Sailing down the decades with… Swallows and Amazons
‘It isn’t worth it,’
said Captain Flint. ‘Never any of you start writing books. It isn’t worth it.’
But he was depressed at the time,
for his cabin-trunk had been stolen with Mixed Moss in it, what he hoped would be his autobiographical masterpiece. When it was recovered though on Cormorant Island by Able Seaman Titty and ship’s boy Roger, he may have changed his mind. Why – we are told later that the work went through eight editions in a couple of years.
When those words were written
Captain Flint was not to foresee such success for his book, nor yet Arthur Ransome, his alter ego, in the creation of the somewhat experimental tale in which the Captain appeared. The two of them shared an adventurous past that, for Ransome, makes a story of its own: flight from a nagging wife to Russia where he witnessed and reported on the Revolution, played chess with Lenin, and eventually ran off with Evgenia, Trotsky’s secretary. A rolling stone perhaps, but he had always known that his home-ground was not that of a footloose wanderer or parrot-harbouring pirate, but of a born writer.
like many another, he had not known where to go, and the less said about his early children’s books, such as Highways and Byways in Fairyland (1907) the better. But the escape to Russia resulted in his finding a true voice for his Old Peter’s Russian Tales (1916) and a confidence that generated the memoir of his return escape (with Evgenia) Racundra’s First Cruise (1924).
Back home though
and living near Lake Windermere, he took up with a friendly family, Ernest Altounyan and his five children: Taqui, Susan, Titty (so-called because of her fondness for Mrs Tittlemouse), Roger, and Brigit. Through the summer of 1928 he was much involved with them, he and their father encouraging their sailing adventures in two small boats on Coniston Water. In the autumn they must needs return to Syria, where their father was a doctor, and before departing they presented Ransome with a handsome pair of slippers, ‘real Turks, bright scarlet, shaped like barges’.
And that’s what started it.
Despite temptations of secure work at the Manchester Guardian, Ransome had already determined to make his way as an independent writer, and his summer jauntings with the Altounyans inspired him with the idea of a sailing adventure story for children. He planned it carefully before commencing, but, once started, he suddenly found such formality redundant. As he reported to a friend, the Altounyans took over the typewriter and almost wrote the book themselves.
‘Experimental’ in 1930
was surely a just word for what emerged as Swallows and Amazons. Like the much earlier (and equally experimental) Bevis, by Richard Jefferies, first published as a three-decker in 1882, it was a long book, arriving on the market with its 350 pages unillustrated apart from endpaper maps and a chart-sketch of Wild Cat Island as a frontispiece. Nonetheless, the market responded enthusiastically and – sensing a long-term potential for the story – Jonathan Cape put out a second edition in 1931 with twenty-eight plates by Clifford Webb inserted into the text-block. (The first US edition of that year had head- and tail-pieces by Helene Carter.) Only in 1938 was the book illustrated by its author, by which time it had reached its fourteenth edition, outrunning for sure Mixed Moss.
Its popularity hardly needs explaining.
Not only (Bevis excepted) had any story about contemporary children depicted their adventures with such accuracy as to both character (including two Amazons) and setting, but rarely was childhood freedom-with-responsibility so winningly celebrated. The twin plots of the naval war between the opposing crews and then their joint assault on Captain Flint serve to give the narrative its energy but what makes the book a ‘touchstone’ classic is the alternative life within its pages that it offers the reader – and indeed within the pages of its eleven-and-a-half sequels.
grows more and more a fictional dream as the years pass. Allowing a bit of latitude, suitably circumstanced children of the 1930s might well have experienced something of the same adventurous freedom of the Swallows and the Amazons. And indeed, in that decade’s fiction the reader could join other holidaying families travelling in the Swallows’ wake: the Hunterlys of Eleanor Hull and Pamela Whitlock (commended to Cape by Ransome himself), or the Locketts of M E Atkinson, or Geoffrey Trease’s Mystery on the Moors and Detectives in the Dales.
Such high jinks
are unlikely now in these crowded days under the eyes of Child Protectionists and Health and Safety officials, deterring duffers from drowning (and No Fires and No Camping says the National Trust on Wild Cat Island). Shall we eventually, I wonder, reach the dystopia of Elizabeth Mace’s enigmatic and sunless Ransome Revisited when it is beyond all believing that children could ever have lived the life depicted in that forbidden, battered, but secretly treasured, Swallowdale?
The illustrations by Arthur Ransome with Nancy Blackett are taken from the Red Fox 80th anniversary edition (978 0 09 950391 0, £7.99 pbk).
Brian Alderson is founder of the Children’s Books History Society and a former Children’s Books Editor for The Times.