The Duck, the Hippo and the Goblin by Julia Jones

Once upon a time ....
on Peter Duck's foredeck
It began back in March when I was invited to give an after supper talk at the Royal Norfolk and Suffolk Yacht Club in Lowestoft. An enterprising teacher, who is a member of the club, had been reading The Salt-Stained Book to some of the children in years 5 & 6 of a local primary school. She persuaded the club to invite the children in for the day – thirty-six in the morning and the same in the afternoon. We gathered round an enormous mahogany table in the club's conference room, all of us in our best behaviour. In the corner of the room I could see the box into which members used to drop their white or black balls when deciding on the election of a new member. The children learned to tie knots in the club training room and went out onto the pontoons and into the winter storage area to look at boats of many different shapes and sizes. These are children from a former fishing village, perched on the Suffolk coast, but the North Sea fish are long gone and many of their families are third generation unemployed. One of the children asked the teacher why the masts of the boats on the water kept moving. Somehow this was the question that made us realise how completely many of them had lost their connection with the sea. We resolved that Year 6 at least, the children about to move on to secondary school, should be given the opportunity to feel this watery movement for themselves.

Welcome to the Goblin
To take thirty-six ten and eleven year olds for a day's sailing proved too difficult to organise so we compromised. Nancy Blackett (Arthur Ransome's 'Goblin') was keen to help and so was Peter Duck. They were joined by a small friendly cruising yacht named Kiboko (hippo). The Royal Harwich Yacht Club (aka 'Royal Orwell & Ancient') offered the use of their facilities and the Year 6 leavers swiftly added We Didn't Mean to Go to Sea to their class reading. We met at Alton Water near Ipswich – where the hero of The Salt-Stained Book has his first experience of sailing – and moved on to Pin Mill where the adventures commence in We Didn't Mean to Go To Sea. As the children and their teachers walked through the woods beside the Orwell, up-river to the yacht club, they collected scattered sea-bird feathers and unripe berries to weave into the dream-catchers that they would be making later.
Making dream-catchers

Lunch on the grass, a welcome from the Commodore and it was activity time. Six groups with six children in each: learning to read a chart, making the dream-catchers and working with Ali Roberts of the Cambridge Arts Theatre. (They'd first met Ali when two anonymous benefactors from the Nancy Blackett Trust had paid for them all to travel to Cambridge to see the stage production of Swallows and Amazons). The rest of the afternoon was to be spent on each of the three yachts in turn. Kiboko offered an introduction to the practicalities of small boat cruising, Nancy Blackett has star-status as Ransome's “best little ship” and all the beautiful authenticity of the 'Goblin' in which his Swallows crossed the North Sea – what was Peter Duck going to contribute?
Inside the Hippo

I put paper, pencils, crayons in the cabin and showed each group the bunk where I slept as a child and the fore-hatch which my brothers and I liked to climb through. Then I told them they were free to do exactly as they liked. Some wanted information – how did the depth sounder work or the radar? Could they hold the tiller or hoist a sail? One group wanted to make tea in the galley, another to put up Peter Duck's flags. They drew pictures, they scrambled, they sat and chatted on the cabin-top, gazed into the distance from the bows or hung over the side spotting jelly fish. Most of all they played. One group decided they were the Sparrows (I love the idea of crossing the Johnny Depp pirate with Ransome's John Walker) and began plotting dastardly attacks on the unsuspecting Hippos. Others screeched with delight when I turned on PD's engine “Help! she's kidnapping us!” Two children told me about the progress they'd made in their own stories since we'd met in March. Their main achievement had been throwing their fictional parents overboard and sailing on alone.

Drama with Ali
Story-telling is a form of playing – playing with the hard facts of existence. I've just finished reading One Summer's Grace by Libby Purves. It's a startlingly honest account of a 1988 family voyage round Britain with children aged 3 and 5. A tremendous achievement, showing brains, skill, courage, imagination – and how I sympathised with the bored, sick, 'brattish' children as well as the tense, self-doubting, snappy parents. Our family voyages were never as daring or as prolonged but I know from my own memories that Purves's conclusion is spot-on. “What we discovered during those months of close confinement was that you can hold off a child's boredom or unease for a half an hour with a new toy, or half a day with an outing; but that a new story will keep them going for weeks on end. Nothing kept the children happier or more satisfied than the exotic games and fantasies they developed out of the tales we found them: of the cod who flew down the chimney, St Magnus the Good Viking, the Muckle Meister Stoor Worm or Bonnie Prince Charlie.”  I hope our young visitors felt the same.
 The End


julia jones said…
Realise I should probably make it clear that the pretty blonde girl looking composed and thoughtful on PD's foredeck is NOT me. I was the faded upside one almost half a century ago.

Also I did have an especially good chat with a lad called Kieran who still went fishing with his grandad and there were I think two others whose grandparents had leisure connections with boats. Conversely there were some children from traveller families whose parents had shown a good deal of trust by allowing them to come on the expedition at all.
Susan Price said…
That was a wonderful thing you did for those kids, Julia.
julia jones said…
And they did so much for me - and the rest of the helpers. You should see the illuminated thank-you letters ...
Dennis Hamley said…
Julia, what a marvellous day that sounds - marvellous both for you and the kids. I envy the kids for their experience and you for being able to put it on for them. Perhaps the greatest reward and privilege for a children's/young adult writer is to meet the readers and try to make things happen for them. One of the few areas in which self-indulgence leads to unambiguous good! There are just a few occasions when we can stop writing about things happening and actually make things happen. Lucky us to be in a position to do it.
I like that you just let them free to do whatever they wanted on PETER DUCK, Julia. Even I got a surprise reading when you said you switched the engine on; I always imagined there was no engine in there. (Shows what I know about sailing.) Yes, storytelling as play, Alexander Trocchi (as far from children's writing as you can get) was obsessed with the idea that play is more serious than work...though I think he lifted the idea from Beckett...and of course we all lift it from memories of our inner wisdom during childhood (often constrained by adults, but it sounds like you helped take the fetters off those children for a good day there.) Was just reading your page about PETER DUCK on still remember watching the film and TV versions of Swallows and Amazons as a child in Scottish Highlands, something haunting and other-worldly about it to me then that I still remember, particularly night scenes with the children out on the water in the boat, journeying among small river islands, pure freedom it seemed.
julia jones said…
There is something thrillingly free about rivers and the sea but at the same time its a harshly alien element - hence one of the most important scenes in Swallows and Amazons is when John, the oldest child realises that he's being a complete idiot (sorry, duffer) beating through rocks in the dark. Sailing is a negoitiated freedom where humans are very much the weaker partners.
CallyPhillips said…
What a GRAND DAY OUT! Lucky them. And well done to you for organising that. The sort of experience folks don't get (especially not through school!) Talk about interactive reading/writing - or even experiential learning - it's a GREAT thing that you did and will change lives as well as give life long memories.
John Benford said…
"Kiboko offered an introduction to the practicalities of small boat cruising ..." I suppose you mean by this, Julia, that they all wanted to see the loo?
julia jones said…
You should be proud John that your loo repaid inspection. Do you use Johnson's baby oil down it? one of the best nautical tips I've ever been given!

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