Arvon calling new writers

If your New Year resolution is to become an author you may discover inspiration at Ted Hughes’ old home. Nick Ahad reports.

On the wall of my home office I have a four-panel comic strip.

In panel one a man tells an impressed friend he is going to write a novel. A calendar shows the year to be 2000.

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The second panel shows the same man saying to the same, slightly less impressed friend, he’s going to write a screenplay – it’s now 2001. The following year in panel three, the man declares he’s started writing a play. The patient friend isn’t even listening.

In panel four, 2003, when our hero announces “I’ve started a blog” the friend has fallen asleep.

Sound familiar? After the obvious – lose weight, stop smoking, make a million – one of the most popular New Year’s Resolutions is to write a book.

So, as we’re now halfway through January, have you given in, accepted that a blog is the best you’re going to get and shelved your plans to see your name in published print? Or are you still determined to finish the book you started in a fit of creativity and inspiration?

If the latter applies, then there are few better places you could go than the Arvon Foundation.

An Arts Council-funded charity, the Arvon Foundation was set up by John Fairfax and John Moat in 1968, who just happened to be good friends with Ted Hughes, later the Poet Laureate.

The forward thinking teachers took a school group to Hughes’ home, a sprawling estate above the hills of Todmorden, thinking if the muse of one of our greatest poets resided there, it may do some good for their students.

Today the Arvon Foundation continues to work with school groups through the year, but it is more regularly visited these days by more mature aspirant writers who arrive to take part in the foundation’s courses, which sees novices learn from experts in the art of novel writing, playwriting, screen-writing, biography and a whole library more of styles of prose and poetry.

Today the foundation has four centres stretching from Devon to Shropshire and up to Inverness, but the beating heart is surely Lumb Bank.

An 18th century mill owner’s house in 20 acres of steep woodland, it is the former home of Hughes which was sold (not donated as is often thought) to the foundation by the poet. A sprawling, stunning building high on the hills above Todmorden, it has seen a whole host of famous literary names through the doors – and not just as teachers.

The pupils turn up on a Monday, stay together in the same building until Saturday morning, taking part in workshops and tutored writing time with two different tutors who also live on site during the week. A third tutor comes in halfway through the week to provide that extra boost of inspiration.

A great many alumni of Arvon courses go on to literary success – Tim Firth, author of the movie and stage play Calendar Girls and poets Simon Armitage and Lemn Sissay went through the doors of Lumb Bank as “aspiring” writers. All three have also returned to work as course tutors.

Another of Lumb Bank’s success stories is Rachel Connor. In 2004 she first visited Lumb Bank, to attend a Starting to Write Course. She is the perfect person to hear from to if your commitment to the New Year’s Resolution is wavering.

Fast forward seven years and Rachel’s debut novel, Sisterwives, was published just a couple of months ago and, as centre assistant at Lumb Bank, these days she helps others to take their first faltering steps.

Seeing Sisterwives through from concept to finished, published product, was a long journey and, if you are into the second week of a New Year’s Resolution to finish your first book, Rachel’s story should provide ample inspiration.

“It is actually my second novel, my first was never published,” she says. “I think if you want to have your novel published, you need to have a dogged determination and a necessity to tell the story. I spent four years with Sisterwives and there were some really difficult times.

“When I was about three-quarters of the way through the book I had a moment where I just thought ‘what am I doing, spending years of my life writing this stuff that no-one will ever read?’”

Fortunately it was during this crisis of confidence, that she entered a competition that led directly to her novel being published by Manchester-based publisher Crocus in November. The book was inspired by an interview the author heard on Radio Four, with a woman from a Mormon community, who was one of a number of wives her husband had.

In Sisterwives, Connor tells the story of Rebecca and Amarantha, who share a husband, Tobias. “I found it fascinating that these women who were being interviewed shared such a strong bond,” she says.

The book has collected some impressive reviews and Rachel is already at work on her second novel.

“I work for the foundation now, so obviously I’m going to say this, but it was one of the most important things I did in terms of my writing,” says Rachel, an academic, who moved to Heptonstall when her husband secured a job at Manchester University.

She had been writing steadily but wanted to make a further step towards having her work published.

“It is quite a scary thing to do – you meet all these strangers, arrive for the week wondering what you might encounter,” she says.

“Then there is the fear that in your normal life you always crave the time and space to write, but when you’re actually confronted with it, it’s terrifying.

“Until I came here for the week I’d written a few bits and pieces, but at the end of the week, when I went through the door on the Saturday morning, I felt like a writer. I think there is something about committing to it, something about stepping outside of your life and going for it, that makes you realise what your writing means to you.”

A guided tour around Lumb Bank reveals something else that Rachel highlights about the place. It has a spirit. Around the walls of the downstairs of the main building are photographs of the writers who have visited Lumb Bank as tutors. In the small sitting room Will Self looks down from one wall, Mike Gayle from another.

Next door is a library that has an unsurprisingly well-stocked poetry section, and it is easy to imagine, as you wander the rooms upstairs, Ted Hughes standing at a window and looking at the view.

It is in the heart of the home, the dining room, however, that the special nature of the building reveals itself. Here the writers who arrive for the course on Monday morning, gather on Monday evening, following a day of workshops and sit down to eat together.

“It is one of my favourite moments, the Monday night when everyone sits down together,” says Rachel. “It is the thing that people don’t get elsewhere. Each of the participants takes a turn at cooking dinner through the week and that is an important part of creating this sense of community.

“You can have a chat with a fellow writer over the washing up, which is something you just wouldn’t get in your life if you weren’t on a course like this.”

The list of Arvon alumni also includes Tracy Chevalier, Wendy Cope, Liz Lochhead and Hisham Matar, whose debut novel was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize.

It is this sort of success that led the Arts Council, during the difficult decisions about cuts last year, to reward the foundation with a 54 per cent increase in its funding. The course costs over £600 per participant, although there are grants available.

Rachel insists it’s worth the investment. It’s easy to wonder if that really is the case, then you spot frames on the walls of the dining room containing handwritten poems. The original handwritten poems of Ted Hughes.

If this place doesn’t inspire you to keep that New Year’s Resolution, nothing will.

The Arvon Foundation courses officially open for booking tomorrow, January 15. For details log on to www.arvonfoundation.org.uk

Lumb Bank: House that marked a new chapter

It’s not surprising that aspiring writers should find Ted Hughes’ old home inspirational. The building and the setting embody the powerful feelings he expressed in his poems for this place.

Ted Hughes was embedded in the landscape which bore him. The vivid impression it made on him as a child, when he ranged endlessly across its hillsides with his brother, never faded.

In those pre-war days it was grim in Mytholmroyd where the family lived in a terrace house near the canal. Ted and his brother could rise above the smoke and din. They would sit on the steep hillside, hear the factories start up and then set out for a day of fishing, rabbiting and playing Cowboys and Indians.

The precise detail in his poems of his observation of the natural world was captured in 1957 by the title of his first published book of poems, The Hawk in the Rain. He described the moors as a stage for the performance of heaven and his poems often describe animals and birds in term to suggest they are performers on that stage.

His experiences as a carefree child and his delight in this rough-hewn, dramatic corner of Yorkshire were imprinted on him. But the family moved away when he was still quite young to South Yorkshire where his English teacher fostered that unique sensibility which eventualy could turn recollections in the head into words on a page.

Ted Hughes was famous by the time he came back to his beloved Calder Valley. He bought Lumb Bank, a former mill owner’s house, not long after marrying his second wife in 1970. It was quite a step up the property ladder for the lad from the terrace home in Aspinall Street.

He arrived here after a long period of domestic disaster and anguish. His wife, Sylvia Plath, committed suicide in 1965 and six years on, the other woman in his life, Assia Wevill, killed herself and their child.

Inspirational Lumb Bank marked a new beginning for a more contented marital life.