Welcome, Timothy Bentinck

It gives me enormous pleasure to welcome our very first Sunday Guest, Timothy Bentinck. He's been a familiar presence in our homes for decades. We know all about the cows, and Ruth - and The Flood. But did you know about Colin the Campervan? 

I understand that Colin the Campervan was written 20 years ago when your boys were small, and you spent family holidays in an old VW Campervan. What was it about the experiences you shared on these holidays that made you want to write a children's book about them?

Well it was old and slow and cold. The heater didn't work at all and the windscreen used to get frosted up on the inside. I eventually installed a calor gas heating system, which was fine for the boys in the back, but Judy and I still wore moon boots in the front to prevent frostbite. I replaced the front seats with a pair from a scrapped Ford Sierra, and cut out the metal dividing wall into the back to allow the heat to circulate a bit. It was while I was doing this that I started to imagine what I could do with unlimited money, and it was from this fantasy that the idea of a super-campervan evolved into a story that I told to Will (10) and Jasper (6).

Here's us camping in 1985 when Jasper was one, and his reaction, twenty-five years later, to being sent his copy in Japan where he's teaching English!

Was the road to publication a long one for you?

I've been writing stuff all my life – radio plays, songs, TV sitcoms, ideas for game shows, I'm half-way through a novel and an autobiography. My friend Albert Welling and I wrote a spoof biography of a Dada poet called Paul Déaveroin called 'Avant Garde a Clue' (available on Kindle!) but I wrote Colin as a bedtime story for the boys and it then sat on my computer as a Word file for twenty years. When Kindle came along, I converted it into Kindle format and uploaded it with a front cover painted by a friend, and I don't think it would ever sell a copy. Then a publisher was looking at my website, saw the link to it, read it, loved it, and I suddenly got an email asking if I'd like to publish it. Amazing!

Does the name, 'Colin' hold any significance (or is it simply because it has a nice alliterative ring to it!)?

My wife, Judy, takes the credit for the name – pure alliteration I'm afraid, although Colin Baker (Dr Who) thinks it was written for him!

VW Campervans have such wonderful faces, with the round-lidded eye-shaped headlights. Is the book written through the eyes of Colin?

It certainly is. My father bought one of the first Beetles in the UK after the war and as a baby I was plonked in the bit behind the back seat, so a flat-four engine is like the sound of my mother's heart to me. I loved our 'Folksie' and have always had a very strong relationship with cars I've owned, especially the VWs (3 Beetles, a 1500N, a Scirocco and a Type 2 Camper). A campervan, by its very nature, is like a home and so far divorced from the grown-ups – the flashy executive saloons that shoot past aggressively in the outside lane. When your top speed is 65, just getting past trucks on a motorway involves a subtle understanding of how to break through a slipstream. Colin's view of the world is entirely that of a quite clever, but pretty innocent child.

My children and I have experienced the camaraderie amongst VW fans, when driving a Mark 1 VW Golf, and the frisson of will it start, will it keep going?... Do you still go on holiday in an old VW, or have you upgraded to a more reliable version?

Absolutely! People don't understand that frisson now that cars are so reliable. That's why the relationship with old cars was so close: coaxing, cajoling, pleading with it to start - and the gratitude when it did, and fury when it wouldn't! We went from the camper to a Renault Espace which was much more grown-up, but less fun, then a Seat Alhambra, both of which were great for the school run, getting family and stuff long distances and notably a mad holiday in Ireland, but they cost a fortune to keep going as they were both on their last legs. Finally, at the age of 60, I succumbed to the temptations of a bank loan and I now absolutely love the luxury of an automatic VW Passat Estate. I feel no guilt about being in the outside lane – I've paid my dues!

From the reviews I've read, the story has made people chuckle. How easy do you find it to write humour?

I think that's what I'm best at really. As an actor I'm good at dialogue, and I know I can do description and narrative well. My weakness is story structure and character development I think, but I'm working hard at it. I've just read a great book by John Yorke called 'Into The Woods', which is all about story. Really useful.

What is it about Owen Claxton's illustrations, do you think, that complements your story?

It was amazing. Owen was approached by the publisher and started sending me pencil sketches. As each one arrived I thought, 'That's exactly how I imagined it!' The great thing about his illustrations is the lovely pastel old-fashioned feel it gives it. When we came to publish it, I updated a lot of the detail from the story I'd written all that time ago, but it's still a sort of period piece I suppose, and people seem to warm to that gentle, childish, old-fashioned, safer world that Colin lives in.

What's happening next in the adventures of Colin?

What a perfectly timed question! Things get a bit more hairy in the sequel: he finds himself dumped in the eponymous 'Field of Lost Names'. It occurred to me that when you see people driving round in expensive cars with their personalised number plates, you know that those plates have actually come from some very ordinary car, that has now lost its identity, like Colin has. These old, sad, nameless vehicles are all rotting away in a field that belongs to the ghastly Agata van der Platt from Utrecht. It's Colin's duty to help them all escape, and find their true identities again!

What children's books do you remember from your childhood?

Pooh. I'm the incredibly proud winner of Celebrity Mastermind – specialist subject A.A. Milne and Pooh Bear, all correct and no passes!

Also pretty much anything by Enid Blyton, Arthur Ransome, Conan Doyle, Beatrix Potter, Hans Christian Andersen, E.E. Nesbit, Swift, Tolkien, Mark Twain, H.G. Wells, R.L. Stevenson, Defoe, C.S. Lewis, Kipling, and I adored Anthony Buckeridge's Jennings and Darbishire stories.

What favourites do you have that you've read to your children?

A lot of the above plus Roald Dahl, but mostly Pooh!

As such a familiar voice on our radios, do you ever listen to anything in particular yourself?

Yes I absolutely love Radio 4, except Gardener's Question Time and Moneybox. The other presets on the car radio are Radios 2 and 3, also now 4 Extra and R6. I couldn't live without music so having my whole record collection on an iPod hooked into the car stereo is bliss. I also record a lot of audiobooks and love listening to those - not myself but anything read by Sean Barrett and, particularly, the best audiobook reader of them all, my sister, Anna Bentinck!

I'm afraid I couldn't resist one question about the Archers, as I know we have plenty of fans within SCWBI, some of whom are up in arms over the latest dramatic twists and turns. What do you have to say to those who have been shouting at their radios in apoplexy?

I'd say keep shouting! If you weren't getting involved and worked up and didn't care, we wouldn't be doing our job right. As for 'dramatic twists and turns' – in a drama series? Heaven forbid!!!

Seriously, look back at the history of the programme since 1951 – it's always been like this; high drama one minute, Flower and Produce and milking the next. If you'd like to read some more detailed answers by me to such questions, have a look at Gransnet – they got really worked up!

Cheers! Nancy

Cheers Nancy,

I hope you enjoyed Tim's answers as much as I did. Many thanks again, Tim. I wish you all the very best on your travels with Colin.

Don't forget to check out last week's super spread of features on Words & Pictures:

Monday's entertaining inspiration post from K M Lockwood (otherwise known as our lovely Philippa!). Read about the many ways in which to step into the shoes of your characters. There's a monthly inspiration feature - very well worth checking out whenever you get stuck.

Tuesday's ever splendid pick of the blogs from Nick Cross. There's something for everyone here. Don't forget the current competition looking for a new Blog logo. Nick also has his own blog - with a recent post!

Wednesday's wonderful insight into the children's book market in Ireland, with Colleen Jones - our Regional Advisor for SCBWI Ireland.

Our Monday & Wednesday writing features are brought to us, respectively, by Julie Sullivan and Louise Cliffe-Minns. If you have a great idea for a feature, they can be contacted at mondayfeatureseditor@britishscbwi.org, and wednesdayfeatureseditor@britishscbwi.org

Thursday's Network News brings a very warm welcome to the South-East's new co-ordinator, Jane Haryott. In Event News, Alison Smith asks author and editor, Lil Chase, about her work and the forthcoming masterclass in Commercial Fiction.

Thursday's Network News is brought to us by Gill James - if you have any news from your network that you'd like to share, Gill can be contacted at networknews@britishscbwi.org. And Event News is brought to us by Louise Cliffe-Minns - for event news you'd like to share, please contact Lou at events@britishscbwi.org

Friday brought us Part 1 of our fabulous Open Sketchbook. If you're a SCBWI illustrator with ideas you want to share for a feature on Words & Pictures, please do get in touch with John Shelley, our Illustration Editor, and very fine professional artist to boot - illustrators@britishscbwi.org

Saturday's celebration of SCBWI chapters from around the world: this month, Nevada. Thanks Sarah Broadley!

Celebration news is brought to us by Charlotte Comley - for any celebratory news, big or small (we also have a Small Big Celebration space just for those small yet significant moments of celebration) Charlotte can be contacted at celebrations@britishscbwi.org

One last thing - you have until the end of April to submit to the latest Slush Pile Challenge, given by Julia Churchill, and brought to us by Chitra Soundar

Nancy Saunders is the new Editor of W&P. You can find some of her short stories here, and on Twitter @nancyesaunders


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