"The only thing worse than living in the mausoleum of a dead writer is living with a bunch of living ones"
“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.
These days, Felpham is the smart annex of Bognor Regis. This does not preclude the lowering of the ladder of Angels for a writer in residence, though the neighbours might object to Blakean nudism in the garden. Bognor’s literary pedigree is often overlooked. Gandhi, whose autobiography is one of the great modern fables, holidayed there as a law student. Marx and Krishnamurti visited too. In the original draft of The Waste Land, before Pound decreed that Margate Sands was the place, Eliot wrote “three weeks at Bognor” — more than enough time to feel that “nothing connects with nothing”.
Down on the wild coasts of the western Peloponnese — the Greek Bognor — Patrick Leigh Fermor’s house decays. In the Eighties, Leigh Fermor, squeezed by a tax demand, made over his house to the Benaki Museum of Athens as a writer’s retreat. He lived until 2011: three years longer than the Greek economy. With the Benaki unable to fund the house’s conversion, a group of British readers have formed the Leigh Fermor Society, and offered to maintain the place. Meanwhile, fans climb over the walls. Last summer, the London Review of Books carried a letter from a Paddy-phile who, having climbed up from the beach, infiltrated the garden and found two topless sunbathers and Italian writer Roberto Calasso in residence.
The Benaki plans to host academic conferences in the summer, and needy writers in the winter. Applicants interested in spending the winter on a cold, windswept promontory in the company of a small group of neurotic strangers — a Hellenic Jamaica Inn — are encouraged to apply.
The only thing worse than living in the mausoleum of a dead writer is living with a bunch of living ones: peevish small talk about word counts and agents, and always trying to deduce each other’s advances. At William Drummond’s old home, Hawthornden Castle near Edinburgh, batches of writers reside four at a time, with unlimited porridge at breakfast and a “quick snifter of sherry” before dinner. One 2012 inmate, Vanessa Gebbie, describes having gone “stir crazy” there. Some of the guests went to Edinburgh at the weekends, and Gebbie went to London. Just like day release from a psychiatric hospital.
As I limber up to remount Shaw’s bicycle and write my masterpiece, I am planning the posthumous use of the coffee-spattered, chocolate-smeared cell in which I work. The committee — my widow, a couple of famous friends, the daughter who edits my unwritten letters — will solicit proposals on Procrastination in Non-Fiction, and select a lucky victim.
To preserve the inspiring ambience of Daddy’s Study, speakers will pipe in nothing but Beethoven, Vivaldi and The Clash, with interruptions from the disembodied voices of small children, demanding sweets. The inmate will be expected to drink all the coffee and eat all the chocolate, ride out the mid-morning panic attack and the mid-afternoon sugar drop, and keep at least three webpages open at all times. Immortality: my name will outlive my work, I shall remain the most important person in the room, and my lifelong project, counting the leaves on the tree outside the window, will finally be completed.