James’ Place co-founder Clare Milford Haven talks about the inspiration behind her new book, The Magic Sandcastle, capturing the timeless magic of family holidays 

The first thing that strikes you about The Magic Sandcastle is its timeless quality – the visuals and the story both carry the heat haze of halcyon summers. It’s set on Nantucket Island and centres on five children’s days on the beach. There’s a sandcastle building competition, which they win, against all odds, when the tide washes their first wonderful creation away.

It’s ‘out of time’ in more than one sense, for Clare Milford Haven wrote it many years ago and then tucked it away. She can’t remember precisely when – the first draft sits on an old computer, the password long forgotten. “I think it was very much a reflection on happier times, shall we say. I’ve been asked if it was about my own childhood, and the answer is: no, not really. I’ve got wonderful memories of my childhood on the beaches on Nantucket. But this was more about when George and I amalgamated our two families, who were very young still, and we took them for many, many years to Nantucket for the summers.”

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Clare Milford Haven was inspired by family holidays in Nantucket, where the extended family enjoyed many wonderful summers

This Nantucket connection was thanks to Milford Haven’s American-born mother. “My Mum, who sadly died a couple of years ago, created this wonderful forum for her grandchildren, having this house on this idyllic island.” Life there followed a regular pattern of favourite and familiar places and routines. “We would get into that old jeep and rattle down and arrive at the beach carrying – I can’t even tell you – boogie boards, buckets and spades and any kind of toy or sport that could keep the kids fully occupied. It was quite an expedition every day, but they adored it.” She and George had even married on that very same beach in Nantucket a few years earlier – so a place of special memories.

The Magic Sandcastle may be inspired by a specific beach, but it could be any stretch of sand where the sun is shining. After all, building sandcastles is a rite of passage for boys and girls everywhere. There is also (as all good children’s books must have) a point to the story in the way the children overcome a setback and succeed in the end. “I wanted kids to think about dreams and fantasy – also never giving up,” says Milford Haven. “Things go wrong and you fail sometimes, you get knocked down, but don’t give up. Keep going.”

“We would get into that old jeep and rattle down and arrive at the beach carrying any kind of toy or sport that could keep the kids fully occupied”

It was lockdown that inspired her to return to the story. Milford Haven was introduced by friends to Australian publisher Serenity and the book appeared there late last year, in time for the Southern Hemisphere summer, launching in the UK this spring. Another close friend introduced her to illustrator David William Press, who created the lovely illustrations. “We couldn’t meet because it was lockdown and I looked at his work and I said I really want this wash effect and these timeless illustrations.

“I sent him photos and some images, and he interpreted the characters really well.” All five children from Clare and George’s amalgamated family – James, Wenty (Harry), Louisa, Tatiana and Harry – star alongside her late mother, AKA ‘Granny Annie’. “Dave’s done a brilliant job at interpreting what I wanted. I didn’t want bright, computerised images – maybe it’s my age – and this reminded me of books from my childhood.”

Magical island – James' Place co-founder's enchanting new book
David William Press created wonderful illustrations with the help of old family photos, capturing the magic of far off summer days

The nostalgic quality has an added edge of poignancy because James, ‘Chief Engineer’ of the sandcastles in the book died by suicide in 2006 at the age of 21. It was this dreadful loss that led on to the formation of James’ Place – founded by Milford Haven and James’ father Nick Wentworth-Stanley two years’ later. It supports men who are suicidal and, since the opening of the first James’ Place centre in Liverpool in 2018, men have had a dedicated place they can go to for support and counselling.

James had had minor surgery, and this was followed by a crisis. Although he sought urgent help for acute anxiety and suicidal thoughts at a walk-in centre, the follow-on call to his GP somehow didn’t happen. “So many things went wrong – it wasn’t joined up.

“Just say it was happening this year and James was in London, where we also have a centre now, and he went through the same process and luckily ended up in one of the hospitals that refer to us,” says Milford Haven. “They would have said, I think James, you haven’t got any complex mental health issues. You need to go to James’ Place and here’s the number – and he’d have been able to see somebody within 48 hours.”

“Nearly all the men we see at James’ Place are in a temporary crisis. They need to do what men find really, really hard, which is to offload, and maybe have a cry”

Since its foundation, James’ Place has saved hundreds of lives. Through all the research Milford Haven has done over the years, she’s realised that men at risk of suicide (and James’ Place is open to any man over 18) need the right sort of setting and support to open up. “Environment is really important when you’re in a bad headspace. The atmosphere inside James’ Place is very calm, it’s very peaceful. We have a beautiful garden there. People talk about it being like walking into somebody’s home.” She believes pride is at the root of many of the issues men face – they may be conditioned to see expressing guilt, fear, anxiety or other emotions as weakness. “Nearly all the men we see are in crisis. They’re in a temporary crisis. They don’t need to go to secondary care, they need to go and talk to someone. They need to do what men find really, really hard, which is to offload, and maybe have a cry.”

Magical island – James' Place co-founder's enchanting new book
Like all good children’s stories, The Magic Sandcastle has a satisfying conclusion, with the children carrying off the prize despite the setback of losing their castle to the tide

Nothing can stop the sense of loss – and parental guilt – what Clare Milford Haven describes as the: ‘I should have saved him’ feeling of a parent who has lost a child, but James’ Place is an amazing, and healing, outcome. “We always said if we could save one life it would be meaningful for us. And we have saved a considerable number of lives. In James’ memory, and as a legacy to him, I don’t know what we could do better.” Channelling all the grief and pain into such a positive has also made it much easier to keep James in conversations and in their lives.

And now there is another way of remembering James within The Magic Sandcastle – surrounded by his siblings. Clare Milford Haven says the children have been incredibly touched by this book. “He was always the leader of the gang. In all the photos I’ve got of that time, it was always James who was drumming up something naughty to do. I think it’s important for the other kids that they’re all in it together. It’s captured in time and, because James is no longer with us, it’s something that’s immortalised with him.”

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The Magic Sandcastle is published by Serenity Press

* The Magic Sandcastle is published by Serenity Press (£12.99); serenitypress.org

* James’ Place has centres in Liverpool and London; jamesplace.org

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