It’s all James Runcie’s fault (he’s the chap that wrote The Grantchester Mysteries and yes, he is the son of an Archbishop of Canterbury). He is also the reason that on Monday afternoon I was sitting in traffic on the M62 in a complete fizz because (a) I was going to be late (arrival instructions specifically said leave plenty of time for your journey and I clearly had not) and (b) I wasn’t sure I really wanted to go there anyway but it was too late to back out without telling a whopping fib. Although since I was on my way to an Arvon writing course I could possibly have dressed the fib up as an example of short fiction and submitted it in absentia.
It all started at the Edinburgh book festival where I heard James Runcie refer to his time on an Arvon writing course. Like a worm, the idea of doing the same wriggled around for the rest of the day and by the following evening I had signed myself up for “Stuck in the middle” described as a course for writers with a work in progress that has stalled long before the finishing line. Job done I got on with the rest of my life. The habit time has of moving on (unlike my novel) found me, three months later, highly stressed on the M62 wishing I had never heard James Runcie speak. I had no idea what I was letting myself in for but I was reasonably sure it was going to be something scary.
I wasn’t the very last person to arrive, but I was pretty close, so when I walk into the sitting room, everyone else has found somewhere to sit, has a mug of tea and look extremely authory. I am flustered, in need of tea (the pot was empty – authory people obviously drink a lot of tea, more on that later) and terrified of taking somebody else’s seat. Usual small talk of “where have you come from?” revealed that the lady sitting next to me had worked with my brother in law, and not only that, she referred to him as “the lovely Keith”. I am waiting for a suitable moment with maximum embarrassment potential before revealing that nugget to him.
The housekeeping talk covered all the usual topics (no fire practice planned, please turn off the lights etc) but had a bonus topic on meals. We were cooking dinner. It is clear in the course information but like many things we often skip over the bits we don’t like. I love to cook, but I like to do it in my kitchen, preferably on my own, using a recipe I have chosen and for a maximum of about 8 people. The lovely Arvon people had addressed point one by ensuring that the team cooking dinner did the washing up for lunch and for dinner the night before, in order to familiarise ourselves with the kitchen. Cheers for that.
Then straight into the ice-breaker before dinner. And guess what, it worked. Ice duly broken and wine bottles cracked open we settled in comfortably to the fabulous bubble that is Lumb Bank.
And the course? Well first it was a course, it was not a retreat. There is no television and no wifi (the 4G signal at Lumb Bank is surprisingly good, particularly bearing in mind its wonderfully remote situation) and being removed from everyday life is very much part of the experience. But it is not the whole one and we did learn. I certainly came away from the four half day workshops with a far better writing toolbox than I had when I arrived. My major problem with the current WIP was that I was hurtling towards the end before the novel had really got going. The structure was wrong, the beats were in the wrong places. I still have to write the next sixty thousand words or so, but at least now I know where they need to go.
When reading books about writing, I tend to read the exercises, plan to do them later (if at all) and move on to the next chapter. I discovered I love writing exercises, mainly because I loved what they taught me. And several of those little paragraphs sparked potential character and plot definition that I found very helpful. I have some dialogue that is definitely going in the book and discovered that two of my characters fell off the sofa when they first had sex together.
It is a bubble, but a lovely bubble. The landscape alone is a novel waiting to be written, particularly at this time of year. Although the walk up and down to the house from the village is not for the fainthearted. Perhaps I was lucky with the group I was with but I liked them all and we gelled well. I imagine that if that were not the case the experience could have been a very different one. We drank a vast amount of tea and coffee and even more wine (a second run was required by the penultimate night). Some of us braved the walk up the hill and went to the pub quiz. We failed to be the first Lumb Bankers to win, but we only lost by one point, which we could have had if we listened correctly to the question ….
And the cooking. Well despite the familiarisation technique and all the helpful labels on the cupboard doors we still failed to find an extra oven shelf which led to some jenga like balancing acts and we definitely over-estimated how much everyone liked peas. But I get exactly why the cooking is shared. It’s not just the teamwork in the kitchen (and the singing that goes with it, you cannot cook and not sing) it’s also part of the whole shared experience. And it is an experience that is proof that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Aristotle must have been to Lumb Bank.
And then we said goodbye. I don’t like goodbyes, I can get very sentimental if left to my own devices but the need to be on early trains or overcome potential traffic jams meant breakfasts were brisk, taxis took off and I braved the long walk up the hill for the last time.