Neil Blewett was putting the finishing touches to his record-breaking 221st story for RAF children separated from their parents when Air Mail caught up with him to talk about life after the RAF, and his life as a volunteer editor.
Age and occupation
57. Aeronautical Operations Controller for the Maritime and Coastguard Agency.
Portsmouth. Wife Alison. Two sons; Matthew aged 23, and Jamie 25.
In the RAF
35 years. Flight Operations Manager (Warrant Officer). I’ve been on many deployments and detachments including Falklands, America, Oman, Bahrain, Iraq and Afghanistan. I also did two tours of Germany and one of Cyprus.
Did StoryBook Wings exist when your children were young?
No. Or maybe it did but I didn’t know about it. If I had known about it, I would certainly have used it.
I was away so many times and at the time there was no social media really – it was a ‘Bluey’ or nothing in the early days. Sometimes being out of contact is the best thing. As harsh as it sounds and being selfish you sometimes don’t want to hear things when you are far away. But I’ve always appreciated how hard it is for your partner left behind.
When I’m editing, I put myself in the parent’s shoes. I was there [away with the RAF] and I did it – so I can empathise. One Christmas I was at the departure lounge at Brize. I saw a mum going away and saying goodbye to her daughter. It was so hard. I know what they are going through. When you are editing and listening to the stories being read, you can sometimes hear the parent’s voice break at the end….when they say ‘seen you soon’ or ‘love you’.
Why do you edit for Storybook Wings?
My volunteering for Storybook Wings started at Swanwick, where another person was already editing. I had seen posters up and it being advertised. I have always read stories to my children and I really like to help others.
How long have you been editing?
My first story was edited on 31 July 2013; I was still serving and it was The Gruffalo. I’ve done that one 45 times out of the 221 total so far; and I’ve done 69 different stories. I do about one a week, sometimes two a week during summer time. (Figures correct as of end January 2018, Ed.)
What is the longest story you have edited?
Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. I’ve done that once. It’s about 20 minutes long. Usually they are five to six minutes long before they have been edited. Ali Baba was really good for sound effects.
Do the stories get edited exactly the same each time, or do you have artistic licence?
We have complete freedom and do them exactly as we want to. While each story can be basically the same, I always alter something, add something or change it entirely. If something is mentioned about a pet or team I always try to use that as an excuse to throw in a soundbite as well. So the stories are also completely unique to each child.
What do you enjoy most about editing?
I enjoy the fact that even though the parent is reading a story, they have their own ‘story’ too. When the reader adds an introduction and farewell, it adds meaning to the story and shows that the person has put love into it, and makes me want to make the story even more special.
Do the readers ever get emotionally affected – and do you have to edit that out?
It’s important not to edit all of it out, but you also want the child to enjoy the story and not be sad so it is a fine line. But I do edit out the coughing, page turning and bad language when they make mistakes! It’s a real person reading and can be funny.
So many parents say ‘goodnight’, ‘sleep well’, ‘love from me’, ‘kiss your mum/dad goodnight’ when they have finished reading. Some don’t do that – I guess the recording environment is false and they forget. I always stick in a kiss sound at the end – so the child can hear something.
What’s your favourite story to edit? Why?
The Pirate Penguins and the Sardines of Doom, because of the sound effects that can be added to the story: pirates, creaking ships, the noise of pirates making coins and a smithy furnace in the background. I haven’t ever done sardine sounds though!
Do you ever get or create your own sound effects or do you always use the effects library?
I haven’t made my own effects – but I’ve thought about doing it. But in the end I’ve always found what I want in the audio library.
Other hobbies and interests?
Football and running. I did ultra stuff – I walked from Lands End to John O’Groats (for MacMillan). I tried to run the same route a year later for the Association, but was injured at Aviemore (see previous Air Mails). I’ve done five London marathons and three others. I also did the Lykewake Course, across the Yorkshire Moors. It’s 42 miles and took me seven and a half hours. I still do 10ks every other day to keep fit and I do the Great South Run each year.
What was the favourite book to read to your own children?
My wife did most of this – and she was an Usborne Books rep, so the house was always full of books. We read to the children always, every night on the sofa. It was part of the bedtime regime and helped to calm them down before they went to bed.
Postings do have an impact on a family routine. When you’re going away and also, strangely, when you’re coming back. You find the routine has changed while you’ve been away!
Is this editing something you could have done while you were serving? Or does it fit better with your civilian life?
I was doing it while I was serving and on deployment. Going away didn’t stop me editing in the Falklands, or when I was away from home in Kinloss for six months on a course.
Do you get feedback?
Not directly, but the Association does pass on any thanks it receives. It’s nice to know that it’s worked. And I know in my heart of hearts that it is making a difference.