This is my last post, regretfully. Life and all its busyness has galloped ahead of me and needs reining back. Before I step down, however, I want to share with you some things I said the other night at Keele University’s Keele Link Awards Ceremony.
I began with a story, because stories are what I do best and they’re also the means by which I make sense of the world. Five years ago now, as some of you will know, I was out in Belize, funded by the British Arts Council, researching gap year volunteering for my novel In The Trees. I wasn’t an adventurous type. I was a sixty year-old, asthmatic, stay-at-home author who’d never been anywhere more tropical than Rome in November. What had kicked me out of my office, however, was the power of imagination.
And it was imagination that I was at Keele to talk about. That same imagination that 'will get you everywhere', according to Albert Einstein, whilst logic 'only gets you from A to Z'. ‘I am enough of an artist to draw freely upon my imagination,’ he said. ‘Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.’ And, again, from Picasso, ‘Everything you can imagine is real.’
Well, six years before my Belize trip, my son Idris Davies experienced what was real about that country as a gap year volunteer. I’d waved goodbye to a white-faced, spotty [the result of back–to-back shifts in McDonalds] youth and returned to the airport five months later to greet a person who was literally, physically unrecognisable. By that I mean that when I saw Idris talking to my husband, I thought the tall man in the Trekforce t-shirt was one of the leaders of the trip explaining why our son had missed the plane. Idris’s entire body shape had changed, but it wasn’t muscles, hair or tan that rendered him unrecognizable. It was the way he inhabited his body, as if it wasn’t an accidental appendage but he was actually in charge of it.
Now there’s a story, I immediately thought. As an author of young adult novels, how could I not? What happened to young gap year volunteers when they went off on those rites of passage projects? What changed them - and how?
Six years later, I was in Belize finding out. Six years, I have to say, of struggling not to go out there, because I wasn’t the sort of writer who wrote those sorts of books. I was a stay-at-home gal. I couldn’t afford it. Other writers would do it better. My publishers wouldn’t be interested. My agent would think it was a bad idea. Nobody was writing gap year novels for young teenagers – and I was terrified of snakes.
What drove me out there, against all odds? It wasn’t my publishers being interested after all, my agent thinking it was a good idea and the money for the trip coming in. It was the power of imagination that sent me to Belize. A story had me in its grip, and I didn’t know exactly how that story might unfold, but I knew that if I went out to this unknown country in Central America, it would come. My Kevin Costner moment. If you build it, they will come.
So, imagination. The realm of creative, slightly batty, forgetful types like Albert Einstein, Pablo Picasso - and me. I think not. The realm of all of us – that’s what I went to Keele University to say. What happened to me with In The Trees was that I was captured by an idea. It got me so tightly that it wouldn’t let go. And that’s exactly what had happened to the young people I went out to meet. There, miles from civilization, guarded by soldiers because their project was so dangerous, I found groups of young school leavers trekking into the jungle and enduring hideously primitive living conditions because the idea of saving the rain forest had lodged itself in their heads and wouldn’t be removed. They’d had the imagination to see what might happen if nothing was done - and they were doing what they could.
When did your imagination first kick off? I have a photo somewhere of myself at the age of three making up stories for the big children next door. They’re lined up on one side of the garden wall and I’m on the other and they’re asking what happened next…and next…and next… and I’m telling them.
I believe I was privileged to grow up in an age where imagination was valued. At my primary school my ability to make up and write stories was encouraged. I was made to feel special because of what I could do. But anybody who had half a good idea was made to feel special too. These were the years after the war when the country was trying to grow itself again and its young people were not just its future but valued as a resource.
There was so much freedom back in those days. Half my childhood was spent lurking around back alleys, looking for fairies under bramble bushes, going early to the local park so that I could sit and enjoy it all on my own, making dens in the undergrowth and stories in my head. I travelled alone on the underground. My parents would put me on a bus on one side of London and I’d be met off it on the other. Apart from that little matter of sums and science, languages and sport [in other words, all the things I wasn’t good at in school] I was free. And my imagination was free.
Even when my children were growing up, they too were free. We lived out in a Shropshire village on the edge of the Long Mountain. Summer holidays were spent playing cowboys in the long grass of the churchyard next door [when funerals weren’t taking place] or damming up the local stream.
There’s a tendency, I know, to say that things aren’t what they used to be in the good old days. By which we mean our good old days. Well, surprise, surprise, children are born and growing up with every bit as much imagination as children ever were. The big question now, though, is what happens to it.
Nowadays nobody in that village allows their children play down the stream. Not since the funny man was there, trying with some woman to get children into his car. So often now it’s fear that fuels people’s imaginations, not opportunities. Who might be lurking round the corner, waiting to pounce? What are governments really up to if we only knew the truth? When will Peak Oil happen and the world as we know it come to an end?
I think we have some very real reasons to be fearful sometimes. But with imagination we can overcome our fears, or at the very least work our way round them. Imagination doesn’t have to bring out the worst in us. It can turn our problems into opportunities. And that’s surely where education comes in.
Children need to be given space for their imaginations to flourish. And they need this space in school, not just afterwards between home time and bed. You want to know what I fear? Here’s an example for you. Imagine a local rural primary school. This is one I know well - I’m not making it up. It’s a lovely school full of lovely children in the middle of lovely countryside - hills, valleys, rivers and verdant woodland. The school’s environment is entirely nurturing. If anywhere in this country is going to turn out free-thinking, imaginative children you’d expect this to be it. But, come the end of the academic year, the Head wants artwork from the top class to go on display – and there is none. Why not? Do I need to spell it out? I certainly didn’t the other night. The children and their teacher had been too busy keeping up with the National Curriculum to have any time left over for art.
Is this really possible? This school? What’s happening here? And if this is what’s happening all over, what do we do?
My connection with Keele came about through the Children’s University, of whom Michael Morpurgo is National Chancellor and I’m Shropshire’s Chancellor. If you want an organisation that’s stimulating children’s imaginations you need look no further. Here it’s very much the children who take the lead, coming up with ideas and dragging themselves, their parents and their teachers off to do or see whatever it is that interests them. And it's not just a cosy, middle-class organisation either. Shropshire's Children's University is operating in some of the most deprived areas in the county. I’m proud to be associated with an organisation like that.
If we don’t see our children’s imaginations fed and stimulated, then the scientists of the future are a thing of the past, the artworks of the future will be black on black, the designers, the thinkers, the builders, the workers of the future – and those craft workers whom the government has just, in yet another of their fits of total madness, announced in a white paper are no longer part of the creative industry – where will they all be?
I don’t need to end here with John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ to make my point. Instead I’m going to end where I started – with Albert Einstein and his imagination encircling the world. In his Commendation of In The Trees, Rafael Manzanero, the Chief Executive of the Belizean NGO responsible for the protection of that country’s rainforest, wrote that people like us really could make a difference to our planet, even though it seems we’re worlds apart. ‘It is not only moral to do so,’ he wrote, ‘but the survival of forests will make the planet a better place for human life.’
THIS is the idea that caught hold of a group of young people – that not only governments and multi-national charitable organisations could make a difference to the world around them; they could too. According to Rafael Manzanero it’s been an effective and lasting difference too. And, in the face of illegal logging, poacher activities, unlicensed gold-panning, crime syndicates, the organized smuggling of everything from jaguar cubs to Mayan artifacts - it takes some imagination to achieve a result like that.
PS. I did think of putting up no pics with this post [ie. leaving them to your imagination!], but here's a small collection of an exhausted author most definitely out of her comfort zone - and also of the terrain outside that comfort zone. Would I go back? You bet I would. I'm plotting how.
Cockscombe Basin Jaguar Reserve
Jaguar paw print
Smuggler's den - our camp for the night
Author cools down
Gallant Trekforce volunteers guarded by Belizean soldiers
The end of the road. Most definitely. The landrover's only round the corner, but do you think I could get to it? No.
Staying with the Kekchi-Mayan people