Arthur Ransome: And After

Arthur Ransome lived another twenty years after the publication of Great Northern?, and was buried in the churchyard at Rusland, a quiet village lying beyond Coniston Water, home of the real Wild Cat Island, and one of two lakes (with Windermere) that he had merged in his imagination to form the Lake of his novels. Apart from a second collection of already written essays, appearing as Mainly About Fishing, he never published again. His close friend and Literary Executor Rupert Hart-Davis suggested that he write his Autobiography which, in true Ransome fashion, he wrote haphazardly, dipping into his own life here and there. It was incomplete at his death, and when published went little further than the Russian Revolution. It would fall to Hugh Brogan to write the definitive Biography, though in recent years the book The Last Englishman has put forward evidence to suggest Ransome was a British Agent in Russia during the Revolution: another twist to that wholly different life that produced one of the best and ground-breaking series ever of children’s literature.

Towards the end of his life, Ransome sadly grew increasingly paranoid. In the late Fifties, a number of newspaper articles identified the Altounyan children as the originals of the Swallows, which their father Ernest, who had lost his hospital and everything during the War, was happy to confirm. To Ransome, it was as if they were claiming some share in the success of the books, casting doubt on his creativity, and all but suggesting that they were responsible for the popularity of the characters. It fed upon decades of letters from readers who had believed the children to be real, which, of course, they were. In this, Ransome was being very unfair: most of the Altounyan’s, Tacqui in particular, had suffered from being seen as Swallows, and whilst honest about the association, were not eager to promote it.

Ransome had been all but forcibly estranged from his only child in real life, Tabitha, and he was very possessive towards the children of his creation. The result was a very sad moment, when he instructed that the original dedication of Swallows and Amazons be suppressed, and replaced with a generic explanation that attributed the adventures in his books to his own memories of playing on the lake at a much earlier age. He became estranged from the family, a trait taken up with traditional vigour by Evgenia after his death. By the time I discovered the series, “To the Six for whom it was written, in exchange for a pair of slippers” no longer appeared, but I had the luck of a Webb-illustrated copy. Others of my generation, and younger, know nothing of it.

It was a sad, sorry ending to the story of a writer who had nurtured a genuine talent and brought immense pleasure to millions of children, a very high proportion of whom, myself included, retained their affection for the books, and an appreciation of their generous and expressive qualities, and their obvious love and appreciation for the country. Especially so for the Lake Country, which is my spiritual home, even if my own family roots descend from Cumberland and the Lake is a mixture of Lancashire and Westmorland settings.

The series has twice attracted the attention of television, both times the BBC, and once the film industry. Swallows and Amazons was filmed as a serial in the early the Sixties. I watched it avidly, being already familiar with the book, and still remember fleeting impressions, like the starter’s cannon fired for the opening credits, that Captain Flint was not bald but actually bearded, and that there seemed few other significant departures from the plot, which had been updated to comtemporary times: Ransome loathed it.

Twenty years later, BBC2 adapted the two Norfolk books as an eight part serial, reasonably well, though to the (continuing) mystification of everyone in the Press – No Swallows, no Amazons? This time, the books were adapted as period pieces, with good solid actors like John Woodvine and Rosemary Leach, though the kids in the starring roles all seemed far too young. I applauded the initiative in not just redoing Swallows and Amazons, and there was talk of a similar treatment of, I think, Winter Holiday and Pigeon Post, but nothing came of it. I suspect that whilst the book’s settings were still seen as not too archaic in the Sixties, another twenty years had added too much for them to be seen as anything but ‘products of their time’, and thus out-dated.

But the big adaptation was the 1974 film of Swallows and Amazons, starring Virginia McKenna as Mrs Walker and a well-cast but ultimately unconvincing Ronald Fraser as Captain Flint. It’s a decent enough film, but best enjoyed for the scenery which, sadly, is also why the film is fatally fouled for me. Ransome built his Lake out of Windermere and Conistion Water, which makes it appropriate for filming to take place on both these lakes, but that doesn’t explain the use of Derwent Water, in quite a different part of the Lakes altogether. Nor, given my instinctive urge to identify a Lake District background when I see one, can the film suspend my disbelief due to its cavalier attitude to where the water scenes are filmed. It’s disconcerting to see boats flick from lake to lake to lake in a single sequence, making the Lakeland cognoscenti somewhat seasick from the rapid translations in space.

I suspect we’ll see no more attempts to put the books on screen, now that the time-frame of the series is over eighty years past. The books are certainly period-pieces, and even my ears wince at the constant “Look here”s and “I say”s of its middle class origins. But except perhaps in the exotics of Peter Duck and Missee Lee, the stories carry far less baggage than other classic series, and they are far more readable to an adult than Enid Blyton’s Famous Five, the other big beast of my childhood. This is because, whilst Arthur Ransome understood and portrayed the innate ability of children to imagine themselves and their world into being, he never wrote down to them, never condescended to think that they could not understand anything, and he himself valued the quality of craft, the honesty of making and the democratic value of everyone and made this a part of his work. And children love that still.

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