Nicholas Royle’s first words to me are 'That’s quite a handshake...' and I reply, without thinking 'Yours too. Ow!' I should have left it there, but no. First day nerves being what they are, I add 'My son’s PE teacher did that to me once. Ow!'
We are gathered in the lounge at Lumb Bank, one of several Arvon centres scattered across the UK where writers go on retreat to be taught by some of the biggest names in the industry. Nicholas Royle, successful novelist, editor (Alison Moore's 'The Lighthouse' made last year's Man Booker shortlist), senior lecturer and King of Short Stories is, without doubt, one of the biggest names in the industry. He looks at me, bemused. “Tea?” he asks. He pours the tea. Tutors and students all muck in together at Arvon.
I like firm handshakes, even bone-crushing ones. I like the feeling that a person wants to connect, to make a bond. It’s why I myself give firm handshakes. I form a positive first impression of Nicholas Royle and his fellow tutor Claire Massey, and try not to worry about what they think of me. Later, outside, Royle observes that there’s usually ‘one nutter’ on a creative writing course and looks at me in a slightly expectant way. I reassure him that it won’t be me. I later worry that on finding there are no nutters on the short story course, it must be me.
No, I’m the scatty one. The one who locks herself out of her room five minutes after arriving, wandering barefoot on the landing as other students arrive. They look at my feet and smile politely. I really don’t want to start my Arvon experience by drifting around the house like a loon looking for one of the ladies of Lumb to let me back into my attic (“Ah, so Virginia Woolf!” I exclaim on being shown it, then wish I hadn’t because I sound like a nutter). There I am, shoeless and clueless. Will I become known as the ‘barefoot writer’ I wonder? No. Just the part-time piano tinkler probably. There are three pianos at Arvon. I play each of them in turn, and decide I like the one in the barn best. I am sure everyone else likes the fact I like that one too. It is furthest away from the main house.
The first night dinner is a convivial affair. My fellow students are lovely. I am seated next to a Mslexia prize winner. That’s exciting. I blogged about Tamsin Cottis only weeks ago. One writer, Pam, has travelled all the way from Australia. Another, Simi, a fellow journalist, has come from Bahrain solely for Arvon. She is jetlagged and her leg cramps up during the round of introductions. I admire her dedication to the short story form and as the week progresses I admire her writing too.
Having signed up to make fish pie on Friday (students cook for each other...it’s cosy like that) I wander around the gardens for a bit. I am hit by the beauty of the wooded hill opposite Lumb Bank, and hit the next instant by a great sadness. The poet Ted Hughes lived here for a time, and as I look out over the valley I feel moved, ridiculous though it sounds. Sylvia Plath is buried in Heptonstall churchyard, half an hour’s walk away. I take my new Australian friend to Heptonstall later in the week. Neither of us is particularly into the Cult of Plath, though I do have a deep admiration for some of her poetry. There's a pot of pens at her graveside. We resolve not to look at the folded up notes tucked here and there. Back at the house, I take a look at Hughes’s handwritten poems, which line a wall of the dining room. I love his later wife Carol’s generosity to the Arvon cause. They helped start everything, in a way, leasing Lumb Bank to the foundation.
And Arvon is everything everyone tells you it is. It is secluded, tranquil, beautiful, inspiring. The short story course leads to some really great work being produced, and the people are without exception kind and funny and clever. Nick (by now we are calling him Nick) and Claire are fabulous tutors. They engage us in exercises that free up our minds and allow writing to emerge in an exhilarating whirl. They confirm there are no nutters on the course. I am relieved, though only because I know, in secret, that I am the nutter really. I just hide it well. M John Harrison pays us a visit one evening, and reads us his latest short story. It’s out in the autumn. It blows me away. I return to my room and write something straight out at one in the morning. Inspiration is an incredible force. The next morning we discuss the poached egg vortex over breakfast. M John Harrison can be a bit like that.
I leave Lumb Bank with a sense that something has clicked. I feel excited about my writing and about the prospect of being published. I hope to be published. I believe I will be published. Then, on arriving home, all the doubts set in again, and I realise it is only the daily discipline of writing that will keep that particular wolf from the door. I can hear Nicholas Royle, Claire Massey and M John Harrison saying, 'Just get on with it, for God’s sake.' They are right.
Arvon offers people the chance to really connect with their creativity. It has been helping writers and reaching out to young people through the medium of creative writing for 45 years. And for a week in May it helped me too, more than I could ever have expected.