The Founding of Arvon

5th May 2006 at 01:00
The Founding of Arvon: a memoir of the early years of the Arvon Foundation. By John Moat. Frances Lincoln pound;12.99

In 1968, a year of revolutions in Paris and London, two idealistic prep school teachers began a quiet rebellion of their own in the Devonshire countryside. Here John Fairfax and John Moat laid the foundations of the creative writing powerhouse named impulsively after a place mentioned in the Welsh collection of legends, the Mabinogion.

Every year Arvon still attracts hundreds of aspiring writers, young and old, to its centres in Devon, Yorkshire, Shropshire and Scotland, where they share workshops, meals and the results of their creative efforts. More than 1,000 published authors in all media have led the four-and-a-half-day courses, now for the public as well as for students and teachers.

Moat's little book - it runs to fewer than 100 pages - sets out to fill in the "pre-history" of Arvon, the days before official records were kept. He and Fairfax both regarded their own schools as "penitentiaries" and were angry that, as teachers, they were part of a system that "trivialised imagination to irrelevance". They had known each other for six years when Moat, by then a published novelist and poet, reacted against a boring schools poetry workshop. Soon the two Johns were running their first experimental residential course for 15 young people and involving other colourful figures, notably the poet Ted Hughes, a generous early supporter.

Like the founding of Arvon itself, this account has an organic quality at once charming and frustrating. Anyone new to the subject might well be bemused as Moat plunges, in his sprightly prose style, into that first course. Sometimes the facts just cannot be marshalled and he wisely allows a "mist" to cover gaps.

But there is much to enjoy: vivid characters such as the snuff-taking Robert Gathorne-Hardy, idyllic places such as the first centre in medieval Totleigh Barton, and, best of all, the excitement of people discovering their talents.

Start with the anecdotes near the end. They will draw you into this eccentric, funny, affectionate story; a story of friendship, passion and commitment to the ideals of "militantly non-exclusive" creative education.

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