It wouldn’t be your first thought.
You’re running a literary festival (www.unputdownable.org) with a twist and you want an event that will cut across the usual demographics, so you ask a children’s author to go for a country walk with a . . . brewer. Yes, only in Bristol.
Andy Hamilton makes alcohol from foraged plants, fruit and vegetables. Elder, mugwort, yarrow, blackcurrant, parsnip – you name it, he’s got the recipe. His book, called ‘Booze for Free’, shows you how. Me, I leap about. Having never met, we had a hasty telephone conversation a couple of days before the 2-hour Sunday afternoon event at Ashton Court – home of mountain bike trails, deer herds and dog walkers. My unhelpful mantra was ‘let’s see how it goes’. Andy, quite possibly, wanted to make a plan, but he’s not used to working with children (and I’m a bit plan-phobic). Having no clue whether we would get a dozen 4-year olds or a handful of starting-early silent teenagers dragged along by their beer-swilling dads, I wasn’t even making a punt on what we’d do. Look them in the eyes – then decide. The rough agreement was that Andy would guide the walk, making reference to interesting shaman-like things – ‘if you put elder under your pillow you’ll fall in love with the first person you see’, we’d encourage the kids to collect whatever they found en route, then split up for me to run a story-making session and him to share the moonshine.
Sunday dawned. Grey, rain forecast. I won’t share the amount of enthusiasm I felt – you can probably imagine. School events are a breeze compared to public ones, I find. Guaranteed audience with henchmen provided versus motley unsupervised crew in weekend mode, hmmmmm . . .
Don’t moan, Tracy. It’s nice to be asked.
Walking boots, Goretex jacket, woolly hat. Big box full of woodland things like a fox mask, a singing robin, felt strawberries and a slingshot. (Tip: NEVER take a slingshot anywhere with children.)
The audience arrived, in dribs and drabs. My first impression was that it wasn’t a bad turn out. Only two toddlers, several keen-looking boys, an earnest girl with very stylish parents (they were French!), a chatterbox, no lunatics. The crowd grew to forty, interested and hearty, no high heels, plenty of North Face.
I asked the kids to bring back anything they thought we could weave in to a story, ‘except poo.’ My idea of a joke.
‘Or a deer,’ added a blonde boy. Much better joke than mine.
Off we tramped, in a long straggly line. Andy made us pick and eat weeds, insisting they were like rocket. Unbelievably the children did as he said. No tomato sauce, no bribing, no threats. I bowed to his greater powers.
We passed a fallen branch that looked like a dinosaur, found leaves that could have been lions’ teeth, mushrooms shaped like bones, and poisonous berries, red of course, that I had to confiscate for my sanity. The rain came down but we were in the thicket, so the walk went on. Andy had the adults right behind him, like the Pied Piper, whereas I brought up the rear, herding the wayward and sadly unable to hear the folklore he was sharing. An hour went by, and, much as the organic nature of it all was nice, it was time to get inside or there would be no story, and no quaffing.
Twenty children followed me to an upper room in the stable block. I emptied my pockets full of mulch and tried to arrange our finds on a table as though they were precious. Time to tie it all together.
Without the two unsupervised 3-year olds I might have stood a chance of coaxing some gems out of my enthusiastic tribe but it was a case of lowest common denominator. Luckily I don’t measure success by the quality of the output as much as by the decibels. Decibels were good. So was the stamping, attempts at howler monkeys and terrified screaming. (Still no parents came to check.)
Amazingly, the older children stuck with me, despite the constant interruptions, and we fashioned a woodland tale, included all the objects in our display and had some laughs. In order to achieve this I spent the last ten minutes repeatedly sending the two toddlers for a run around the mostly windowed room with the magic words, ‘be goldfish.’ They role-played with gusto.
So, two hours later we put our muddy boots back on and I returned the children to their woozy parents. Andy had done them proud by the smell of things. One of the dads helped me carry my gubbins to the car and off I went, home for late Sunday lunch. My only regret, not a sip of dandelion champagne or horseradish vodka graced my palate. My reward, free tickets to take my son to see Andy McNab. Crikey – with the life he’s had he’ll never need to make anything up . . .
p.s. I’ve deliberately omitted the sly hand, poisonous berry and slingshot incident.