I first encountered Floyer Sydenham during Marcy Kahan’s vivid introductory talk for new RLF Fellows on the history of the Royal Literary Fund. Marcy – playwright, radio dramatist, screenwriter, and raconteur extraordinaire – exhorted her audience to ‘Picture the scene…’, a debtors’ prison on 1st April 1787, where Floyer Sydenham, seventy-seven-year-old English scholar of Greek, and translator of the dialogues of Plato, lay dying. ‘So small a gainer in money’ by his literary efforts, Floyer was ‘imprisoned for a trifling debt’ to die in utter poverty. A posthumous wave of sympathy for the fate of poor authors led to the establishment of what was to become the Royal Literary Fund.
If you’re reading this, you probably know about the Royal Literary Fund. If not, an excellent potted history is available via the RLF website, with a rollcall of later-famous writers the Fund has helped with charitable grants, including James Hogg, Leigh Hunt, Joseph Conrad, D. H. Lawrence, James Joyce, Ivy Compton-Burnett, Mervyn Peake and Dylan Thomas. That history was written by Janet Adam Smith, President of the Royal Literary Fund between 1976 and 1984, an author, biographer, mountaineer, literary editor of the New Statesman and vice- president of the Alpine Club. But, as her 1999 Guardian obituary also notes, no stranger to adversity herself, bringing up four young children on very little money following the early death of her husband.
A significant portion of the RLF’s income comes from royalties bequeathed by writers, such as the estates of Sir Arthur Wing Pinero, Rupert Brooke, G. K. Chesterton, Arthur Ransome, and in particular Somerset Maugham and A. A. Milne. While history divides writers’ careers retrospectively between ‘Success’ and ‘Failure’, to write is to exist on a sine wave of elation and despair, oscillating not just around prizes, sales and critical success, but with each manuscript, each page, each word, each idea. Like the infantile amnesia by which babies rapidly forget their birth trauma, prolonged success creates the illusion of calm, yet no writer ever fully sheds that buried panic that really, deep down, all this will end tomorrow.
Or maybe that’s just me.
Anyway, thanks to Winnie-the-Pooh, this is where I enter the narrative.
Following the sale of its share of merchandising rights to Disney by the estate of A.A. Milne in 2001, the Royal Literary Fund was able to broaden its reach. A Fellowship scheme was instituted by Hilary Spurling CBE, biographer, journalist and RLF Trustee, ‘to break down divisions, build up contacts and stimulate the living language, to relieve cultural poverty and linguistic distress as well as lightening the financial and material pressures weighing so heavily at present on the whole company of authors’. It was to place writers in universities to help students with their writing skills. In 2013, I became one of them. Two days a week, for two years, I travelled to the Old Royal Naval College, University of Greenwich, to meet up to six students per day to discuss their academic work. Week after week, with every conversation and every page, I learned more about writing.
I learned to listen, I learned about time, I learned the value of Post-its and reading aloud, I learned that punctuation is breathing, and a valuable rhetorical tool. I learned to spot where someone writing in English had paused in doubt, to think in another language, and that being a writer is about expressing what you think and the words on the page are only the final piece of a lifelong puzzle. When, on their third appointment, a student reading a draft aloud, while enthusiastically correcting it with a pencil like Luke Skywalker mastering the lightsaber, turned to me and said, ‘You’re really good at this!’ — I realised I was; that everything I had ‘learned’ during my Fellowship was what I had learned from years of writing but never had the opportunity to put into words. I had a craft.
Over six hundred writers have now had similar experiences at hundreds of UK Universities. Many thousands of mostly young people have acquired mastery in planning, punctuation, bursting into tears and resolving writing blocks at last. For me, my one-to-one work with students has led to mentoring and coaching other writers — a whole new avenue of expertise and income that supports my creative work. This has opened new doors, inspired new projects, and indirectly given rise to a production company.
Most RLF Fellows will, after their two years in post, return to their writing career. Others may become Associate Fellows, mentors to writers joining the Fellowship scheme, or, depending on their literary work and interests, may run Reading Round groups in local communities, or run writing workshops in the social sector. All this additional freelance work is organised around two founding principles: that the RLF exists to support writers and promote literacy and the appreciation of literature.
So, almost a decade since my Fellowship epiphany in Greenwich, why am I writing this now?
In addition to being a playwright and scriptwriter, I too have undertaken freelance work for the RLF, such as behind-the-scenes work on this website. I have read every Collected article and listened to each podcast, in order to tag references to specific writers, places and subjects. At the time of writing there are, for example, seventeen pieces that reference the Brontës, thirty-six mentioning or about Charles Dickens, 166 articles and podcasts discussing the writing process. Forty-six namecheck the RLF, but not one covers the experience of being an RLF Fellow in detail. I wanted to fill that gap by writing it myself, for whoever comes next.
Times change. The RLF exists, with its grants, pensions, and Fellowships, to bulwark writers against the vagaries of the market and life. The Fellowship programme and associate activities have grown exponentially; the needs they meet, likewise. In time, perhaps it’s inevitable that the administrative and creative tasks now covered by a loose alliance of freelance writers will be taken over by specialists, but the legacy, of writers coming together to promote writing, will endure.
While writing this, I looked up Floyer Sydenham and discovered he was from an ‘ancient family’ in Exeter with a heraldic crest. I imagined Floyer arriving in London from Exeter to pursue his literary endeavours, only to die in poverty. Was he the black sheep of his family?
Many writers feel like outsiders — several podcasts on this site attest that it is a prerequisite of our job. If so, Floyer Sydenham’s crest might stand for all RLF writers. It is, in heraldic terms, Argent, three rams passant guardant sable. Three black rams, each walking with a foreleg raised (Old French: passant), with heads turned to regard the spectator (guardant). A cohort of black sheep marching together, going out into the world. The translator of Plato’s Republic would have been astonished and comforted by his legacy of learning and social justice.