I went to see the latest movie version of Swallows and Amazons with my dad in Edinburgh two weeks ago. Both of us were brought up on these books by Arthur Ransome, which were first published in 1930, when dad was a boy of 6. (For those who haven’t been exposed to these classics, they tell the holiday adventures of six kids from two families, as they sail and camp, mainly in England’s Lake District).
It was a pretty good adaptation, although purists might have had trouble with the addition of a major subplot involving sinister Russian spies; the fact that Captain Flint was young, trim and good looking instead of ageing, rotund and bald; and the way that everybody’s favourite character, Titty, had her name changed to Tatty, presumably for reasons of political correctness. In fact, the Russian spy addition was apt in a way, given Ransome’s marriage to Trotsky’s secretary, and his somehwat complicated activities with M15.
As a kid, I adored the books in the Swallows and Amazons series, mainly because they are simply rip roaring kids’ adventure stories, and provided fuel for endless fantasies and make believe games for my sister and me, for whom this vicarious experience of camping was the closest we would get to the real thing.
With the hindsight of an adult and a parent who spent hundreds of happy hours reading to her own children, I can see that the books, despite when they were written, had some great role models for girls. I identified both with ‘Mate Susan’ the responsible older sister who was the main reason they were allowed to head off on all these adventures without benefit of parents. 'Their mother knew Susan would always make sure everyone was fed and warm and that the younger ones had a decent bedtime,’ the narrator explains. Susan is forever shooing everyone off to swim so that she can get the camp shipshape before Mother arrives for a visit. But I also identify with Titty, who is often in a fantasy world of explorers and cannibals, savages and natives, and who is forever scribbling in her notebook. The two other impressive female role models in the stories are the fierce pirates Nancy Blackett, the ‘Terror of the Seas’ and her sister Peggy, who wage war, shoot arrows and force people to walk the plank. Nancy and Peggy (who, Dad tells me, are the first girls they had heard of to weat shorts) are aptly called the Amazons; the four Walker siblings are the Swallows.
The main reason for visiting the Lake District recently was that I had so enjoyed reading about that area in the books, and had always longed to see it for myself. Once I got home, I located Swallowdale on my shelves thinking I would just read the first chapter or two for fun, and before I knew it, I was 100 pages in, the old enchantment as strong as ever, and now I could picture it all so much more clearly.
My long-suffering husband is heartily sick of hearing me saying how much more at home I feel in the UK than in Australia, but it’s true. Although almost all the people I love most are here, plus a great job and the best mates and life a woman could wish for, I don’t find the Australian landscape, urban, rural or wilderness, soothes my soul in the way that the British Isles do. My recent re-exposure to Swallows and Amazons makes me wonder if the reason is that almost every book I loved as a kid was set in the UK. Okay, I was obsessed with the Moomintrolls, from Finland, but apart from that, it was British Isles all the way. We didn’t have Enid Blyton in our house (‘there are better things to read’ Mum declared firmly) but there were all the Ransome books, the Borrowers, the seven books of the Narnia series, Paddington Bear, E. Nesbit with her Railway Children, Mary Poppins, Beatirix Potter, Frances Hodgson Burnett and The Secret Garden, Wind in the Willows and Winnie the Pooh, Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland. Once I was a bit older, there was Jean Plaidy with her swashbuckling historical novels about the Tudors, Georgette Heyer, and the swooningly romantic D.K Broster novels of the Jacobite Rebellion in the Highlands of Scotland (spiritual ancestor to the Outlander series for sure). Even Tolkein, although he creates a whole new universe, as did C.S Lewis, is firmly in the English world. Australian books for children and teenagers didn’t feature; my sister loved Mary Grant Bruce’s Billabong books, but for some reason I didn’t read them.
If you are very lucky, some of your fondest memories will be of being read to by a loved adult. For me, separated for much of the time from my parents, my most precious memories of feeling safe, cocooned, and led into magical other worlds, was being read to by both parents, but mainly by Dad, who had the most wonderful reading voice. In tough times, my escape was fiction – being read to at first, and then reading the books to myself, over and over and over. Reading is still my great love and my great escape.
So I think that’s why, despite having lived in this lucky country for most of my life now, I feel most at home in the cold and damp and green of the Scottish Highlands and Islands, the Antrim Coast Road or the Lake District. It’s all about childhood imprinting.
In the post-1958 editions of Ransome's books, there is an introductory Author’s Note which says it better than I ever could. Here it is, in its entirety:
‘I have often been asked how I came to write Swallows and Amazons. The answer is that it had its beginning long, long ago when, as children, my brother, my sisters and I spent most of our holidays on a farm at the south end of [Lake] Coniston. We played in or on the lake or on the hills above it finding friends in the farmers and shepherds and charcoal-burners whose smoke rose from the coppice woods along the shore. We adored the place. Coming to it we used to run down to the lake, dip our hands in it and wish, as if we had just seen the new moon. Going away from it we were half drowned in tears. While away from it, as children and grown ups, we dreamt about it. No matter where I was, wandering about the world, I used at night to look for the North Star and, in my mind’s eye, could see the beloved skyline of the great hills beneath it. Swallows and Amazons grew out of those old memories. I could not help writing it. It almost wrote itself.’