This past weekend I was down at Charleston for Small Wonder, the short story festival. I was there to mark the launch of Something Was There, the Asham Award anthology that I edit. The Asham Award is a biannual short story competition for women writers; the anthology publishes the best twelve stories alongside four commissioned stories from established writers. This year three of the established writers were also attending Small Wonder - Naomi Alderman, Polly Samson, and Kate Clanchy. Naomi is a friend, Polly Samson I knew years ago when she worked at Cape and I was first published, and Kate I’d never met before. Several other writers I know were doing events - Alison MacLeod and Geoff Dyer and actor/writer Sylvestra La Touzel. So the day was great fun.
Charleston is one of my favourite spots in England; it’s an old house in the Sussex Downs, once home to Bloomsburyites Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell. It’s an entirely atmospheric house, with the artists’ hand-painted walls and furniture throughout. There’s a lovely garden too, and when the house is hosting a festival, the visiting writers get to hang out in the kitchen of the house, where we are fed delicious lunches and teas, and allowed to use the loo that Virginia Woolf herself, Vanessa Bell’s sister, would have used.
I have a rather odd history with the house. When I first came to live in London when I was twenty, I was lucky enough to find myself living in a large squatted house smack in the centre of town, beside Charing Cross train station. The other occupants of the house included a number of artists and writers, including a woman called Fanny Garnett. Fanny was in the process of moving to France; when she left London, she gave me her bike. But before she left, Fanny took me, along with my friend Marilee Sigal who was visiting me, down to the English countryside to see her mother.
I was completely ignorant of most things English, let alone things Bloomsbury, at that time; in fact, I found almost everything in my new London life surprising and baffling. So when Fanny’s mother - Angelica (daughter of Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell) - turned out to be living in a decrepit though extraordinary house set deep among the hills of the Sussex Downs, I thought nothing of it: everything was extraordinary to me, so a visit to a house where the walls were decoratively hand-painted was just part of the strange new world I was inhabiting. Marilee and I slept on the floor in the studio - the house had fleas, and damp, and there were holes in the floor, but it was extremely beautiful and like nothing I had ever seen before. Angelica was in the process of moving out - but I didn’t know this - and handing the house over to the Trust that runs it now. But no one referred to the house as ‘Charleston’ at that time.
So when I was first invited to the Charleston Festival some years later, I had no idea that this was the same house that I had visited with Fanny and Marilee. I attended the festival with a profound sense of deja vu, and then it took me a bit of time to figure out that Fanny’s mother’s house, and Charleston, were one in the same. When I was at Charleston, again for Small Wonder, four years ago, I told the curator of the house, Wendy, my story about having slept on the floor in the studio. It so happened that Marilee was coming to visit me that November, and Wendy invited me to bring Marilee to the house then, despite the fact that it closes to the public at the end of October. We had the most fabulous visit on that occasion, tramping around the house with Wendy’s expert guidance, tracing our memories of our visit with Fanny onto the lay-out of the house now that it has become a museum.
So now when I go to Charleston I feel that, in some tiny way, the house is mine in a way that no other museum could possibly be. Something was there - indeed, we were.