This story originally ran in the Herald edition of 9th May 2019.
The sun shone and a feeling of joy pervaded as journalist and Labour Peer Joan Bakewell opened a new artist’s studio in Clifford Chambers on Saturday.
The mini studio has been built as an extension to charity Hosking Houses Trust’s writer’s residence, Church Cottage, in the village square, writes Gill Sutherland.
Hosking Houses Trust was founded by Sarah Hosking who was inspired by Virginia Woolf’s 1925 assertion that women need money and a ‘room of one’s own’ to write. Since 2002 the charity has given women writers a three-month residency at Church Cottage and a bursary to live on, meaning they can get on with their literary endeavours, and so far has hosted 100 writers.
On Saturday afternoon, I popped along with photographer Mark Williamson to attend the merry gathering around the 18th-century cottage that estate agents might describe as ‘bijou’. A smiling crowd admired the 100 multi-coloured ribbons that were strung round the cottage’s door as a bugler (or possibly a trumpeter) filled the air with a fragrant fanfare as Joan took to the red carpet laid out by the door and made a lovely speech.
Joan explained how the Hosking Houses Trust worked and sang the praises of founder Sarah, who stood alongside her, and also thanked the Arts Council, who part-funded the new studio.
Describing her experiences as a writer staying at the cottage, she said: “I’ve been here three times and the great thing about being here is the peace and quiet. I learned to wait for the church clock to sound every hour – it was worth waking at four every morning to hear its wonderful chime.
“And the birdsong is just wonderful,” Joan continued as birds chirruped obligingly in the background. “You’re focused on your creative spark which you hope will blossom. Oops, mixed metaphor! You wake each day to this wonderful sound, mood and peace, and we are made welcome by the people of the village.
“I always used to take a walk down to the river and sit on the bench and empty my mind, because the empty mind is receptive to ideas. Then I would go back and write. I’d do that day after day. I was here for a month at a time and I went back transformed. It really is a transformative experience – to have that capacity to commune with yourself.”
Joan continued in a philosophical vein: “You are able to listen to your own ideas. The presence of that stillness is really more and more rare in society. Especially in cities and even the suburbs – that sound of traffic, noise schools – it’s the tranquility you feel coming through the square to this particular doorway that has enriched our lives, and we are eternally grateful to Sarah for the opportunity.”
With that the crowd were invited to file passed the wonderfully bedecked door and untie a bowed ribbon each. Joan stood by ready with a smile and a friendly word for every participant.
After the 100th ribbon was undone, writer Mary Jane Baxter (the current and 100th writer in residence) swung open the cottage door and greeted us all with a beaming ‘ta-dah!’ to much enthusiastic applause and laughter.
A lavish spread and prosecco awaited all at the village hall, where Joan read from the Hosking Houses’ sacred text: A Room Of One’s Own. Hearing her read Woolf’s words against the emotional backdrop of the day, and the fact that the charity has made real the simple yet essential need for a space for women writers to create, was incredibly moving.
She quoted: “I would ask you to write all kinds of books, hesitating at no subject however trivial or however vast… dream over books and loiter at street corners and let the line of thought dip deep into the stream. For I am by no means confining you to fiction. If you would please me – and there are thousands like me – you would write books of travel and adventure, and research and scholarship, and history and biography, and criticism and philosophy and science…”
Over a dramatically delicious chocolate brownie, I got the chance for a quick chat with Joan, who was still marvelling over the magic of the day. “Wasn’t it inspiring to do the ribbons?” she enthused.
She told me how she had first got involved with the charity. “Sarah wrote to me asking for a donation and I sent her a modest amount. She told me later that I was the first to donate! Years went by, and when I was writing my biography, Centre of the Bed, I needed somewhere congenial to write… So I asked Sarah if I could rent the cottage – I wouldn’t dream of taking from the charity so I pay a decent whack!”
As well as her biography Joan has also written a novel, All The Nice Girls, and a play, Keeping In Touch, which was a response to Harold Pinter’s play Betrayal, which drew on his affair with Joan.
I ask Joan if she were to stay at the cottage again what would she write?
“Wasn’t that list that Virgina Woolf said inspiring? I want to write science and philosophy… and I think my God I haven’t started! But I’m getting a bit old for that now.” The 86-year-old continued with a mischievous glint: “There’s just a little tiny itch… because it’s very satisfying to write.
“I do have a story coming out. Sarah commissioned eight of us to write a story based on the village square, the book is called Kiss and Part and is out soon.”
Joan is such a buoyant and positive person. I wonder what she thinks of the literary landscape at the moment – do we have enough successful women writers?
“It’s hard for me to judge as I do know a lot of writers – Margaret Drabble is a close friend, Susie Boyd, Linda Grant – they are all friends, and successful so hard to say. But I do know that the average earnings of a writer is around £12,000 a year – so there’s lots of people that don’t get paid much.”
As a queue of admirers form to greet the marvellous Joan, I take my leave to contemplate hers and Woolf’s inspirational words and example, and partake of another glass of fizz, and silently toast our literary sisters through the years.