Monthly Archives: September 2019

Ten reasons why imagination is so important – inspired by the author and travel writer Arthur Ransome,

The Arthur Ransome Society invited me to speak at their bi-annual Literary Weekend held recently at the Royal Agricultural University. The college is situated outside Cirencester in Gloucestershire, a ten minute drive from the Golden Valley where I grew up next to the Thames and Severn Canal. I spent my A’Level years at Cirencester College just down the road. Just before leaving school, we were invited to a formal dinner at what was then the Royal Agricultural College, in the Gothic hall where The Arthur Ransome Society dinned. I remember gazing up at the high ceiling with its carvings of bunches of carrots and other vegetables. My father was asked to be the after-dinner speaker that night. A quiet man, he did not relish the idea of public speaking but he delivered the most inspiring talk on travel. It gave me the confidence to launch out into the deep.

In the early 20th century, by embarking on a career as a foreign correspondent for the Daily News and Manchester Guardian, Arthur Ransome was able to travel to Cairo, China and through Russia. He sailed home from the Baltic in his own yacht and kept on sailing, taking a small dinghy with him to visit the Altounyan family in Syria. These adventures inspired his writing for us to relive. Our own travels can be guided by walking in his footsteps, even to half-imagined places such as Swallowdale above some great lake in the north.

While Arthur Ransome transported us to snowy lands by re-telling Old Peter’s Russian Tales, his series of Swallows and Amazons books have the attraction of almost being within our grasp. We could reach most of the locations he describes in our own holidays. Theses twelve novels are essentially about travel of a kind that engages the imagination. Gathering enough food and gear to survive on an island is bound to get you thinking. ‘Are you sure you haven’t forgotten anything?’ By including books such as  Robinson Crusoe that stimulated Ransome’s own imagination, as well as frequent references to South America, he takes us on a literary journey, inspiring us further.

  • Our imagination helps us to examine possibilities and predict danger, anticipate the enemy, access risk: Packing, alone, forces one to focus on what might happen. When you set sail in a small boat you need to be alert: ‘At the end of Darien there might be rocks.’  You learn to trust your decisions based on projections and possible outcomes, becoming a better leader, much like Captain John.
  • We use our imaginations to plan ahead. Nancy’s tactical schemes include anticipation of how others would probably behave.
  • Our imagination generates ideas, helps us solve problems or conflict: ‘If anyone was sailing after dark, we could hoist a lantern up there.’ Ultimately it is Titty, the youngest girl with the most active imagination who dreams up back stories for strangers, renames places, draws, writes, casts herself as Robinson Crusoe and wins the war for the Swallows.
  • Imaginative stories help us remember things.
  • By imagining how others might feel we gain the gift of empathy, which enhances our social skills, engaging unity of purpose. Providing children camping on an island in the Lake District with gooseberry tart and buckets of hot porridge is an obvious example, leaving carved fish for burglars to unearth is slightly more cryptic.
  • Imagination expands our perception and enhances our lives, making us more resourceful: ‘Everything had grown smaller except the lake, and that had never seemed so large before.’ The hay bags were being brought to the island by Mr Jackson.
  • Humour demands subtle forms of imagining, lifting us above the mundane, making the prosaic bearable. Titty turns Lakeland farmers into natives, her mother into Good Queen Bess.
  • Our imagination lifts us above the necessary enables our minds to travel. Ransome himself must have longed to voyage further afield. His novels are drenched in references to South America, Africa and ‘the Caribees’. We have the ability to dream big dreams and find a way of achieving them.
  • There are dangers – we can be wrong.  Titty was not at the camp as John and Susan imagined. She was alone in a clinker-built dinghy, without a blanket, out on the lake, witnessing a criminal behaviour. My Granny’s imagination descended into worry, which became rather irritating. I can only hope her pessimistic imagination fuelled ardent prayers for our safety.
  • An over-active imagine can raise expectations too high. Titty’s own imagination was liable to go over the top but she retained her sense of humour: ‘Might be a tidal wave’. Some poor souls become delusional fantasists. Broken dreams can plunge us into despair. Ransome’s own dreams crashed from time to time and probably drove him overseas. Russia was the one place he could escape his first wife. It ended up being the place where he met his second.

I quote from the Jonathan Cape edition of Swallows and Amazons. Re-reading this is a voyage in itself.  I discover something I never noticed before every time.

CR Milne, wrote of his father, AA Milne saying: ‘A writer is a craftsman and a designer. Another man might have made things with his hands; he made things with his imagination.’ It is clear that Arthur Ransome travelled in his imagination and reported on what it was like.

This summer I joined friends to sail up the Norwegian coast to Bodo above the Arctic Circle. I packed with some trepidation, imagining it could get cold and very wet but we enjoyed excellent, clear conditions. Our enjoyment was enhanced by the reality of sunny Summer day, after sunny Summer day, as if floating through the pages of a storybook. It was a dream fulfilled.

Travel and you are stretched, spoilt for the ordinary. ‘Of course, really we are going the other way,’ said Susan, ‘but it doesn’t matter.’ I know why my father wanted us to travel after leaving school. He knew it would increase our self confidence, extend our ability and help build skills beyond those stretched by taking A’levels. ‘Just pack a bag and go,’ he said. ‘There will always be a way. You’ll find there’s a bus that will link to a boat. Don’t worry about getting stuck – you’ll find something will turn up.’

~Sophie Neville off the coast of Norway, sailing across the Arctic Circle, 2019~

My father appreciated the fact travel is expensive but he always managed to work something out, taking advantage of his military travel pass to take a train to the Outer Hebrides and used his annual leave to sail on the Norfolk Broads in the 1940’s. He found a factory in Maryport to visit as part of his job with BIP. This enabled him to drive around the Lake District in the 1950’s. He worked in exports through the sixties and seventies so that he could fly worldwide. Marketing cable-ties and electronic components enabled him to take the QEII to America and planes to places as far afield as South Africa and Japan. These were the days when agents and customers would take him on tours of their country as part of a trade mission. Such journeys would otherwise have been prohibitively expensive. After retiring, my father sold his collection of early sailing books to cruise the Baltic. The question I now ask is: who inspired him? One major influence was the author Arthur Ransome.

Do think of joining The Arthur Ransome Society and coming to their Literary Weekends. To find out more please click here.

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How to Use Recycled Materials and Litter in the Garden

Green gardening is becoming popular. More and more families are beginning to recycle materials in imaginative ways. After the Great British Spring Clean we had fun converting old buoys and I found washed up on Solent shores into swings for the children. I’ve been sent a few more ideas on how to re-purpose materials for your garden:

Bird feeder – Garden birds eat harmful insects and help pollinate plants. It’s well worth keeping a bird table to encourage them to visit regularly. Rather than spend money on buying a commercial bird feeder, try using different materials to make your own. I collect plastic bottles the whole time when picking up litter and always have a selection in my recycling bin.  The BBC recommend converting a round plastic bottle with a cap, using two willow sticks, a drawing pin, and some string. The sticks serve as perches. When collecting marine plastic, I often find pieces of strong PVC string ideal for hanging up something like this. Once you’ve finished the construction, fill the bottle with bird seed or sunflower seeds and hang it from a tree where song birds can enjoy a bit of cover. It’s a much better option than throwing the plastic bottle in the bin. For info on how to create a recycled bird feeder, please click here.

Cloches – Plastic bottles cut in half make ideal cloches or mini greenhouses to protect and bring on seedlings. Use the top half, without the cap, to bring on plants when you need to allow hot air to escape as conditions warm up.

Use cooking pots as planters – Most households will have several forgotten cooking pots lying around. Try transforming them into decorative planters. You can use string, small rocks, or shells to give them more personality and create a feature in a small space.

Walls, fences and hedges define the boundaries of any garden and contribute hugely to the atmosphere within.  Country Living suggest using reclaimed timber such as drift wood if you are thinking of putting up a new fence. I was amazed to find an inexpensive  selection of natural garden dividers at Screwfix made from bamboo or reeds. These sustainable plants can create an effective screen that provides added interest as well as privacy. It’s possible to create your own if you can gather enough materials.

Sustainable garden furniture – It can be expensive to buy garden furniture, which is often made out of plastic. Country and Townhouse explain how sustainable furniture is being made from materials otherwise intended for the landfill. EnviroBuild’s all-weather Rattan garden furniture is a good example of modern design that makes a useful addition to your garden. It’s made using recycled polyethylene.

Turn tin cans into patio lanterns – I find we have a number of tin cans in our weekly recyling, which can be used for a multitude of purposes. Clean them up, give them a good coat of luminescent or glow-in-the-dark paint, then make a few holes in them, or cut holes in the shape of moons and stars, to turn them into outdoor lanterns. You can use battery-operated tea lights or small solar lights so it’s safe to leave them outdoors.

House numbers made out of recycled coffee cups – Many companies are now helping gardeners use recycled materials. We found some very handsome ECO House Numbers, made using recycled coffee cups, that come with a 300-year guarantee. You can find them, along with other ideas here.

You’ll be surprised at how many things you can create from unused materials from your house or litter found while out walking. All it takes is a little imagination and a little time. Do let me know of any ideas or things you have made in the comments below.

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Daphne Neville, star of all my books, appeared in ‘Come Dine With Me’ on Channel 4 last week

Come Dine With Me opening titles

My mother, Daphne, who has appears as a vibrant character in all my books, took part in series 5 of ‘Come Dine With Me’, broadcast on Chanel 4 this last week. The series was first screened in August 2018. The full five programmes should be available on catch-up.

Whilst, we her family, find Mum’s appearance daunting, if not traumatic, she has made quite a splash with viewers. By the end of the first episode #comedinewithme was trending on Twitter:

Daphne is what is great about Britain..cute polite nice classy positive welcoming….’

‘Daphne is lovely

‘I’m watching how cute is that old lady Daphne!! Ahhh’

‘Yes and we love Daphne too!!

I could not love Daphne anymore than if she was my own Nan!’❤️

‘Aww I do love Daphne!!

‘We are only tuning in to watch daphne

‘Aww isn’t Daphne just the best!!

‘I love Daphne on #comedinewithme

‘Daphne the perfect dinner guest

I totally want to adopt Daphne!!

Oh I LOVE Daphne, I’d score her night a 10 even if the food was crap!

Daphne opened Episode 5, being ‘first off’, with a can of tomatoes.

Come Dine With Me in the kitchen

She was interviewed in her kitchen and we met the guests as they came downstairs. The fact that she lives in a converted mill wasn’t made clear to the other contestants.

‘Keep to the left, its a spiral staircase’, one viewer cried.

Come Dine With Me Group Standing

However, every detail of the meal had been carefully planned. The wine was chilled, the table looked lovely and there was almost constant laughter. Viewers seemed to be engaged: ‘Go daphne!!

Come Dine With Me with Daphne Neville

Mum prepared tomato and mushroom soup for her four guests, followed by wild salmon, only to find out that two of the guests disliked fish, which was a bit of a pity.

Viewers on Twitter were appalled: ‘Seriously…. Who don’t eat fish?’ & ‘So James wouldn’t eat Daphne’s main cause he doesn’t like fish but his starter is lobster?

Come Dine With Me at Daphne Neville's house

One of the guests, who was a stickler for good manners, became irritated by another member of the party and walked out before pudding, which was quite dramatic.

‘Anne’s bottled it…. We have a reserve.’ #comedinewithme

Come Dine With Me - lady leaving

Anne rather blew her own words out of the water, although Daphne said she later wrote to apologise. There was a roar from viewers on Twitter:

 ‘OMG how rude is Anne?! Lecturing the others on manners and then walking out on Daphne?! Bitch!’

Come Dine With Me - Daphne Neville

Suddenly there was one less. Mum’s fans on Twitter were in uproar:

Poor Daphne, completely bemused!!

She ploughed on and the evening became increasingly enjoyable, especially when Rudi the Otter was brought down to meet everyone.

Come Dine With Me featturing Rudi the Otter

In the end, Daphne was awarded 28 points by her four dinner guests. We were amazed.

The Twitter-atary added their opinion:

‘Everyone needs to protect and look after Daphne, that woman is a legend!!

‘If Daphne doesn’t win I’m going to kill someone

‘Anyone see the water sossig on #comedinewithme ? (an ottter)

‘Daphne is our winner

Can we have Daphne on every week please!

Come Dine With Me score.jpg

You can watch the last episode on Channel 4 today at 5.00pm and find out who wins.

Come Dine With Me week 2

‘Absolutely love on . . . What a legend! I want to meet her and her otter 🙏🏻

You can!

Daphne and Rudi the Otter will be appearing at the Frampton Country Fair in South Gloucestershire on Saturday 8th September 2019. All welcome! She will also be speaking at The Arthur Ransome Society Literary Weekend at Cirencester University on Friday 11th October, when I will also be giving a talk.

You can read about the antics of Daphne and her tame otters in ‘Funnily Enough’ by Sophie Neville available online  or to order at your local library. She is also portrayed in ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’ as she worked behind-the-scenes on the 1974 movie. If you prefer reading ebooks, the same story is available under the title ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows and Amazons’ for £2.99

Daphne and Rudi on TV

 

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