A unique author-in-residence project cultivating work by older women needs fresh intellect. Alison Jones spoke to its founder
Where are the poets? Where are the philosophers? Where are the physicists?
Sarah Hosking’s clarion call to intellectual women is prompted by a genuine bafflement at the lack of response from them to her offer of shelter, money and peace in which to work.
In spite of her zealous attempts bringing the existence of Hosking Houses Trust to the attention of those it is intended to benefit, she admits she has been disappointed in the lack of variety in the candidates that have been coming forward.
“If I have another novelist writing an ‘Aga saga’ in middle England I shall scream. They might be very good but we have an awful lot of them.
“We are not just for fiction. We are for science writers, social writers, writers on any subject. Where are the people writing on finance? Where are the astrologers? I don’t get poets and I can’t think why not.
“We are not solemn but we are serious. This is not chick lit stuff.”
Sarah set up the sanctuary for older women writers back in 2001 after being offered a grant to write a book about hospital interiors by the Nuffield Foundation.
“They gave me twice what I asked for. It was absolutely perfect and I thought ‘I will do this for other people’.”
A “mongrel career in the arts” had given her a lifetime’s experience in knowing how to cultivate and nurture artists and writers, and how to winkle out funding to support them.
It also gave her a very clear idea of who she would most like to benefit from her philanthropic scheme.
“Women over 40 with a zonking good idea and a contract for publication, broadcast or performance.”
She took Virginia Woolf’s quote “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction” as a mission statement, though now losing the word fiction might reflect its aims more accurately.
“She outlined that in 1928 and that still holds good today,” says Sarah.
Sarah was also adamant that this opportunity should only be extended to mature women, no matter how unpopular a cause that might be.
“Raising the money for older women of talent and merit is about as popular as raising money for crocodiles’ dental care.
“Certain things are easy to raise money for – hospitals, blind babies, cancer care, little Cotswold churches. Easy as falling off a log.
“But for clever women... dear me, no.”
Pithy sound bites aside, Sarah is cut from the same tenacious cloth as the women who campaigned at Greenham Common or stood defiantly outside coal mines threatened with closure during the 80s. Doing their bit to make a difference.
Sarah re-mortgaged her own house and wrote 2,000 letters, raising £200,000 over 10 years, in order to buy the tiny 18th century workman’s cottage in Clifton Chambers, Warwickshire, next to the church and two doors down from where she herself lives.
The bills are met and a bursary has been set up so the women are funded for however long they stay in residence (between two months and a year at £750 a month).
She set her minimum age limit because she believed women are still being discriminated against in terms of the opportunities extended to them as they get older.
“I think there is too much emphasis on youth, especially young women.
“I want maturity, experience, suffering, joy, ambition, exhaustion.
“I don’t want another Raphael-faced poppet with too much lip gloss. I want her grandmother. I want the weariness of middle age.
“Think of the things that elderly women can’t do. We are not allowed to read the news, we are not allowed to be bishops.
“We have had women’s education for 100 years, the vote for 80 years, the control of contraception for 40 years, political equality for 35 years, but there is still a glass ceiling.
“I thought I would make a small but joyous shot at how things ought to be.”
She is not bothered if people see her as a well-meaning eccentric, however, she is angered by articles that trivialise what she and the other trustees are attempting to do.
An interview with a male journalist done some tine ago still makes her fume at his patronising and inaccurate summary.
“After we finished he wrote ‘Right girls, if you think you have got a novel in you sharpen your pencils.
“A... ‘girls’. B... the emphasis on novels. C... implying the applicants are beginners.
“I nearly bopped him one.”
The impressive body of trustees that she has gathered about her is testament to how seriously they take the appointment and the calibre of candidate they are looking for.
“Kathleen Duncan, she was chief executive of the Lloyd’s TSB foundation. Her budget was £23 million. She is with us because I have known her for 30 years.
“Petra Dolby ran the Three Choirs Festival. Dr Paul Edmondson is head of education for the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. Lavinia Sidgwick runs the Summerfield Trust.
“We have a lot of experience. This isn’t amateur stuff.”
Before candidates can even be considered they must already have established themselves in their profession and, if they are a writer, to have been published previously.
They must also be able to prove why they need both the seclusion and the financial support the house offers, and to have a contract for publication, broadcast or performance.
“All we get back is an acknowledgement,” says Sarah. “And we have to have it. We cannot be seen to sponsor manuscripts that sit in someone’s bottom drawer.”
The Hosking Houses Trust has been established since 1999, the house bought in 2001 and the first writer was in residence in 2002/4.
Sarah had always hoped to extend the project to include composers and last year collaborated with the RSC, hosting four performance artists.
Ideally, she would like to buy another house in order to be able to run simultaneous residences.
“Half a million would set us up and see us right. Then I would shut up and leave everyone alone.”
Until that wealthy donor comes forward she is concentrating her considerable energies on trying to attract as diverse a range of women as possible to apply to stay at Church Cottage.
“I email the world,” says Sarah. “I am 70 this year. This is what I do with my retirement.
“Other people have grandchildren. I do this. All the time.”
She is leaving no stone unturned in her efforts to seek women out – distributing leaflets and visiting universities and science fairs and websites.
“I have rather laboured the science bit but one of the most important books of the last century was written by a woman, Silent Spring. Where is the modern Rachel Carson? I am sure they are out there so why aren’t they coming forward?
“Where are the women writing about finance?
“There are a lot of women poets and a lot of them are very hard up. I can’t think why they don’t apply.
“We will get our people but it would be nice to get more of a span.”
No matter how she has struggled to get suitable candidates she is not about to open it up to all-comers, no matter how persuasive their arguments.
“I had one man ring me up from Birmingham (to apply). I said ‘I am sorry. we are just for women.
“He said ‘I am a very effeminate man, You’d never notice’.”
* The closing date for applications to be a writer in residence is April 12. For details look up www.hoskinghouses.co.uk