Long ago, my brother gave me a £10 book token for a birthday present. I chose the biggest book I could find, A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth. My copy has been on my bookshelves for over 20 years. It has moved house with me more times than I can care to remember, including emigrating with me from the UK to Australia, but I was determined that I would read it ‘one day.’
This reading challenge has been good for me as I’ve been reading more over the past six months, even if I’ve not been blogging as much as I wanted to. (Life, the universe and everything), I’m easing myself back in with this post.
With A Suitable Boy, I also had the pleasure of Sagar Arya reading it to me. At over 68 hours long, it took me a month to listen to it, (and that was on 1.2x speed, (more later). It’s one of the longest books ever published in a single volume at 1488 pages. But it was worth it.
When I was listening at home and not doing anything else, I’d pick up the book and read along with him. The audiobook came with me on walks, drives, shopping, train trips into and out of Melbourne. Now I’ve finished it, I feel a bit lost.
I’m no longer hanging out with Lata and the Mehra family; watching Lata fall in love with Kabir, whom she can’t marry as he’s Muslim. Lata is a modern woman, studying at university and wanting to forge her own path in life in the new India, fresh from Partition in 1951, Kabir stimulates her mind and their sweet tender romance is passionate and chaste at the same time.
I’m not visiting with the Kapoor’s, watching Maan fall in love with courtesan Saeeda Bai. I’m also not thinking in rhyming couplets like the Chatterji’s, or travelling on old steam trains and drinking Nimbu Panis.
The book is set over 18 months, and follows the intricacies all lives follow. How one decision today will have a ripple effect across the rest of your life, whether you realise it at the time or not. On the cover of my copy it says, ‘Make time for it, it will stay with you for the rest of your life’. I’m cross with myself I’ve not read it before now, but there you go. I thought I would be a long time ago, but still never picked it up.
I do like big sweeping novels, epics and sagas. Anna Karenina was a good read last year, with Maggie Gyllenhaal reading it to me before I dove into the book. Possession is a firm favourite, also on the pile of books for the challenge. Jilly Cooper too, the Rutshire novels with Rupert Campbell-Black and his cronies are anything but lightweight.
A Suitable Boy, Anna Karenina, Possession, Rivals, Swallows and Amazons, Mapp and Lucia, these (and so many others) books are with me. I’m very lucky that I retain great swathes of text; sometimes from endless re-reads, sometimes because when my ADHD spins me into hyperfocus, it’s in there forever.
Listening to podcasts and audiobooks, I increase the speed to between 1.2- 1.5x speed. It is a tip I was given ages ago, (thank you Val!) because I both read and speak quickly; if I speed up what I’m listening to, I comprehend it easier as my processing speed is higher. Go figure.
A bit like speed reading I guess, which isn’t recommended for reading for pleasure. Although I pack books away quickly, I do go back or re-read things I’m loving slowly, and in turn listen to some parts and podcasts at 1x speed. I love words and relish in them, which is why I re-read Possession every winter. You have to slow down and wallow in it, like a hot bath.
This past weekend I finished three Arthur Ransome books, Winter Holiday, Pigeon Post and We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea. These three books are some of my favourites in the series, closely followed by Secret Water, (but we’re not there yet). This is the first of three posts, it was way too long for one blog, about Winter Holiday.
I know I’m slightly out of order. If there are any other Arthur Ransome pedants who find this, I decided to skip Coot Club, and to read that back-to-back with The Big Six, to enjoy the Norfolk Broads in one hit.
Winter Holiday introduces us to a sister and brother, known as the ‘Ds’. Dorothea and Dick Callum have been sent to stay at Dixon’s Farm for the last bit of their holidays before going back to school, as their parents have gone to Egypt to ‘dig up remains’. The Walkers (crew of the Swallow) are at Holly Howe before being despatched to their schools for the new term. Mother, ‘left just yesterday’ as their Father’s ship is stationed relatively close-by at Malta. Mother has taken the youngest child, Bridget to meet him as, “Father’s never really seen Bridget since she was a person.”
The Swallows and Amazons (SAs) see the Ds as they row to Wild Cat Island on the D’s first morning at Dixon’s Farm. The Ds are, in turn, by the lake watching the six of them in the Beckfoot rowing boat. The SAs are practicing Morse code and Semaphore, they’ve taken up signalling with a view to an ‘Arctic Expedition’. But it’s not cold enough yet for the lake to freeze, and the holidays are nearly over.
That night the Ds head up to an old barn for an observatory, so Dick can look at stars. Dick loves geometry, takes daily readings on the barometer at home (he’s frustrated that he didn’t bring his pocket one with him), and is learning about astronomy from a new book, he chose the old barn for his observatory for its ‘horizons’. He’s often is so deep in thought, he can’t hear his sister when she talks to him, “Well, you ought to hang out a notice when you’re not there.”
Dorothea is calm and clear headed, but also full of stories. A bit like Titty, although Dot is full of romance and wonder; whereas Titty is a product of her Australian mother, Naval Officer father’s more stoic upbringing. We never meet the D’s parents in any of the five books they’re in, although they write to the children and seem quite happy when they get swept up and along for adventure with the SAs and also the Coot Club children. The Ds are the fulcrum point, bridging the Norfolk Broads and Lakes children and books together.
Dick is affectionately known as ‘Professor’ in the books. He is often deep in thought, and sees things the other children miss; for example, in Winter Holiday he notices that a car has driven past with snow chains on, but hasn’t come back along the road. The other children don’t make fun of him polishing his glasses when he’s got something to say, but is too shy to interrupt; or when he writes down birds he’s seen in the ever-present notebook that is in his pocket. [Typing that made me realise that none of the children are made fun of. Although there are pointed jibes from sibling to sibling, it’s never malicious, as an example, John saying to Roger “I don’t believe you’re ever full.” You feel like you’re watching family dynamics and vernacular, it’s a running joke that Roger is always hungry.]
While watching the stars from the barn, the Ds are able to see Holly Howe farm windows. With lanterns and torches, the children signal to each other. The crew of the Swallow answer in Morse code. The Ds (not knowing Morse) decide that of course they can’t communicate – Morse, Mortian, Martians. In the morning, the ‘Martians’, now including the Amazons, all march over to meet the Ds. On the way, Nancy and Peggy run across a tarn that has a thin layer of ice over it, but it’s not bearing yet, so they go into the cold water up to their ankles.
When they all meet at the barn, the Martians are disappointed the Ds aren’t in trouble, as they thought they were signalling they were in distress. Introductions are made, the Ds are asked to join them for the day by the SAs. They all head down the hill to Dixon’s Farm to get the D’s rations for the day. Mrs Dixon laughs and tells them they’ve “Not made too long a time of it” in meeting the Swallows and Amazons, and packs the Ds off with a picnic.
The Ds are told about the Arctic Expedition and shown the ‘igloo’, which is a stone hut they’re covering in snow, and told about the planned trip to the Arctic to the North Pole, which is at the head of the lake they’re on. Although the end of the holidays is just around the corner, they’re all hopeful to get some skating on the tarn, even if they won’t be able skate on the lake. Nancy and Peggy dry out shoes and stockings by the fire in the igloo.
Over the next couple of days, the Ds are taught both types of signalling, Morse and Semaphore. The SAs decide it would be rather beastly to leave them out of things, even if they’re not sure about Dot’s pigtails. Then the ice freezes the tarn. At their first skating practice, the SAs see that both the Ds have been ice skating on an indoor rink near their father’s university all winter and skate well. This clinches the friendship, Nancy says she’ll keep teaching them signalling if they can teach everyone how to skate. During a skating and signalling practice, Captain Nancy writes down the ABCs of semaphore for Dick in his notebook. She also tells him when the expedition is due to start, she’ll run a flag up the pole at Beckfoot, so they know when to leave to head north on the lake. This he also makes a note of on a page in his notebook.
Just as the holidays are drawing to a close, with the lake finally showing signs of freezing, Nancy goes down with the mumps. Because the other children have been ‘fairly stewing’ inside the igloo with her, none of them can go back to school. The certificates telling the school they’ve not been in close contact with anyone sick, can’t be signed, (sound familiar?). They have to stay in quarantine, which gives them a whole month more of skating and practice for their expedition.
Nancy is filled with glee, Mrs Blackett is worried they’re all going to come down with it, Peggy is despatched to stay with the Swallows at Holly Howe. For a few days, they do the best they can without Nancy. Bur after skating and signalling practice, then ensuring the igloo is covered with snow, they run out of ideas of what to do. Eventually, they all pile over to Beckfoot to ask Nancy what they should be doing, using semaphore in the garden so they don’t get too close and get sick:
The circle over Nancy’s face says, ‘It would be unfair to draw Nancy’s pumpkin face’. I love Dick in the bottom right hand corner, looking up the alphabet in his notebook while Peggy is signalling. Roger is on the right, standing closer to the steps; John is at the back; Dorothea is writing the letters signalled by Nancy in one of her exercise books she uses for writing her novels, leaning on the sundial; with Titty far left; then lastly, Susan is in between John and Peggy. Got to love how the boys are all in shorts, in the middle of winter. I also like the nod to Captain Flint’s relationship with them all, showing his telescope in the ground floor window.
Nancy’s arms windmill letters, she’s full of ideas for hiking up the mountains, crossing ‘Alaska and Greenland’, making Wild Cat Island Spitzbergen, to keep up with their training. While signalling, she’s pulled away from the window, Mrs Blackett tells them all off, reminds them why they should be on the other side of the lake, and sends Nancy back to bed.
The next day on their first trip to ‘Greenland’ the children are taking it turns pulling a sledge as ‘dogs’, all hopping on the sledge to slide down hills. While the youngest four are exploring, Dick saves a cragfast sheep by walking along the ledge it’s got stuck on, the other three using the Alpine rope as a lifeline. I love this exchange:
“Half a minute,” he called again. “I’ve got to sit down. Let out some more rope.”
“Is anything wrong?” That was Titty’s voice.
“No. But the rock leans out, so you’ll have to let the rope out a lot and then jerk it around. Don’t start jerking just for a minute. I’ve got to get sitting down.”
“Why?” called Dorothea. “You’re not giddy?”
“No,” said Dick. “Centre of Gravity. If I try to get past standing up, my Centre of Gravity will get pushed too far out by the cliff.”
Overhead, on the top of the rock, Titty and Dorothea and Roger looked at each other.
“I suppose he’s all right?” said Titty.
“Quite,” said Dorothea, “so long as he talks like that.”
Winter Holiday, p.143
Mr Dixon makes the Ds a sledge to say thank you, giving the expedition two sledges. Nancy smuggles the houseboat key out via a tobacco tin sent with the doctor. The book continues with Captain Flint’s iced-in houseboat becoming the Fram; which is soon decorated with polar bear fleeces (sheepskins) arctic fox pelts (rabbit skin) that they sew into mittens and hats as it gets colder and colder.
Captain Flint comes back from overseas when he hears about the lake freezing over, he joins with them all on the expedition and helps Nancy with North Pole preparations. On a day when the Ds have to leave early to prepare a sail for their sledge, Captain Flint tells the Swallows and Peggy that Nancy is due to be let loose tomorrow and will run up a flag at Beckfoot. Depending on what colour it is, depends on whether she’s allowed by the doctor to come to the houseboat for a conference and planning for their final push to the Pole.
The next day, a flag is run up the Beckfoot pole. As Mrs Dixon is getting ready to go to the market, the Ds are running late when they see the flag. They head off with their provisions for the day. They also take the sail for the sledge they’ve finally got ready with the help of Mr Dixon, but not had a chance to practice with. The others are only at the houseboat, but have pulled their sleds around the other side of it, to discourage other people from climbing aboard. The Ds miss the smoke from the fire that was only lit as they hurried past houseboat bay, thinking they’re behind everyone else.
From there on in, it’s a rush to the finish of the book and the North Pole, complete with a storm blowing snow and wind along the ice. The Ds hoist their sail and are blown straight down the lake like a pea in a peashooter. Despite the expedition being split, with search parties, and the Walkers and Peggy skating the length of the lake at night, they all arrive at the Pole safely, but at different times. They find a fire ready to light and provisions ready to eat. In the morning, the miscommunication is explained about the flag, it’s agreed that they had a proper expedition instead of the planned coordinated effort, and all’s well.
There’s never much more than implied danger and the odd scuffed elbow in Ransome’s books, Nancy is the ring-leader, she’s strong-willed and obstinate. But all the children are self-sufficient characters, and from Winter Holiday onwards, the characters move around each other, with each of them holding their own, bringing their own strengths forward when needed.
I’m loving re-reading the entire series of Swallows and Amazons, although I don’t recommend a twelve book series to count as one selection for the challenge! The pile of books by my bed are staring at me and is not diminishing very fast at all. I’m taking a couple of books with me when we go away this weekend, but next week I’ll read Secret Water and try to convey why I love it so.
This past weekend I finished three Arthur Ransome books, Winter Holiday, Pigeon Post and We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea. These three books are some of my favourites in the series, closely followed by Secret Water, (but we’re not there yet). This is the third of three posts, it was way too long for one blog, about We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea.
It is one of the last books in the series I was able to buy, as even in the UK the more obscure books weren’t easy to find. It is also the only book that scared me, the usual mild peril ramped up to a stormy sea crossing.
It’s the book with the shortest time frame of just six days, and focuses entirely on the Walker children. Commander Walker after years of being away overseas, has been stationed at Shotley and is travelling home. Mother and the five children have all arrived to greet him, they’re not sure when he’s going to arrive, as it depends on his overland connections across Europe. All they know is, he’s arriving by steamer for the last leg.
They’re all staying at Alma Cottage at Pin Mill with Miss Powell while they wait for Daddy to arrive. The book opens with the oldest four who have borrowed a rowing dinghy before supper, pootling about in and amongst other boats and buoys. They’re watching a Gaff Cutter called Goblin coming into moor, but due to the ebbing tide, Jim Brading misses his buoy with his boathook. Jim throws a rope to John who ties it with a bowline knot and makes fast.
Jim’s impressed with John, who has also offered to come aboard to help him stow the sails and make the Goblin neat and tidy. Before long the other three have also come aboard and have helped tidy up. Mother comes over in another rowing boat to call them in for supper. They all invite him to join them for the meal when they discover he’s sailed from Dover that morning, on his own, and hasn’t even eaten breakfast.
Miss Powell sees their new friend and laughs, as she’d made omelette and soup for their supper, which is what Jim and his uncle would order from her when they would come into Goblin’s home port. Exhausted, Jim falls asleep at the table, after which they all agree he’s become a friend. When they’re eating, he offers to take the four oldest out on the Goblin from the next morning for a couple of days, while they wait for their father to come home. He says there is a lot of sailing they can do in and around the Harwich estuary.
Mother tells them she’ll think about it overnight. The next day, after sounding out people who have known Jim Brading for years, she agrees to let them go on the conditions that they do not go past Beach End Buoy and out to sea; that they phone her each night so if she gets a telegram from Daddy, she can call them home straight away, and that they have to be home by Saturday.
Bridget is upset that again she’s missing out on adventures as she’s “..been trying to grow up as fast as I can”. Mother tells her she’s missing out too, and she needs someone to look after her.
The next morning, children are aboard the Goblin, Mother and Bridget arrive in a rowing boat with stores and to see them off. In the interim, they’ve been practicing raising and lowering the sails. They’ve swept decks, coiled ropes and Susan has stowed away all their clothes, blankets etc. She now puts all the food that Mother has brought away too.
Jim shows Mother the chart of where they’ll be sailing. Showing them Beach End Buoy and promising again they’re not going to sail past it. Mother compliments him on a nice tidy ship, Susan is happy and proud of the hard work she’s done.
Off they sail, they phone to say goodnight when they’ve moored up. The next morning they set sail, but are just floating with the tide as the weather is changing, there’s no wind and they can hear fog out at sea. Only when do they nearly reach Beach End Buoy, they realise how far they’ve drifted. Jim starts the engine, but realises he used more fuel than he thought when it chugs to a stop. He drops his anchor just off Felixstowe, jumps into the Goblins’ dinghy, Imp, and rows away to get some petrol.
The fog comes down around them, sounds are muffled and they don’t notice that the tide has come back in again. Only when the anchor makes a funny noise do they realise the tide is twice as deep now it’s fully in. Not only is the Goblin is being pulled along, they don’t know where they are. John tries to let more chain out, but the little ship is now moving so quickly, the chain pours out and both anchor and chain are lost.
They try to get another anchor out, but it doesn’t hold either. Still in the fog, they can’t see anything, but the water right beside the boat. Only when they hear a clang close to them, they realise they’ve been moving with the tide again and they drift out past Beach End Buoy.
They’re drifting in and around shipping lanes, around shoals (sand banks under the water), completely on their own and in a thick fog. Another buoy appears close to the Goblin, and this little picture gave me nightmares about buoys for ages:
I don’t know why buoys give me the heebie-jeebies quite so much, but hey, I had nightmares over Miss Marple too.
John makes a decision to hoist the sails, he knows the only way to keep them safe is to keep Goblin safe. He checks the chart and chooses a course, about South East, that will take them safely out away from the shoals. He heads out, trying to keep in as straight a line as possible so when they turn around, they’ve got a fairly straight course to get back to Felixstowe.
The wind picks up, with waves of water coming into the cockpit as they’re being buffeted about. Titty and Susan are seasick, Roger frantically pumps the water out the boat, Susan is worried the further they go away, that no-one knows where they are and wants John to turn around. John gets angry, he knows he can’t navigate back in as he doesn’t know where they are in the fog, if they try to turn around, they could get swept onto a sandbank and Goblin would break up.
The fog lifts, but then it starts to get dark. Susan is now frantic with worry, particularly when they’re nearly mown down by a steamer. Her seasickness has calmed down, but when they try to turn around; instead of the wind coming from behind them and blowing them along easily, they have to tack into the wind. Turning around to sail into the wind, Susan gets even sicker, she knows she won’t cope if they try to turn around. Miserably Susan agrees for them to carry on, but John also now needs to reef the sails (make them smaller, so they’re easier to manage). Jim showed them how it was done, but he’s not done it before. Susan starts to steer, John puts a lifeline around his waist and nearly gets swept overboard.
When John gets back to the cockpit, the Goblin is much easier to handle. Titty and Roger who were below decks and being buffeted when they’d turned around wonder what is going on. Susan beginning to feel better, and heads down into the cockpit to make them cocoa. As if this isn’t enough to be going on with, they also rescue a half-drowned kitten they call Sinbad.
Susan is the only reason any of the children’s adventures go ahead, she’s the one the parents and other natives trust to ensure bed on time, fed on time and to keep them all safe. This book is the complete counterpoint to this, by showing her vulnerable; being scared and seasick is an awful combination. Arthur Ransome put Susan through the wringer in this story, she has to accept what is happening and make the best of it. She has no control over what is happening at all.
All night they sail, realising that when it gets light, they can work out where they are and ask for help. John falls asleep, Susan steers, Titty and Roger come up on deck when they’ve had breakfast. Sailing ships are heading towards them, they recognise the flags as Dutch and in amazement, realise they’ve sailed right across the North Sea to Holland.
Needing to call for help, they signal for a Pilot to take them into the closest port. John plays the part of ships boy, the other three hide in the cabin and try to make grown-up noises by singing shanties and stamping their feet.
As they head into Flushing, Pilot steering while John is standing on the cabin roof. A steamer is getting ready to set sail, John sees Daddy leaning over the barrier looking into the port. As the Pilot is navigating them into a berth, he bangs on the cabin roof to call the ‘Capten’ up on deck. He realises that the four children sailed themselves over in the gale and fog and is praising them. John tells the others that he saw Daddy, that they’ve missed him. Another boat comes chugging along, Daddy did a a pier-head jump and got a boat to take him out to the Goblin. Susan sees him and bursts into tears.
He and the Pilot piece together the bare bones of the story, the Pilot refuses to take any money for guiding them into the port. He also will give them a chart of the North Sea from Holland for their return journey, agreeing that they could pretty much turn around and sail back out again as the weather is good.
Daddy takes them all for something to eat, John falls asleep at the table. He gets the whole story about everything that has happened. He writes out a telegram to tell Mother what is happening, including that they’ve found a kitten, but he sends it via a colleague in the UK so she doesn’t worry to hear that they’re all in Flushing. He also tells John that “We’ll make a seaman out of you yet my son.” John chokes up with pride and relief.
They buy supplies for the return trip, filling up the petrol tank and paraffin for the lights. The Pilot arrives at the Goblin to give them the chart, telling everyone that these are the children came over the North Sea by themselves.
Daddy sails them all home, he’s been travelling overland and has been sleeping for two weeks, he doesn’t mind sailing overnight to get them home as soon as possible. He sits in the cockpit with his cigar glinting red in the darkness, singing shanties quietly, then louder. Waking up, the children listen to him and realise he can’t be angry as he wouldn’t be singing. They head back off to sleep again.
The next morning, they’re heading in towards Pin Mill, when they see a man rowing towards them with what looks like a turban on. It’s Jim who’s discharged himself from hospital, also frantic with worry. He nearly falls overboard climbing up from the Imp into the Goblin. When customs arrive to clear them to enter port, they tell Commander Walker they’d been expecting him to arrive. They also explain that everyone heard about Jim in his haste to catch the bus, was actually run over by it and has a concussion.
Daddy confirms with Jim that Mother doesn’t know they’ve been missing. When they’re pulling up at the Goblin’s buoy, Mother rows out to meet them with Bridget. She is angry that they broke a promise to her to get back in time, Roger tries to explain they’ve been in Holland, Mother thinks it’s one of his jokes. Bridget points out the kitten, a hand comes out the hatch to catch Sinbad. Mother’s jaw drops in surprise, just like Titty’s when she realises it’s her husband Ted.
The crew of the Goblin tidying up after their voyage watch Daddy row Mother to shore to call Jim’s relatives, on the way back he tells her what happened.
This past weekend I finished three Arthur Ransome books, Winter Holiday, Pigeon Post and We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea. These three books are some of my favourites in the series, closely followed by Secret Water, (but we’re not there yet). This is the second of three posts I’ll push, it was way too long for one blog, about Pigeon Post.
Pigeon Post sees the Ds back in the Lakes for the summer holidays with the Swallows and Amazons (SAs). After the very cold winter and frozen lake, the following summer has been dry and hot. Sparks from engines by the train tracks have caused fires and the whole area is worried about the fells catching fire. Parents are managed out the story for this book by the Ds father marking exam papers and Bridget, the Walker’s youngest, is getting over whooping cough. The Walkers have all come straight to Mrs Blackett’s from their schools. The Walkers are hoping that Mother will join them in a couple of weeks, then they’ll have Swallow to sail, until then the plan for the next couple of weeks is prospecting for gold.
The indefatigable Mrs Blackett has all eight children camping in her garden, while the whole house is being redecorated and is full of plasterers and paperers. Susan is very happy with a new present, a mincing machine so she can make meatballs with pemmican (pressed beef).
To supplement Semaphore and Morse code for signalling, Nancy and Peggy had been given a homing pigeon by Uncle Jim, that they call Homer. They then got two more pigeons for company, looked up Greek poets and called these Sappho and Sophocles. The pigeons will allow the children to camp higher up on the fells where they think the gold is, after talking to an old slate miner who tells them an old folk-tale about finding gold in an old cutting with heather growing nearby.
A pigeon a day keeps the natives away.
The usual high-jinks abound, there’s a native ‘Squashy Hat’ who is encroaching on their prospecting, Dick reads the books on mining, Titty dowses for water so they can camp closer to the where they need to be, they buy hammers and motor goggles to go into cuttings with. Titty buys a ball of string so they don’t lose their way in cuttings in the hills, but they all promise to not go into cuttings that the older children don’t deem safe (!) Although, with one exploration, a passage that caves in after some of them. Roger makes a discovery, they make charcoal for smelting ingots and the pigeons, while keeping most of the natives away, don’t rule out ‘native trouble’ entirely.
The lake is almost entirely absent from this book. It’s so hot and with such little rain, the becks have dried up, the lake is lower than usual and only mentioned when they row to Rio for provisions. Pigeon Post is a love-letter to the high country of the Lake District, can’t say I blame Arthur Ransome for that. If sailing isn’t your thing, or you can’t get past Amazon Pirates with skull and cross-bones, this might be the book to introduce you to the series.
And I’m back with a quick review of Peter Duck and 4:50 From Paddington, the latter being the ‘Number in the title’ selection. This ‘reading more’ thing is really paying off now, my headspace is much better. You might have seen in my newsletter that I was 70% through (on the kindle) of The Lincoln Highway. I’ve finished it now, and I loved it, it was both sad and wonderfully uplifting.
Peter Duck is often listed as the third Swallows & Amazons book in the series, as it was published after Swallowdale in 1932, however, it was written and set before the summer holidays of Swallowdale. For reasons now lost; the preface pages explaining that the story was made up by the children in a wherry and written down by Mr Ransome was removed by the publisher. This would have gone a long way to explain the hifalutin story; replete with pirates (real life ones), skeletons, treasure hunting, waterspouts, fist fights and gunshots leaving people injured, and that six children with only one adult known to them and another adult who arrives and decides to join the crew on a whim, were able to sail from Lowestoft to the Caribbean and back again.
If you take it as an adventure story, spun out over winter nights, it works – kinda. If you take it as read, without knowing the children made it up, it doesn’t. Removing the preface also completely negates the explanation about Peter Duck being an imaginary friend to Titty in Swallowdale.
I think Arthur Ransome wanted a big, rollicking adventure, but it’s a pity he did a rewrite of parts of RL Stevenson’s Treasure Island and his own Racundra’s First Cruise to get it. (Yes. I have read everything he’s ever written, including the draft of the Death & Glory boys coming up to the Lakes in a boat by mistake). The Swallows & Amazons series works best when the books are in smaller locations. While you can’t get much smaller than a two masted schooner; using a sailing distance calculator online, it’s around 4,270 nautical miles from Lowestoft to the north east of Trinidad and Tobago. So we’re talking about a journey of around 42 days, (with the large assumption of clean sailing a 100 nM every day), and that is only one way!
Another reason why this book doesn’t work for me, is the inclusion of Bill the Ship’s Boy from the Viper. Bill’s treatment at the hands of Black Jake onboard the Viper is reprehensible. Bill describes how he sleeps in a sail locker as he’s so desperate to get to sea, and how he’s all ‘one big bruise’ from a beating he received, and as a child, chews tobacco. He is rescued from a rowing boat in the English Channel, in thick fog by the Wild Cat, joining their crew to sail to the Caribbean, but is never mentioned again in the series. I know we’re told that he goes off to Beccles to live with one of Peter Duck’s daughters, but using a child as a plot point to get shoved off a ship into a harbour, beaten two or three times, then shot at the climax of the book, was too far fetched for me to cope with as a child. It’s downright ludicrous now.
You can see why I didn’t really want to re-read this book now can’t you? Still, I’ve got one of my favourites as a palate cleanser now, Winter Holiday.
By complete contrast, choosing the 4:50 from Paddington was easy, I wanted to include an Agatha Christie (AC) in the challenge and it has a number in the title; two birds, one stone. It’s a favourite AC of mine, if you don’t know the story and “whodunnit”, it’s a really good, fun read as you hurtle through it until you get to the denouement. When you re-read it, the clues are there, but she does keep you guessing right to the end.
First published in 1957, it’s set closer to the end of the World War II than when it was written, it was initially released in installments, which probably accounts for the faster pace of this book than some of AC’s others. You’ve got to keep the tension up for people to come back for more. According to Wikipedia, it received mixed reviews on publication, Miss Marple isn’t really in it, but on the periphery of the action. Miss Marple’s age is never really arrived on across the books she features in; a mixture of novels, novellas and short stories, but she’s always described as a fluffy old lady. As she first appeared in print in 1930, in The Murder at the Vicarage, AC could be forgiven for keeping her in the background somewhat in the later books.
The BBC adaptation (with Joan Hickson, there can be only one), is slightly different from the book, but still takes you on the journey at a rate of knots. The characters are faithful to the book, albeit slightly more rounded out in the screenplay, they also don’t introduce too many for (Basil) Exposition either. I loved watching Lucy Eyelesbarrow cleaning the big kitchen table and dresser in Rutherford Hall, probably to show how ‘capable’ she was. It’s always good to get a peep at Joanna David and Jean Boht.
As with all books written in the 1930s-1950s, some of the language used can be jarring now, but they were of their time and should be recognised as such. The attitudes towards some of the smaller characters in both Agatha Christie and Arthur Ransome’s worlds are wince-inducing, but on the whole, (and IMO) they’ve aged far better than Enid Blyton.
I wanted to publish this post yesterday, 26 January – Australia Day Invasion Day, Change The Date Day. But honestly, I couldn’t find the words to finish it. So this post sat in my drafts, adrift, wanting conclusion. If that isn’t a metaphor for the racism in Australia, I don’t know what is.
I first heard about this book during Mr Grant’s interview with Osher Günsberg on his podcast in 2019. Here’s a screen grab of the episode from my phone, you can find the full conversation here. * Edited to add an article published by Stan Grant yesterday on the ABC; On Australia Day, how do we define national identity? Or is the exercise too dangerous?
I’ve finished reading Stan Grant’s Australia Day, a follow-up to Taking to My Country. When I emigrated to Melbourne in 2008, I was horrified at the endemic racism shown in Australia – but the vitriol and bile specifically reserved for Indigenous Australians is on a whole other level. One of the most gifted players of his generation of AFL(M) players, Adam Goodes, was hounded out the game he loved playing. He called out being called an ape by a supporter at a game in 2013, she was removed from the ground. However, the most rampant of media decried him for doing it, as it was a 13 year old who yelled the racist slur at him. Her ‘future is at stake’, she ‘was just a child’, bayed the right wing, white, insufferable old male commentators. Never mind that in his last playing season, Mr Goodes had probably had a gut full of racism by then. What about his future when he was 13?
I sit here on Wadawurrung and Dja Dja Wurrung land. My husband and I are white, we are privileged as we both work, we have access to health care, we have a house, car, food in the cupboard, we’re saving up to build a house. We want to name it, but what do you call a house on stolen land? Even if the white laws mean that we ‘own’ that stolen land.
Using whiteness as our charger, we rode roughshod over indigenous areas worldwide, not just across Australia, but America, Canada, India. Not only the British, but that’s where my heritage lines are, so what I hold accountable. As Eddie Izzard said in her stand-up, Dressed to Kill, “We have a flag.”
We all used to live in harmony with the land, until someone long ago decided that owning the land was great, and the more land they had was even better. Because that meant wealth, as the price of land will only ever go up; which flows quickly into greed. Before that decision, now lost to the mists of time; we all only needed to work and live on the land as a community. There’s even a name for it in Britain, landed gentry; on the rung below peers, but still demanding of people to work for them, pay rent to them, on the land they had lived on, but was now bought and sold from underneath them. Sound familiar?
Yes that is a very simplistic view of the world, but it does explain how the Duke of Devonshire was able to own half of Eastbourne.
People in Australia are often furious that Chinese investors are buying up cattle stations, or investment apartments off the plan, that then sit empty with a national housing shortage, pricing locals out the market. *coughs in WASP*
One of our ‘honours’ this year went to Gina Rinehart, for services to ‘mining, culture and sport’. She pledged lots of money to the Olympic fund, so apparently that cancels out everything else her company has lobbied for. Including, but not limited to the installation of roadblocks to stall any ecological progress in attempts to restore the annihilated land, or to reduce carbon emissions. Only in Australia would you be given the highest honour for mining.
So here I am, incandescent with rage and fury at another bevvie of right wing, white, insufferable old men. Determined to carry on regardless, gerrymandering voting districts in a desperate bid to keep their tenuous hold on power and land. [Although, Grace Tame‘s face during the photos with Scott Morrison was a sight to behold. Ms Tame was our outgoing Australian of the Year, and a fierce warrior she is too.]
Land that was stolen, never ceded. Land that sustained life in harmony for over 40,000 years. The Indigenous Australia map is beautiful. The boundaries are not fixed, it is a representation of the cultural groups, nations and languages from different areas of the country. It’s a record of what has been stolen.
Stan Grant asks in this book, “Can we heal the wounds of the past? … After the struggle can we find a peace that all can share?” I don’t know, but while right-wing politics is in power, it’s unlikely. However, along with the great resignation, the past few years have awakened something.
I sit in shame at the actions of the past. I will continue to learn from elders how to repair the future, working with elders emerging to support the present. None of us can change what has happened, but all of us have a responsibility to take better care and make amends. Please don’t take my word for it, read Australia Day yourself. Learn and understand about why January the 26 should not be celebrated. Change the date.
I’m trying to do these weekly, but I need to do a special edition for Australia Day on Wednesday, as it’s only fair to give Stan Grant’s book the space it deserves.
This week I finished Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys’ incredible book where she takes Rochester back to Jamaica and his marriage to Antoinette. I found the Penguin Classic version in a great second-hand book shop here in Ballarat, That Little Bookshop, it’s the same edition I read years ago when I was studying my Open University course. If you’ve not read the book and you find yourself with a heavily annotated, analysed to the nth degree, please do yourself a favour – just read the book first. Then go back and read all the analysis, there are so many plot points mentioned throughout it, it’s a total spoiler fest. Why can’t these be at the end of the books, not in the introduction?
Close reading is a wonderful skill, but I think any piece of art needs to be taken at its own value first. When you’ve read a book, watched a movie, or TV (episode or whole series), or look at a painting, or experience an object; enjoy it for what it is. Inhale it first, then go back to revisit all the themes and get more out of it the second or third time around.
Books morph and develop overtime with re-reading, in the same way watching a film as a child, then again as an adult, we will feel differently about the layers of interaction happening on and off screen. It’s funny, we have to experience life only as it unfolds for us. It is only ‘things’ that we can go back review in-depth, but we will still bring ourselves as we are on that day to any analysis. Even with therapy and counselling, we’re relaying an incident through the layers of our life and time between the experience and the telling.
Wide Sargasso Sea needs to be read with Jane Eyre. I loved it when I read it in 2000, but I relished it more after having read(-ish) Jane Eyre last week. I’ve also watched two movie adaptations, (2011 with Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender and 1996 with Charlotte Gainsbourg and William Hurt). While Bertha / Antoinette is a pivotal character in Jane Eyre, she’s very much in the background, her presence mostly felt through suggestion, only until she’s needed in Jane’s story. Fleshing out one of the most enigmatic characters in English Literature would not have been an easy task, one of the earliest examples of fan-fiction, Wide Sargasso Sea is rightly recognised as extraordinary in it’s own right.
I’m not going into the plot points of Wide Sargasso Sea, but having been in the tropics, Rhys gets the energy sapping temperature and cloying humidity just right. Then you have to think about the layers and layers of clothing worn in the 1830s. We had a heat alert pushed to our phones today, part of the reminders given was to wear loose clothing. Thank goodness we’re not in corsets and stays.
I’m glad that I first read this book on it’s own, loved it and was able to revisit it again after spending time with Jane. It was a small reminder that every life touches and has a ripple effect through others.
The above image is on the cover of the Penguin Classic published in 1997, reprinted in 2000.
Jane Eyre and Swallowdale are done, I’m already reading more with the Dymocks Reading Challenge (for the complete list of what I’m working through, please read over to here) than I have done in ages. Although re-reading Swallowdale, I realised I should have read Peter Duck before it (as I thought I ought to, but got persuaded I’d misremembered by Wikipedia, who listed them by published date). Peter Duck is the story the Swallows and Amazons made up in a wherry when they were altogether over the winter holidays. More on that when I’ve read it; which I’m not looking forward to, but more on that when I’ve read it 😉
Jane Eyre was read to me by Thandiwe Newton, it’s available on Audible as one of their bonus titles. Reader, I have a confession. By the time Jane got to Morton to become a teacher, I was a bit over her company. So I skipped ahead (about four hours), and missed how, very handily, the one door she knocked on when destitute and hungry, turned out to be her long lost cousin’s house. #YeahRight
I’m not going to do a full on review, as I think more than enough has been written (and analysed to the point of people not enjoying it) about the book already. Anyhoo, the reunion with Rochester was quite sweet and at least I can say I’ve now (mostly) read it. I’ve still got it on my kindle, so may get round to closing the loop. But Wide Sargasso Sea is halfway read and I’m enjoying that much more.
The premise of Swallowdale is fairly simple, the crew of the Swallow are back in the Lake District again for their summer holidays. They’ve got school books with them with holiday tasks they need to complete (French verbs are mentioned more than once), but they want to forget towns, school, the train ride up and get sailing. I’m deliberately doing a deeper dive into Swallowdale, because it’s often overlooked in the series – I know this because I had to fight like crazy to get all 12 on the shelf in the bookshop I worked in in the early 2000s.
However, the first day they’re able to sail to Wild Cat Island, they notice Captain Flint’s houseboat is all shut up, and he’s covered his cannon (Reader, relax it’s only a little one that was used to start boat races). On the island, they put up their tents and build a big fire in the campsite. A note with the firewood left by the Amazons tells them to put lots of grass on the fire to make it smoke so they’ll be able to see, even from the head of the lake, that the crew of the Swallow have arrived. This is what the Lake District country looks like for those who’ve not seen it before.
While the Swallows are settling in and getting supplies organised from the ‘natives’ other farmers in the region. They hear that the Amazons’ Great Aunt is also visiting, and that Captain Flint is staying at Beckfoot with Mrs Blackett, so Nancy and Peggy are not going to be able to camp on the island with them. The next day, the Swallows decide to sail for Horseshoe Cove, which is the last place they were altogether on the lake the year before. A picnic is packed, the Swallows head off and during the day the Amazons sail into the bay to meet them.
Nancy and Peggy explain that the Great Aunt (G.A.) is visiting; so not only can’t camp, they can’t sail as much as they want to either. They also have “…been sitting up and saying please and thank you till we didn’t want to come to meals at all.”
That quote from Nancy was always one of my favourites from the entire series of books. She’s a strong, independent character, often recognised as the author’s favourite. Unusually, particularly for books written nearly 100 years ago, there are four girls, two boys as the lead characters. In Arthur Ransome’s other books, girls continue to figure highly throughout them too. Adults are summarily dispensed with, unless they are needed for moving part of the story on. The six children consider themselves explorers and sailors, hence the term ‘native’ for describing adults they come across. It fits in with their world view, how they spend their time and how they use their imagination to explain adults encroaching. Because the books are written from the children’s point of view, this does explain their endurance, as you feel you’re exploring and sailing with them.
The first time they all together again in Horseshoe Cove, the older four, Nancy and Peggy (Amazon Pirates), John and Susan, (Captain and Mate from Swallow) are happy to sit by the fire and catch-up. The younger two Swallows (Titty and Roger) are restless, so head off inland, but are told to stay beside the beck (river) so they can find their way back to shore. Titty and Roger keep climbing up through a forest, following the water flowing down to the lake; until they come into a valley, where they discover a cave. Full of excitement, they head back to the bay to get torches, but find out they were gone far too long. The Amazons are going to be late for tea with the G.A. and are in a hurry to leave. But despite already being late, Nancy and Peggy want to go back to the island to see the Swallows new tents and to collect the feathers moulted from the ship’s parrot for their arrows. [Writing this précis is hilarious, it sounds crazy already, but just you wait.] They all sail off to the island together, Titty and Roger talking about the valley, the six of them agree to meet back at Horseshoe Cove tomorrow morning to investigate the valley further.
Basically, the G.A. is introduced to the book to keep the Swallows on their own. Yes, they are camping on Wild Cat Island, but not knowing when the Amazons are able to meet with them, the plans are going to be at best tentative.
The next morning, the wind is strong and gusty. John has already seen the white sail of the Amazon flying through the islands on the lake, and he knows that he’s already lost the race to get there. He’s also worked out the route he wants to take in his head, but because Susan always tidies up before she leaves the camp, they’re later leaving than John wants and he’s cross with his crew. He’s then full of keeping the plan he’s over thought in his head, and ‘hangs on’ with his sail.
The sail buffets around in the wind at the head of Horseshoe Cove, John sails straight onto Pike Rock and Swallow starts to sink. Everyone swims for shore, Titty holding the telescope overhead to keep it dry. When Susan and Roger are also clear, John throws the anchor towards the shore because part of another plan has formed already where he wants to try and get the boat up and off the bottom.
The six of them change into their bathers, Susan stokes the fire and they try to dry clothes and supplies for the day. John dives down time and again, moving the bows of Swallow around, cutting away the sail and ropes, removing the ballast and with the help of the anchor rope, they are able to get Swallow up off the bottom. As she’s pulled up high on land, Captain Flint arrives in his rowboat. He realises what’s happened and helps them all to first shift camp from Wild Cat Island to Horseshoe Cove, but also to patch up Swallow and get her to the boatbuilders.
After leaving Swallow with the boatbuilders, Captain Flint takes John back to Holly Howe to tell their mother, the ‘Best of All Natives’ about what’s happened. John stays in the rowing boat but sees when she jumps up out her chair that Captain Flint has told her. Bridget, ships baby, and Mother come across to the shipwrecked sailors to count them all. That Bridget has come too reassures all of them that it’s ok, they’re going to be able to stay shipwrecked and not go back to Holly Howe. Mother hears about the wreck, agrees that they can’t stay on the shoreline, but they can camp in the valley, and heads off to meet another set of natives who are able to give them milk each morning.
The Swallows spend the night in the make-shift camp set up on the shore, but after exploring, allowing Titty and Roger to show John and Susan the cave, they decide to shift camp up to the valley. The Amazons and Captain Flint help them to move camp. In the valley, they set up their tents, they build a fireplace, and damn up a pool with bigger stones for bathing and they discover the watchtower rock. This is at the head of the valley, now called Swallowdale, and gives them a 360 view of the countryside. Because it’s so big, the Amazons can see to where they live in Beckfoot at the head of the lake and tell the Swallows they’ll make a surprise attack one day. They hurry off to get back for tea, but run into a flat calm and are late again. Susan sweeps out the cave, which is cool enough to put their provisions in and has a shelf they can put a candle lantern on.
The rest of the book is mostly them exploring the countryside around them, John is shaping and planing the replacement mast for Swallow, John builds a pedestal for the parrot cage to sit on and Captain Flint teaches them to fly fish for the trout in the stream and tarns in the next valley above Swallowdale. The G.A. is barely in the book, but by withholding the Amazons from a lot of the story, her presence is felt all the way through it. Nancy and Peggy are expressly forbidden from sailing or meeting up with the Swallows as they’ve kept missing meals. During the summer, it’s not normally a problem for the free-ranging girls who are known all over the lake, but when the G.A. decides its meal time, she will sit in the dining room. Not waiting for Cook to sound the gong to say when the meal is ready, but then she won’t eat anything until the girls are at the table either. Mrs Blackett and Captain Flint, or Uncle Jim, are talking in the garden one night, Mrs Blackett starts to cry at the strain of it all, which upsets Nancy and Peggy.
This leads to one of the most ridiculous chapters, possibly in all children’s literature. I made myself read it this time, but from the first time I read the book; I can remember thinking “WTF?”, and I’d just skip the whole thing, and then again in everyone of my 100s of re-reads thereafter. I preface this by saying that Titty is an odd character. She’s full of imagination; she’s the one that thinks up explanations for adults interaction, she’s got an imaginary friend called Peter Duck (yes, we’re coming back to him next in the series), and she is full of the classical education that was the norm then, as in learning poems by rote and then holding life in comparisons to the classics. Susan is very much the mother figure; making sure everyone gets fed and watered, she’s the sensible older sister and can be ‘almost native’ around food and rules. She’s the catalyst that keeps everything going, without her sensibility, they wouldn’t be able to have as many adventures. John and Roger love boats, ships and sailing, John is also sensible, but passionate; Roger is exuberant and cheeky, both the boys want to grow up and join the Navy ‘like Daddy’, so Titty is written as the romantic foil to all three of them.
Back to the candle grease chapter. The Amazons make their surprise attack, but because they forget to take their red caps off, Roger spots them in the heather through the telescope. The Swallows quickly strike camp and hide in the cave as a joke to surprise the Amazons. When they’ve been surprised and they’re putting the tents back up, Nancy says that Swallow is nearly finished. They know they all can’t sail and explore the high-country at the same time, so they’re making plans to climb one of the mountain peaks, that they’ve named Kanchenjunga as it’s hummocky. But as the Amazons are struggling at home with the G.A. they don’t know exactly when it will happen.
At the end of the day, the Amazons are late, again, and decide to head home by road to see if they can get a lift, three of the Swallows go with them. But Titty stays back as she decides that she wants to make the G.A. leave; she wants to give Nancy and Peggy their holidays back, she wants to free up Mrs Blackett and Captain Flint, she imagines what it would feel like if someone made the Best of All Natives cry. She stays in the camp, collates the candle grease that has melted onto the shelf in the cave, she melts it down in the frying pan, and makes a voodoo doll of the G.A. She then walks solemnly around the cave three times reciting an incantation. Not having silver pins, Titty decides to hold the doll close to the fire to melt the arms of the G.A. reasoning that if she’s achy, the G.A. will decide to leave to go to the seaside to get better. Titty drops the doll into the fire and is convinced she’s killed the Great Aunt.
I’ll leave that to settle, shall I?
Of course, nothing happens. But there’s much angst from the deep-feeling Titty, who asks everyone she comes across for news from Beckfoot. The boatbuilders get Swallow fixed, she’s now drying in the sun to not damage the paint. The mast is completed and while John is smoothing the linseed oil into the wood, the Amazons fire an arrow into the heather at Horseshoe Cove from Mrs Blackett’s launch (motor boat). Telling the Swallows to ‘Show the parrot his feathers’, knowing he will rip the arrow apart in indignation, the Amazons have hidden a note inside the arrow. They explain the G.A. is leaving soon, so if they’re going to climb Kanchenjunga before sailing again, the Swallows need to start for Beckfoot the next day. Nancy and Peggy give instructions on how to get to their house overland from Swallowdale, reversing the journey of the surprise attack they made. If they head off tomorrow morning, the Swallows can camp halfway up the mountain overnight, the Amazons can join them the day after when the G.A. has left, they all can summit the mountain together. Hurrah!
The overland trip takes place, with Titty and Roger leaving patterans of pine cones to help them find their way back again to Swallowdale all the way along the moor. They find the hidden rowing boat to get the Swallows further up the Amazon river and to the bottom of Kanchenjunga, and paddle it closer to the house, to collect Nancy and Peggy. John gives them an owl call, he spots them sneaking out the house, hoots again and they run off in the opposite direction. When John gets back to the rowing boat, the Amazons are arriving through the rushes. Captain Flint is also within earshot and tells them next time to choose a different signal as the G.A. wants to write to the British Museum about an owl hooting in the middle of the day. He promises to cover for them, but they mustn’t be late.
The Amazons hop into the boat and update the Swallows on what’s going on, how they’ve only got out by the skin of their teeth as the G.A. knew something was up, and suggested that they both went to their room to learn a poem to recite that evening. Captain Flint suggested Casabianca, which they’d already learnt at school.
The Amazons show the Swallows where to camp overnight, introduce them to another farm for milk and head back off home. The next morning, they all climb up the mountain together. Enjoying a picnic of donuts and lemonade at the top, Roger finds a metal box in the cairn on the top of the mountain with a note in from Jim Turner, Molly Turner and Bob Blackett saying they ‘…climbed the Matterhorn. 2 August 1901’. Susan asks ‘Who is Bob Blackett?’. Nancy says ‘He was Father.’ Using the stub of Titty’s pencil, they all sign their names on the back of the paper, ’11 August 1931. We climbed Kanchenjunga’ and put the note back in the metal box.
They all head down the mountain and back to the Amazon to sail over the lake; the Amazons are camping in Swallowdale that night, they packed their boat before they left so they ready to go. John and Susan go with the Amazons, Titty and Roger want to walk back overland to follow their patterans.
Talking with the husband about Swallowdale, I showed him the map in the end papers, particularly the route Titty and Roger took overland, over the moors, on their own. Roger is 8 years old, Titty at the most 11. Off they trot, no parents, no older siblings, with only a string of pine cones to direct them. In washes a sea fog so they can’t see more than a few feet in front of them. When they find a beck, they follow it for ages, to realise they’ve gone miles out their way, into the wrong valley. Roger twists his ankle, Titty has to leave him behind (!) to get help.
When I went to the Lake District, a group of us went walking, up hill and down dale. It being a military group, you could say we were slightly better prepared than Titty and Roger, what with hi-vis jackets, food, drink, mobile phones and so on.
The thought of two children toddling off, with only some chocolate and a compass, in sand shoes, with no way of communicating gave me the heebie-jeebies last week. I know what our son is like at 10½, he’s only just graduated to talking to people unprompted in shops, let alone sallying forth on half-a-day’s hike on his own. I know the first principle of children’s books is often ‘get rid of the parents’, but OMGoodness, coming back to this book as a parent was scary.
Swallowdale is still one of my favourites in the series; look out for We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea, Secret Water, Winter Holiday, Pigeon Post, The Picts and The Martyrs, Coot Club and The Big Six as I progress through the challenge. I’ll cross post to here as I finish them.
In my head, the books were a safe place to retreat to, I loved escaping to their campsites in the Lake District and Norfolk Broads. I love that when I was reading them, sixty years removed from when they were written, the books still spoke to me, because they didn’t talk down to me.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this review of Swallowdale, that it will make you want to revisit one of your favourite books from your childhood.
Better drowned than duffers. If not duffers, won’t drown.
While I’m reading Australia Day, by Stan Grant, I also re-read Swallows and Amazons, by Arthur Ransome. I think this book has been in my life since I was 7 or 8 years old – almost 40 years. The book itself is just shy of 100 years old, being first published in 1930. I was given the complete set of twelve books in dribs and drabs for Christmas and birthday presents, or would buy them with book tokens. The husband brought me the beautiful Folio Society set for a birthday before we left the UK.
Re-reading it now, with a ten year old son is both nostalgic and eye-watering. I cannot imagine sending him off to an island, in the middle of a lake, on a boat, with no life-jackets onboard. No refrigeration for the food they take with them; or the milk they drink gallons of, being sent to visit Dixon’s Farm to collect fresh milk each morning in a milk can – they only rinse out in the lake, (bleee). Let alone the Walker children are just told to let the natives know every day or so that they’re ok. Every day or so?!
The story starts with the now accepted stereotypical trope of ‘get rid of the parents’; for the crew of the Swallows, Mother stays at home with Vicky the youngest child, (so called because she looks like photographs of Queen Victoria, and her Nurse) at Holly Howe, while Daddy is away in Malta preparing to set sail again serving in the Navy. The family have travelled to the Lake District for the last 2-3 weeks of their summer holiday. The Amazon pirates’ father was killed around the end of the First World War, their mother is but a fleeting glimpse in this book. But they also have Uncle Jim, who this summer has turned native, by writing his book ‘Mixed Moss’
I think we’re pretty free-reign with our son. When we go to a playground, we park ourselves on a bench, he then runs off and comes back for food and water. Before the old Eltham Wooden Playground was burnt down, I heard “Mama, I’m stuck!” To find him hanging on for grim death at the top of the slide, on the outside of the tube, after watching some bigger kids climb up it. A mere 3m off the ground.
He was about 7, or the same age as Roger Walker, Ship’s Boy, at the start of Swallows and Amazons.
He’s now 10, and no closer to being allowed to sail off into the sunset from the Peak of Darien on his own with a fishing rod, blankets and hay stuffed into a sack to sleep on. Never mind that he’s an only child, the world has changed and while we’re bringing him up to be independent. I can’t imagine not talking to him morning, noon and night. I miss him when he goes to school FFS.
Anyhoo, it was a different time. But, the first time I read it, I was caught up in the romance of it all. Living, breathing and swimming alongside them in the water of The Lakes. I’ve only been to that part of the UK a couple of times, and have only been to Windermere once. Needless to say, it wasn’t like how it is in my mind. Watching the original movie from 1974, I squirmed with disappointment, I’ve not even bothered with the 2016 version. Reading the plot synopsis, it’s too far away from the book for me to cope with. (A person’s got to know her limitations).
These twelve books have by my ‘Strength and Stay’, (to borrow from Queen Elizabeth II) for the vast majority of my life. Like Mapp and Lucia, when I’m feeling overwhelmed or anxious, I know I can open these books and retreat into a world I know intimately. Worlds so far removed from my own, but that I know like the back of my hand. That they’re all set between the wars is not lost on me either.
What are your favourite reads from your childhood? Swallowdale, (possibly my favourite) and then Peter Duck (my least favourite, next to Missee Lee) are next. I’ve promised myself I’m going to read all of them, so I will. But for now, I want to concentrate on Australia Day.