Friday, 9 July 2010

"Swallows and Amazons" by Arthur Ransome

During the recent book-bloggers' get-together in London (kindly organised by Simon Thomas) it emerged that some unfortunates had never read any Arthur Ransome, and as I happened to be re-reading Swallows and Amazons, the way one does from time to time, I thought this would be an excellent opportunity to introduce him to the hitherto Ransome-deprived.

Ransome was an amazing character. Escaping an unhappy marriage (itself a daring step in the prevailing culture of the time) he went to live in Russia in 1913, thereafter experiencing both the First World War and the Russian Revolution and its aftermath. This seems to have led him into an almost Bruce Lockhart type of existence (read Ace of Spies), resulting in him falling in love with Trotsky's secretary (who was to become his second wife), and engineering their joint escape from Russia, in the course of which he narrowly escaped death. Due to be executed for having passed through the enemy lines to rescue her, the officer detailed to do the job recognised him as a regular chess opponent from pre-Revolutionary days, and connived in him slipping away to freedom instead. Ransome, and his many readers over the years, owe the unknown Russian a debt of gratitude.

There are twelve completed books, and though they are set in deliberately vague geography, many of them fall into two broad groups set in the Lake District and the Norfolk Broads respectively. A book by Christina Hardyment (Captain Flint's Trunk) successfully identifies many of the real life places and people upon whom Ransome based his work. Mention of that book points up one of the dangers of getting drawn too closely into Ransome's world. Before you know where you are, you are reading books about Ransome, about small boat sailing, about the Lake District ...

Though aimed predominantly at children (until the coming of Enid Blyton, Ransome was by far the most successful children's writer in history), the books, like Richmal Crompton's William series, yield a whole different range of nuances when read by adults. For children, they offer an escape into a fantasy mock-serious world of adventure. For adults, they conjure up a vision of a long-vanished time of innocence and straightforwardness, an almost Orwellian yearning for a former version of Britain, a world before television when people read books, and observed certain conventions of courtesy and mutual respect. In reality, of course, one knows all too well that while life may have been at least a little like this for the sort of middle class children whom Ransome depicts, reality for the bulk of the country in the 1930s was much grimmer. However, for reality one reads The Road To Wigan Pier. For the willing suspension of disbelief, and the enjoyment of what follows, one reads Arthur Ransome.

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