SH on Arthur Ransome

Stephen Hall works and lives with his family in Edinburgh, playing board games and walking the dog when not Munroe-bagging. He has been part of my life for a long time, being my younger brother, and is also responsible for the maps in the “Tales from Ragaris.”

The Swallows and Amazons series of books by Arthur Ransome tell tales of children messing about in boats/ the great outdoors, initially in the Lake District, then further afield.  There are no wizards, dragons or spaceships; and the children do not come from broken homes, or suffer from any disability or particular social disadvantage.  Events of real edge and relative danger happen, but all within the scope of what was realistically possible within the lived experience of middle-class boys like me.

If you were worried because your younger siblings were late arriving back at your camp during a thick fog, or if an angry adult shouted at you and called you a liar, these would be emotionally troubling events in the life of an ordinary child.  But they wouldn’t be the stuff of a conventional adventure story.  The emotional impact and the pleasure comes, in part, from the relative banality – adventures like these could actually happen to me!  (As an aside, this was misunderstood by the dreadful recent film adaptation of Swallows and Amazons, which saw fit to introduce German spies and flying boats, presumably because the original plot wasn’t deemed exciting enough for modern audiences.)

Ransome is a master of plotting, with multiple adult-world and child-world plot-lines running in parallel, interacting and handled in a very sophisticated way.  He often plays with a ‘quest’ structure that is nicely subverted when it ultimately turns out that the book was about something else all along.  And the novels are packed with plot misdirections of sufficient subtlety to catch out even adult readers, and which delighted (at least one) young reader.

The parallel dimensions that adults and children can occupy in the same geographical space are brilliantly captured.  While the imaginative power of children to transform an everyday landscape into a world of fantasy has been explored by a hundred authors, Ransome offers a different perspective, dealing as he does with older children who very well understand that this transformation is all a game, albeit an important and serious game.  With the exception of the mothers and (eventually) Nancy’s uncle (who is a thinly disguised portrayal of Ransome himself), the books reflect the suspicion and reserve with which many children treat the adult world (‘the natives’).  And how children put on a front when talking with adults.  Take this delicious example from Swallows and Amazons:

When [John and Susan] came back to the landing stage, Roger said, ‘One of the natives came and said “That’s a fine little ship you have there.”’

“What did you say to him?” asked Susan sternly.

‘I said “Yes”’ said Roger.  He, too, had been giving nothing away.

Some characters are drawn more vividly than others.  We are only generally admitted to the inner (very) imaginative world of Titty and, in the later books, Dorothea.  But Nancy, captain of the Amazons, is a wonderful creation, one of the best evocations of a tomboy in all children’s literature.  Eldest Swallow John is a bit more the cardboard scout leader, but is drawn most strongly when his moral sense and leadership role require him to interact with the adult world.  Susan is the mumsy one, who can get in a ‘stew’; perhaps a slightly sexist portrayal (she does all the cooking), but a realistic and necessary counterweight to the gung-hoery of the others.  Roger is largely the comedy value, while Peggy is a closed book, existing very much in Nancy’s shadow – but then some people are like that.

The Swallows and Amazons inhabit an imperial world of the 1930s and old-fashioned attitudes and language creep in, that one wouldn’t expect to see in books written today.  Local people are ‘natives’; after charcoal burning the children look like ‘a crowd of hottentots’.  But I don’t find anything too offensive.  Class divides are very apparent, between the children and the local farmers for instance, but I expect this is just how things were/ are.  The various farmers are in fact quite sensitively drawn individual characters.

But it must be said that the books are becoming increasingly less relevant.  Their main virtue of being believable stories that could happen to any child is slipping away in our safety-first world where few parents would allow a group of 7 to 13 year olds to camp and sail alone and unsupervised for weeks on end.  While the language remains as vital and accessible as ever, the cultural references to the Latin grammar and Victorian poetry that children apparently studied in those days are miles away from a modern P6 syllabus.  Diets are no longer centred around corned beef.  40 years ago I recognised the books as being old-fashioned, but not totally beyond my experience.  Now they are over 80 years old and have become period pieces, destined no doubt to be read less and less by the children of today and tomorrow.  Sad.

So which ones to read?  Here’s a Top Five.

  1. “We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea”. The one that really stands up as a book for adults to enjoy.  Incredible sense of building calamity, and a lump-in-the-throat appearance by an oft-mentioned but otherwise never seen character.

2. “Swallows and Amazons”. The Original and almost the Best. Nothing will make you want to pull that tent out of the back of the cupboard more.

3. “Pigeon Post”. Genuinely interesting details about mining, fire-fighting and homing pigeons, and containing a great case of mistaken identity.

4. “Winter Holiday”. Worth reading for the pre-climate change evocation of winters when it was possible to skate the length of Windermere, and for another wonderful piece of hidden-in-plain-sight plot misdirection that rescues unpredictable danger (good) from mere organised safety (bad).

5. “Swallowdale”. The arrival of Nancy’s great-aunt allows Ransome to describe the interaction between the childhood and adult worlds in the way that he does so well.  Also explores the upsetting dangers of dabbling in the occult, and has a great lost-in-the-fog chapter!


PS Please keep your recommendations and suggested posts coming, although next week I may revert to my own thoughts on this or another topic…

Love from the PPI Blogger

  • Judith Renton

    8th May 2020 at 8:35 pm Reply

    My favourite children’s books! It is sad that few children today revel in them and very sad that the film was messed with so much.
    I really must read “We didn’t mean to go to sea” again, not sure if I’d put it in first place…I may change my mind though.

  • Matthew Perry

    9th May 2020 at 12:45 pm Reply

    Thank you for this, I am a huge Ransome fan but I have never seen your insights into the different levels before.
    I am not sure I would put Swallow Dale into my absolute favourites, but otherwise I am with you.
    One point that you did not emphasise was the interest in ecology and nature that comes through in the books. In both Coot Club and Great Northern? The theme is based on a concern for wildlife and an opposition to either careless or deliberate damage to it.

    • Stephen Hall

      9th May 2020 at 3:19 pm Reply

      That’s a good point Matthew. Even when not doing so explicitly, as in Great Northern? and Coot Club, Ransome weaves an appreciation of the natural world into all his books, be it the thrill of seeing a dipper or simply the gurgling of the water under Swallow’s forefoot. By not being laid on with a trowel (as some modern eco-conscious children’s books can tend to do) it is perhaps all the more effective.

      I enjoyed all the Swallows and Amazons books as a child, but confess I’ve never revisited Coot Club or The Big Six. I think perhaps this is because they don’t include the A team of the Walker children, and so I’ve always subconsciously rated them as sub-par.

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