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.