We are lucky enough to have an Oxfam shop on the High Street that is given over almost entirely to books, with a few cd’s and vinyl records thrown in for good measure. Fairly recently I spotted that they had a display case with 6 hardback Arthur Ransome novels – specifically those that feature the ‘Swallows and Amazons’. These were pretty much in mint condition and, as they retail at about £16 a throw, I was extremely happy to pick up the case of all 6 books for £30.
Re-reading Arthur Ransome for the first time since I was 10 or 11 years old is proving to be a tremendously nostalgic experience. The books were already 30 years old when I first read them, but there is definitely something timeless about them, even though there are also some serious anachronisms as well. Ransome’s books introduced me to worlds I didn’t know (the English Lakes, the Norfolk Broads) and to outdoor activities like sailing and camping with which I was equally unfamiliar.
For anyone who doesn’t know, most of Ransome’s books feature the adventures of small groups of fictional upper-middle class children during their school holidays, generally in the Lakes or the Broads between the wars. Most prominent are the four Walkers who sail in the dinghy ‘Swallow’ and the two Blackett sisters who profess to be pirates and sail in their own dinghy, the ‘Amazon’. The adults (or ‘natives’ as they are known) with whom these children interact are almost entirely benevolent, being either relatives who are happy to let the kids have as much freedom as possible or local farmers (or other honest proletarian types) whose function is to keep the kids supplied with necessities like milk and eggs and offer a little earthy wisdom from time to time.
Ransome’s own distinctive illustrations were a feature of most of his books….
The Walkers/Swallows are in themselves almost like a model nuclear family with the elder two, John & Susan, taking on the mother/father roles whilst the younger kids – Titty and Roger – provide healthy doses of imagination and a slightly reckless streak respectively. Susan is forever worrying about getting a camp set up or a meal cooked or ensuring that the younger Swallows get to bed at a decent time – this maternal, homebuilding streak is presented almost as something innate rather than due to any social conditioning. Her brother John, meanwhile, captain of the Swallow, is usually involved in more stereotypically male activity; building a dam, varnishing a mast and so on. Their own Mother is based at a local farm with the youngest Walker child and a maid, whilst the father , a Royal Naval Commander remains an absent Jovian presence whose word is law within the family.
Some of Ransome’s dialogue is a little dated and of the ‘I say, old chap’ variety, but mostly it’s OK. For the most part, the books are taken up with the adventures of these groups of kids and are spiced with much detail about the ‘outdoor life’, much attention to conducting themselves responsibly so as not to let down their parents and the odd dose of mild excitement connected with their latest adventure. Clearly, it is important to them to show their elders that they are capable of camping out and fending for themselves without fouling things up – and, by & large, they do just that.
The real ‘Amazon’ (formerly the ‘Mavis’) is temporarily on display at Coniston’s Ruskin Museum
When I was first reading Ransome’s books, I was dimly aware that he had spent some time in Russia and had produced a book of Russian Folk Tales. What has since emerged is that not only was Ransome a radical journalist who wrote for the ‘Manchester Guardian’, but that he was also an MI6 agent who reported back to the British Government on the Bolshevik Revolution and its prime movers & shakers. He was on friendly terms with both Lenin and Trotsky, and was also romantically embroiled with Evgenia Shvelpina, who was Trotsky’s secretary. Ransome was even entrusted to carry messages between the Estonian Foreign Minister and the Bolsheviks proposing a secret peace accord. For this mission, Ransome both entered and exited Russia clandestinely and when he came back to Estonia, he brought Evgenia with him. The couple settled in Estonia until such time as Ransome was able to divorce his first wife, Constance Walker.
Ransome dismounting from a train in Soviet Russia; his own life was even more suspenseful than his books…
I have to say that I find it quite extraordinary that Ransome’s own ‘adventures’ turned out to be even more exciting and dramatic than those experienced by the cast of characters populating these wonderful books. Normally, one would expect an author like Ransome to fill the pages of his books with ‘tall tales’ that he could never achieve in real life. However, in Ransome’s case, it seems like he had already done so!