WRITING PLACES, ROSE COLLIS BLOG TWO – A BIOGRAPHER’S TALE

The second blog installment from our Coleridge Writer In Residence, Rose Collis


Taking part in the Welcome To My Pleasuredome workshop

Participant taking part in the Welcome To My Pleasuredome workshop

As autumn brings its mellow fruitfulness, so does Coleridge Cottage follow suit: a hub of activity and inspiration as we reach the halfway mark in our programme of events for ‘Writing Places’.

Last weekend, visitors were able to join me in the Reading Room on a drop-in basis to try their hand at our creative writing game: ‘Welcome to Your Pleasure Dome’, where participants could write a short account of what their version of Kubla Khan’s ‘Xanadu’ would be like. Would it be as grandiose as the palace that Coleridge dreamed of (before the alleged untimely interruption by the equally legendary ‘person from Porlock), and the ‘Xanadu’ created by Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane.

Or would it be something simpler and more personal?

I was delighted that we had participants of all ages joining in the fun, and here are some examples of what they envisioned as their ‘pleasure dome’:

‘…a nice peaceful place with a large garden with flowers and birds and a lovely view looking towards the sea.’

 ‘…inside the Dome, there would be robotic servants and butler ones like C3PO. There would be [Edward] Hopper paintings on the walls.’

 ‘My pleasure dome would be a theatre where I could watch plays and musicals every day all day. There would also be a rehearsal space where people were allowed to express themselves…we would discuss the plays we had watched or been involved with.’

Also over the weekend, I hosted a workshop called The Biographer’s Tale, given some personal insight into the challenges faced by us practitioners of the genre, sharing stories about some of my most moving and amusing adventures in biography. For those who weren’t able to join me at Coleridge Cottage last week, here’s a taster of what you missed.

Biography isn’t the only writing I produce; in recent years, I’ve diversified so now my work includes everything from quirky history tours, to stage plays about real-life characters written for myself and others to perform. But the painstaking chronicling of other people’s lives did dominate my working life for the best part of 15 years ─ to such an extent that, understandably, some people got a tad confused about where my life and my respective subjects began and ended. One national magazine described me as ‘the biography of Nancy Spain’ and a local paper in Sussex said that, at one of my book promotion events, I would be reading ‘from her biography about her life as a man.’

Now, while my life thus far has indeed been unorthodox and never-a-dull-moment, I can’t stake a claim to that…

The question I am most often asked is, ‘How do you find your subjects?’ At the risk of sounding esoteric and pretentious, my subjects actually tend to find me. One snippet of information from a book, or a news story, or a friend’s anecdote, can set me off on a trail that can, and does, takes me into secret lives and along hidden paths. However, usually the search for what lies behind those snippets can be extremely labour-intensive.

And here’s something to bear in mind: when I started work as a biographer, there was no internet. No email. No online resources, such as newspapers, wills or military records. Nothing.

So, for my first few books, I was totally reliant on what I call ‘shoe leather research’ ─ where you have to get out there and visit libraries, archives, museums, existing buildings of relevance, etc. But curiously I’ve never considered this to be a terrible hardship: on the contrary, it’s been one of the great pleasures and privileges of my life that I have been able to visit and consult precious papers and ephemera on three continents, including the magnificent Library of Congress in Washington DC.

But sometimes the search for what lies behind those snippets can turn out to be frighteningly labour-intensive and unfeasibly daunting. For instance, Nancy Spain was a journalist, for the Daily Express, News of the World and She magazine.

She was also an author, TV and radio personality, radio actor and amateur sportswoman. She wrote 23 books, and started her career in journalism in 1934 when she was just 17. However, although there were many people still alive who knew her and were available to be interviewed, there was no Nancy Spain archive held by either a private individual or a public archive or library.

So what did that mean for me, in practical terms? Let me give you some idea: because there were no indexes, and no record of when her journalism was published, this resulted in me having to read – cover to cover – the following in hard copy or on microfilm, at the British Newspaper Library and elsewhere:

  • 2,757 issues of the Daily Express.
  • 1,404 editions of the Newcastle Journal.
  • 291 editions of the Evening Standard
  • 160 editions of the News of the World
  • NINE years’ worth of She magazine

Of course, many of these publications are now available to view online via the subscription-only British Newspaper Library website, and have search engines to facilitate speedier location of relevant items, even if no indexes exist.

But oftentimes there is no substitute for ‘shoe-leather’ research methods – and this would still be the case for anyone embarking a new biography of Samuel Taylor Coleridge: for a search on the National Archives website http://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/ for relevant collections of letters, notebooks or manuscripts reveals that there are over 40 public and private collections of STC-related papers held throughout the UK and also as far afield as Texas, Boston, New York, Connecticut, British Columbia, California, North Carolina and Indiana…

However, we are staying closer to home for the final ‘Writing Places’ events which are inspired by some of personal dramas experienced within Coleridge Cottage, and also its very autumnal neo-Gothic atmosphere: on Friday October 30th, I will be hosting Speaking Objects, a free creative writing workshop in which participants will be encouraged to unleash their imagination on some of the deceptively simple household and personal items and ephemera on display throughout Coleridge Cottage. What part did objects such as a humble fireplace, a hat, a laudanum bottle or a skillet play in inspiring major works of the Romantic movement? What was their history, and what can they tell us? You decide!

On the evening of Saturday October 31st, we are hosting a special Halloween event from 6.30pm: Twilight Tales where you can join me and other readers to enjoy specially-adapted extracts from Gothic works directly influenced by the Romantic writers, including Frankenstein by Mary Shelley and The Vampyre by John Polidori – plus of course some of Coleridge’s own darker moments…

And finally, on the afternoon of Sunday November 1st, join us for specially-devised semi-dramatised readings about some of the domestic and personal tensions involving Samuel and Sara Coleridge, and William and Dorothy Wordsworth, adapted from journals, letters and texts by the prolific writer, May Byron.

Booking is essential, so don’t miss out on these special events: call 01278 732662 to reserve your place!


For Writing Places events: http://literatureworks.org.uk/events/

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