As a companion to the vital conversation carried out by Bruno Lettieri and Francis Sullivan in this week’s video, we offer you author Ailsa Piper’s thought-provoking piece on Rupertswood, names and history.
What’s in a name?
History, that’s what.
Names carry layers of meaning and experience, joy, suffering, pleasure and pain. They carry associations and resonances, both personal and communal.
When I first heard it, I remember thinking, “Who was Rupert and where was his wood?” It sounded so terribly English, somehow connected to that notion of a “family seat” – nothing like the red Ikea armchair in the corner of my study. No, Rupertswood sounded frightfully, frightfully posh and otherworldly.
Then I learned that Rupertswood was on my regular railway line – that it was, in fact, the grand manor house I saw as I whizzed past in a train, the house that always made me lift my nose out of my book and marvel. And it was in Sunbury. Not posh. Not ancient. Not any more privileged than my part of the world.
Then I was asked to teach in a writing programme that was happening there. Ah, I thought. Rupertswood must be a place of magic, of possibility.
Then, oh then, I went to Rupertswood.
In reality, it was grand, overwhelming, beautiful, undoubtedly posh, magnificently kempt, clearly loved – and welcoming. We were told we could use the verandahs, the rooms, the gardens – “whatever you want.”
Rupertswood was a playground with no rules except to create.
I’ve taught at many places in my thirty-plus years as an actor, director and writer, and I’ve observed many different types of students, from the privileged subsidised through to the disinterested and disenfranchised. But I’ve rarely been as moved as I was that evening at Rupertswood.
To put a writing class in such an environment proclaimed that creativity matters, that our own stories are important, that our voices can be celebrated. It was nurturing, egalitarian and hopeful, and we all rose to be our best selves as a result. I watched students romp and write, and confidence grow. I monitored myself, and felt gratitude rising.
In the past couple of weeks, I’ve been shocked to see the name Rupertswood in the papers for other reasons; reasons that give grief and pain, and speak of cruelty and victimization. Rupertswood’s tower began to seem to me a place of torture and suffering. I wondered if somehow we could all be infected, each time we read “Rupertswood” in a newspaper or heard it said on radio.
I’ve thought about it a lot.
When I walked through Spain, I was conscious of the blood under my feet. There are layers of bloodshed and destruction feeding the olives and vines of that country. Moors, Christians, Jews, the civil war … on and on over centuries there have been battles and persecution. And now they are suffering, again, at the hands of bankers.
But always, what I met was kindness, and so now, when I write of the country, when I speak of the people, it is a love song of gratitude and welcome. The name “Spain” makes me shiver with pleasure and longing. I’m not ignorant of the history held in that single-syllable word – or the three syllables when I say España! I am conscious of all that is under my feet and in my heart. In some ways, I am more admiring of the current Spaniards because they have built their world of open arms out of such inhumanity.
And so I hope that the beauty and welcome of the Twilight School programme will be what many of us take into the world, so that when Rupertswood is heard for the first time by others, the current part of the story can be about restoration and comfort, reparation and creativity, renewal and reinvention.
I am not one to avert my eyes from history. Rather, I think we must stare into its eyes and ask the hard questions. Only then can we discover how to steer away from repeating mistakes; only then can we offer hope for a different future; and only then can we restore hope.
My experience of the Twilight School has offered me hope every time I’ve heard the ugly news this last week.
I’m so grateful to have been an invited guest, and, hopefully, a part of a new phase of the history of that name.
Ailsa Piper is a walker, talker, teacher, writer, passionate patron of the Twilight School and the author of Sinning Across Spain – a walker’s journey from Granada to Galicia published by Melbourne University Press.