Wonder Woman: Kanigher and the “C” word


The book in question

I’ve read all manner of stuff in comics over the fifty years that I’ve been involved with the things, weird, incomprehensible, brilliant, dull, inspired and just plain awful, but I don’t think I have ever read anything so head-scratchingly, bewilderingly bizarre as Robert Kanigher’s Wonder Woman.
For the last decade or so, DC’s Showcase series has been a cheap and easy way to read long runs of old series, mostly but not exclusively from the Sixties. The volumes provide you with a good long read: Wonder Woman Volume 4 reprints 21 issues from 1965 to 1968, nos. 157 – 177, mostly written by Kanigher and drawn by regulars Ross Andru and Mike Esposito. To make them cheap enough to be attractive, the stories are reprinted in black and white, which is a drawback, but in this instance, nothing that has any bearing on the contents.
I first read this volume several months ago, in utter disbelief, but having just run two Wonder Woman blogposts very shortly before, I decided against doing a post on it at that time. The time has come to read it again – it is equally incredible-in-not-a-good-way – and bite the critical bullet.
Kanigher had been writing Wonder Woman since the late Forties, succeeding creator William Moulton Marston after the latter’s death. His work on the series was already legendary, in the sense of notorious, for its slapdash, wing-it approach, in which incident would follow incident with a complete lack of logic, as if Kanigher did not know, when he typed one page, what the next would contain. And there was the accidental creation of such characters as Wonder Tot and Wonder Girl, who were supposed to be Wonder Woman at different stages of her earlier life but who, instead, started appearing alongside her.
It’s not hard to imagine the comic being the perennially low seller it has always been rumoured to be. Indeed, though I’ve never seen this officially confirmed, it’s long been common knowledge that Marston’s original deal with All-American comics included a clause by which ownership of Wonder Woman would revert to the Marston family if a Wonder Woman comic was not published for a certain length of time, and it was widely believed that the series continued because DC had too much income in licensing deals tied up in the character to afford to lose her, no matter how badly the series sold.
Assuming this to be true, it seems equally clear that as a consequence, nobody gave a damn what Kanigher did with the character. Certainly Kanigher didn’t.
Volume 4 covers the end of one differing phase of the series and all of the rest, although the difference is purely superficial. This is not immediately apparent from the meat of issues 157-8, but a back-up story in the latter, a mind-boggling piece of metafiction that takes what Stan Lee and Jack Kirby would do by inserting themselves into stories and beats it, whimpering in fear, to the ground.
But we cannot ignore that two-part story, for many reasons. This is the (in) famous tale that introduces that most incredible of Sixties villains, the Chinese Communist Oriental mastermind, called Egg Fu.
No, let’s just stop right there. Egg Fu. Before we go even the slightest bit further, let us reflect that here is a character whose very name, even in 1965 amidst the Cold War, embodies a hideously embarrassingly, mind-numbing racism.
Egg Fu. Oh God. And who, or more properly what is Egg Fu? Dear reader, I am afraid there is no way of softening the blow in advance, he is an Egg. A gigantic egg, with yellow skin. He has a painted on face consisting of giant bushy eyebrows, eyes slanting inwards at a 45% angle, a gigantic mouth filled with absolutely non-stereotypical buck teeth, and curling moustachios. Oh, and he has the usual oriental incapability to pronounce the letter R, unress it is funny. A word is already stirring in my head.

Now do you believe me?

The actual story-line begins with Wonder Woman’s boyfriend, Col. Steve Trevor of US Army Intelligence, being asked to volunteer for a mission that has already claimed the lives of eleven pilots, a mission he embraces with an impressive gung-ho loyalty. However, it being probable to the point of certainty that he too will be killed, Steve is given an hour to make peace with his fate, settle his affairs and say farewell to his loved ones, without of course giving away the slightest clue that he’s not coming back.
Steve being Steve, his only thought is to snog Wonder Woman one more time.
Now Wonder Woman, in this era, is close at hand, playing Lieutenant Diana Prince, also of US Army Intelligence, though Diana is only a glorified typist. Naturally, her Amazonian hearing has already alerted her to her beloved Steve’s suicide mission, and only her Amazonian Code is keeping her from the profuse weeping that she automatically breaks out in any time she is threatened with being separated from her handsome boyfriend by more than ten feet.
It should be acknowledged that in Wonder Woman we have an inverted Lois Lane situation: Wonder Woman loves Steve Trevor as both Wonder Woman and Diana Prince but Steve has only eyes for her as Wonder Woman, to such an extent that his only topic of conversation with Lieutenant Prince is his endless extolling of the virtues and beauty of Wonder Woman.
We are about to see a hideously perverse demonstration of this, a gesture of emotional contempt and self-absorption worthy of a monograph in itself. Steve, having arrived in Diana’s office too quickly for her to turn into Wonder Woman, accepts with comparative ease the fact he’s not going to see his Angel for a last time. So, in flagrant disregard for the secret aspect of his orders, he asks Diana if she’ll spend that hour with him, walking on the beach, talking, even snogging at one point – but solely on the basis that at every moment (even during the kissing), Steve will be pretending Diana is Wonder Woman because he can’t get hold of Wonder Woman, and what woman in her heart would deny him that last pleasure?
We’re only up to page 3 and I am reeling in shock that this very notion is not being greeted by, at minimum, a jolt to the testicles from an elephants knee.
But Diana being Diana, as well as Wonder Woman (and the absolute worst of love-struck simps in both guises), it’s the least she can do. And what if their beach idyll is interrupted by the arrival of Chinese Communist Saboteurs coming ashore and trying to shoot them both? Colonel Steve will save the day!
Pity that he can’t see that Lt. Prince has tears pouring out of her eyes in every frame
Once it comes to the mission, Steve is naturally a winner. The fiendish Egg Fu has created automatic defences that detect the vibrations of aerial photography and blow up anything that tries to use it, but Steve’s already bailed out and is taking pictures on the way down with a camera. Just in case he’s tried something sneaky like that, Egg Fu has him bombarded with X-rays, but these are special X-rays. Instead of wiping out photographs, they lift people fifty feet in the air and fill them with explosive energy that turns them into weapons to be flung against US Navy battle fleets of the kind Wonder Woman is fighting to save, in accordance with her Amazon code, whilst all the time leaking tears left, right and centre over poor Steve. Who, incidentally, as a consequence of said Amazon code, she’s compelled not to even smooch, let alone give him a (sanctified-by-marriage) Amazonian shag.
As it happens, Wonder Woman’s compulsion to touch Steve gets her – and him – destroyed, absolutely blown to atoms, by book end, but here comes Hyppolyta (aka Wonder Queen) with the marvellous ASR machine, which the Amazons have invented to restore mountains destroyed by earthquakes and volcanoes. Wouldn’t you just know it, it does work on humans, but whoops, now Wonder Woman has the same explosive content as poor Stevie, and every time the two hapless lovers so much as touch fingers, they are blown about in painful explosions.
However, the love between this pair is so strong and demanding that, despite the risk of concussion if they so much as brush against each other, they keep attempting to do so every two to three pages, because they are so much a pair of lovestruck idiots that they apparently forget, from what explosive contact to the next, just what happens if they try to cop a quick feel.
The solution to this conundrum is exactly as you’d expect from the story so far. Though Egg Fu is an egg, whose features are painted on, suddenly his moustachios move independently, and capture Wonder Woman and Steve in a trap. In order to get rid of them, he hurls them into space, only for them to make contact with one of a number of anti-matter particles falling on the Earth. But these are special anti-matter particles that do not destroy everything instantly upon coming into contact with positive matter, but instead wipe out atomic explosive particles forced into the body of people, freeing them up to touch without blowing each other seventeen ways to sideways.
Thus freed, Wonder Woman drops her lasso of truth, which forces people bound by it to do her bidding, around Egg Fu and orders him to stop his villainy. But Egg Fu lesists so fuliously that, well, he cracks. I mean, he’s an egg, remember!
You’d think that’d be enough for two issues, but Kanigher follows this up with an eight page back-up story announcing the new phase of the series starting next issue, which is either a brilliantly self-mocking piece of premature metafiction, or a piece of shite. You pays your money…
Murder is about to be committed, and Wonder Woman can’t stay. She flies off in her robot plane, like a true coward (I mean, heroine) whilst teenage protesters gather with placards outside a “certain comics company”, protesting against a “certain editor”, who is “killing” Wonder Woman. Much play is made of how said “Editor” is an untrustworthy psychopath, because he reportedly wears a yellow bow-tie (wait, it’s not… Barry Allen, is it?).
Meanwhile, the entire supporting cast cowers in the editor’s office, awaiting their fate. This means: Steve Trevor, Wonder Queen, Wonder Girl, Wonder Tot, Manno and Mer-Boy, Birdman and Bird-Boy and the Glop. Beads of desperate sweat pearl their collective foreheads.
The fleeing Wonder Woman defeats her very old foe the Duke of Deception, out to destroy Paradise Island as a parting gesture before Mr Bowtie murders him, the Amazons cower in subdued, panicky groups, and even Angle Man (who is equally quickly defeated) is in mortal fear.
Because next issue, Kanigher is taking the series Golden Age. Wonder Woman will henceforth retell all the original Golden Ages stories, starting from that secret origin, with artist regulars Andru and Esposito now having to draw with old Harry G Peters’ stiffness, and the entire supporting cast is killed – by having their photos flung into a desk drawer. Only Wonder Woman herself, Queen Hyppolyta (undergoing an abrupt makeover back from blonde to brunette) and super-cutie Steve are spared.
All this in two issues.

Indeed she was

What follows does not, in all honesty, plumb the depths of execrability of these two issues. It is badly drawn, deliberately, all over the place, repetitive – Wonder Woman for the next thirteen straight issues cannot be introduced without the words “Beautiful as Aphrodite, Wise as Athena, Stronger than Hercules and Swifter than Mercury!” which as descriptive epithets go lacks the concision of “Boy Wonder” or even “Scarlet Speedster” – and starts to display an underlying psycho-sexuality that is disturbing to contemplate.
In truth, the Golden Age stuff doesn’t last long, not that it is easy to tell just where Kanigher’s focus is at any time. It’s partly a re-telling of Wonder Woman’s origins, her coming to America and her taking over the real Lieutenant Diana Prince’s life, mingled in with reintroductions of some of the Golden Age villains in, well, frankly, not really updated forms.
The characteristics of Wonder Woman and Steve Trevor do not change. In every respect except actual lust, Wonder Woman is slavering for Steve, repressed only by her sacred Amazonian code and her promise to Aphrodite not to reveal her identity or give up her mission, both of which are utter bars to any kind of relationship with Steve that anyone normal would recognise as emotionally healthy.
She loves him. She yearns to be near him. She will act in any old kind of stupid way to protect him, despite the evidence that he hasn’t got the sense of a rabid gopher.
Because Steve is obsessed with Wonder Woman, or his ‘Angel’ as he insists on calling her to everyone under the sun, most often of all his long-suffering colleague, Lieutenant Diana Prince. Once again, the issue of lust in any recognisable form is absent from this relationship, which, given that Steve is a US Army Colonel before he meets Diana, makes his subsequent less than adolescent passion seem even more improbable. At least Diana has the excuse of complete ignorance about sex (and men) prior to that fateful and ineptly retold moment.

Just another, everyday thing

Indeed, Steve’s obsession is not merely total it is monomaniacal. It doesn’t matter what the situation, where they are, how appropriate it may be, what conditions of peril and danger this pair of prize twits may be in, Steve wants a kiss from his ‘Angel’. And in the face of even the most rational degree of resistance from Wonder Woman, Steve will force that kiss on her, no matter what danger she is preoccupied with saving him/them from, no matter what greater peril or risk he is creating, just as long as she is doing anything that keeps her from fending off his advances.
Yet Wonder Woman does not seem to see anything remotely wrong about this behaviour. She does not even resent it as a momentary intrusion, no matter what effect his inappropriately expressed passion has upon her and the job she is doing. Any normal female would have worn her throat out shrieking variations on “Are you out of your stark, staring, fucking mind?!?!?!” long ago, but this is not in Diana’s vocabulary. Indeed, the slightest thing that removes her as much as an inch from her masochistic goal of being in the divine presence of her suitor brings tears to her eyes faster than snatching a favourite dolly from a two-year old girl. Wonder Woman, outside of the Justice League, appears to be the only superhero who spends over 50% of her time crying.
This emotionally disastrous state of affairs is further heightened by the willingness of both its partners to interpret the slightest signs of any friendly gesture towards a member of the opposite gender as incontrovertible evidence of undying love, and a cue for heartbroken withdrawal from the scene, no matter how implausible the circumstances, though misapprehensions of this nature usually get cleared up (without a backwards mention) in the next panel.
Yet the sight of Diana being nice to someone who, no matter how implausibly old or ugly they may be, happens to be male is not the only thing that can disturb Steve’s unhealthy state of mind towards his ‘Angel’. One of Wonder Woman’s many assets is her lasso of truth, which, if bound about a person, compels them to obey the wielder. Given the sheer power represented by this weapon, it’s already frightening that Wonder Woman manages to lose it and get bound by it in almost every story, usually because she forgets to protect it (forgets? forgets?! FORGETS!!??). Steve is well aware of this, having witnessed Wonder Woman end so many adventures by catching crooks in her lasso, yet when she is in her turn bound and force to obey an enemy who has her act against the United States, Steve instantly bellows his hatred of Diane for turning traitor, no matter how many times she points out that she is helpless to do anything else.
This bull-headed stupidity only serves to torture Wonder Woman more than the mere fact of treason could already do, yet once she frees herself and saves the day, there is not a word of explanation, nor any request for forgiveness over the whole, horrendous affair.
And it is to be contrasted with Steve’s complete hypocrisy in getting his own hands upon the magic lasso, binding his ‘Angel’ with it, and using his control over her to order her to marry him.
Hypocrisy? Hang on, that’s the least of things. Let’s just repeat that. The leading superheroine’s beloved boyfriend – a Colonel in the US Army, in Intelligence, a person of high responsibility – is actually prepared to cheat his loved one into a state of personal slavery, compelling her into a marital and sexual relationship not merely against her express wishes but in complete override of her personal autonomy. No matter how often she pleads with him to let her go, to let her marry him at the right time, freely and of her own love and volition, he takes overt pleasure in refusing her appeals, in insisting on his forcing her, in exercising his blatant control over her.
This isn’t love. It isn’t even obsession, this is an openly expressed intent to rape, enslave and subjugate another human being. In a comic aimed at 8 – 12 year olds.
And when Steve’s grasp of the lasso is jolted from his hands, and Wonder Woman regains control of herself and her destiny again, there is not the slightest suggestion that she holds any resentment towards him, that she regards his behaviour and his attitude towards her as anything more than natural and unexceptionable, nor that he harbours the remotest doubt as to his conduct, nor that he would think for even a fraction of a second before taking exactly the same steps the moment opportunity re-presents itself, thus presenting Wonder Woman with the prospect of sapending her every waking moment in a state of heightened watchfulness against the guy who professes to love her and who has openly stated his intention to obliterate her will. And then she’s also got to watch out for the bad guys.
This isn’t the only aspect of the bizarre and unhealthy psycho-sexual background to the series, which also appears in the revival of the Golden Age character, Dr Psycho. Psycho was a midget, drawn with an overlarge head decorated by a penile nose and a jutting chin that, being also cleft, resembled a scrotum. In mainstream comics: the Comics Code Authority was certainly not as fascisticly vigilant as it might have been.
From his Golden Age origins under Marston, Dr Psycho was an out-and-out misogynist, originally charged with eliminating the influence of women on creating an atmosphere of peace. As written by Kanigher, he’s just a woman-hater whose hatred is based in rejection due to his deformed looks. It doesn’t take much to transfer this generalised loathing into a specific mad-on for Wonder Woman, with Psycho’s determination to force her into a symbolic role as the ultimate in female ability and potential, so that defeating her will be a slap in the face for womankind.

That’s certainly a viable story role, though it’s undermined by Kanigher’s presentation of Wonder Woman as an extremely dodgy role model to begin with. There’s even a sequence where Dr Psycho pretends to want to reform, to become Diana’s friend. It’s all an obvious fake and it does the Amazon no credit that she’s prepared to be so thoroughly taken in by it – as well as it forming the basis for the most absurd of Steve’s outbursts about her abandoning him.
What strikes me throughout this whole sequence of stories, and which I suspect has been going on for many years prior to this particular set of reprints, is Kanigher’s attitude. His control over the series is completely unchecked, and has been since he took over editorial control of the character in the late Forties, following Marston’s death. To have a writer edit himself was unique at DC, and to have allowed the position to continue for twenty years reinforces my belief that the continually weak sales were irrelevant against the licensing income.
Kanigher was in complete control, with only the vaguest of responsibilities to anyone. His heart was, always and forever, in his war books, and it’s notable that the preponderance of the characters he created were in that field. As far as superheroics go, he created Barry (The Flash) Allen in 1956, and Black Canary in 1948, demonstrating an ability to take the form seriously at some point, but Wonder Woman under his hand is the product of contempt: unrestricted, unbridled contempt, for the characters he wrote, and for the readers that bought them.
It’s too sustained, too repetitive, to be anything else, and the only question is as to how much was conscious and how much unconscious. We have his reputation, but the extended Comics Journal  interview in 1982 was enough of itself to demonstrate Kanigher’s innate self-superiority, his pretension and ego. Personally, I believe Kanigher knew what he was doing and that he wrote shit for characters he regarded as inherently imbecilic and readers who would buy any old crap he chose to dish up.
Back in the Sixties, I only once read Wonder Woman outside Justice League of America, in which, like all the other members, she was a cipher with powers. Partly, it was disinterest, partly that I had favourites for those rare occurrences when my parents would indulge me, and a lot of it was down to the small boy’s urge not to have his parents think he wanted to read about girls.
From the few memories I can disentangle, I suspect I bought a virtual reprint issue: it began and ended with Wonder Woman at the comic book shop (!) and in between there was this story that seemed to start in the middle and which looked funny: it was all very peculiar and off-putting.
So to finally read Wonder Woman of that era in extended form, and to have made all the allowances possible for time, space, maturity and everything else that distinguishes then from now, I am still in shock that this was considered, well, publishable. That DC thought it fit to publish not just a comic but so many comics, on and on, eight times a year, that demonstrated such naked loathing towards its subject and, I say again, contempt, for its readers.
It’s a constant, cheerless parade of notions clearly devised on the basis of what-can-we-do-next-that-the-little-fuckers-will-still-swallow? An exercise in trying to find out how inane, bizarre and stupid the story could go before the kids would actually revolt and recognise they were having the unmerciful piss ripped out of them every time they plunked down their 12c.

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.

Arthur Ransome: Farewell and Adieu to you fair Spanish Ladies – Part 2


great northern

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.

Coots

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.

Arthur Ransome: The Might-Have-Been


In 1931, fresh from the completion of Swallowdale, Arthur Ransome conceived of an idea that he confidently boasted to friends would be “his very best book!!!!”. It was about “an old schoolteacher and a fisherman and a boy and a river.” It was to be set in the mid-Nineteenth Century, and would be called The River Comes First.
But Ransome took no steps to realise the book then, wanting to let it “ferment”. It had fermented for a dozen years, and now it seemed time to brew.
Evgenia’s objections to The Picts and The Martyrs had done worse than almost prevent its publication. Throughout his life, Ransome had been trying to make-up for the lack of faith, of approval, that his parents, and particularly his father who had died too soon, had instilled in him. No matter how successful he was, how good the reviews, how overwhelming the response from his audience, Ransome needed encouragement, and never more so than during the writing of a new book that, to one extent or another, always seemed dull, flat, bad, unimaginative, in some combination whilst being composed.
This time, the response had been so negative, so savage, that it had reflected all his weakest fears. Worst still, his wife’s hurt at her instructions being ignored, her bitterness and temper, had made Ransome’s life, and health, very unhappy.
And in this time of trouble he returned to The River Comes First.
The book was to tell the young life of Tom Stainton, a 12 year old boy who, like the Swallows originally, and like Peter Duke, was the portrayal of a real person, Tom Staunton, keeper of the River Bela in Westmorland, a fishing river that was a great favourite of Arthur’s father. Ransome wanted to tell the story of how young Stainton (the name change was to represent a gentle distancing from the real man, and from the restrictions of his actual history) reached the life that gave him such contentment.
Brogan outlines the story in the Biography. Tom is the son of the local gamekeeper and a lad already well-tuned to his countryside. He is also bright enough to be a successful scholar. When he and enemy-turned-friend, poacher’s son Bob Lidgett prevent a massive act of poaching in the district, Tom’s qualities are recognised by a visiting gentleman, who takes him off to London, where he can better himself. But Tom ends up neglected, working in a tackle-shop, until he realises he is being set up for a robbery: Tom runs away and gets himself back home, where he is rewarded by being made keeper’s assistant, and setting himself on his right road.
Ransome did all the usual things, a complete, detailed outline, divided into chapters, and set about things in his old fashion, writing whatever chapters seemed easiest at the time. At first, he wrote in the first person, capturing the ‘voice’ of old Tom with great skill. But to maintain this over thirty-one chapters felt perilously like artistry for its own sake, plus the unlikelihood of the keeper writing an autobiography, so he began recasting it in the third person.
And one day, he stopped. The River Comes First died on that day.
Why was this? The finger has largely to be pointed at Evgenia. She had cut through the roots of what confidence Ransome had had in himself by her fervour over The Picts and The Martyrs. She had never had the slightest confidence in The River Comes First, because it was so radically different from what had always been, and because she believed Ransome’s audience was attracted to something that they could possibly do themselves, and would turn their backs on something set at a time almost a century gone.
She had even placed ‘a local veto’ on the idea of writing more books at all!
All of which drained Ransome’s crippled confidence. Even the fact that two publishers were eager to publish the book, and that Cape’s had already contacted a leading nature artist over illustrations, did not help. His insecurities betrayed him.
Does this all matter? After all, it was not until Hugh Brogan’s Biography that the vast majority of Ransome’s audience were even aware of this abandoned project. But once they knew, they clamoured for some sight of it. And they were rewarded when Brogan went on to edit a miscellania of work by Ransome, and included what was publishable of what had been written: the opening four chapters recast into the third person, and a complete episode in the first person.
No other fragments of the book were capable of being published without far too much supporting material. But Brogan refers in the Biography to a third section, set during Tom’s long return from London, when he falls in with a gypsy girl of similar age, and the two banter.
In this unpublished fragment, Brogan detects the unmistakable tang of burgeoning sexuality, as in Hull and Whitlock’s Maurice in The Far-Distant Oxus. It’s an element rigidly excluded from the Swallows & Amazons books, in which there is no sense that these are boys or girls in their mid-teens: ultimately, the Walkers, Blacketts and Callums are frozen children, denied the ability to grow (though it would have been really interesting to see the post-We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea Swallows in a proper book once more).
But even in the parts we can read, the evidence is of Ransome in peak form. He’d written eleven books featuring the same children in varying combinations, he was nearly sixty, and he was finding it difficult to conceive of more things to do with them. There is enough here to hold out the very real hope of rejuvenation of his imaginative abilities and, if Brogan is correct, to begin to grow with his children of fiction.
It was a Might-Have-Been that never was. Evgenia did not kill off The Picts and The Martyrs. But by the implacability of what she did, both to that book, and to The River Comes First she did achieve what she so wrongly feared The Picts would do: she killed Ransome’s career.

Arthur Ransome: Farewell and Adieu to you fair Spanish Ladies – Part 1


MisseeMissee Lee has always been the lowest selling of the Swallows & Amazons series, no doubt because of its exotic and utterly unrealistic setting, on three islands off the South China coast.
It’s an obvious sequel, or companion, to Peter Duck, a children’s tale of themselves, although no details are ever given as to the time or circumstances of its composition, nor, unlike Mr Duck, is its title character mentioned anywhere outside its pages. Many readers imagine another Norwich wherry winter, and the same kind of shenanigans that produce the six children’s earlier adventure into self-mythologisation.
But it’s a shame that this fantasy, whose original title was Poor Miss Lee, has never reached the popularity of Peter Duck, for whilst it repeats the form, it provides a story that is quite original, and not a pallid, ultimately unworkable knock-off of Treasure Island. And it is at least authentic, Ransome having drawn upon his experiences of China as a Foreign Correspondent to write this book.
So: back for another outing, at least temporarily, is the schooner, Wild Cat, crewed by Captain Flint and the children, without the assistance of either Mr Duck or any other adult sailor. They’re on a voyage round the world, and have already got to the South China Seas, where they are becalmed for days. Unfortunately, for tranquillity and progress, if not for the plot, back too is Roger’s monkey, Gibber. One bit of business with a discarded Captain Flint cigar and an open petrol tank, and Wild Cat is burning down to the waterline and its crew taking to the lifeboats, which are, of course, Swallow and Amazon.
Separately, the two boats come ashore on the Three Islands, and separately encounter the Three Island Pirates. These Pirates once were in rivalry, until they were united by Olo Lee, of Dragon Island, a Twenty-Two Gong Taicoon (as opposed to the two subordinate chiefs and Ten Gong Taicoons, Chang of Tiger Island and Wu of Turtle Island).
Olo Lee had a strict policy: never take British prisoners hostage for ransom, as this will only result in the Royal Navy putting Three Islands out of business. Despite Captain Flint claiming to be Lord Mayor of San Francisco, and therefore ‘Melican, everyone is in danger of execution. Only a piece of schoolboy silliness from Roger, writing an execrable Latin pun in someone else’s Latin Primer, saves the day.
Because the Primer belongs to Missee Lee: daughter and heir of Olo, and now herself the Twenty-Two Gong Taicoon of Three Islands. And Missee Lee is an educated woman: a western educated woman. She is, in fact, a student from Cambridge, who gave up her academic aspirations for her duty to her father, to take his place.
And she is going to keep her English prisoners, in defiance of her father’s rule, because she greatly misses her life in Cambridge, and intends to re-create it here, with the Swallows, Amazons and Captain Flint as her private class. In which Roger is Head Boy.
It’s an original idea, without a shadow of a doubt, and Ransome should be congratulated for the sheer cock-eyed absurdity of it. Of course it can’t work, it’s completely unsustainable, but while it lasts it gives Miss Lee (whom Ransome based upon Madame Sun-Yat Sen, wife of Republican China’s founding father and first President) enough of her dream that, when she realises she cannot change reality to that extent, she has committed herself sufficiently to her students that she will ensure their escape rather than allow their death.
Indeed, for a deus-ex-machina page or three, long enough to pilot the escape-Junk through a tidal bore that only she can navigate, she plans to fly with them, back to the real Cambridge. But when Chang pronounces himself Twenty-Two Gong Taicoon, Miss Lee’s true nature reasserts itself, and she returns to once more rule Three Islands. And the children set sail for London, by Junk, and don’t tell anyone, especially the Royal Navy, where to find the Three Islands.
Missee Lee is imaginative, original, and authentic. Though its central concept, of turning the children into a Latin class in a pirate’s den, is patently absurd when presented baldly, this is already an unreal story, and Ransome builds his stepping stones carefully enough to make it believable inside the delivered suspension of belief. Believable, but sadly not plausible.
It doesn’t suffer in the same way from Peter Duck‘s collision between the children’s made-up adventure and the violent ‘reality’ into which they awkwardly intrude. The violence is kept at a greater distance, providing a menace that is authentic but confined to a background element.
And yes, I did say that Secret Water was the Swallows’ last appearance in the series, yet here they are, only two books later. But these are not the Swallows of ‘real life’, who have been through the fire and come out the other end, but instead their fantasy of themselves, mixed very thoroughly in with Captain Nancy’s unbridled (and undeveloped) imagination. They are stereotypes of themselves, none more so than the cheeky, regressed schoolboy Roger.

Picts

From the exotic, Ransome returned to the domestic: more than the domestic, he returned to the Lake.
The Picts and The Martyrs is the only book in the Swallows & Amazons series to have a subtitle, or perhaps an alternate title: Not Welcome At All. It’s an apt subtitle for the book, given its content, but those who know the circumstances under which this eleventh book of the series were published will see a wider, more personal and more appropriate meaning.
But first the book: The Picts and The Martyrs features the Amazons and the Ds. It is the beginning of the fourth summer, and the Swallows are due at Holly Howe in about two weeks time, and indeed Professor and Mrs Callum are coming up to Dixon’s at about the same time. The Ds have come ahead, to Beckfoot, at the invitation of the Amazons, and to collect their own little boat, Scarab, which is almost complete. Mrs Beckett is absent, leaving Nancy in charge: she has suffered a (probably long-overdue) nervous breakdown and has been taken on a convalescent cruise around the Fjords, by Captain Flint.
Nancy’s determined to live up to the responsibility placed in her hands, but that test abruptly becomes serious when the Callums arrival is followed, almost immediately by a telegram from the Great Aunt. Having heard that her great-nieces have been left home alone, Miss Turner regards it as her duty to take over the household in Mrs Blackett’s absence.
The Amazons determine that they will take the brunt of this disaster, and will give the Great Aunt the least amount of cause to criticise their mother. But the Ds are a complicating factor. If they’re found here, it will make things unbearable for Mrs Blackett. At the same time, they refuse to allow the Callum’s holiday to be spoiled in the way their’s will, so the Ds are swept off to a windowless stone cabin in the woods, which will become their home/camp until the GA is gone. The Ds become a secret tribe, like the Picts of old, whilst the Amazons martyr themselves for the cause.
What no-one expects at first is just how great the lie that Dick and Dorothea don’t exist has to become. It’s the greatest aspect of this book that Ransome, in calling up nearly every supporting or peripheral character that has previously appeared in the Lakes books, he shows not only how much a part of their world the Amazons are, and, by extension, the Ds as well, but integrates everyone into a community of equals.
A sequence of misadventures and narrow squeaks ensues, as the great lie is forced to travel wilder. To everyone’s relief, the Great Aunt, who has never heard of the Ds, develops a suspicion that the Swallows are about, which enables Nancy and Peggy to avoid direct lying. meanwhile the Ds take receipt of Scarab and practice sailing with and without the assistance of the Amazons (and find the latter to be far preferable).
Ultimately, the Great Aunt’s visit comes to its penultimate date. The Amazons are allowed bail for a day. They return to find Miss Turner missing: gone for a drive, the car runs out of petrol, when her driver returns she is gone.
It’s a disaster of tremendous proportion, and the entire district turns out to look for the missing lady, except of course for Dick and Dorothea, who, being the last people who must meet the Great Aunt, are sent to hide out on the Houseboat. Unfortunately, thanks to the kind assistance of Mary Swainson, the one person in the whole Lake country who doesn’t know  that the Ds presence is a secret, that is where Miss Turner has been all night. And it is impossible for the Callums not to acceded to her request to be taken back to Beckfoot, in time to catch her train.
Once again, the enterprise balances on the edge of failure. But Miss Turner’s acid response to the spectacle that has been created by her absence – which, as far as she has been concerned, has been no absence at all – takes up so much attention that the Callums are able to let Scarab drift down the river, out of sight, and out of the need to accept Miss Turner’s thanks and give their names.
So all is well, the plot has worked, the Amazons have undergone a test of strength that might have been the equivalent of the Swallows’ trial in We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea – and the rest of the summer holidays stretch out ahead.
Unfortunately, we would never see what adventures might have resulted.
The Picts and The Martyrs was another critical and commercial success for Ransome, with reviewers praising him for the realisation that children enjoy recognition as much as discovery, and the comfortable friendliness of the Lake country of the early books was a delight to them. But for Ransome’s mother, however, it would never have been published at all.
Like many an author’s spouse, Evgenia Ransome enjoyed the privileged position of First Reader, once Ransome considered the book to be complete. Unfortunately, her naturally pessimistic (Russian?) temperament led her to abuse this role. Evgenia was a great supporter of Arthur’s work, full of confidence about it, avid in her praise and enthusiasm. But only after the book had been published, and become a commercial success. When the manuscript first came to her, she was cutting, pessimistic, continually downgrading its quality. ‘Not much worse than the worst of the earlier ones’ is about the kindest comment that biographer Hugh Brogan finds to reprint. But once this shoddy, inadequate, hopeless effort, that was sure to destroy Arthur’s career if he let it be published had been read and praised, then it became as much a classic, and a bar against which the next book would be measured as all his other works.
Ransome was happy with The Picts and The Martyrs. Entirely confident, he broke with his usual policy and sent a copy to Jonathan Cape’s at the same time as giving it to Evgenia. It provoked a perfect storm. Evgenia put her foot down. The book was bad, dreadful, it would destroy his career and their income, it was not to be published. If Cape’s had not already got it, and been eager to publish it, in all probability it would never have appeared. Even so, it took a long time to overcome Evgenia’s objections, and it took the intervention of Ransome’s mother, who had read and supported the manuscript, to get her to recant. Still, she saw it as a betrayal, and was miserable and savage about it for a long time. Not Welcome At All.

Arthur Ransome: The Great Summer – Part 2


we didn'tThe Swallows, however, were not destined to have an adventure on the Lake ever again, except, perhaps, as ghosts in an unwritten book. During the writing of Pigeon Post, an idea had come to Ransome, that he described in a letter to a friend as an absolutely gorgeous notion, a fresh angle of attack, an absolute natural. And he was right, too.
Hugh Brogan may give the palm to Coot Club, but in my eyes, Ransome’s finest book was We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea. It’s the only book to feature the Swallows alone, and it’s a book of high drama, and serious danger that had the side-effect of transforming these children to such an extent that they were no longer suited to adventures such as those that Ransome wrote. It’s an involving, gripping book, with a beautifully judged, gentle introductory section that gives the Swallows (and the reader) the learning upon which they will rely when the drama unexpectedly, but completely naturally, kicks in.
It is the same summer as Pigeon Post. The Swallows have been summoned south to join their mother and Bridget at Pin Mill, near Orford. Commander Walker (despite having been in Malta at Christmas) is on his way home from service in the China Seas. He’s travelling overland, so the family are gathering within easy reach of Harwich, to meet him off the boat the moment they know which sailing he’s on. And, being the Swallows, they are out on the river on the evening of their arrival, not merely rowing, but helping a tired young man by the name of Jim Brading, singly-handedly sailing his boat, Goblin, to secure safe mooring.
Brading, who is only 18 years old, agrees to occupy the Swallows by taking them on as crew on Goblin, for a few days sailing up and down the rivers. Mrs Walker agrees, upon three conditions: that they telephone every day for news of their father’s progress, that they do not go further than a day’s busride from Pin Mill, and that they don’t go out of the rivers, into the sea.
All progresses smoothly. The Swallows learn quickly about sailing Goblin. Roger is fascinated with the engine, which gets them into Harwich harbour on the last of its petrol one night. The following day, Brading rows ashore to top up the tank. He doesn’t return. A fog descends on the harbour. The children wait and wait, growing increasingly disturbed at Brading’s absence, but stranded on Goblin, with no means of getting to shore. The impasse lasts all day. What none of them realise is that they moored at low tide, that the tide has been rising all day, and, on the edge of evening, it is about to turn.
Goblin’s anchor chain is too short and the boat starts to pull away from its mooring. John’s efforts to release more chain are clumsy, and only result in the anchor going overboard, leaving Goblin unmoored, and being dragged out of harbour by the tide, in the fog. What is worse is that, when they are outside the harbour, out of the fog, in the dark – at sea in breach of their promise – the Swallows, four children aged between about 13 and 8, find themselves facing a violent storm, without lights.
The skill in this book is in the natural, plausible manner in which Ransome creates a horrifying situation, but one in which the skills the Swallows have learned in the opening part of the book make equally plausible that they can survive the experience.
There’s an early division between the two elder children. Susan, the manager, the carer, the mother-surrogate in all these adventures, is consumed by the breaking of the promise to their mother. It’s her first and only thought, that they must undo that breach and as quick as possible. Opposing her is Captain John, captain indeed on this occasion, whose instinct is for the ship and the sea. The promise can’t override their safety, and the only safety in these conditions is to get out to sea and stay there, until daylight and calm weather. When Susan’s insistence overrides John’s instincts, Goblin comes closest to disaster, although there is another, personal trial for John to overcome, when, in service to his ship, he comes closest of all to death.
By luck and good judgement, and the Swallows’ judgement IS good, they survive the night, not just intact but grown. Ransome symbolises this in the rescue of a kitten, floating on some sea wreckage. Sinbad is brought aboard, fed, warmed and saved: the children have passed their initiation and can take charge of others.
By now they’re in sight of what proves to be Holland. The next task is to get ashore without allowing someone to claim salvage on Goblin: the Swallows are determined not to let Jim Brading’s boat be lost. They signal for and take on a Pilot, with John playing cabin boy and Roger leading the rest in a racket below that’s supposed to be the Captain celebrating. Thus Goblin is guided safely into Flushing Harbour, the journey ended safely.
Instead, though, disaster threatens at the last. Entering the harbour, Goblin passes a departing liner. From the rail, a sun-browned figure suddenly hails John in a voice used to making itself heard across the China Seas: it’s Daddy, bound for England, just when the Swallows are in Holland.
But Commander Walker is a resourceful man. As the children try desperately to explain to the Pilot how things stand, their father gets himself taken back ashore in a launch, thinking the whole family has come to meet him. But once he grasps the essence of things, the Commander takes charge: cool, quiet, completely unlike the exciteable child-man, Captain Flint. Full explanations wait until the situation is protected by buying petrol for the tank, and the quick sending of telegrams to reassure Mary Walker that her husband is still in transit. Only when this is done does Daddy sit down with his children, waiting for the return tide, and hears their explanation.
And there’s a wobble. Captain John, the stuffy, repressed, anxious, dutiful son, explains his actions to his father. And behind the scenes, Arthur Ransome, for whom John is a surrogate-self, who never received his father’s approval before the latter died all too young, waits for judgement in equal measure to his creation. The Commander is not effusive. ‘You’ll make a seaman yet, my son,’ is all he says, but there’s a world in those words and both John and his creator threaten for a moment to lose themselves.
The last remaining possible fly in the ointment is Jim Brading: where he is and what he’s told to Mrs Walker. The Commander sails Goblin home overnight, having considerable fun himself, and no sooner do they dock at Harwich than does a turbaned man row out to them: Brading, who’s lost three days in hospital after being knocked down by a bus and has told no-one that his charges have been lost at sea. And he’s rapidly followed by Mrs Walker, with Bridget, quietly angry and let down by her children, only to suffer the shock of her life as a rescue kitten and her husband rapidly follow each other from below.
Of Ransome’s books, this presents the most sustained and realistic danger to the children of his creation, an adult danger that they overcome from their own resources. What Ransome perhaps did not appreciate immediately was that the Swallows could not be the same again.

Secret

Secret Water follows almost immediately on from We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea. Commander Walker, re-established in the family, has a fortnight’s leave. The Walkers plan a substantial family holiday, to the nearby Hamford Water, in a borrowed Goblin whilst Jim Brading recovers from his head injury. Father and Mother will sleep on the boat whilst the children – and yes, to her great delight, this includes for the first time Bridget – will camp ashore. The holiday is a mapping expedition: Commander Walker, who has gotten seriously involved in this, has created a very sketchy map of the area, and the expedition will explore the surrounding country and fill it in.
Unfortunately, the plan goes awry before the opening line (“The First Lord of the Admiralty was not popular at Pin Mill”). Commander Walker is called back to duty a fortnight early, but he proves determined not to let his family be disappointed so, in a whirlwind of activity, he arranges for the Swallows (and Bridget) to set up camp, receive milk etc. from a local farm (the Kraal), and leaves them to carry out the expedition under their own charge. More than that, though this is not apparent until their sudden arrival, almost halfway through the book, he has the Amazons brought down from the North to extend the expedition.
By then, the Swallows are already aware that, inadvertently, they have crashed into someone else’s equivalent of the Lake and Wild Cat Island. The Secret Water is infested by the Eels, a barbarian tribe.
The Swallows first encounter Don, the one local boy in the Eels. Don sees their camp, assumes it’s his friends and leaves them a carved Eel Totem. Because of the tracks he leaves with his wide-bottomed mud-splatchers, the Swallows nickname him the Mastodon. But for him and them the potential friendship is wrecked when a message comes through from the rest of the Eels that they don’t want anyone else about, and he’s to chase the interlopers off, wreck their boats if necessary.
The Mapping Expedition goes on under this threat. And the sudden arrival of the Amazons, whilst boosting their numbers, threatens to derail the purpose further. All Nancy can see is what a perfect place this is for ambushes and barbarian attacks on missionaries. But the Swallows have changed. Their expedition is a responsibility to their father, and they will not let him down. When Nancy says ‘You’ll be famous’, a friendship breaks.
Agreement between the three sides is reached when Bridget is ‘kidnapped’. Finally everyone gets to talk, and the result is much the same as that original meeting on Wild Cat Island. The savages agree to assist the visiting explorers, whilst Nancy finds a new friend in the aggressive Daisy, leader of the Eels. Something is in the air.
The days of not being able to leave the camp have put the expedition behind schedule, and there are two large sections outstanding – not in convenient corners, but front and centre. And damage to the rudder of their temporary boat forces the Swallows into an overland journey, at low tide, to the mainland for repairs. They have to return before the tide turns, and they get cut off, so the younger three are sent ahead. Unfortunately, they get delayed by Bridget playing with Sinbad and a spot of unexpected map-making, and whilst John and Susan return safely, the others push their luck too far and find themselves stranded, unable to press on or retreat, with the tide rising.
The Mastodon rescues them, but suddenly the Swallows face failure. Their parents are collecting them at first tide tomorrow, there are two front-and-centre prominent sections of map incomplete and the last chance to do them at all evaporates when the Amazons and the Eels,in Savage mode, attack the missionaries ans seize Bridget as a human sacrifice.
And the youngest Swallow, who is the absolute star of this book, doesn’t want to be rescued!
With a sense of resignation, the Swallows join in one last time with their friends’ games, even though it means letting their father down. Their reward is a literal last-morning dash by, onstage, Titty and Roger, redeeming their part by surveying the ‘North-West Passage’ whilst, offstage, the Amazons repay their dereliction towards their friends by surveying the ‘North-East Passage’, completing the map with seconds to spare.
Though they, or rather their seemings, were to appear in another two novels, this was the last that would be seen of the Swallows. The older children’s experience on the North Sea had ended their fitness for the games of fancy and pretence on which the Amazons survived, whilst Bridget, having burst onto the scene in grand style, could not appear without her brothers and sisters. But Ransome had to be true, not merely to his craft, but his creations.

big 6

And still the great summer wasn’t over. With the Swallows and Amazons engaged in Essex waters, Ransome moved back a little west and a little north, returning to Horning and the northern Broads for a second adventure with the Coot Club and the Ds, in The Big Six.
It’s the end of the summer, with Dick and Dorothea due to stay (on land) with Mrs Barrable, but not yet arrived, and Port and Starboard in Paris courtesy of their father. This leaves only Tom and the Death & Glories, and the book belongs to the latter.
In gratitude for their work in saving Margolotta, the boat-builders have refitted the D&G, enabling the lads to live on the river through the summer. This has already enabled them to get the Bird Protection Officer onto George Owden when he went egg-stealing. But, suddenly, wherever the boys moor, boats are being cast adrift, Margolotta-style. And though Joe, Bill and Pete protest their innocence fervently, public opinion is against them, and it looks like they will have to be taken off the river.
Into this horrible mess, which the boys feel keenly, arrive the Ds. This time it’s Dorothea who takes charge, leading the investigation into the crimes being pursued, and gradually building a case to show the Death & Glories’ innocence.
It’s not difficult to guess who is the true villain, although the Death & Glories reject the idea of it being their ‘arch-enemy’ Owden, but the conclusive information, in the form of a photograph, showing Owden and his friend pushing off a willing victim, is provided by the two least likely heroes: Dick, who sets up the conditions to take a flash-photo at night, and Pete, the youngest of them all, who takes the actual photo and preserves it.
The Detective Story ends with its own equivalent of a court scene, as Mr Farland receives the evidence that, until Dick and Pete arrive with the crucial photo, bids fair to condemn the Death & Glories.
Their vindication completes the story, and the society from which they were being progressively excluded, welcomes them back with pleasure, but the book’s epilogue deals with something that feels even better to the boys, the unveiling of the record pike they landed in a seemingly unrelated episode early in the book. So young, says an elderly fisherman, and nothing left to live for: I used that line myself to a seven year old supporter at the 1999 European Champions League Final.
So, after five novels, written over six years, the third summer ended.

Interlude – “I have under my arm the best children’s book of 1937.”


Far-Distant-Oxus-UK

“I have under my arm the best children’s book of 1937.”
“Oh? When did you finish it?”
The above words were an understandable exchange between Arthur Ransome and his polite publisher, Jonathan Cape. But Ransome was not referring to his forthcoming Swallows & Amazons novel (in respect of which he would have been entirely justified in self-aggrandisement) but a work that is perhaps the strangest, and most wonderful part of the entire story of Ransome’s work.
The book to which Ransome referred was The Far-Distant Oxus, which Cape would indeed publish, as well as its two sequels. And it was a Ransome novel in all but a couple of details. That it was set on Exmoor rather than on the Lake, and centred upon ponies, not sailing. And that it was written by two teenage school-girls, Katherine Hull and Pamela Whitlock.
Hull and Whitlock went to the same boarding school but, being in different houses, did not encounter each other until caught in a rainstorm. They discovered a shared interest in ponies and Arthur Ransome books, and decided to write their own story: “for children, about children, by children”.
Unlike the enthusiastic but amateur Dorothea Callum, the girls planned their story in a most professional manner. They discussed their characters, their setting, the Ransome-esque fantasy of Exmoor as Persia, and the river around which the adventures would be set as the “Far-Distant Oxus” of Matthew Arnold’s epic poem Sohrab and Rustum.
Then, their story planned, the girls took turns to write a chapter at a time, swapping their work at the end of each chapter for the other to revise. And in this manner, which was as unusual, but as effective in practice, as Ransome’s own approach, The Far-Distant Oxus was written.
(Ransome’s practice, after Swallows & Amazons itself, was to plot each novel in great detail, then, on any given day, pick up and work on whichever chapter he felt most interested in writing, creating his books like a crazy quilt, in far from chronological order.)
Oxus is an enthusiastic, vibrant book, whose antecedents are not hard to guess. There are, once again, six children, this time balanced equally between boys and girls, and split across three families: the Hunterleys, Bridget, Anthony and Frances, arriving at Cloud Farm for a summer holiday, whose parents are in Sumatra (a rubber plantation?), the Clevertons, Peter and Jennifer, who live not far away with their (widower?) father, and there is Maurice. We’ll get back to Maurice.
As a story, Oxus is far less structured than any of Ransome’s novels. The Hunterleys love ponies and want to ride. A note from Maurice invites them to a late night get-together at the watersmeet, where they team up with him and the Clevertons for the summer. There’s no story, really, just a rush and tumble of things done.
The children build a log hut (in a single afternoon, complete with windows), run away with prizes at the Village Fête and win a pig (which they name Sohrab, most unfairly). Maurice acts in an amateur play, they ‘adopt’ a wild foal which they name Ruksh, and when it’s caught up in the round-up, they set it free at night.
The second half of the book is taken up with a week-long expedition down the Oxus to the Aral Sea on a home-made raft, and an overland journey back. Then it’s back to school, though not without a quite intriguing, and mysterious ending.
That the authors are children is quite clear from the bravado with which they go at everything, the implausible skill everyone has at everything, and the airy dismissal of the adult world and its concerns for their well-being. Mr Cleverton is impossibly complaisant, allowing Peter and Jennifer do anything they want, even to the point, when Jennifer develops a heavy cold on the last day, of allowing her to go out at night to climb in the dark onto Mount Elbruz, the highest point around, where the children are setting off a beacon.
He also disappears off all the time, indulging his pastimes with his friends, and leaving his already unsupervised children completely free of any adult oversight.
On the other hand, the Hunterleys are under the nominal care of the Fradds of Cloud Farm, except that when they do things the Fradds don’t approve of, like set off behind their backs for a week-long expedition, they never have to face any comeback.
The children’s effortless superiority at everything is excusable in itself, but it is attached to the book’s least appealing trait, and one that does not come from Ransome. Whether at the Lake or on the Broads, Ransome’s worlds are completely democratic. That there is an ingrained class system can’t be doubted, but in his world everyone is an equal, of value whatever their role or station. If there is a hierarchy in Ransome, it is of skill, not class.
In contrast. Hull and Whitlock’s children are opinionated, and constantly aware of their superiority. As the book goes on, and they travel to and from the Sea, their patronising comments, and their distaste for working people who aren’t on farms, becomes ever more noticeable.
But let’s remember that this isn’t a social novel, and that, just as Enid Blyton’s Famous Five were superior to everyone around them, Hull and Whitlock, in their lack of experience, are in this respect a product of their times. It’s an indication of how much Ransome is the better for his refusal to go down that path.
On a more positive note, Hull and Whitlock are far freer with their characters than Ransome, mixing and splitting the families with irreverent abandon. Like Ransone’s children, the Huntertons and the Cleverlys are in thrall to a moral code that, strictly, derives from an older era. But they can discuss their future, and their ambitions, without being tied to family duty as are the Walkers, and their fantasy of converting Exmoor into the Persia of Arnold’s Persia is ultimately more of a sideshow to the sheer joy of what they are doing for the moment.
And there is an element to The Far-Distant Oxus that is never even dreamt of in Ransome: sex.
It’s never on the surface, never overt, but it’s an ever present sub-text, a product of Hull and Whitlock’s subconsciouses at the ages of 14 and 15 respectively, from the very moment Maurice is seen, at a distance, in the opening chapter.
Who is Maurice, and what is he? Maurice is a Mystery, with a capital M. He’s 14, sunburned, dark-haired, lithe. He’s hypercompetent, and the other children look up to him, especially the girls. He is the great unknown of the book: Peter’s friend from the year ahead at (boarding) school, surname unknown, the boy without a tie. He sleeps out on the moor throughout the summer, first in the woods, then in the miracle hut the children build. He avoids questions, and the one time he is directly confronted and challenged to explain who he is, he flares up in anger and runs off.
At the end of the book, Maurice, the unquestioned leader, sets the children to building the beacon on Mount Elbruz but disappears for the afternoon. He’s back for the beacon-burning, but rides off abruptly as the fires die down. In a memorable sequence, as the children await his return, four more beacons flare into light across the tops, one by one, until the night ends it dark.
There’s no sex in Ransome, not even the merest trickle of sexuality among the older boys and girls as they start to grow up, but it’s here in Maurice: the ideal boy, at the cusp of turning into a man, an unapproachable hormone-stimulus about which an adolescent girl could imagine almost anything. Ransome couldn’t have written anything like that, but Kathleen Hull and Pamela Whitlock could, out of their own senses, with a patent lack of calculation.
The Far-Distant Oxus, with Ransome’s backing, was enough of a success for two sequels to be written and published, Summer at Oxus and Escape to Persia. Whereas Oxus has been republished twice in the last two decades, its sequels have yet to escape from rare book heaven. The girls wrote a fourth novel together, Crowns, before ending their partnership.
But its a testament to Ransome that he inspired such enthusiasm, and an even greater testament to Kathleen Hull and Pamela Whitlock that they rose to enthusiasm to produce a genuine book, an odd, but deserved addendum to the Swallows & Amazons series.

Arthur Ransome: The “Swallows & Amazons” Quartet – Part 1


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Swallows & Amazons was, as Ransome intended, the story of the summer just past, but presented for and to the Altounyan children. Adults are, for the most part, removed from the story, until the soothing post-storm final chapter, when they turn up in boatloads, literally. Mrs Walker is Mother, a calm and wise presence just outside the children’s experience, ready to step in and resolve things if it proves necessary, whilst Captain Flint, the supposedly-retired pirate, is at heart nothing but a big kid himself. At a stroke, Ransome had invented a new form of Children’s Literature, the Holiday adventure, where the children are allowed to go off and create their own amusement and enjoyment. It’s a form that’s been ubiquitous since, and which seems so right and logical that it is amazing that it had not existed before then. But in this instance, it was Arthur Ransome who invented the form.
The Swallows are the Walker children, John, Susan, Titty and Roger, in order of seniority, with baby Vicky (so-called for her resemblance to the late Queen) not yet given her proper title in honour of the baby Altounyan daughter. The Walkers are on holiday at Holly Howe, on the eastern shore of the Lake, whilst Commander Walker is on active service overseas. The farm has Swallow in its boathouse, the Lake has an island of the right size, in the right place and the children want to camp there. Consent is required from the head of the family, and the book begins with the famous telegram that gives consent in an oblique way: BETTER DROWNED THAN DUFFERS IF NOT DUFFERS WONT DROWN. So off the Swallows go in their little boat to create their own little world, part real, part made-up out of the ingredients of the Lake, including the man on the houseboat in the next bay, who has a cannon on board (in reality, a starter cannon for races), who they immediately name Captain Flint.
The first hundred pages of the book depict the Swallows settling in, and exploring their environment, naming places left, right and centre. Their future partners in crime, the Amazons, are glimpsed, but not introduced: two girls in red stocking caps, sailing a white-sailed fourteen footer out of Houseboat Bay, having let a firework off on the roof of Uncle Jim’s boat: the Swallows sail out in curiosity and are blamed by Captain Flint as they are the only boat in sight. They return to camp only to find that strangers have been there in their absence, leaving a green-feathered arrow stuck in the middle of the camp.
The parties soon come together, in a truce that immediately ends in a declaration of enemyship and a challenge to each side to capture the others’ boat in order to become Admiral of the Fleet. The Amazons, who were based on the image of two girls wearing red stocking caps and messing about in a boat, are Nancy and Peggy Blackett, daughters to a widowed mother, living near the head of the Lake, Properly they are Ruth and Margaret, but Peggy is a diminutive of the latter name and, as for Nancy, she has chosen the name herself, loathing Ruth, and anyway, as Uncle Jim pointed out, Amazon Pirates were ruthless (groan!). The middle of the book focusses on the great battle to capture Swallow or Amazon, which is won, accidentally, by the Swallows, or rather Titty, left alone on Wild Cat Island to hang the leading lights for night sailors to make harbour, and nicking Amazon when the Amazons get there first.
Titty’s night alone in the boat provides the key to the little bit of melodrama that Ransome feels obliged to introduce to the book. It seems that some lads down at Bigland, at the foot of the Lake, have been wondering what’s so valuable that Mr Turner keeps locked up on his houseboat. They conduct a raid on the night of the great battle but, finding the trunk locked, they stash it on the small island to which the sleepy Titty is moored in Amazon. The trunk contains the manuscript of Captain Flint’s memoirs, Mixed Moss (by A Rolling Stone), and the eventual discovery of the trunk cements the growing relationship between Uncle Jim and the Swallows after he realises he has been very wrong in attributing the burglary to, first, his nieces, and then the wholly innocent Swallows.
With all done and dusted, the Amazons join the Swallows at camp on the island, only for everyone to be caught in a severe storm that blows away the Swallows’ Australian tents. Everyone gathers in the Amazon’s tents, taking off into pure fantasy, constructing a story around their being ship-wrecked, the terrors they’ve been through to get there, and the long Robinson Crusoe-esque future ahead of them: far from the case when all the adults descend to rescue the children the following morning, with hot porridge and lifts back to shore. all that remains is a holiday picnic afternoon in another feature of the lake that the local Amazons know and the visiting Swallows are introduced to, and then the holiday is over, and everyone goes back to school.
Swallows & Amazons was not an instant hit. It was published by Jonathan Cape & Co in 1930 and sold slowly, but steadily, drawing upon word of mouth to eventually sell its initial impression of 3,000 copies. For the next impression, the book’s appeal was enhanced by adding a map on the endpapers, twenty full-page illustrations by Clifford Webb. Ransome was not satisfied by Webb’s work, which concentrated more upon visual appeal than on fidelity to the settings, and in due time would replace them, and the map, with his own work. My copy, bought like most the series from the bookstalls at Shudehill in Manchester, during the first half of the sixties, has Webb’s work, which is splendidly atmospheric.
Though it would still be some time until Swallows & Amazons was established as the best-selling classic it would become, its sales were sufficient to have Cape’s commission a sequel. Ransome was already working on one.
What he had in mind was taken off Swallows & Amazons‘ penultimate chapter, the children’s own made-up adventure in the tent at night. Ransome wanted to go the whole hog, write a book that would come from the children themselves. Indeed, the book would include the children’s making up of the story, as the abandoned beginning demonstrates. It’s the winter following the summer of S&A and Captain Flint has hired a static Norwich wherry as a holiday for the children. There, they begin to invent their story.
Evgenia, however, did not like it. Not for the last time, she would prove an influence over Ransome’s writing, and though at this time, her objections to the story ended up with positive results, in time, her gloom and discouragement about the standard of each new work, her fearful concern for the possible effect upon their income, would undermine Ransome to the point where he could no longer worked. This time, her objections were that it was too different to S&A, and that it broke the implicit promise of a direct sequel that Ransome had made in the closing pages of the first novel, with the children promising to meet up the following summer. Under Evgenia’s influence, Ransome abandoned his new book, and the potentially unsustainable structure of the children making things up as they went along. But he would not abandon his idea completely.
Swallowdale_cover

The sequel was entitled Swallowdale. It’s the longest book in the series, and also the one in which the least conventional adventure happens. Famously, Ransome had already begun getting letters from excited readers who believed – perceptively – that the Swallows and Amazons were real people, and anxious for a sequel. Ransome asked one eager young fan what he thought should happen in a sequel. The boy suggested that, with Captain John’s somewhat smug confidence in himself as a sailor, it would be a good idea for him to have a crash, and sink Swallow. The delighted Ransome, whilst not giving anything away, heavily hinted in return that he had already thought of this.

Swallowdale takes place in the school holidays of the second summer. The Walkers arrive at Holly Howe, with a surprisingly articulate two year old Bridget (no longer called Vicky because she no longer looks like the Queen – Ransome had, by this time, holidayed at Aleppo and seen for himself). They expect to carry on where last summer left off, but are disappointed not to find the Amazons meeting them at the station, nor at camp on Wild Cat Island.
It seems that the Amazons’ time is being strictly controlled by their Great Aunt Maria, a very Victorian spinster lady with strict and outmoded views on the behaviour of children. The GA, as she is quickly termed, brought up Mrs Blackett and Uncle Jim, who are just as afraid of her as everyone else, indeed more so. The Amazons are towing the line less out of fear for themselves than out of a determination to do as little as possible to give the GA cause to reproach their mother. In the meantime, it’s going to put a crimp in summer plans.
Unfortunately, there’s an even bigger crimp on the horizon. Waking late, rushing and careless to get down to Horseshoe Bay for a meeting with the Amazons, Captain John loses control, and smashes Swallow into an underwater rock. Exactly as Ransome’s fans had wanted to see! But once the mistake is over, seamanship instinct asserts itself. As his siblings swim ashore, John throws Swallow’s anchor as far towards the beach as he can. Then, as a fire is quickly lit to dry the wet Walkers, he dives into the bay to locate the anchor, trace it back to Swallow and, in successive efforts, remove its ballast and redeem himself somewhat by getting the boat raised and beached before adult help is to hand.
Adult help is Captain Flint, who takes command, tows the damaged Swallow to the boatbuilders in Rio and, still indebted to the Swallows over the rescue of Mixed Moss, undertakes the costs of repair. But in the meantime, the Swallows are off the water and the holiday is potentially ruined.
Smart work by the Amazons gets the Wild Cat Island camp transferred to Horseshoe bay before Mrs Walker arrives to do a headcount of her children and authorised their continued camping. They are, at least, on land, though the wrong side of the Lake for her. But Titty and Roger have a surprise for the Swallows.
On an earlier visit to Horseshoe Bay, the youngest children had followed the beck upstream, to discover a compact, hidden valley, with waterfalls at each end, and a glorious cave in one flank (a cave unknown to the Amazons, though Captain Flint remembers it from his childhood). The camp moves to the valley, which is named Swallowdale, and the Walkers settle down to their new surroundings.
The weeks pass, waiting for Swallow’s repair. The Amazons conduct an overland raid, unsuccessfully, but get into trouble for being back late. Titty, in a very weird sequence, tries to make a voodoo doll of the GA, to make her ill enough to go away. But sooner or later, the GA’s visit ends, and the children celebrate with an expedition to climb Kanchenjunga (otherwise known in real life as Coniston Old Man).
This achieved, the story takes its only venture into the dramatic. The walkers have crossed the moor to reach Beckfoot for the expedition, leaving ‘patterans’ to guide them back. Titty and Roger insist on returning by that route, whilst their elders complete their journey by boat. But fog descends on the valley, and the two youngsters get lost, end up in the wrong valley and Roger sustains a sprained ankle. He sleeps overnight in a charcoal burner’s hut, his ankle wrapped in a poultice, Titty is given a lift back to Horseshoe Bay by the Woodcutters and there’s time in the morning for Mrs Walker, arriving at Swallowdale before the ‘stretcher’ with Roger on it is back to get entirely the wrong idea and panic.
This mild flavour aside, there is nothing of drama or melodrama in this book, as there will be in the rest of the series, but that doesn’t make Swallowdale a dull book. Ransome maintains his audiences’ interest throughout with deft ease and a growing assurance in his craft. Swallowdale was published with more maps and pictures from Webb and its young audience snapped up the awaited sequel in sufficient numbers to secure Ransome in his career as a children’s author. Now it was time to tell the children’s fantasy.

“To the Six for whom it was written in exchange for a pair of slippers”


This is a question I sometimes try on people. He ran away from home at the age of 18 to take part in the artistic Bohemia of London in the 1900s. He wrote a literary biography of Oscar Wilde that included the first publication of any part of Die Profundis, which attracted the second great Criminal Libel suit relating to Wilde, and which made him a cause celebre. He ran away from his wife and daughter to be a Foreign Correspondent in Russia, and was an eye-witness to the Russian Revolution. He wrote an account that is regarded as second only to John Reed’s classic Ten Days that shook the World, he played chess with Lenin and married Trotsky’s secretary. For years he was exiled from England and regarded as a dangerous Bolshevik. After his return, he was dispatched to China, where he met Sun-Yat Sen, and wrote a weekly fishing column. But what is he famous for?
They never get it, which is hardly surprising, although the more widely-read may get an inkling from the mention of the fishing column. He is famous for writing Swallows and Amazons, and inventing the Children’s holiday adventure story, for this is a potted version of the life of Arthur Ransome, until the age of 44. It always comes as a surprise.
The title of this essay is the original dedication to the book, which has been suppressed now for over half a century. In part, this essay is the story behind that dedication.
I wouldn’t go so far as to call Ransome a hero of mine, but he’s someone who has always fascinated me. I was introduced to his books before the age of 10, ironically being given the last of his twelve Swallows and Amazons novels to read before any of the others. Though the books are indelibly wedded to their era (though written between 1929 and 1948, the children talk as products of the 1920s throughout, and the dozen novels cover a fictional period of only four years), underneath the “Look here”s and the middle class stiffness of Captain John Walker (one of two characters in the series who stood for Ransome himself), the books still stand up as intelligent and serious stories that do not look or write down to the audience.
Ransome wanted to be a writer from a very early age. He lost his father when only 13, (the news conveyed to him with typical British callousness by the Headmaster of Rugby), but in his teens adopted a father figure in the form of the historian and writer W G Collingwood, formerly secretary to John Ruskin. Ransome found himself absorbed into the Collingwood family as an extra son, and indeed at one point proposed to become a son-in-law, suggesting an engagement to Dora Collingwood. Thankfully for literature, she turned him down, recognising his immaturity and lack of purpose, and went on to marry a half-Syrian Doctor, Ernest Altounyan.
Arthur would go on to marry, most unwisely, one Ivy Walker. Ivy was an excitable woman, eager for adventure and excitement, and very much a fantasist, pretending all manner of dramatic things. Arthur, who was dedicated to writing and to Story, soon found what he had let himself in for, though the couple had a daughter Tabitha that they both loved.
Ransome wrote profusely and prolifically in the first dozen years of the century. His biographer, Hugh Brogan, has read these books, of which only two remain in print and, in Brogan’s estimation, quite rightly so. They say that every writer has hundreds of bad stories in him that he must write before he can get to the good stuff, and reading Brogan’s sometimes quite detailed descriptions of Ransome’s works, it seems that most of Arthur’s went into print. The one that he regretted most was, however, not among these. Not only did Ransome wish to write Story, he was an avid student, and a skilful technical analyst of Story itself. In 1912, he wrote the aforementioned literary biography of Wilde, and was allowed to quote extensively from the then-unpublished Die Profundis. Wilde’s fall had come from a famous and unsuccessful criminal libel trial against the Marquess of Queensbury, father of Wilde’s love, Lord Alfred Douglas, who abandoned Wilde after his committal to Reading Gaol. Die Profundis is a long cry of despair and rage by Wilde at his abandonment. The former ‘Bosie’, now himself Marquess of Queensbury, and perennially in need of money, sued Ransome.
Ivy was in her element, Ransome in despair. The trial lasted several weeks, with attendant publicity comparable to the excesses of our own age, and though it ended in acquittal for Ransome, the stress had opened his eyes to the state of his marriage. Taking a Foreign Correspondent’s position in Moscow, he left England for many years.
There, in addition to his journalistic duties, which he pursued with enthusiasm and intelligence, honing and clarifying his prose style, Ransome also studied Russian Folk-Tales with intensity. The first of his books to remain in print, Old Peter’s Russian Tales, collects Ransome’s interpretations of a dozen Russian children’s stories, about night, the forest, aloneness and the life of the Russian peasant. Ransome created mediators in the form of Old Peter, who tells these stories to his grandchildren, Maroosa and Vanya, guiding them in learning the folklore of their land.
More should and would have followed (a second volume, of just tales, without Old Peter and his kin, were published in 1984, long after Ransome’s death in 1967), but the Revolution intervened, and for several years it became the central focus of Ransome’s career and his writing.
It’s been suggested that Ransome was working as an Agent for MI6 during this period, and he would not have been the first nor the last journalist to take on such an auxiliary role but, as Brogan details, the longer the Revolution went on, and the closer Ransome got to the dominating Bolsheviks, the more his writing begins to unconsciously reflect their influence: hence his denouncement privately in the Foreign Office. The  truth was that Ransome, whose ideal at heart was England’s interests, was on the ground and unable to see the circumstances of Russia, whereas the Foreign Office were utterly opposed to the idea of the Bolsheviks, and continued to oppose them long past the point at which they were the only stabilising force in Russia (even if the lack of alternatives was deliberately created by themselves).
It was during this period that Ransome’s life was, again, changed, by the tall, forthright Evgenia Shelepina, the elder of two sisters working in Trotsky’s office. The two became acquainted, struck up a friendship and then came an incident when Evgenia, descending from the Russian equivalent of a tram, slipped and almost fell beneath its wheels. The emotions of that moment confirmed for the couple their feelings for each other, though it was to be many years before Ransome could negotiated a divorce from Ivy, playing the part of the scorned woman to the hilt, and permission to bring Evgenia to England as his wife. It would cost Ransome dear, financially and emotionally. Ivy insisted on retaining his extensive Library of carefully collected books, thinking that a career in which literary criticism played a leading role would be killed by such selfishness. Worse still, she set about poisoning Tabitha against her father, including such things as telling the girl to turn down a holiday with her father as his only intention in asking his daughter was to drown her.
By now, Ransome had long been in the service of the Manchester Guardian, where he was close friends with Ted Scott, son and heir of the legendary C P Scott, and destined to step into his father’s shoes as Editor. Ransome would be one of Ted’s closest allies in the battle to assert himself when the time came, but, in the meantime, he was concerned about his own career. He was a success as a Foreign Correspondent, but his aspirations towards Story were being frustrated, and he was beginning to fear being trapped forever as a journalist. Despite feeling it to be a betrayal of his friend at a time when he needed allies, Ransome resigned from the paper in the spring of 1929, to avoid being sent abroad once more. At that time, he had no idea of what he would do instead.
As mentioned above, Dora Collingwood had married Ernest Altounyan who, jointly with his father, owned a hospital in Syria on the banks of Lake Aleppo. The couple had had five children, Tacqui (a girl), Susan, Mavis, Roger, and the baby Bridget. The coincidence in names is, of course, not a coincidence.
The Altounyans were holidaying in England, at the Collingwood family home near the head of Coniston Water, with Arthur and Evgenia living at Low Ludderburn, above its secluded eastern shore. Between them, the Ransomes and the Altounyans bought two fourteen foot boats in which to sail on the Lake throughout the summer. At the end, each family would take one, and it was agreed that the Ransomes should keep the boat that was the favourite of all, Swallow.
It was an idyllic summer, of sun, sailing, exploring, fishing and games. The party often visited Peel Island, near  Coniston’s eastern shore, a wooded island with an easy bay on its eastern shore at which to land, and a ‘secret harbour’ at its rocky southern end, with only one safe route into its harbour.
But September came, and with it the Altounyans’ departure drew near. Ransome had to take some decisions about what he was to do next with his life. Whilst this was worrying him, Ernest Altounyan rung to ask if he could call round the following afternoon. Ransome agreed, but grumpily insisted that Altounyan should come alone, and not bring the children. At the appointed hour, with Ransome in his first floor study, the car pulled up, disgorging all the children. Ransome stumped downstairs, ready to give Altounyan a piece of his mind, only to be greeted by Tacqui and Mavis, each carrying an ornate red leather Turkish slipper. It had been Ransome’s birthday the previous day, though he hadn’t noticed, and these were a gift. A splendid afternoon was had.
Ransome remained abashed at his ungracious temper and, once the Altounyans had returned to a dry desert land, with no chance of sailing (Lake Aleppo had temporarily slipped his imagination), he wanted to give them a gift in return. A present of the summer they had enjoyed, for them to keep forever. What he devised became Swallows and Amazons.
Much of the book is drawn from the Cumbrian countryside and the adventures of that real-life summer. Peel Island went into the story as Wild Cat Island, but Rio and its Bay was borrowed from Windermere, and the Lake, in size and shape, is a hybrid of the two lakes. As a perhaps unconscious gesture of reconciliation with his first wife, the children took Ivy’s surname of Walker, whilst Ransome wrote himself deliberately into the book as Captain Flint, aka the Amazons’ Uncle Jim: a balding, perspiring, much-travelled man whose treasure is the manuscript of his book (that’s not Mixed Moss that is stolen by the Bigland crooks, but Swallows and Amazons itself!). But that wasn’t Ransome’s only place in the story.
The Swallows are the Altounyan children, down to Mavis’s unusual, and now very uncomfortable nickname of Titty, though Dora Altounyan was somewhat puzzled to find herself transformed into an Australian. But the most significant problem for Ransome was the eldest child, Tacqui. Given the times in which Ransome wrote, it would be unusual to have a girl as the leader, and it was undeniably more commercial to have a two-boy, two-girl balance. But as Brogan argues, it is likely that the ultimate decision lay in Ransome’s subconscious: if the eldest child was a boy, he could himself participate in the adventure, play more than the outside role of Captain Flint who, in the book, exists primarily as a spoiler to the children’s holiday. And in the character of John Walker, stuffy, somewhat priggish, serious but, above all, anxious for the approval of his too-often absent Naval Commander father, there was indeed a role for Ransome, denied at a cruelly young age the chance to gain his own father’s approval.
Thus Swallows and Amazons began. I’ll be looking next at the books themselves, the relationship between them and the events of Ransome’s life, and the premature end to his writing career, almost twenty years before his death.