In Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle, the sometime writer James Mortmain reads detective novels and calls it work. In the months leading up to my residency at Agatha Christie’s Greenway, I may sometimes have been guilty of such behaviour. A good Christie will sweep you in, and if you’re not careful, it won’t release you until the loosening of the final twist. Greenway, Christie’s summer home from 1938 until her death in 1976, has a similar, all-absorbing power. When I enter the grounds, I have the feeling that time has dropped me off. To spend the summer here – writing and working with visitors and local writers – among magnolia trees, china sets and typewriters, with the river-boats passing by, really does seem like something cooked up in the imagination.
A huge amount of work goes into creating this sense of release from everyday-time. This week, I entered by the staff gate and began my own work alongside the many inspiring staff and volunteers who care for Greenway and its visitors. Greenway is cared for lovingly, in the spirit of Agatha Christie and her family who adored its peace and character, and kept it on the ‘edge of wildness’. In every part of the house and grounds there’s a balance between comfort and the untamed. A wisteria vine and an ancient garden wall keep each other standing, not far from a beautifully manicured peach house. The family’s many collections scatter the main house itself, climbing tables and filling cabinets in perfectly ordered chaos. It’s stately and spritely all at once.
My hope for this residency is to get to know Greenway and its character, to play with its spaces, stories and objects and see what happens, and to invite visitors to do the same. We’ll be doing this through the medium of writing, which in the first instance, really means looking, imagining and following a thought beyond its usual cut-off point. I hope we’ll leave behind a trail of poems and creative thoughts for future visitors to enjoy.
Events began with a reading, a workshop and the launch of ‘Typing a Tweet’. Around 30 visitors had a go at typing some lines on typewriters similar to those used by Christie. Over the clack of keys, typewriter stories were spontaneously shared – late-night dissertations, typing pools, bosses who tipped their hats, the pain of legal documents, the quick brown fox jumping over the lazy dog. There were also plenty of people who, like me, had never used a typewriter before and felt a tinge of technology-trepidation. Typewriters will remain stationed in the café and house kitchen for playful use throughout the summer. We are tweeting our favourites lines, and I’m writing some of them into poems.
A highlight from week one: sitting around the table in the house kitchen, warmed by the Aga, with a group of people who mostly said they hadn’t written creatively for a long time, but who’d come willing and eager to the Crooked Houses writing workshop. They wrote about rooms and objects at Greenway, and about the characters of houses in their own lives. The act of starting to write, or starting to write again, is a brave one, and it was a privilege to hear the striking and authentic work of the morning. All the more to hear it amongst the Christie china, over the ripple of the piano from the other room.
To write in a place of literary history keeps that history active and growing. I’m incredibly lucky to collaborate with Literature Works and the National Trust, who cooked up such an imaginative and thoughtful project. I can be found most weekday afternoons writing in the house kitchen or dining room, or on a bench in the grounds. Come and say hello. You can also pick up a red notebook and start scribbling.