When I was a student in the early 1960s, I had been staying with an older and better educated friend and I asked her to lend me a book 'that would change my life'. She gave me Virginia Woolf's 1928 book 'A Room of One's Own'. I loved it and it did indeed change my life eventually.
Fast-track forward forty years and I approached retirement. I had had a career in the arts of modest achievement so, aged sixty, I took down the now shabby copy of 'A Room of One's Own' and decided to make it happen by giving the idea bricks, mortar and a credited bank account.
I saw it all so clearly. A cottage, or house, or even several, to which women writers would be invited and would write so brilliantly they would change the world. And they would be in a lovely place, with gardens and countryside and the house would be beautiful, with all modern technological necessities. Eventually, hundreds of clever women would be grateful, we would raise a statue to Virginia Woolf and war would be no more.
Fine so far, but I had only £5 with which to start.
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I am not wealthy. Indeed, I have spent all my life dangling with my nose one inch above the surface of insolvency and, while never officially bankrupt, I have twice received the bailiffs. I have never married or lived in partnership to share financial dealings and, until my parents died and I had a modest inheritance, my entire income was what I earned or won.
But apart from the money issue, where was I to establish this enchanting retreat? I am from Warwickshire, from a family that had been butchers for generations back. Old Uncle Fred had once illegally snared one of the Earl of Warwick's swans and I remember as a little girl running through Warwick with a bloody newspaper parcel containing the bird prepared for Granny's oven. With memories like that, there was nowhere better for me to settle than back in my home county, which had the added attraction of Stratford and the Shakespeare association; to be against Shakespeare, then as now, is akin to being against virtue.
So, in 1996 I bought for myself a ramshackle small house in the village of Clifford Chambers, within walking distance of Stratford. Some time after that, a tiny cottage nearby named Church Cottage became available. Backing up hard against the village churchyard and one of an oblong of wonky houses called 'The Square', it was the perfect answer to Virginia Woolf's quest. I gathered around myself three friends who had professional knowledge of such matters and, with the blessing of the Charity Commissioners, we formed ourselves into a small charity with our precious charity number (no 1076713) on our artistic notepaper.
However, I still had only £5 - but as Uncle Fred had snared the swan, I set out to snare cash. I have since made over three thousand appeals, letters and applications for money and found, to my surprise, that rich people do not give. The only rich person who did endow us was Felix Dennis, the maverick multi-millionaire who lived nearby. I asked him why. ‘We are inundated,’ he said. ‘I get one hundred requests a day.’ I asked him why he picked me out. 'Because of your wit - and your mania,' he said. A compliment indeed - that artistic notepaper had paid off.
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Over the years, I have got as much pleasure from a crumpled £10 note from a busy politician as £100,000 from a major charity; gradually, we got Church Cottage up and running. We appointed our first writer in 2002 on housing benefit and have since hosted, and paid, over one hundred poets and biographers, theologians and performance artists, historians of medicine, markets and film, musicologists and art historians, photo-journalists and television script writers, playwrights and hat-makers. I am nearby for help if needed, and I have been called to deal with mice, ghosts, hornets (it was a wasp), writer's block, being stalked by revengeful previous partners, electricity cuts, smell of gas, agents' awful behaviour and falling out of bed and breaking a collar-bone.
Then three years ago, over a hilarious dinner with Elizabeth Speller and Michael Bywater (both good cooks and friends) we hatched the plan to commission an anthology of stories. To be set in and around Church Cottage, we wanted also to recall the Tudor poet Michael Drayton who had lived in the village but has been totally overshadowed by Shakespeare, whom he knew and didn't like. Each story had to refer to his most famous sonnet, ‘Kiss and Part’, so all the stories were required to have people kissing and parting, somehow, somewhere and sometime.
Letters went out to many writers and some said 'Yes' and then 'No'; some said 'No' and then 'Yes', but eventually we commissioned ten writers. All came to stay in Church Cottage. I repeatedly ironed the William Morris bed-ware and cooked many dinners, and I took the photographs that now are included as a bookmark.
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Fast track forward to today, and Canterbury Press has published our stories most beautifully. We had not expected so many varied ghosts and certainly not foreseen a spaceship. Salley Vickers takes the story of Michael Drayton, Ben Jonson and Shakespeare going on a drinking night out and gives it an unexpected twist. Marina Warner evokes strange happenings on the river banks and the despair of the local planning department. Maria McCann portrays a novelist visiting Church Cottage who has a horror of graveyards, and Jill Dawson also evokes the Cottage whose ghost is her younger self. Catherine Fox introduces a trendy vicar to the Cottage, who has 'doubts' and is sent by his bishop on retreat while Lucy Durneen launches us far into the future with a spaceship receiving echoes from the distant past. Joan Bakewell gives an account of a funeral in the Church and the family meaning behind it, and Jo Baker has two young women growing up in the village. Maggie Gee wrote a modern story of unrequited love in sonnet form, and Elizabeth Speller, who was one of the initiators of the whole collection, gives a sardonic account of the neighbours' reaction to an odd, and disturbing Cottage resident.
Uncle Fred's swan was so good to eat that it was worth the bother of snaring. I hope these stories are such good reading that they are also worth the bother of organising. Please support it so we can continue to offer women writers a 'room of their own'.
Kiss and Part: Short stories by Jo Baker, Joan Bakewell, Jill Dawson, Lucy Durneen, Catherine Fox, Maggie Gee, Maria McCann, Elizabeth Speller, Salley Vickers, Marina Warner. Introduction by Margaret Drabble
Published by Canterbury Press on 19th September. £16.99 - get it for a discount on the Saga Bookshop.
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