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The Arvon Archive (MS 329)

The Arvon Foundation was created in Devon in 1968 by two poets, John Fairfax and John Moat, prompted by their own struggles as writers and the discovery that there was nowhere in formal education that would offer the genuinely creative guidance they sought. In his memoir, 'The Founding of Arvon', John Moat writes:

"I came to see that the only person who can teach the technique of writing reliably is an experienced writer. That is because the teaching is proved by experience that is wholehearted and profoundly relevant."

Early on the pair made contact with Ted Hughes whose jaded view of formal English education matched theirs. Hughes, who was persuaded to read to the first group of school children attending a course at the Beaford Arts Centre in North Devon, became a passionate supporter and involved himself in the project from the start. He was active on various committees in the 1970s and 1980s, becoming the Foundation's President in 1973. Carol Hughes, who married Hughes in 1970, was Chairman of Arvon from 1986-1990 and the two were closely engaged with the growth of the organisation and prime movers for many years on Arvon's extraordinarily creative fundraising body, then called the 'National Literature Initiative Committee'.

Hughes describes the impulse behind the organisation in one of his many contributions to Arvon's promotional material:

"The hope was: to do something to salvage the actual art, the living skill, of writing, amidst a combination of forces in formal education that seemed bent on destroying it." [The idea was that] "professional, experienced writers . . . would teach directly, by example and shared creative production, as masters and apprentices."

(The Arvon Foundation: Development Appeal. Brochure sponsored by Faber and Faber Ltd, June 1995)

In 1972, Arvon began to run residential courses from an ancient Devon longhouse, Totleigh Barton, near Sheepwash. A few years later Ted Hughes offered the Foundation the use of Lumb Bank, an eighteenth-century mill owner's house in Yorkshire that had once been Hughes' home and which was eventually acquired by Arvon.

A third centre, Moniack Mhor opened in 2000 in Scotland and then a fourth, John Osborne's former house, the Hurst, in Shropshire, in 2003.

The Arvon Archive deposited at the University of Exeter's Special Collections to coincide with Arvon's 40th birthday celebrations in 2008 amounts to 85 boxes containing material gathered from Totleigh Barton, Lumb Bank and the London office, established in 1999. The greater proportion of material concerns the growth and administration of the organisation, documenting the birth of the charity by passionate and literate enthusiasts through the maze of legal, financial and organisational bureaucracy.

Of more immediate literary interest is the fact that the Foundation from its inception involved a pool of literary figures, both established and emerging, providing a fascinating cross-section of that world and a clue to its workings, networks and relationships.

One obvious resource offered by the archive is the 'tutor's report', a document that was officially handed in at the end of every course. These reports, written by writers, help to document the changing or differing practices in teaching creative writing. They include attitudes towards teaching, methods of teaching and a commentary on the value of this one-off concentrated exposure to creativity represented by the five-day Arvon week. Writers of these reports include Angela Carter, Beryl Bainbridge, Hugo Williams, Kazuo Ishiguro, Graham Swift, Anthony Minghella, Alan Brownjohn, Michael Longley, Paul Muldoon, Nell Dunn, Liz Lochhead, Roger McGough, Peter Redgrove and Penelope Shuttle, Edward Storey, U.A. Fanthorpe, Fay Weldon, Tony Harrison, Fleur Adcock, Wendy Cope and Hanif Kureishi.

There is also inevitably a large collection of correspondence from writers, ranging from the perfunctory – to decline an invitation or to make a practical arrangement – to the personal.

Many students have gone on to be published writers and tutors themselves – Pat Barker, Wendy Cope, Vicki Feaver, Neil Rollinson, Alice Oswald, Andrew Miller, Jo Shapcott, Ruth Padel, Maggie O'Farrell among them.

For poets in particular, the Arvon course has come to seem like a rite of passage and distinct generations of poets can be traced through the archive. For instance, Glyn Maxwell and Simon Armitage tutored a course in 1994 whose students included Kate Clanchy, Colette Bryce and Greta Stoddart, all now seriously published poets.

This poetry bent was no doubt encouraged by Ted Hughes, whose idea it was to launch a poetry competition to raise much needed funds. The inaugural Arvon International Poetry competition was judged in 1980 by Seamus Heaney, Ted Hughes, Charles Causley and Philip Larkin. The winner was Andrew Motion. The documentation for this and subsequent competitions provides a fascinating history and a testing of the pulse of poetry-writing nationally at any one time.

There are other incidental gems in the archive prompted by Arvon's keen fundraising committee. In 1987 an idea was revived of creating 'A Book of First Works'. There is fascinating manuscript material containing letters, drafts and early writing from William Golding, Stephen Spender, Margaret Drabble, Bruce Chatwin, John Le Carré, Edna O'Brian, Doris Lessing and Beryl Bainbridge.

For Hughes scholars the archive reveals a very different side to the poet. It shows him as an active and inspiring mover and shaker, as a canny contributor to financial and organisational thought and as a passionate believer in the importance of nurturing creative talent wherever it might be found.

Special Collections also holds the archives of the co-founders of Arvon, John Moat and John Fairfax, which include correspondence and papers pertaining to the Foundation's history.

Jane Feaver

Further information

Visit the Arvon Foundation for more information.

For more about the Arvon archive, here at Exeter, contact the University Special Collections.

See also

  • arvongist PDF article on the gist of the Arvon Foundation.
  • Moat, John, The Founding of Arvon: A memoir of the early years of the Arvon Foundation (2006).
  • Wandor, Michelene, 'First Histories: Creative Writing as Cultural and Educational Intervention', pp.8-19, in Michelene Wandor's book The Author is Not Dead, Merely Somewhere Else: Creative Writing Reconceived (Palgrove, Macmillan, 2008).
Researchers should be aware that the archive is listed to box-level only and remains in the order in which it was collected from Arvon. Access arrangements remain under review due to the unsorted condition of the Archive and pending full assessment of restrictions which may be required by the legal framework provided by the Data Protection Act and Freedom of Information legislation. Researchers should take advice from Special Collections as access restrictions will apply. It should also be noted that this is a living archive of an active organisation. Permission to quote from the archive must be awarded from the Arvon Foundation (and other relevant copyright holders).