Saturday, 19 May 2012

A Two Hundred And Twenty-Second Anniversary

          Yesterday was my last day as an RLFF.  I’ve been an RLFF for three years, and I have revelled in it.
          Many people, I find, don’t know what an RLFF is.  I didn’t myself three years ago.  When I explain that it stands for ‘Royal Literary Fund Fellow’ they ask what the Royal Literary Fund is.  Again, I have to admit, I had never heard of it until a writer friend suggested I apply for a place.  Since then it’s seemed that almost every writer I know or meet either is, or has been, an RLFF.
           The Royal Literary Fund is A Very Good Thing, especially if you’re a writer.  It’s a charity which exists to support and encourage writers, and boy, does it!
           According to the RLF website, the idea of a fund to ‘relieve distressed writers’ had been on the mind of the Reverend David Williams for some time.  Then he heard that a writer, wonderfully named Floyer Sydenham, had – somewhat less wonderfully - died in debtors’ prison.  So on the 18th May 1790, Reverend Williams held the first meeting of the RLF committee, and invited subscriptions.  As this blog goes up on Saturday May 19th 2012, that means it took place almost exactly 222 years ago.  There should be celebrations of more two-hundredth and twenty-second anniversaries.
          The Rev sounds like an engaging character: a ‘dissenting minister’ who often quarrelled with his congregations, so it seems they were quite dissenting too.  He published, ‘Sermons: Chiefly Upon Religious Hypocrisy.’  I bet that got a bit of dissent going.  He strongly supported the French Revolution, corresponded with Voltaire and Frederick the Great, was a friend of Benjamin Franklin and Garrick, and one of the first to subscribe to the Fund was the Prince Regent, so it's clear Williams’ acquaintanceship was wide.
          To further demonstrate his good eggery, the grants made by the Fund were, from the beginning, never limited by nationality, sex, religion or politics.  A writer, Williams obviously felt, was a writer was a writer, whether wearing breeches or petticoats – which, I think, was quite unusual in his day.
          The Fund raised money from subscriptions, donations and legacies.  Understandably writers have been generous, with Rupert Brooke, G K Chesterton, Arthur Ransome, A A Milne and Somerset Maugham all contributing.
          The Fund has stepped in to help Coleridge and Chateubriand, Thomas Love Peacock, Joseph Conrad, James Joyce, Ivy Compton-Burnett and Mervyn Peake, among others.  It also helped Robert Burns’ widow and James Boswell’s daughter.
          The RLF’s Fellowship Scheme is slightly different.  It was set up in 1999, and was made possible by the sale, to Disney, of rights the Fund held in A A Milne’s work.
          The scheme recruits writers ‘of literary merit’ and pays them to be on campus at UK Universities for two days a week.  Any student wishing to improve their writing skills can visit the RLFF, for advice and tuition.
          I love the RLF.  For a writer, the work is pure fun.  A constant stream of interesting people come to your door – you don’t even have to go out and find them.  They bring with them essays on all sorts of subjects, from Romeo and Juliet and the visual language of The Third Man, to solar heating engineering; from PhD work on art installations, or the conflict between the RAF and farmers during WWII, to the ethics of social work, Fuzzy Mathematics, how fashion in saris is diverging in the UK and India, Criminal Forensics and – especially interesting, this - the proper management of ‘artists’ who, it seems, don’t respond well to standard management techniques.  Who would have guessed?  But I didn’t know it was being studied.

          Still, there you are - the writer learns as much or more than they teach.
          The RLFF’s job is to help these interesting people solve the problem of how best to express their subject in words.  It’s great fun, even though it can be hard work.  (I often needed therapy after a session of Fuzzy Maths.)
          As an employer, the RLF is the most generous, understanding and respectful one I have ever known.  Its contract stipulates that the writer will spend a certain number of days on campus, seeing students; but the way that time is managed is entirely up to them.  And if no students come? - Well, the RLF stoutly maintains that this is in no way the writers' fault, and they are free to get on with their own work.

A distressed writer
          The Fund frequently reminds the writers that they are not employed by the host university, and the host cannot demand or dictate anything.  In any dispute, the RLF comes fiercely to the defence of the writer, with all the vim of a dissenting preacher sniffing hypocrisy.  David Williams would be proud.
          I am proud to have been an RLF Fellow; and I am proud to be, for the next year, an RLF Advisory Fellow.  I regret to say that, due to the recession, I think the scheme is fully booked for the time being – but I would recommend to any writer finding it hard to make ends meet to arm themselves with knowledge of the RLF – and to drink to the memory of David Williams, dissenting preacher and good egg.

          Blott solved it, eventually.  The answer is: hysilophodon.


madwippitt said...

This was interesting - obviously we've heard you refer to RLF but I never really knew anything about it. And to think that Winnie the Pooh, Piglet et al helped!
The good Rev. was obviously a man with good taste in friends - Frederick the Great was of course most famous for his love of dogs.

Blott - thanks for the smile - the hysillythingamus had a pointy nose, sharp teeth and could run very fast was was evidently an early experimental form of wippitt.

Joan Lennon said...

It will be a big change, but you've given them a fabulous 3 years and they've been lucky to have you!

Penny Dolan said...

Really interesting to hear RLF explained in full, especially its delightful history. Makes me feel v. v. slightly kinder towards the modern cartoon incarnation!

Thanks! All good wishes for your Advisory Post.

Susan Price said...

Thanks to all - I'm late in replying due to good weather in Scotland!