A new group to bring Oxford’s writers together has proven a soaraway success. Olivia Gordon listens as its founder and stellar literary supporters explain why it meets a vital need.
Above: author Elif Shafak in conversation with Sophie Badman at the Oxford Union launch of the writers’ hub
‘It's mad not to have a central hub for writers across Oxford.’ That was the realisation of April Pierce, contemplating a city and university with an unparalleled wealth of literary heritage that is also home to uncounted numbers of current writers. The new hub she went on to launch is now backed by literary luminaries from Hermione Lee to Philip Pullman.
Pierce (St Anne’s, 2012), an English Literature graduate, fiction writer, and devotee of TS Eliot, linked up academics, artists, students, and ‘literary activists’ from across Oxford University and the city to start Oxford Writers’ House (OWH). Launched at the start of Michaelmas term, its aim is to bring Oxford’s writers together for readings, socialising, workshops, mentorship and more.
‘Oxford's prodigious literary heritage makes it an obvious place for writers to converge,’ says Pierce, (pictured top right with (in red) Asiyla Radwan). ‘There are dozens of clubs and writing workshops silently scribbling away at nearly all hours. However, it can be hard for us to find each other. Oxford Writers' House aims to inspire, connect, and give voice to a community that is already flourishing here, invisibly.’
At a gathering at Waterstones to celebrate OWH’s successful first term, north Oxford resident Mark Haddon gave fellow author Anna Pasternak (Christ Church, 1985) one simple reason why he was supporting OWH. ‘Writers just don’t get out of the house enough,’ he said. But he acknowledged that this isn’t solely about creative community. ‘Writers always want to meet and think they’ll talk about writing — then they meet and talk about anything but!’
Above: Anna Pasternak chats with Mark Haddon at the Oxford Writers’ Hub’s Christmas celebration
Through the OWH website, Oxford writers can also share details of writing groups, look for writing jobs, read articles on writing, chat on a forum, and employ writing mentors.
Above: Former Pegasus Theatre director Euton Daly and poet–dramatist Kate Clanchy at the Words for Winter event
Pierce has attracted a stellar line-up from the literary firmament onto OWH’s advisory board, including Oxford alumni Haddon (Merton, 1981), author of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time; Philip Pullman (Exeter, 1963), author of the His Dark Materials trilogy; former poet laureate Sir Andrew Motion (University, 1981); Amit Chaudhuri (Balliol, 1987), whose books include A New World and The Immortals; and Kate Clanchy (Exeter, 1984), author of Slattern and other novels. Also on the board are fellows Professor Seamus Perry, a literary critic and the chair of the English Faculty Board; Dame Hermione Lee, Professor of Literature and biographer; and Elleke Boehmer, Professor of World Literature and novelist. Many other Oxford University academics, alumni and students are involved with OWH, too (as well as others with no connection to the university).
Yet this is a project aiming far beyond gown and into the town. Writing mentors were only hired if they expressed an interest in teaching disadvantaged writers. ‘Oxfordshire as a county has one of the lower literacy rates in England,’ says Pierce. ‘That's absurd, when you know how much literary talent there is here. Our organisation is set up to start addressing the needs of this region. Part of the challenge involves a longstanding town/gown division of interests, and another part has to do with uncharted waters. We want to work across schools to help deliver high-quality projects and literary expertise, and to lift up the voices of marginalised and peripheral communities throughout Oxford.’ The new director taking over from April, Asiyla Radwan (St Anne’s, 2015), a mature student at the Ruskin School of Art, is keen to start working with local state schools early in 2017.
Above: authors Mary Loudon (second left) and Philip Pullman (second from right) with Oxford Writers’ House members at the Waterstones-hosted event Why I Write
Pierce won funding for the project from St Anne’s Incubator Project, which supports three student business plans. The not-for-profit organisation run by young volunteers has won the support of a wide range of partners, including Oxford University Press, Torch (The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities), Oxford City and County Councils, Blackwell’s, Waterstones, the Albion Beatnik Bookstore, St Anne’s, Wolfson and Somerville, the Oxford Centre for Life Writing, the Rhodes Trust, and Oxford Brookes University.
This is not the first time an attempt has been made to establish a central space for writers across the universities and city of Oxford. Indeed, in the estimation of one local bookseller this may be the eighth attempt to create a permanent space for Oxford writers and writing. But Pierce sees reason for optimism.
‘There are reasons other projects have failed. Ego, intellectual provincialism, timidity… Believe it or not, lack of available financial resources has been a major issue. But we have our fingers crossed this time. So far, what we have created is working.’
Olivia Gordon, who writes regularly for Oxford Today, is one of the mentors for Oxford Writers’ House.
Photos of Mark Haddon, Anna Pasternak, April Pierce and Asiyla Radwan by Olivia Gordon for Oxford Today. All other photos © Izzy Romilly, reproduced with permission.