Category Archives: Family Life

My Christmas

Sophie Neville at Araminta Blue's art exhibition 2017

first published in

The Good Christmas Guide 2017

The Good Christmas guide

Describe a typical Christmas Day in your household.

We scuttle off to our village church where people have gathered to celebrate the birth of Jesus for over a thousand years. Tears well in my eyes when I think of the joy and laughter, the disappointment and pain that has been brought there through the ages. We return to a bizarre Christmas tree, made from a holly bush covered in baubles, and light the fire to help bind us together as a family.

Which was your best Christmas – and why?

Last year I spent Christmas in Africa, where my next book ‘Makorongo’s War’ is set. We sat watching wild animals in the golden evening light.

What has really made my Christmas this year was having ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’ listed as a recommended book alongside John le Carre, Winston Grahma and Matt Haig

Who do you think would make the most entertaining guest to invite to Christmas dinner – and why?

Funnily enough it’s my aunt Hermione who makes Christmas and New Year fun but she lives on Loch Lomond, 500 miles north from where we live on the south coast.

What was your best Christmas present as a child?

My father gave me a read leather writing case when I was twelve. ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons (1974)’ is based on the I diary kept inside it.

What is your favourite carol?

You’ll have to read my book Ride the Wings of Morning about the time we sang Silent Night in Afrikaans. We had a poor translation. Heavenly sausages descended on Bethlehem.

What is your favourite festive ramble for walking off all the mince pies and turkey?

We’ll take my lurcher Flint for a walk by the sea, a social activity as many of my friends have dogs.

If you could spend Christmas Day anywhere in the world, apart from at home, where would it be – and why?

I’d love to bring my whole family up to the Lake District for Christmas so Aunt Hermione could join us. Perhaps we should go with Flint next year.

My favourite Christmas story:

 Mary gave birth to her firstborn son. She wrapped him snugly in strips of cloth and laid him in a manger, because there was no lodging available for them.

That night there were shepherds staying in the fields nearby, guarding their flocks of sheep. Suddenly, an angel of the Lord appeared among them, and the radiance of the Lord’s glory surrounded them. They were terrified, but the angel reassured them. “Don’t be afraid!” he said. “I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people. The Savior—yes, the Messiah, the Lord—has been born today in Bethlehem, the city of David! And you will recognize him by this sign: You will find a baby wrapped snugly in strips of cloth, lying in a manger.”

Suddenly, the angel was joined by a vast host of others—the armies of heaven—praising God and saying, “Glory to God in highest heaven, and peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased.” When the angels had returned to heaven, the shepherds said to each other, “Let’s go to Bethlehem! Let’s see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”

They hurried to the village and found Mary and Joseph. And there was the baby, lying in the manger.  After seeing him, the shepherds told everyone what had happened and what the angel had said to them about this child. All who heard the shepherds’ story were astonished, but Mary kept all these things in her heart and thought about them often. The shepherds went back to their flocks, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen. It was just as the angel had told them.   Luke 2 v 7-20

The cultural background is that in when Shepherds identified a perfect newborn lamb for sacrifice, they wrapped it in strips of cloth and laid it in a manger to keep it clean. When they saw Jesus in this situation, they would have immediately identified him as a sacrificial lamb.

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Swallows and Amazons parties and presents

Holding a party with a Swallows and Amazons theme is a great idea, especially if you can be under canvas. A campfire and either swimming or archery with geo-cashing or a treasure hunt would keep your guests occupied. Everyone can dress up as explorers or pirates. If it’s wet you can always show a DVD of the film, the BBC serial of ‘Coot Club’ or organise a cinema outing to see Swallows and Amazons (2016).

There have been some wonderful cake designs. This impressive creation was put together by Evie and Sam Rose:

Over the years the most amazing ‘Swallows and Amazons’ creations have risen to fame. I have put up a few more ideas on Pinterest here

The cookery book writer and GBBO finalist Miranda Gore Browne transformed her garden into Wild Cat Island, served iced buns and a cake worthy of a pirate feast, sending everyone home with old-fashioned sweets in a tin mug.  You can see some of her wonderful party ideas here

Miranda Gore Browne mugs

You could hang ‘Swallows and Amazons’ flags or bunting. The Gingerbread  House show you how to make these:

Pippa Middelton and her family, who are related to Arthur Ransome, have a company called Party Pieces who have loads of ideas for Pirate Parties on their blog here. They cater for the younger age group but do sell chocolate pieces of eight and a retractable telescope very like Titty’s on their website for only £2.99. I liked the idea of an inflatable parrot, although properly it should be a green one.

I found these 38mm badges and fridge magnets for sale on eBay. They’ve used my own drawing of the crossed flags, without permission, but never mind. They might be something fun to award as prizes for games such as ‘Walk the Plank’ or catching crabs, which you could do literally if you live by the sea. You might find a few ideas for party games here.

I’ve been collecting further ideas for Swallows and Amazons presents. The Nancy Blackett Trust shop has some great ideas including these small porcelain mugs:

swallows-and-amazons-mugs

and dishes

swallows-and-amazons-china

along with T-shirts and hats for Amazon pirates of all ages:

nancy-blackett-hat-and-t-shirt

StudioCanal have broadened their collection of movie memorabilia on offer to include cushions. They also sell mugs, mouse mats, prints and 400-piece jigsaw puzzels. I like these 300 piece jigsaws.

A scene with the Swallows from Swallows and Amazons

-A scene with the Swallows from ‘Swallows and Amazons’ (1974) –

I found this lovely design for Swallows and Amazons wash-bags made by Rachel:

She has a Swallows and Amazons bag on ebay right now

Swallows and Amazons bag made by Rachel

I’ve listed more gift ideas here

A year’s subscription of Classic Sailor magazine makes a gift for adults as it keeps coming all year.

Why not give a year’s membership to The Arthur Ransome Society? For information please click here.

Or chose a book. They always make good presents.

sophie-neville-signing-books-at-aldeburgh-bookshop-2016

~Sophie Neville at Aldeburgh Bookshop~

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My Family Roots in East Africa – Part Two

sophie-neville-at-usa-river-in-tanzania

~Drying coffee beans on our farm at Usa River near Arusha in 1972~

Days spent at our farm in northern Tanzania were full of colourful characters, including a cobra who lived in the trees overshadowing the house. He probably kept down the rodent population quite efficiently.

farmhouse-at-usa-river

My great-uncle Tony was probably more dangerous. He had a very sensitive nose and a legendary temper.

a-walk-in-africa

My aunt kept tame lemurs. They marked their territory by peeing on their hands. This was understandable until they decided to climb over your face.

reinhild-with-her-lemur

My father loved travelling in northern Tanzania and was intrigued by the wildlife.

april-1969-africa

I was fascinated by the people, many of whom wore traditional dress in the early 1970’s.

ear-piercing-and-cloak-at-shop-window

Extended ear-lobes, names such as Libougi and bright beaded jewellery had me squinting into the sunlight.

sophie-at-usa-river

In a country where polygamy was the norm everyone seemed to have rather large families with any number of wives and children.

african-school

Having your photograph taken was quite the thing. What the woolly lemurs thought of this, I do not know.

tame-lemur

There was always talk of the next expedition up-country. Careful packing was a constant preoccupation.

landrover-outside-farmhouse

Complicated arrangements were ever being made. Uncle Tony was an honourary game warden, with the power to arrest poachers.

baroness-reinhild-von-bodenhaussen-in-about-1970

My mother loved the idea of going on safari and urged him to include us as he toured areas where wildlife thrived.

my-mother-on-safari-at-usa-river-in-northern-tanzania-the-early-1970s

It was a privilege to be taken game viewing as a child by someone with such a depth of knowledge.

elephant

I began to sketch in the back of his Land Rover, while keeping lists of the animals we encountered and trying to learn their Swahili names.

buffalo

As we drove through the national parks, such as Lake Manyara we rarely saw another vehicle. The reason for packing so carefully was that there was no one around to help if anything went wrong. If you broke down or ran out of fuel you could be in serious trouble.

giraffe-under-tree

But there were always old  friends to visit and they were charming, most hospitable.

hilli-and-woolly

After driving for ages, we’d end up at another farm-house, playing croquet.

croquet

Nothing but croquet, all afternoon and evening. Somehow I survived. I did so by keeping a diary. It was the first of a whole pile of notebooks that have grown exponentially, forming the basis of quite a few books – with more to come.

croquet-2

To be continued.

 

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My Family’s Roots in East Africa

Cover photo MW

‘I’d like to go to Africa,’ I declared as a little girl, ‘and see forests full of parrots.’ This I did. Everything I had ever hoped to see was spread out before me and the experience left a profound impression.

Mailer Estate in 1970

My great-grandparents began farming at Usa River, just west of Arusha in 1919. I first arrived in northern Tanzania in 1972, when my mother took these photographs of the house and garden where her family lived for fifty years. I longed to climb the ancient fig tree in the garden but was told a cobra lived there. It was probably on the lookout for parrots coming anywhere near it.

Makorongo's War by Sophie Neville - revised 30 November 2015_html_m50ecfa90 - Copy

By the early seventies the family were busy farming coffee and often had visitors to stay. My great-uncle Tony used the farm as a base for his safaris and served as an honourary game warden having worked for many years in the Kenyan Police Force and Game Department. He was well-connected and once took Bing Crosby bird shooting, although this fact was kept secret until 2015.

Makorongo's War by Sophie Neville - revised 30 November 2015_html_4b186671 - Copy

I loved the outdoor way of life, was intrigued by the kitchen that was seperate from the main house, and amused by the hot water system that consisted of small cylindrical  tanks known as ‘donkeys’. Everything smelt of wood smoke. The best thing was that I was able to sleep in a safari tent set up in the garden, in true ‘Swallows and Amazons’ style. It felt as if I was being swept along in an adventure portrayed in the film ‘Born Free’ when Virginia McKenna played the artist Joy Adamson who became well known for bringing up a lion cub called Elsa, eventually releasing her into the wild.

Makorongo's War by Sophie Neville - revised 30 November 2015_html_3c38f792 - Copy

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Literary Christmas presents

I’ve been collecting further ideas for Swallows and Amazons presents.

Kate Lowe of Bagsymefirst has brought out these pocket mirrors carefully made form re-cycled book pages.

Swallows and Amazons pocket mirror

Kate also makes a handbags out of old books – and will make up your favourite. She says, ‘The last one was made for a bridesmaid at a sailing-themed wedding.’  Please click here for her sales site.

Swallows and Amazons bag

While a DVD of a new film or a book makes a good present, the illustrator Jago Silver has brought out some wonderful Swallows and Amazons notebooks perfect for keeping a ship’s log:

sketchbook by Jago Silver

as well as inspiring enamel mugs in two designs:

Swallows and Amazons mug designed by Jago Silver

Swallows and Amazons mug by Jago Silver

Jago’s other nautical mugs and and limited edition screenprints, which you can spot on his website here.

Print by Jago Silver

The Nancy Blackett Trust have a shop, the proceeds of which go towards the upkeep of Arthur Ransomes’s favourite little ship. Their new items including beautiful coffee  mugs and lovely tea towels – can be viewed by clicking here.

Nancy blackett product shop

If you know anyone who has pierced ears you can find appropriate Literary Gifts here  They also sell Swallow broaches.

swallows_amazons_typewriter_earrings_1024x1024

‘Little bookish things can make up pendants featuring your favourite book cover, please click here for the site. There are cufflinks, pendants and makeup bags can be found on Esty here.

The Arthur Ransome Trust can make up ‘Swallows and Amazons’ T-shirts

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, StudioCanal offer a selection of mugs, puzzels, prints, mousemats and film posters on their website here. If you search around the site you can find stills from the film made into similar merchandise, click here for an example.

Otherwise, why not give a year’s membership to The Arthur Ransome Society. For information please click here.

President of The Arthur Ransome Society

Sophie Neville, President of TARS

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‘Swallows and Amazons’ profiled on ITV News at Ten

Swallows and Amazons on ITV News 29th July

As president of The Arthur Ransome Society, I am keen to promote ‘Swallows and Amazons’, emphasizing the aspect that children today can enjoy the outdoor activities advocated by Arthur Ransome back in the 1930s.

Sophie Neville sailing with Nina Ninnar

ITV reporter Nina Nannar bravely came out sailing with me in a scow, rigged like Swallow with a balanced lug sail, to experience the excitement of letting the wind take us along at speed.

Nina Nannar sailing with Sophie Neville

One of the shots was used on ITV on Thursday 28th July as a trailer for the next day:

Nina Nannar with Sophie Neville on ITV News

When it came to the News on Friday 29th July, ITV showed clips of the new movie of ‘Swallows and Amazons’, being launched on 19th August 2016. The item was shown on the News in New Zealand on 5th August. A viewer wrote in saying:

‘Great to see a full 3+ minutes about the new S&A film on NZ TV news tonight. Sophie Neville did a great job of promoting the value for modern kids to get out on the water or under canvas.’

Swallow in 'Swallows and Amazons' 2016

It stars Ralph Spall, Kelly Macdonald & Andrew Scott, seen here spying on Captain Flint.

Andrew Scott in 'Swallows and Amazons'

After a clip from ‘Swallows & Amazons’ (1974) starring Virginia McKenna

Showing 'Swallows & Amazons' 1974 on News at Ten

in which I played her daughter, Titty Walker or rather Able-seaman Titty,

Sophie Neville playing Titty in 1974

they showed children today learning to sail, unaccompanied by adults.

Emma sailing on ITV News

Young children were crewing for the junior instructors, aged 16 and 17

Evie Stokes with one of the junior instructors

Nina Nannar interviewed me about summer camps offered by The Arthur Ransome Society

Sophie Neville being interviewed on ITV News at Ten

‘Is Swallows and Amazons relevant to children today?’ was the main question.

Emma instructing

‘It’s timeless, isn’t it?’ I said, proving this by referring to the children sailing around us.

Sophie Neville on News at Ten

Andrea Gibb was interviewed in the studio about her screenplay for the new movie ‘Swallows and Amazons’ (2016), which will reach cinemas this August.

Andrea Gibb talking about 'Swallows and Amazons' 2016

You can watch the item here

itv News at Ten

‘Is Swallows and Amazons relevant to children today?’

Please add your comments below

Sophie Neville sailing with Nina Ninnar (2)

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Bringing ‘Swallows and Amazons’ within reach

 

Sophie Neville with Lapwing kids

‘Unlike other films, ‘Swallows and Amazons’ is within children’s reach,’ I’ve been told. It’s true. Any child can pretend that their bed is a sailing dinghy taking them to a deserted island. And when you are a little bit older – it’s not impossible to join a sailing club or go camping.

Aldeburgh Junior LapwingsWe took Swallow to join the Aldeburgh Junior Lapwings on the River Alde in Suffolk.

Boys with their Lapwing

One intrepid sailor had bought her own Lapwing for £100, raising the money by busking in Aldeburgh High Street. Tilly renovated and varnished the clinker-built dinghy herself.

Owl hoots

She can be seen here teaching the younger children how to owl hoot, playing ‘What Shall We Do With The Drunken Sailor’ on her thumbs.

Learning how to owl hoot

The children went fishing for crabs, which they later raced down the slipway.

A crab

They went in search of treasure – if that is what you call a scavenger hunt –

Scavenger Huntbefore sailing back to camp by the mud flats, cooking out in the open and sleeping in tents.

Junior LapwingThey launched their dinghies, raised their red sails

Boys with their Lapwings

and headed off, catching the tide.

Sailing on the River Alde, Suffolk

Swallow, the dinghy used in the 1974 film ‘Swallows & Amazons’ acted as flag ship.

You can find ideas for Swallows and Amazons themed parties and presents here.

Swallow on the Alde

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A Swallows and Amazons childhood

Swallows and Amazons fly sheet

The first swallows have arrived and summer is here. You only have to look around to see parents advocating a ‘Swallows and Amazons’ childhood for their offspring. They want to go camping, catch fish and learn to cook on open fire.

Titty’s dream of being alone on an island to experience what it must have been like for Robinson Crusoe has never been seen as worrying. Parents want to encourage their offspring to use their imaginations and explore the wilderness, knowing it will be memorable. As long as the weather holds they are happy to act as Man Friday. By exercising her imagination, Titty comes up with ideas that ultimately win the war and develop courage and resourcefulness by taking part in the adventure even though Captain John is at the helm. The fact that the mere able seaman becomes hailed as the hero of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ has inspired a generation.

Cobnor Camp 2015

TARS at Cobnor Camp

If you want the real deal, become a family member of The Arthur Ransome Society and sign up for one of our summer camps while there is still space:

If you can get to the Lake District, there is a camp on Coniston Water in Cumbria – 2nd to 13th August 2016

If you are nearer the south Coast, there is a weekend camp at Cobnor, sailing around Chichester Harbour – 14th to 17th August 2016

There is a ‘Swallowdale’ Camp in North Derbyshire – 27th August to 29th August 2016

and a sailing weekend in Staffordshire.

IMG_2170

Swallow at Cobnor

If you are keen on sailing find out about the Nancy Blackett Trust. They offer memorable opportunities for children and teenagers, as well as adult sailors who’d love the opportunity of going out in Arthur Ransome’s yacht and meeting like-minded people.

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The Nancy Blackett is based on the Orwell near where the Ransomes lived in Suffolk but she ventures forth and was even spotted on the Hamble last year.

IMG_2119

 

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Arthur Ransome, his boats and the Altounyan family

‘Paddling with Peter Duck’, John McCarthy’s  documentary for BBC Radio 4, can currently be listened to on IPlayer Radio. It is about the boats owned by the author Arthur Ransome and includes extracts read from his classic book Swallows and Amazons by Kate Taylor.

While the broadcast is a portrayal of Arthur Ransome and his boats, it touches on his friendship with the Altounyan family who inspired him to embark on writing the series of twelve Swallows and Amazons books. It is easy to understand this when looking at their photographs.

Family Photo with donkeys

The Altounyan children with friends in Syria.

The girls seem to be Taqui, Brigit and Titty

Could it possibly be Arthur Ransome sitting on the right? He visited the family in Syria in 1932, when he must have been about forty-eight, but was never known to have worn shorts, although it would have been exceptionally hot in the Middle East. Click on the photos to enlarge.

Possibly Arthur Ransome in bow of Peter Duck the boat he took to Syria

Is this Arthur Ransome ? sitting on the bow of Peter Duck in Syria, the chap wearing the same hat and clothes as in the photo above? He took this  dinghy out to Syria as a gift for the Altounyan  children and wrote his novel Peter Duck while he and his wife Evgenia were  staying with the family in Aleppo.

Possibly Arthur Ransome in the Altounyan's dinghy Beetle II on Amouk in Syria

Possibly Arthur Ransome sailing Beetle II the Altounyans’ gunter-rigged dinghy at Amouk in Syria

Dr Ernest Altounyan 1935

Ransome’s friend Dr Ernest Altounyan in 1935

Dora Altounyan 1935

Dora Altounyan (nee Collingwood) in 1935

Was she the model for Mary Walker, the Swallows’ mother who grew up in Australia?

Roger at Dovedale

Roger Altounyan as a boy


Roger sailing off Peel Island 1978 by Asadour Guzelian

Dr Roger Altounyan sailing ‘Mavis’ on Coniston Water.

Sadly there is no sign of the original Swallow bought at the same time as Mavis by Arthur Ransome and Ernest Altounyan in Barrow-in-Furness, and later sailed by the Ransomes on Windermere.  Mavis was later re-named Amazon by Brigit Altounyan, the youngest of the five Altounyan children, known as The Ship’s Baby.

Brigit seated

Brigit Altounyan as a girl

Brigit married, becoming known as Brigit Sanders and later became President of The Arthur Ransome Society. The original lugsail dinghy Mavis or Amazon can be visited in the Coniston Museum in Cumbria. To read more please click here to see this previous post.

Ernest Altounyan sailing Mavis on Coniston

Dr Ernest Altounyan on Coniston Water with ‘Mavis’, one of the dinghies that inspired ‘Swallows and Amazons’

These unique photographs were recently found in Cheshire by the antiques dealer John Jukes who asked me if I could return them to the Altounyan family. This I have done and show them here by kind permission of Roger’s daughter, Barbara Altounyan. Please do not copy these photos.

To listen to John McCarthy’s  Radio 4 broadcast, please click here

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The facts behind the concept of a ‘Swallows & Amazons’ childhood

What strikes me about Arthur Ransome’s whole series of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ books is that they are set almost exclusively outside in the open – or afloat. When we made the film in 1973 it rained so much in the Lake District that the producer must have longed for the existence of a few more interior scenes. As it was, the longest one ended up on the cutting-room floor. Is this because the essence and appeal of the stories is that they occur beyond the confines of domestic realms?

Blu-ray reading telgram

‘If not duffers, won’t drown.’ Simon West, Sophie Neville and Suzanna Hamilton in ‘Swallows & Amazons’ (1974)

When I appeared on Channel 5 last year I learnt the most depressing facts about the decline in the amount of time children spend outdoors. Recent research shows that children tend to stay indoors, watching television, playing computer games or even spend time doing homework, rather than go out to play. Kids today play outside for less than five hours a day at weekends and only for an hour or so during the week, which is half the time their parents spent outdoors, whatever the weather. You’d have thought they must have had higher levels of vitamin D. Apparently only 21% children today play outside near their homes, as compared to 71% of their own parents when they were young.

Blu-ray Swallow's stern

However:

  • 44 % of parents wish their children played outdoors more often.
  • 54 % seriously worry their child doesn’t spend enough time playing outdoors.
  • But 43 % of parents admitted they rely on school to ensure their children are getting plenty of time outdoors through PE and play times, and spend very little outdoor time with their children themselves.
  • One study found that eight in ten parents said their favourite activities as children involved being outdoors. But only half their children lead the same active life.

Apparently parents have forgotten how to play with their kids. While nine of ten parents recognise that it is vital for children to use their imaginations, 16 per cent of parents say they have no idea how to make up stories or create imaginative play. What would Titty say?

Blu-ray X marks the spot

‘X marks the spot where they ate six missionaries!’ Simon West, Sophie Neville, Suzanna Hamilton and Sten Grendon on Peel Island in the English Lake District.

So what’s changed?

  • 32% of parents quote safety fears as the reason their children didn’t play out more often.
  • 19% said it was due to a lack of time.
  • 16% said their children would rather do other things.
  • 53% of parents were reluctance to letting children out of their sight on the danger posed by traffic
  • 40% feared their child would be snatched by a stranger.
  • Over 25% worry their neighbours would disapprove if their children played outdoors unsupervised.

 Blu-ray gutting fish

The Arthur Ransome Society have organised a number of activities for families this summer, including a camp at Cobnor Point on Chichester Harbour from Friday 14th August to Sunday 16th August. The idea is that you bring your own tent, food, drink and a boat if you have one but the cost is very low at £20 for adults and £10 for children. Activities include nature walks, archery, games, signalling and water divinging with sailing when the weather permits. The cost includes a barbeque on the Saturday evening. Please click here for details.

If you missed Dan Damon’s programme on BBC Radio 4, when I spoke on the appeal of a Swallows and Amazons childhood, you can listen to the full recording on BBC World Update by clicking here.

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