Monday, 12 September 2016
Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome
In the little boat were two girls, one steering, the other sitting in the middle thwart. The two girls were almost exactly alike. Both had red knitted caps, brown shirts, blue knickerbockers and no stockings. They were steering straight for the island.
In the middle of the camp a tall stick was stuck in the ground with a black pirate flag blowing from the top of it. But there seemed to be nobody there. Then, inside their own tents, they saw two figures, kneeling, one with a bow ready to shoot, the other fitting an arrow.
“It’s not the houseboat man,” said Titty. “It’s the pirates from the pirate ship.”
“And in our tents,” said Susan.
“Let’s take them prisoners,” said Roger.
“Hands up,” said the pirate girl from the Amazon, who was in the captain’s tent.
“Hands up yourselves,” cried Captain John, and made as if to leap to his feet. Both the pirates shot off their arrows.
“Now,” shouted John, “before they load again. Swallows for ever!”
The four Swallows were up and half-way across the open space in a moment.
The red-capped Amazons leapt up out of the tents to meet them.
commentary: Either you love Swallows & Amazons or you don’t – they seem to induce strong feelings.
I’ve recently been praising Ferdinand Mount and his writings on books, but on Ransome we disagree: he says the books are ‘to be avoided with horror and loathing by any young person with the slightest vestige of humour or subversion’ and he longs for the children therein to be ‘deported to the island in Lord of the Flies.’ He criticizes their middle-classness, their sanitized world – which, tbh, you think he probably shared. Given his background, he hasn’t really got the workingclass credentials to mock child siblings who sail together and play together.
I, on the other hand, am a child of the city, and sailing would have seemed as unlikely as flying in my childhood, but I loved every word of this whole series, and borrowed them repeatedly from the library. (In Mount’s world, he makes clear, they would have been hard-backed books bought as presents for the children.) I asked friends if they had read the books, and those who liked them, loved them – the others couldn’t get on with them at all. No lukewarm feelings here.
There’s been a TV series and two films of Swallows and Amazons – a new one out this year. The previous one, filmed in 1973, lives on in many hearts and you can find a lot of discussion of it on the internet. Mate Susan was played by the intensely beautiful Suzanna Hamilton, who went on to appear as an adult in films such as 1984 and Out of Africa - and I have met her. Sophie Neville, who played Titty, has been interviewed, and has written, about the experience of making the film several times.
The new film has had an extra plotline (about spies) bolted on, and has taken some features from the 1974 film rather than book, but is highly enjoyable. If you can’t thrill to the sight of small dinghies skimming across the water in the Lake District (even if you would hate to be on one) then you are dead inside, and that is that.
The books are still tremendous fun to read, though looking at this as a mother I was faintly horrified by the lack of care and safety. A running joke is that young Roger can’t actually swim, he just pretends to be able to, in order to go on the camping trip. There isn’t a lifejacket in sight as far as I can tell. The author certainly sides with the children, who finds the parents (‘natives’) very dull and liable to worry, and there is a telling and convincing moment when the children nearly blow it by turning up late to collect their milk, of all things.
Some people are quite sniffy about Mate Susan and her interest in cooking and keeping the camp ship-shape - but those are essential skills for outdoor adventurers. And think of Nancy Blackett, the terror of the seas. She was one of my favourite heroines when I was about 10: I’m a lot older now, but I still think she’s great, and that she was an excellent role model. Nothing girly about the adventurous Nancy.
Top picture is a still from the most recent film. The pirate hat is available on etsy.
Person in a rowing boat (John? Nancy?) is from the Library of Congress’s collection of views of Britain – it shows Broomhill Point on Derwentwater.