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.
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