This coming Monday evening the whole of Rochester House, the old Oxford central telephone exchange and mail sorting office, will come alive after many years of disuse. Its three rambling, empty buildings, linked around a courtyard, will fill with people gathering for the launch of an extraordinary exhibition.
Other Worlds is a celebration of stories and the imagination, as is The Story Museum itself, the new owner of this warren of deserted rooms, dusty passages, gloomy staircases, rundown loading bays and other eccentric spaces. The celebration takes the form of installations by 25 writers collaborating with visual artists. Each pair or group of collaborators has been invited to tell a story that draws its inspiration from the space they have been allocated, a story that takes its audience into another world.
Most of the installations are now in place, apart from those of the Scottish contingent, me included, who haven’t made it south yet. Judging by the tweets and emails flying around, it’s going to be truly a feast for the imagination, a banquet of the unexpected. And, of course, there’s a story in how it all came to pass.
The Story Museum is a charity devoted to fostering a love of stories among children, and Oxford is home to some of the greatest children’s storytellers in the English language – Lewis Carroll, CS Lewis, JRR Tolkein, Philip Pullman to name just a few. Recently a benefactor gave the museum the money to buy Rochester House, bang in the middle of town, a stone’s throw from Christ Church. Now housed in a few rooms at the entrance, they need a lot more to transform the rambling, early Victorian building into the story centre they dream of.
A year ago, when we were running our Dark Angels masterclass at Merton College, we took one of our groups of students on a research trip to the Story Museum. Inspired by the potential of the place, we suggested this project as a way of raising money for the museum and profile for us. They swiftly agreed.
We invited only writers who had been on one of the two masterclasses we have so far run. The take-up, unsurprisingly, was almost a hundred percent, and the writers in turn invited their own artist collaborators. The Story Museum also invited writers Michael Rosen and Kate Clanchy, and artists Roger Dean and Korky Paul. Almost exactly a year and a lot of hard work later, we’re now about to open. The show runs throughout the month of May.
But why as Dark Angels, an organisation that offers writing courses to people from the world of business, should we concern ourselves with children’s storytelling?
My personal answer is this. I write my best – whether it’s this blog, or a passage in a novel, or a piece of work for a corporate client – when my imagination and emotions are totally engaged with the subject on hand, when I’m in that zone where I feel almost physically connected with the idea to be expressed. But that doesn’t just happen when the muse strikes. It’s a muscle that can be exercised, and naturally the more you exercise it the stronger it gets.
My collaborators in Other Worlds are my daughter Ellie and Anna Day, partners in The Flower Appreciation Society – ‘not your average florists’, as they accurately describe themselves. Our space is a long narrow passage, with windows on both sides. It ends in three wooden steps leading to a breeze-block wall.
Apart from the fun of being involved in a creative collaboration with one of my children, there’s the challenge of spinning something entertaining and thought-provoking, something that also involves flowers, out of this absurd corridor that goes nowhere. For all three of us it’s a novel way of exercising that imaginative muscle. I’m sure that when we – and all the other fifty or so participants – return to more routine and mundane activities, we’ll experience the benefits in subtle ways. We constantly have to find what’s entertaining and thought-provoking in our daily work.
We also, of course, hope that the Story Museum will experience the benefits in less subtle ways, notably the ringing of their till.
If you’re anywhere near Oxford between the 1st and 27th of May, Other Worlds is at the Story Museum, Rochester House, 42 Pembroke Street, Oxford OX1 1BP Opening times: Thurs 1-7pm, Fri 1-7pm, Sat 1pm – 5pm, Sun 10am – 4pm Admission £3 Come and see us!