Guardian June 2018



9 June 2018

‘I use what is available with enjoyment, padded out with hard work’

Charity founder on how she made Virginia Woolf’s idea that writers need ‘a room of one’s own’ a reality

Sarah

Sarah Hosking, fundraising to help women writers, reading a book in her cottage garden.
Photograph: John Robertson for the Guardian

 

I am guided by the mantra in Virginia Woolf’s 1929 essay A Room of One’s Own in which she said that a woman needs £500 a year and a room of her own if she is to write. Twenty years ago I set up a charity with £5 to allow older women writers a period of seclusion in a country cottage, plus an allowance of £1,000 a month. It flourishes and shows that the most meagre resources can bear dividends.

My finances have always been modest and, in my retirement, I live on £19,000 a year. But I have three advantages: I was a wartime child and brought up by inventive parents so intense thrift did not mean you had to be miserable; I am scrupulously well-organised; and I own my own home.

After graduating from art college, I had a mongrel career in the arts but it was 15 years into my working life before the principle of equal pay was introduced; until then, a woman had to have a male guarantor for a mortgage. I never fully overcame these early financial disadvantages and, when I became freelance, the habit of intense financial organisation hit in. I restored old properties to sell, and inherited £100,000. In 1996 I bought my dream house for £62,000, spending £40,000 restoring it.

My income today is from rent from my annexe, besides one company and one private pension. Every Monday I cash the state pension … that gives me £130 to live on. All utilities are paid monthly by direct debits of £350 a month, leaving £700 for everything else. I only have a debit card, no debts or overdraft and, if I can’t afford it, I don’t have it. I never eat out unless I am taken, and cook every night. I have four cats and a dog (all rescue) and I eat eggs from four hens. I buy vegetables from a farm shop, the market, and late night shop at Morrisons. The animals and my food cost about £80 a week. I am a traditional, but inventive, cook, making something out of whatever’s available. I entertain once a month, spending about £12 to £15 a head.

I am single, though I have not lived in a nunnery and look with smug satisfaction both backwards and forwards. My financial philosophy is to use what is available with enjoyment, padded out with hard work.

For holidays, I go with friends to Landmark Trust houses where they pay the bills and I do the cooking. Each year I do a grand tour visiting friends. The only expensive holidays are occasional trips to Venice.

Living in a village, the car is a necessity. It cost £500 five years ago and I spend £20 a week on petrol unless I am travelling; its MOT, the AA and repairs are a major expense. I have an old mobile and I put in £10 when I remember, but only two people have the number and I rely on a landline and emails.

I visit London for the exhibitions and galleries (about £50 each month) but take my own food. I love clothes, buy some good ones and then remake them in different fabrics and repair as required. I drink a bit too much wine, but I don’t care what.

My aim is to give respite and money to older women writers who need it. I am sympathetic to the hardship such people encounter so, in 1998, I bought a tiny cottage nearby for this purpose. It cost £55,000 but it needed £20,000 for repairs and was covered by a mortgage that I serviced at considerable cost for eight years; it was literally hard to keep food on the table. Friends loaned me £55,000, before we were granted £80,000 to buy it, here in Clifford Chambers near Stratford-upon-Avon.

Initially, I spent £5 on stamps and started writing fundraising letters to make Virginia Woolf’s idea come true and we appointed our first writer in residence on housing benefit. I still work about 30 hours a week making the trust operable, and have written literally thousands of letters with enough success for 100 writers so far to enjoy what Virginia Woolf called “a room of one’s own” and money enough on which to live.