The Times

The Times

Valerie Grove 25th September 2010


Anjum and Sarah
Anjum Malik, left, with Sarah Hosking in her garden in
Clifford Chambers, Stratford-upon-Avon

Tom Pilston for The Times

Sarah Hosking has created a hideaway in the country for women writers over 40. And now she’s determined to expand.

Virginia Woolf once said: “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write.”

Her view, delivered to the women of Cambridge in 1928, has always been arguable (Jane Austen had neither), but for Sarah Hosking it is a mantra. So ten years ago she set up a scheme, Hosking Houses Trust, to provide a bolthole and a bursary for women who want to write in rural solitude.

Hosking is not a rich benefactress. She managed to found her trust at the age of 60 with £5 in the bank and her pension of £14,000 a year. She is a colourful character with a forceful personality and extremely green fingers. Her cottage garden is in abundant bloom: we sit among delphiniums, agapanthus, polygonum, penstemons and buddleia in full colour.

I have come back to the breathtakingly pretty little village of Clifford Chambers, near Stratford-upon-Avon, having first visited eight years ago when Hosking had advertised for the first incumbent of Church Cottage, which she had recently bought for her scheme. It is tiny: 15sq ft and once declared unfit for human habitation. But Hosking knows how to make a habitat soothing – in her former life she transformed the depressing wards in hospitals (including Broadmoor and Rampton, where inmates included the Yorkshire Ripper and one of the Krays). The interior of Church Cottage – fireplace, creaking floorboards, oak beams – is painted in soft green. Outside, a little patio is hung with wisteria and clematis. Hosking planted every plant and laid every stone herself. She painted and papered and made the patchwork curtains, which she calls “hangings of memory”, because the patches are from the dress she wore when she shook the hand of Benjamin Britten and from her mother’s wedding knickers. She inherited her artistic flair from her parents: Dick Hosking, who ran an art school in Andover, and Alma Ramsey, who was a pupil of Henry Moore and sculpted the crib figures in Coventry Cathedral. On the deaths of her parents, whom she had cared for (as the unmarried daughter), she inherited £100,000. She thought of buying a horse, but instead came here with her dog, Daisy, and bought her own cottage. Her idea for a trust evolved out of anger on behalf of women who spend their lives looking after others and struggling in low-paid jobs. “I know how hard-up women can be,” she says. “And older women are marginalised by Neanderthal men. This must be challenged.”

Only women over 40 and already published are eligible for her fellowships. They must also have a current contract for a book, performance or broadcast. Applicants write a CV and a 1,000-word essay demonstrating professionalism and dedication – and “to engage me”, Hosking says. This year, the best so far, she had 90 applicants. Among the chosen seven, Ruth Thomas and Anna Shevchenko used their tenures of Church Cottage to work on their second novels. Forthcoming residents include Jane Brown, the landscape and garden historian, whose next book will be on Capability Brown.

Several charities and arts bodies have been generous, even though it’s not exactly a heart-rending cause: “Money for property for clever women? Well, we’re about as popular as crocodiles’ dental care.”

At one point Hosking wrote to 450 writers and actors. Among those who sent donations were Joan Bakewell, Harold Pinter, Margaret Drabble, Nick Hornby, Miriam Margolyes, Emma Thompson, Alan Bennett and the poet U. A. Fanthorpe.

“It’s been tough,” Hosking e-mailed me afterwards. “For some years I could barely keep food on the table and mixed the dog’s food with rice to have money for stamps.” About five years ago her scheme looked set to go under but was saved by a dollop of money (£80,000) from the Foundation for Sport and the Arts.

She says that she doesn’t mind what her women write: fiction, philosophy, even pornography. “We ring the changes, but oh, for a scientist. I wish one would apply.” So who need not apply? “Oh, misery memoirs. Telling you all about their illnesses and their husbands leaving.”

The current beneficiary is Anjum Malik. Hosking found her deserving because “she’d worked very hard for a very long time and she needed a sabbatical term”. Malik was born to a Pakistani family in Saudi Arabia and now lives in Manchester. She has been writer-in-residence at the Lowry and worked in prisons. At 19, she was the first Asian woman police officer in Bradford; then she became a court interpreter (in Urdu, Gujarati, Punjabi and Bengali) and is now writing a TV version of her radio drama The Interpreter, to star Archie Panchabi. She thinks that what Hosking has done is “amazing”. “Yes, I am amazing,” says Hosking, serving up large glasses of hock. A helicopter comes whirring overhead. “That’s our local millionaire, Peter Rigby,” she says. “He’s been good to us.”

Hosking now needs more money: she longs to buy more property in the same charming enclave and will offer space for artists and musicians. So, another bout of fundraising starts. “I do work terribly hard,” she says. “I try to pounce on people till just before they get sick of me, ha, ha!” There is now a small pile of books in Church Cottage that have been written under its roof; three are dedicated to Hosking, including Hot Flushes, Cold Science: a History of the Modern Menopause by Louise Foxcroft, which won the History Today/Longmans Book of the Year award. “Especially apt,” says Hosking, “as my menopause nearly killed me.”

She adds: “I’m 70 this year and I love it; don’t pity me. When I read that spinsters with very little money have the worst time in society, I think well bugger you, I have a ball! I’ve earned my living since 21 and I know how to make things happen.”