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Writers In Residence
January/February 2016

"Shaw's Corner": George Bernard Shaw's house at Ayot St. Lawrence: (photo: Jason Ballard CC-BY-SA-2.0)


Once, when I was young enough to be impertinent, I sat on George Bernard Shaw’s bicycle. The bike, like everything Shavian, was a museum piece, as rusty as Shaw’s beard and as wobbly as his morals. It stood in his sitting room at Ayot St Lawrence, by a table set for tea, as if the master of the contrived eccentricity had just ridden in for a slice of lemon drizzle cake.

Why did I do it? The bike had magical powers. A great man had ridden it, and I knew that some of that greatness might rub off. Hence, the market in autographs, association copies, and objects fondled by celebrities. As Sir James Frazer wrote in The Golden Bough, the scientist and the magician both believe that the “performance of the proper ceremony” elicits the “desired result”. The magician merely misunderstands the laws of physical nature — but not those of human nature.

The homes of the great or merely famous become museums. Every modern museum needs to do “outreach” through “interactive” events. In literary museums, the interaction is between a living writer and the genius loci. The thinking is that the guest, temporarily inhabiting the space of the dead, will absorb genius by osmosis, or be inspired to summon some up.

The great shrine of this fetish is the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam. Since 2005, and the restoration of the Frank apartment to its wartime state, the entertainment includes writers in residence. Each year, the Amsterdam Foundation for Cities in Refuge invites a “foreign writer threatened with censorship or persecution” to an Anne Frank-themed holiday; the first inmate was Algerian poet El-Mahdi Acherchour. Unfortunately, the writers live in the three-room flat, not the secret annex.

The poets’ housing crisis has further been eased by residential programmes at the cottages of Wordsworth and Ted Hughes, and now by the saving of the cottage in which William Blake wrote “Jerusalem”. Only two of Blake’s nine residences survive: a London flat in Great Molton Street, and this seaside house in Felpham, West Sussex. “Away to sweet Felpham, for Heaven is there,” Blake wrote, “The ladder of Angels descends through the air.” He lived there from 1800 to 1803 when, having turned a soldier out of his garden and been tried for sedition, it seemed time to return to London.

Heather Howell, who had lived in William Blake Cottage since 1928, wanted to sell the house to the William Blake Society. But the society’s members, like their man, are not really business types. They could only raise £93,000 of the necessary £520,000. Fortunately, a mystery donor, one hopes not the proprietor of a dark satanic mill, ponied up.

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