Eleanor Updale’s anything but ‘boring bag’ inspires young writers at the North Cornwall

by Georgia Penrose

Novelist Eleanor Updale introduced her lovable unlikely hero Johnny Swanson to a marquee full of excitable school children. Eleanor began by saying: ‘I really don’t like the word workshop. This isn’t work, it is supposed to be fun!’ This set the tone for the atmosphere that continued for the remaining hour.

Focusing on objects, context and meaning, the workshop explored the origins of ideas for writers. Eleanor told the children, ‘Any author will tell you that the worst question you’re asked, but you’re always asked it, is, “where do you get your ideas from?”’ She went on to explain that one simple antique mug helped produce the foundation of her book, Johnny Swanson. Set in 1929, it tells a tale of a young boy bullied for his height and size. He uses his mother’s money to find the secret to ‘growing height’ but consequently ends up being scammed and causing a fair bit of trouble. Eleanor produced extremely fragile objects from a similar time period and the children were intrigued by reading, touching and inspecting the antiques that Eleanor was sharing with them.

The children were fascinated by Eleanor’s objects, which included a toothbrush, death notes and cotton buds. Her accessible style and anything but ‘boring bag’ became a portal to big themes, such as dementia, terrorism or drugs.

The main takeaway from Eleanor’s workshop was how delighted she was with the children’s involvement and their willing approach to flexing their imaginative muscles. Her advice to budding adolescent writers is, ‘to read as widely as they can, and not specify a preference to one specific genre.’ Eleanor became a published author at 50 and added that ‘it’s never too late to start writing.’