15
Mar 05

It really ought to be in blood but pencil will do just as well

The Brown Wedge3 comments • 808 views

Rereading children’s books as an adult – those you haven’t looked at once since childhood – you sometimes slam into a particular contraction of response: a sort of ultra-localised Tom’s Midnight Garden Effect (TMGE), in which you simultaneously recall yr feelings at time of first reading, proust-stylee, and overlay this with here-and-now adult intellectual and emotional responses of a subtly different kind. At my mum and dad’s, in the times when they were resting and not requiring carer attention, I picked up the first three in the Swallows and Amazons series: S&A itself, Swallowdale and Winter Holiday (actually I think Peter Duck is the third but I wanted to tackle that out of sequence).

i. The TMGE in Swallowdale is the simplest: the explorers clamber up a local peak and discover a tin in a cairn with a note written by the Blackett sisters’ parents and uncle 30 years before (ie in 1901, when the elders were kids themselves). Their father is dead – I’m not sure we’re ever told how – and there’s a nicely written moment of the gulf that briefly opens up between them and the Walkers (whose father is alive and well, if overseas). As a child I entirely missed this aspect: I just thought the jump back into the past was a way of saying “Parents have done cool things too, long ago.”
ii. The TMGE in Winter Holiday I missed ENTIRELY as a kid (if memory is a guide). One of the farmers’ wives they’re variously boarding with – I think Mrs Dixon – remembers the “Great Freeze of ’95”, when horses pulled sleighs across the lake and she herself skated its entire length. At most this worked as a pointer to the rarity of the depth of freeze they’re enjoying: most years the lake doesn’t freeze. Now it strikes me this remark helps lock the kids into legendary rather than modern time: actually one of the things I’m most struck by is how IMPOSSIBLE their seemingly in-reach adventures have become in the intervening decades (not least as a result of the success of these books). I’ve never been to Coniston, but I imagine you can more or less WALK shore to shore now, across the decks of the thousands of little holiday boats. And – hi Robin! – local folks all have TVs and internet and the sense of rural isolation and distance, not to mention its sheer novelty, to the suburban reader, is long long long vanished
iii.The TMGE that hit me first comes with the opening words of the very first book: “Roger Walker, seven now and no longer the youngest…” Back then he was just a character in a book, and I’m not sure I registered his age as having meaning. Now the first very thing I thought was: “Is Roger still alive?” Book published 1929: Roger = 85 today. So yes, he could be. But he’s fictional, Mark. So hunt around to see if these stories are based on actually existing kids that Arthur Ransome knew. Well of course they are. Youngest to oldest, the Walkers = Bridget, Roger, Titty, Susan and John. Youngest to oldest, their models = Brigit, Roger, Mavis, Susie and (hmmm) Taqui. And I’m delighted to be able to say Mavis was known to her family as “Titty”: good. Because I always thought the junior Lennie Bruces who went off into giggles about this name to be unspeakably feeble and incontinent.

One reason I think I haven’t re-read Ransome’s series in-between-times is that I was, I suspect, worried I wd find it – in the classic semi-sneer – “too middleclass”. Actually that isn’t what I found myself thinking at all, simply because I know a little about Ransome’s own biography. And also because the actual real model for John Walker – always the dullest character – was a tomboyish girl called Taqui Altounyan, whose father was Armenian-Irish, and whose family had arrived in the Lakelands from Syria. Just ten years before this book appeared, Ransome himself had been a British journalist in Russia, covering the collapse of Tsarism and the 1917 revolutions: not only did he act for a long while as the trusted emissary between the Foreign Office and these baffling revolutionaries, who were entirely off the map of British ruling class experience, but he fell for and married Trotsky’s secretary Evgenia Shelepin (it was his second marriage, and lifelong: she settled in England with him).

With this in mind, elements I’d been worried would feel niminy-piminy and bland feel more like a deliberate shock shift into a studiedly neutral gear: Altounyan to Walker (Altounyan sounds like the villain in an Eric Ambler novel from the 30s!) ; Uncle Jim not so much retired pirate cpatain Flint as a quasi-bolshy fellow traveller on excellent terms with Trotsky? (I don’t know if Ransome’s memoir of the Revolution, Six Weeks in Russia in 1919, is currently in print: I’d like to read it. Presumably Evgenia was only too well aware of the grim fate befalling those of Trotsky’s colleagues who’d stuck it out under Stalinism.) And Nancy and Peggy’s late father: unless we ‘re somewhere told he died some other way, we have surely to assume he is one of the millions dead in the trenches or at sea in the 1914-18 war (or 1914-19 as it says on some village war memorials: because of course British troops invaded Russia to battle the Bolsheviki in 1919).

As it is, all three books contain moments of genuine peril, lightly sketched: the Walker father – away somewhere in the China seas patrolling the Empire on a Royal Navy destroyer – has (hurrah!) wired the MOST IRRESPONSIBLE PARENTAL ADVICE OF ALL TIME (at least as far as modern parenting theory is surely concerned): “BETTER DROWNED THAN DUFFERS IF NOT DUFFERS WON’T DROWN“. Four children boating totally unsupervised: the youngest, Roger, can’t even actually swim yet. In Swallowdale, John sinks Swallow; later, Roger twists his ankle in a fog high on the moors and has to be left sleeping with a charcoal burner. In WH, they rescue a sheep from an ice-bound crag; later, as a result of a misunderstanding, everyone goes out in a severe blizzard. These high-risk elements are played incredibly lightly: only John and Susan ever seem faintly conscious of peril, and then primarily in the form of worrying about parental fears and crossness.

(I’m back again at my parents’ house next weekend, so I’ll read some more and maybe write some more..)

Comments

  1. 1

    (to restore a bit of comments info lost when moved to wordpress = that BRIDGET (as of march 2005) was indeed still alive, and president of the relevant fanclub; and that ROGER would be the discoverer-inventor of a revolutionary ASTHMA INHALER (tho not it turns out the familiar little blue salbutamol dealie)

  2. 2
    vicky luard-selby on 18 Oct 2006 #

    as you point out in last paragraph, all the altounyan children really were left to there own devices………..and run wild they did!!i can asure you they were/are all real people.
    before LANE HEAD[family home] was sold for an outwards bounds centre,
    as a child i spent many happy hours playing the same games on peel island as previous generations…..nearly 50 years ago now…….
    i have no desire to go back to coniston to see speed boats and jet- ski’s and tourists!!………………
    i have told the family stories to my son, who in turn,when he has them,will tell them to his children.
    im ursula collingwood’s grand-daughter.

  3. 3

    (collingwood connection made — a bit — clearer on the OTHER ransome post)

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