But there was still to be one more book: the local veto, it seems, was lifted at least once.
Great Northern? was the first Swallows & Amazons book I read, and I still have this mental picture of our living room in Openshaw one evening, and my Dad giving me this book that he said I’d like, which I did, and of Saturday afternoons hunting the book stalls on Shudehill, looking for those distinctive dark green hardbacks, gradually filling in the stories I’d yet to read. So I have a soft spot for this book, despite its many and evident flaws.
Four years had passed since The Picts and The Martyrs, the Ransomes had moved back to the Lakes, and the book, which had been started in 1944, had gone very slowly indeed. The book was dedicated to Myles North, ‘who, knowing a great deal of what happened, asked me to write the whole story’, an in-joke reflecting the fact that Ransome’s ornithological and fishing friend Col. North had supplied the central idea of the story, and much of its plot.
Great Northern? is set in the Hebrides, though no more precise location is mentioned to anyone who can’t read charts. The children – Swallows, Amazons, and this time the Ds as well – are once more crewing for Captain Flint (without other adult help), this time on a borrowed former pilot-boat, the Sea Bear. The holiday is almost over and the boat is moored in a narrow bay, where Captain Flint and the elder four clean it, the younger four being allowed to roam for the day. Dick, Ship’s Naturalist and eager to see a Black-Thoated Diver, goes off to a small loch with an island in it, whilst the others explore up the valley, carelessly disturbing the deer in breeding season, attracting the attention of the local Gaels.
Dick finds his birds nesting on the island, but there is something wrong. The plumage is that of a Great Northern Diver, but Great Northerns do not nest in Britain. He’s still confused when the Sea Bear reaches harbour the next day, but has the opportunity to straighten things out when he discovers that the birdman, in his motor cruiser Pterodactyl, is in port. He consults the man, Mr Jemmerling, who excitedly confirms that the birds are indeed Great Northerns, and that this will make ornithological history, but to his horror realises that Jemmerling is an egg-collector, who plans to take the eggs, kills and stuff the parent birds – and take credit for the discovery.
Dick refuses to give out the whereabouts of the nest and, after a mutiny against an initially sticky Captain Flint, the Sea Bear expedition agrees to prove things by enabling Dick to take photos of the nesting, without disturbing the birds.
This requires much subterfuge, on the one hand to divert the attention of Jemmerling and his crew, on the other to divert the attention of the Gaels. Separate teams set off to misdirect attention whilst Dick gets his photos, only for things to go terribly wrong.
The Gaels are convinced by the return of the trespassers that they are here to disturb the deer and drive them to another breeding ground, which they will then accept as their own. They lie in wait for the Red Herrings and capture them all. The Decoys – John and Nancy – get complacent and are seen at too close range: they too fall into the Gaels’s hands. Most unfortunate of all, so does Dick, choosing the wrong moment to row back to shore. He is taken, but the boat is left for Jemmerling and his crewman to reach the island.
The gang manage to force themselves in front of the local Laird, who disbelieves their story until a shotgun is heard. Suddenly, everybody is on the same side, heading for the loch, Dick is almost blinded by tears at the thought of his responsibility for the death of the Divers and the blowing of their eggs.
But Jemmerling has failed to kill either bird, and the eggs are still warm. With Titty as pilot, Dick rows the eggs back to the island and replaces them. After a long wait, the birds return to their nest. All is well.
Ransome’s last published words on his fictional children come from Dick Callum, and they are, “Oh gosh!”
At the time I first read Great Northern?, and for decades after, I assumed the story was ‘real’, and never considered any other interpretation. But since first learning of the ‘controversy’ over whether this is a real story, as valid as The Picts and The Martyrs, or whether it is one of the children’s own fantasies, like Peter Duck and Missee Lee, I’ve come to regard this book as being one of the latter.
There are many things wrong with Great Northern?, not least the fact that, in disturbing the deer and angering the Gaels, the children are in the wrong. It may be an unintentional breach, but it is a serious one, and one that is neither acknowledged nor apologised for. What’s more, not only is Ransome unusually unspecific as to place, having prided himself as to accuracy since the series began, but he is equally unspecific as to time: this is because, as ornithologists would know, the nesting time for Divers is June, when the children should be in school.
Furthermore, there is the behaviour of the characters themselves. Not one rises above a simple stereotype of their essential characteristics, especially Roger, who reverts to being a cheeky little boy. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the chapter in which John and Nancy act as Decoys. Here are a boy and a girl, each aged about sixteen, off on their own with no-one else to interrupt the conversation, and instead they talk as prepubescents, with an utter ignorance of, let alone indifference to sexuality.
And the ending gives an unrealistic sense of security. The birds have returned to their nest, ornithological history has been made (no it hasn’t: I immediately went to my Observer Book of Birds which confirmed the existence of Great Northern and Black Throated Divers, not to mention Red Throated, but which still stated that the first of these did not nest in the British Isles), and the assumption is that all is now well and good with the world and will stay that way.
With Jemmerling still around and knowing where the birds live.
One additional point about this book: Ransome had officially replaced the original Clifford Webb illustrations for the first two books because they did not exactly depict things in the story. His own illustrations did so but, as Brogan readily points out, they also serve to bring the books even closer to his own private world, in which everything is of and by himself, and no-one else can play.
But there is a final illustration in Great Northern?, titled ‘The Sea Bear goes home’, in which the young Gael Ian stands on a headland as the boat sails into the distance. The illustration is placed after the final page of the story and depicts a scene outside it. It’s easy to overlook that this drawing is unique, an End after The End.
Great Northern? was the last book Ransome completed. Myles North, eager to contribute, proposed a fanciful story under the title ‘Coots in Africa’, involving Tom Dudgeon, the twins and maybe even the D&Gs going out to Kenya where they meet George Owden, exiled out there since the climax of The Big Six, but it should be obvious why that was a complete non-starter.
But until Hugh Brogan published his Biography, virtually no-one knew that Ransome had started a thirteenth S & A book.
The project was untitled: Brogan called it ‘Coots in the North’ and what was publishable of Ransome’s work featured in the book of the same name, edited by Brogan, that included the readable The River Comes First.
Under what circumstances it began, no-one knows, but Ransome started with confidence and fluidity. It’s the middle of the fourth summer, no more than a few days after the events of The Picts and the Martyrs. Tom Dudgeon and the twins are elsewhere, leaving Joe, Bill and Pete, the Death & Glories, as the only Coots in Horning, feeling bored. Dick and Dorothea are at that lake in the north, and Jonnatts are sending a newly built motor cruiser up there. The boys eagerly watch it being transferred to a lorry back, with Bill’s Dad going north to transfer it to its owner. The boys are wondering about how they might use the cruiser to get a message to the D’s, when a chance remark from Mrs Barrable gives Joe an idea.
On the pretext of sneaking on board to look inside the cruiser, Joe sends himself and his friends on a journey north, to the Lake, as stowaways.
The segment is beautifully written and would have needed little by way of polishing. Typically, having carried the tale deep into the night and the north of England, Ransome reverted to his usual style and broke off, to pick up the story a little further ahead. In the interim, the D&Gs have got off the boat/lorry at a stop, only to find it driving away without them, leaving them marooned in a completely foreign place. What’s worse, Joe’s white rat is still on the boat.
Somehow or other, the boys get to Rio Bay, enjoying their first, awed sight of the lake on the way. Ransome picks things up with them working their way through the boatyards, searching for the lorry, which has already set off home, and for the cruiser, which they eventually find. When looking through the porthole, they see not only the owner, but also Ratty, out on the table, being fed cheese.
There’s only one coherent section left. As with the owner of the Cachalot in The Big Six, the community of fishermen prevails. The cruiser’s owner agrees to drop the boys at the island whilst he goes on to the foot of the lake. Ransome picks up for the very last time as the cruiser approaches the island. Three small boats pull out from it. One is being sailed erratically, and capsizes. The Salvage Company rushes to the rescue, Joe in charge. There’s a squeak of “Dick, Dick, it’s the Death & Glories!”. Bill reaches down and grabs somebody’s hair to haul them up, only for the swimmer to wriggle free and smack him one across the side of the head. “Did that hurt? Jolly good if it did,” says a loud, cheerful voice. And that was the absolute last word.
What scuppered this fledgling book? Obviously, all the issues we’ve already discussed, of age, lack of confidence, lack of the energy to persist. The notes of what else might have been are interesting. They depict the D&G’s as being in obvious trouble, having to wait for someone to raise the money to collect them by train, in the knowledge of serious trouble when they return to Norfolk. There was a possible ending, one worthy of Ransome in his prime: all the children are on the houseboat one afternoon, when Captain Flint is away. The wash from a Lake Steamer breaks the old anchor chain and a fleet of three small boats, marshalled by the D&Gs, keeps the houseboat from being washed aground until Captain Flint gets back and rolls out the other anchor. For saving the houseboat from ruin, the D&Gs have their fares home covered and a dollop of pocket-money to boot.
It was a great ending, full of meat, but what worried Ransome was the middle of the book. He could get the three working class Norfolk lads to the lake, but he no longer was able to imagine what to do with them. Of course there were skeleton ideas – the lads staying in the barn at Dixon’s, the interplay between them and the resolutely middle class Swallows, their fears of what awaited them, teaching Professor Callum to sail. Indeed, to me that’s the biggest loss of all. The last set of parents, all set to come on stage, and all that remains of the absent-minded Egyptologist is a single, wistful line: “My theory has run up against a fact”.
It could have been done, but it would have taken work, and Ransome no longer had the energy for it.
And so it all ended.