BLOG Vanessa Gebbie

NWR Issue 102

Gladstone’s Library - A stupendous place for writers in north Wales

A few years ago, an institution in north Wales called St Deiniol’s Library, hidden away in the village of Hawarden close by the English border near Chester, reinvented itself. In the reinvention it changed its name to Gladstone’s Library, and a wonderful resource closed to most (other than the clergy) since 1904 was opened to all. But how to spread the word? How to let those who might be most excited about this place know that it was now available, not just the Library, but accommodation too, and that anyone could now come and use what was something of a closely guarded secret for so long? A perfect place to study, to work. To write.

One initiative, suggested by Damian Barr, who has since become a trustee of Gladstone’s Library, was the creation of a Writers in Residence scheme, and the first intake arrived in 2011, headed by novelist Naomi Alderman. Fast forward two years, and I was lucky enough to be among those awarded a whole month at this fabulous place. A month to work, unhindered. A month to mix with the extraordinary people who come to this library, one of the foremost theological collections in the UK. No, you do not have to be studying Theology. No, you don’t have to be writing about Theology: it is simply a good place to be, and work. Or not.

A month is a long time to be away from the family – so I persuaded my husband to come with me for the week preceding my residency – and we plunged into one of the many courses run at Gladstone’s Library. ‘Learn Welsh in a Week’, expertly tutored by Julie Brake, Senior Lecturer in Welsh at Glyndwr University, was very hard work and great fun, as ten of us, ranging from complete beginners through those with a very outdated smattering (me) to the more experienced, got to grips with the language of our fathers.

Then I said goodbye to the husband, and my residency began. I needed do little else but focus on the work in hand: novel number two. A whole month during which I worked in a place that resembles a Victorian Gothic film set, which cannot fail to inspire, delight, amuse. When concentration lifted, I had only to reach for the nearest shelf, and I would have in my hand one of the 33,000 volumes that made up the private library of William Ewart Gladstone – and if I was lucky, it would be one of the 22,000 that he may have read himself.

It is impossible to describe what it is like to have such close access to Gladstone’s Library’s books – the core of the collection mostly theological and philosophical works collected over a lifetime by Gladstone himself, a man who would have gone into the church were it not for his entering the world of politics – to flick through the pages and see his annotations, sometimes like little hieroglyphics, sometimes words, notes to himself, always in pencil. In many books, he also made his own extra index at the back, to remind himself where passages of particular interest might be found again.

Do not think the marginalia is dry and dusty. I remember picking out one small book, inscribed on the title page by the author with deepest homage to the Right Honorable William W Gladstone, to see that the recipient, having stopped reading at page 50 or thereabouts, had added the word IDIOT in firm letters below the said author’s name. Flicking through another, a book in beautiful German script (Gladstone read and spoke five languages), I came upon this concise review at the top of a page: HUMBUG!

Of course, anyone can go and work here, stay here too. You are looked after well – the food is delicious, the accommodation, with writing desk, is comfortable, quiet and spotless. But it is the library that drew me, and draws me again, as I am going back again in February for ten days. I wrote so much, and am sure the magic will work again.

I would encourage writers to apply for time as writer in residence. If you are successful, your time there costs you nothing (apart from the honesty bar!) and your travel costs will be reimbursed. To apply, you need to have published a book, and be working on another. You are asked for an outline of your project, for a copy of your latest tome, and, in keeping with the liberal tradition of the place (that’s liberal with a small ‘l’) you are asked to define in a short paragraph, your idea of liberalism in today’s world.

The scheme is now in its fourth year, and is attracting a growing number of applications. Nine writers have been awarded 2014 residencies, and the 2015 residencies will be decided later this year. I am looking forward to helping with the judging process.

For details of all the 2014 writers in residence, please see Gladstone’s Library And do contact the library for details of how to apply for 2015. Good luck!


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