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Swallows And Amazons Paperback – 6 Sep 2001
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Arthur Ransome was a prolific writer of children's books. Born in Leeds in 1884, it was his father, a nature-loving history professor, who inspired his love of the outdoors and nurtured a passion for fishing. As a child he enjoyed active, outdoor holidays: sailing, camping and exploring the countryside. He used many of these holiday settings for his children's stories, notably the much loved Swallows and Amazons, a book that sits comfortably in the category of "timeless classic" and remains one of his most popular titles for young people.
It is the wholesome story of four young children, John, Susan, Titty and Roger, who set out in their boat (the Swallow of the title) to an island of adventure. All seems well until they encounter their enemy. At first they are angry at the invasion of their peaceful haven by these Amazon pirates, Nancy and Peggy, who claim ownership of the land. But in time a truce is called and the Swallows and Amazons become firm friends. Camping under open skies, swimming in clear water, fishing, exploring and making discoveries is the stuff of dreams which serves to make this so charming a tale. The author manages to capture the innocence of a time when all this was real and possible. Swallows and Amazons will transport children to a fantastical place where they can play safely and roam freely, without an adult in sight.
"I absolutely loved this book as a boy…. The simple line drawings were just wonderful; they gave the feeling of wide open spaces and freedom." (Tony Ross)
"My childhood simply would not have been the same without this book. It created a whole world to explore, one that lasted long in the imagination after the final page had been read" (Markus Sedgwick)
"All the thrills of Treasure Island and Robinson Crusoe" (Daily Telegraph)
"The very stuff of play" (The Guardian)
"Thrilling not only to young readers fond of the sea, but also to older readers who remember how they enjoyed sea stories when they themselves were young" (Scotsman)
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There is not really a plot. The action is centred on the 'conquest' of Kanchenjunga (the Himalayas were a big focus for expeditions at the time when Ransome wrote this -- 1931), a sprained ankle, hurried meetings between the Swallows and the Amazons and a race at the end after the successful repair of the Swallow.
Along the way, however, we meet a few rustic characters -- the charcoal-burners and some members of the Swainson family. Ransome, while he reproduces the manner in which they speak, in no way paints them as yokels but as sympathetic characters in their own right. And this is one of his many strengths as a writer and as a human being.
I like Ransome's ability to capture what it is like to be young and to portray this in the spectacular scenery of the Lake District. Most of all, I admire his skill, which he has in common with authors such as E Nesbit and Kenneth Grahame, in being able to write for all children between the ages of 7 and 90 without ever once talking down to them.
As for youngsters messing about in boats and 'wild camping': it is a great shame that it cannot happen so freely these days. Mrs Walker and Mrs Blackett would no doubt be prosecuted by the social services, who would not only get hold of the wrong end of the stick, but it would be the wrong stick entirely.
Indeed, the Swallows are absent from this adventure, with the principal focus falling on Dorothea and Dick Callum (the Ds). It is summer 1931 or 1932 and the Ds have travelled up to the Lake directly from their respective schools at the start of the holidays. The plan is that they will stay with the Amazons (Nancy and Ruth Blackett) while they wait for their own boat (the Scarab) to be finished. The four of them will then go camping on Wild Cat Island where they will await the Swallows who will join them in a couple of weeks.
Upon arrival at Beckfoot, however, the Ds find that the Amazons’ mother is away, convalescing from a recent illness, and the Amazons are keeping house themselves with the assistance of Cook. The Amazons are on their best behaviour, having promised to do nothing even vaguely adventurous (which includes departing to the island) until their mother returns in a week’s time.
Their fun is interrupted by an unexpected exchange of telegrams with Miss turner, the Amazons’ Great Aunt, who cast such a pall over the Swallows’ and Amazons’ plans two years previously. She has been informed of Mrs Blackett’s sojourn and, appalled at the thought of her great nieces left to their own devices, has decided to descend on Beckfoot to ‘look after them’. This is appalling news. The Great Aunt has very firm ideas about what constitutes appropriate behaviour for young ladies, and they do not encompass sailing, camping or having friends to stay while their mother is absent. In what now seems an extraordinary step, the Ds are persuaded to set up home in a dilapidated old house in the woods not far from Beckfoot, and to keep out of sight of the Great Aunt, living like Picts of old. Meanwhile Nancy and Peggy take on the role of martyrs, excelling themselves in proper deportment and behaviour, struggling to convince the great Aunt that they are indeed ‘young ladies’ and not the tearaways that she believes them to be.
It seems unbelievable today to see how casually the various adults in the story accept that Dorothea and Dick should be turfed out of Beckfoot and sent to live in a hut for a few days. Such causal concern for children’s welfare and safeguarding today would result in an intervention by local social services. On the day of their eviction from Beckfoot Dorothea writes about it quite cheerfully to her mother, her principal concern being to ask her father for more information about the original Picts. Dorothea’s mother replies the next day with a total lack of concern about her children’s sudden homelessness, being primarily concerned to learn how soon the new boat would be ready.
The book is written with Ransome’s customary simplicity, which keeps the story moving forward briskly while also imparting a lot of information to redress the likely ignorance of his largely metropolitan readership. After the briefest demonstration from a worthy local, city-raised Dorothea and Dick find themselves ‘guddling’ for trout from the nearby beck, though their attempts to gut a rabbit and less adroit.
Ransome understood children very well. These stories were, after all, inspired by his own exploits from childhood holidays in the Lakes with his brothers. Timothy Steading, a mining engineer acquaintance of the Amazons’ Uncle Jim, seem to represent the voice of reason, though even he seems quite happy to accept the temporary enforced exile of the Ds into the forest as entirely reasonable. Of course, the key aspect is that Ransome so completely beguiles the reader that we all accept it too.
I can’t really expand upon the more sombre issues mentioned in my first paragraph without risking spoilers. Suffice it to say that, when it appears that something may have gone seriously wrong, Ransome rises to the occasion. The children’s attitudes and conflicting emotions are perfectly and plausibly portrayed.
This is less ebullient than other books in the series such as the original ‘Swallows and Amazons’ and ‘Pigeon Post’ but shows the central figures growing more mature and sensitive. It leaves the reader pondering what they might all have done in later life.
Of course, life is very different now from when Arthur Ransome wrote this classic story, and Mrs Walker would find herself castigated, and probably even prosecuted, for neglect if she were to allow her four children, aged presumably between seven and eleven, to going camping and sailing, wholly unaccompanied; the children themselves would probably be taken into care. The only vague concession to health and safety is Mrs Walker’s ruling that Roger is not allowed to carry or use matches. The book was first published in 1930, and was probably already eulogising a Corinthian past largely of Ransome’s own imagining.
Ransome’s own imagining is pretty powerful though. He succeeds in creating six child characters, all of whom have clearly contrasting personalities, and he captures their perspective of the world with great clarity. He also pulls off the harder trick of writing adults who meld into the children’s world seamlessly. At the risk of sinking into technicality, he is also a master of metafiction. The children themselves all have marvellous imaginations, recasting the Cumbrian lake into a new world waiting to be explored, reassigning all the local features with names drawn from maritime history. Perhaps he overendows the children in this way – given their ages, it seems amazing that they have heard of half the places or books that they talk about so readily. This, however, could not matter less, and it merely adds to the reader’s sense of complete immersion in the fantasy world that Ransome has created.
Most importantly, though, it is simply a rattling good story that resonates with the joy of unfettered imagination
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