I always thought Arvon courses were things other people did.
I've changed my mind. Some let me make you of the oaken voices.
First, the house at Totleigh Barton. If you visit the website (just click on ‘website’) there are wonderful photographs and some high praise. It is all true. The kitchen is like the one in Alison Uttley’s Recipes from an Old Farmhouse. It is the oldest house I’ve ever spent time in: it was there before the Domesday Book. The stone-flagged floors are eternal. The beams in the ceilings are ancient as forests. Little creaky stairs wind up from unexpected corners. Light pools through the windows. Even the toilets – one in particular, with a window opening into it through three feet of stone – are fabulous.
I don’t know what I thought they did on Arvon courses but I had a notion participants were quietly tortured, using writing implements. Or at least that would be what happened to me. There was no torture.
Oh but I need to go back. First there was the lengthy train journey to Tiverton Parkway, where Sarah, of Zipfish, who created and maintains the HappenStance website, picked me up. It was Sarah who drove me through the deep winding lanes of Devon to lovely little Sheepwash, and then through Sheepwash to the house itself.
Apart from the fact that we were in a car, and there was a SatNav man talking to us, it was like going back in time. The deeper in those lanes we got – the more brambled and hedged and leafed – the older.
We arrived in sunshine -- the kind of deep gold sunshine you only get in late September or early October. That marvellous house was bathed in the extraordinary light, and there were apple trees, with harvest gleaming on their boughs and on the ground. Beside the outbuilding in which I slept, there was a little crab apple tree laden with red fruits luminous as Christmas lights. Blimey.
There’s a bit of me, faced with such beauty, that says, ‘You don’t deserve this. You’re an imposter. When they realize, they’ll pack you off home.’ But they didn’t send me home, and this is what happened next, or some of it.
People arrived in ones and twos and threes over the next few hours, in cars and taxis. The stone drive outside the house, gradually filled up with vehicles quietly parked. The people disappeared into rooms, or sat in the sun, or wandered round the garden and the vegetable garden and the orchard and up the lane. They must have been talking to each other but it was quiet, like a film with the sound turned low.
Michael Laskey (my friend and fellow tutor) arrived. He’s the only person I’m going to mention by name. Totleigh Barton is a private, secret place. It’s where you go in safety, taking your life, and a pencil. It’s the wood between the worlds. When you leave, you wonder if you’ll ever find your way back again, though just knowing it’s there may be enough.
Some of them had been before though, so it must be possible to get back. One who was there for the third time said each time she had come a different way, through different lanes, and each time been surprised to find herself in the right place.
Oh, and not just the wood between the worlds. It was also Elrond’s house in Rivendell, the last homely house before the wild. I do not mean Elrond’s house in the computer game or the film – I mean in the book, that house with a place for everything: for thinking, and writing, for talking, and singing, and sleeping, and waking, for company and for being alone.
In the mornings it was misty. A deep mist hung over the trees and meadows. Then the mist lifted and the apples lit up.
There was no television. There was no wi-fi or access to the internet. No radio. No mobile phone reception (except in one particular spot in the field, allegedly, or at the very top of the hill). There were no houses next door – only a gaggle of pheasants congregating outside the drive each morning.
What did we do? The pattern was like this. Each morning at 9.30 for an hour and a half, we looked at poems with Michael. All sorts of poems. Most of them I had never seen before. In between the poems we scribbled in short snatches: five minutes on this, four minutes on that. We wrote down whatever the poems had popped into our heads. At the very end of the session, people shared – if they wanted to – a scrap of writing.
After that, we had coffee. The kitchen became ours. People knew where to find cutlery and mugs and coffee (all different kinds) and tea (all different kinds) and everything else except cocoa. Then it was back to the great wooden dining table for a second session – with me. This time different poems (some of them older) and more talking, less writing, though there were some odd things to take away and do. People went away after my Wednesday session to have a suitable dream, for example, and some of them did. Totleigh Barton’s a good place for dreaming.
Then there was lunch. Help yourself from a feast of cheeses and salads and cold meat, and maybe soup or baked potatoes, all waiting in the kitchen. There were elves. While we were scribbling, they were moving about softly in the kitchen doing things with food. There was a cake lady. She brought whole trays of it, freshly baked, then crept away again. Her beetroot cake was the stuff of legends.
In the afternoons, people went for walks or sat in the marvelous ancient barn, or took a nap, or found things in the library to pore over, or talked. Michael and I did things called tutorials. Michael’s were at one end of the great dining table. Mine were in the little lounge with a window over a piece of the garden.
Tutorials sound (to me) as though somebody teaches you something, with the teacher in perilously close proximity. The word ‘tutorial’ sits in my head next to ‘torture’ (like ‘tomato’ being next to ‘martyr’).
In fact, the week was all about learning but not, I think, about teaching and I felt no pain. No, that’s not quite true. There was pain – I had a migraine one day, and several other headaches. Other people plainly lived with pain of one kind or another. One was stung by a wasp and her hand swelled alarmingly. But the pain didn’t intrude – not even slightly – on the pleasure and delight. I could feel people learning, and I was one of them. Learning creates excitement: it simmers and bubbles. They were stumbling over things they didn’t know they knew, doing things they hadn’t expected – that I hadn’t expected. Expressions of surprise and delight lit up their faces.
They didn’t have to bring poems to the tutorials but they could. Some people brought old poems, or bits of writing generated during the writing sessions. Or they brought concerns: where their writing had come from, or where it might be going. It was humbling. It is always humbling when people write from the heart and share it.
Each day a small group cooked dinner. Food (and wine) was brought in by the elves, and also recipes. The meals were sumptuous. I was hungry. I ate far more than usual, including desserts, which we don’t have at home. The bread and butter pudding was astonishing. And there was clotted cream, double cream, ice cream, yoghourt and crème fraiche. Oh, oh.
On Wednesday evening, there was a visiting poet: David Constantine. He came from the outside world, the periphery. We sat late with him into the evening, listening to his poems and wrestling over poetry and what it was doing – its vexed place in human experience. We argued and we concurred, we laughed and our brains rattled. In the morning, David had disappeared before the mist dissolved.
On the fourth day, the people started to sing. I was doing one of the tutorials in the lounge and somewhere outside there were two voices singing softly, in harmony. Later, when I popped out to look for my next victim, I heard someone singing alone upstairs.
After Friday dinner, our last evening together, we had a session in the barn. Everyone read at least one of the brilliant things they’d made during the week. Some were funny. Some made us cry. Some took our breath away. And after that there was more singing. We sang together, and as we sang, friends gradually left the song and went off to bed, one by one, until only a couple were left. Finally, there was the silence again – the sort of silence that opens out after a really satisfying poem. And in the night, it rained: it thundered on the roof.
We had a terrific time. Words fail me. By the time we hugged or waved or touched the ground under one another’s feet, the superlatives were exhausted. So were we, of course. We drove back to the noisy world in the rain, with windscreen wipers wiping metrically. (The sun is preparing itself for the next group on Monday.)
Arvon courses, how profoundly I underestimated you. Dear reader, if you haven’t had this experience and you can get it, even once, you should. My notebook is bursting with ideas and thoughts I didn’t know I had, and I was only the tutor. You don’t have to be rich (though I would sacrifice much for this): there are grants.
There is one other, particular thing I liked. Much of my time is spent interacting with poets who haven't won. They haven’t won competitions (or not the right ones). They haven’t won the heart of the publisher they wanted. They haven’t won a place on Parnassus, wherever that stupid mountain is. It’s such an effort finding a place where poetry, our most important secret writing, can be shared.
At Totleigh Barton last week, every single person was a winner. They know who they are. We will not forget.