The Storyboat

Jan’s contact with her readers wasn’t confined to classrooms or retreats, as I discovered thanks to three of her friends and collaborators – Mick Gowar (who has written about Jan’s poetry here), Andrew Rafferty and Derek Paice. Have you ever heard of The Storyboat?

Derek Paice, the ‘resident musician’ explains its origins on his blog. ‘The Storyboat started out as a project organised by a group of literature-loving teachers and librarians in Hertfordshire some time during the 1980s. They formed a working committee and hired the county’s 72-foot Youth and Community Services narrowboat, Belfast, for the week and took to the Grand Union Canal spending the week stopping off at several points between Watford and Bulbourne. The first year must have been successful, because they repeated the project and it ran for several years. When the committee changed, as invariably happens, and a majority of the fresh members lived and worked on the opposite side of the county the group decided to change waterway. This was a big decision and I don’t think things were ever the same after that. They found The Rose of Essex, owned by Essex Youth Service, and we took her along the Rivers Stort and Lee to run the week’s activities between Hertford and Waltham Abbey.’ Read on, here.

Andrew notes that Jan came virtually every year, and was writer-in-residence on one occasion.

Derek has written a wonderful account of knowing Jan in the Storyboat days for this website:

‘I was in awe of Jan. When I first met her she used to scare me, but I loved her work from the moment I heard librarian (and future mayor of Hertford), Alan White, read from Nothing To Be Afraid Of. I have many of her books, nearly all of them signed. I have Marilyn Brocklehurst, a mutual acquaintance, who established the Norfolk Children’s Book Centre in Alby (not very far from Ingham where Jan is buried) to thank for managing to track down some of the titles for me in pre-web days. 

‘When I ran music training courses for teachers I tried to find a time in the day when I could read them Jan’s wonderful book, Fun. In far fewer words than I would have used Jan summed up exactly why children should be allowed to create without adult interference. I never needed to explain further. Everyone understood what she was saying and the point I was trying to communicate.

‘There was always something a bit special about the days Jan was in residence. I knew we were in for a treat, but there was always a volunteer assigned to be her minder. The first duty of the minder was to make sure there was something above and beyond the cup of tea or glass of wine offered to all the other guests when Jan arrived … if Jan was happy, everything else was okay. She did not have much patience with grown-ups who failed to use their intelligence wisely. I think she was probably just the opposite with children. She observed in minute detail and I imagine she enjoyed the innocence and absurdity they brought to Storyboat days.

‘Some people know a little about a lot of subjects. Other people know a lot about a few. Jan is the only person I have ever met who seemed to have an encyclopaedic knowledge that covered a vast range of knowledge and experience. One day I told her I had moved to East Rudham in Norfolk. She commented that it was near West Raynham, where Bloodhounds were kept. When I replied that I didn’t know what kind of dogs they had she gave me one of those withering looks. I knew that I had said something wrong, but had no idea that Bloodhounds were missiles. Why would anyone need to know? Later I read Thunder and Lightnings based around RAF Marham, about five miles across the fields from where I moved next and understood something of the reading and research the book must have required. Thunder and Lightnings was also an introduction for me to the idea that writing an absorbing novel that had next to no plot was even possible.

‘The year she spent the week with us as writer in residence living on board a smaller narrowboat boat, Bluebell, with her son, Alex, was memorable. The experience was never repeated and I don’t think she liked it very much. Some people didn’t seem to get the hint when it was time to leave so Jan could rest. There was a lot of alcohol consumed during those late nights. I wonder how many of the children who attended the writing workshops remember the experience? Had I had that privilege I doubt I would ever have forgotten it.

‘It was customary for all visitors to the Summer Storyboat to leave an entry in that year’s log book. I have an abiding memory of Jan sitting under a tree, away from all the activity, sketching the scene before her. There will be a Jan Mark sketch in each log book. I hope someone is looking after the books.

‘One of my most treasured possessions is a poem she wrote one August Tuesday afternoon when our boat, Rose of Essex, was moored at The Priory in Ware on the River Lee. I don’t have the original, it is in the log book for that year (1994?), but I did manage to get a photocopy. Jan had been [researching] Old Testament poetry. She decided to use a specific form for her poem. I didn’t know what to make of the penultimate line and never had the courage to ask. For years I took it personally, though at least it was an acknowledgement from someone I admired very deeply. Nowadays I prefer to imagine Jan chuckling to herself as she came up with such a mischievously barbed double meaning.

The Storyboat has berthed at Ware,
The handsome Colin West is thare,
And Robert Leeson bright and fare,
And also I with windswept hare,
At Ware.

Yea, also present in this plaice
Is the musician, Derek Paice,
Of gracious mien and bearded faice.
God in his mercy lend us graice,
At Ware.

The poem is signed, Jan 16.8.94