are some of the hardest working, resourceful and most lovely people I have ever had the good fortune to work with
- That there are more dietary requirements than there are literary awards
- That nearly all of Arvon’s tutors are full of passion, enthusiasm, commitment and generosity
- That we may well have one of the best office views in the country and that there are more shades of Autumn than I ever thought possible
- That creative writing can be and is (frequently) transformative because it gives EVERYONE the opportunity to have a voice, to share and to be heard-and that this matters very much.
Last week as I battled with the news of budget cuts, endless operational challenges and exhaustion following 2 days of intense meetings in London the most extraordinary thing happened. A writer who had been on a short story course at The Hurst a few weeks ago, out of the blue sent me a short story she had written inspired by the large papier mache bird that sits in the entrance of The Hurst. It used to belong to John Osborne and the group had challenged each other to write a short story about it. What Valerie wrote moved me so much because it was funny, witty, clever and beautifully written and it had been inspired by an Arvon week. It was just what I needed to boost my flagging energy, an injection of creative joy. For about the 1000th time in three years I was reminded just how remarkable it is to work at The Hurst, at Arvon and what an enormous privilege it is to bear witness to and be a very small part of so many creative journeys. This is what makes all the other stuff worth it.
Below is a picture of the bird, and by kind permission of Valerie Moffitt, the story.
The playwright found me in a gallery just off the King’s Road. It was a scruffy place, run by a collective of young artists who lived on baked beans and acid. My maker was sprawled in a deck chair on the pavement, snoozing in the sunshine.
‘How much for the cassowary?’ said Osborne.
‘Wha-?’ The youth struggled to his feet. ‘Oh – the bird.’ He ran his fingers through his long hair. ‘Er – twenty-five quid?’ Worth a try.
Osborne gave him fifty, peeling the notes off a wad that he pulled out of his back pocket.
‘Don’t undersell yourself, mate. Art is beyond price, and the bastards around these parts will pay anything to prove they’re hip.’ He said the last word as if tasting a rotten tooth in his mouth.
He tucked me under his arm and we walked home to his Chelsea flat.
His wife said, ‘Christ, John, what have you bought now?’
He ignored her. He placed me in the living room, by the big bay window. Pride of place, he said. The wife left but I stayed. I saw out three more wives, and many girlfriends; they couldn’t compete with the Famous Grouse.
Osborne would rage for hours at the theatre hacks who called him a has-been, an also-ran, a lightweight.
‘Not one of them has the intellectual equipment to judge my work. They’re nothing more than a bunch of professional assassins.’
The woman of the moment would hang around his neck, redolent of perfume and sex, telling him how great he was. He grew more furious, got drunker.
He used to say that I was his best bird because I didn’t answer back.
‘My lovely Cass,’ he’d mumble, ‘my priceless fifty-quid bird. My not-quite ostrich, my not-quite peacock, my not-quite turkey. My almost-cassowary.’
He was an old man when we came to this house. He didn’t trust the removers with me, so I rode in the back of the car. Wife number five was in the front passenger seat. She knew why I mattered. She wasn’t a hanger-on.
‘Let’s put Cass by the front door,’ she said. He smiled.
My status was still high. I held my place in the hall, where the man of letters – no longer young, no longer angry – sat gazing out at the Shropshire hills. The best view in England, he called it.
Silently, we kept each other company.
Now I am disregarded by hoi-polloi who come and go, leaving no trace other than a few hesitant marks on paper or memory stick.
Ossified – or is it petrified? – not fossilised – I stand here, providing the occasional joker with the opportunity to use me as a hat stand. Once, I was treasured. A great dramatist stroked my head and called me a beauty.
© VM October 2016