The Last Englishman: an Arthur Ransome biography

Several years ago, I bought a copy of Roland Chambers’ 2008 biography of Arthur Ransome, The Last Englishman, in paperback. The book was written in the wake of the release of formerly classified papers documenting that the writer of Swallows and Amazons had operated as a British Intelligence Agent in Russia during the Revolution. I disliked the book, and especially its author’s attitude towards Ransome, and out it aside, intending to write about it. It’s been at least five years, if not more, without my returning to it, but I’ve pulled it from its position in hiding and re-read it, and am giving my opinion of the book before I confine it to the outer darknesses of a sale on eBay.
I was introduced to Arthur Ransome, via the last of the Swallows and Amazons books, when I was still in single figures. I still have the original green bound hardback set, all but two of them bought for me secondhand from Shudehill Book Stalls. I have, and have read at least three times, Hugh Brogan’s comprehensive Biography of Ransome, and his own, unfinished Autobiography. The contrast between the man’s life and the children’s fiction for which he is known is fascinating, and I am unashamedly a fan.
Roland Chambers very definitely isn’t. The Last Englishman, a title appended to Ransome during his time in Russia, has very little value as an emblem of the book, whilst its sub-title – prominently displayed on the paperback cover and decidedly sensational – is The DOUBLE LIFE of Arthur Ransome, capitals in the original.
Where Brogan was writing about the life of the Swallows and Amazons writer, a man with a fascinating and complex background in great contrast, Chambers offers a much narrower compass. He is only concerned with Ransome the Reporter, the witness to the Revolution, the man who worked for British Intelligence yet was considered by a great many to be an out-and-out Bolshevik.
Ransome’s years leading up to 1917 are only of importance in establishing his character (defective) and personal circumstances (self-inflicted), and the post-Russia years, including the Swallows and Amazons series is waved by as being totally irrelevant, though this doesn’t prevent Chambers from following the theme that runs through the book.
Because there is not very much in The Last Englishman that isn’t already in the Brogan biography. The only substantive difference is in emphasis. Plainly put, Chambers loathes Ransome, and whatever the writer says or does is wrong. There is no consideration of context nor attempt to present the circumstances that lead Ransome to take an attitude: simply by taking one at all he is at fault. Where Brogan may have been said to be too sympathetic, his Biography presents Arthur Ransome in his own light: who he was, what he thought and felt, and why. Judgement is reserved for the reader. Roland Chambers is delivering the Prosecution Speech in a Trial where the Hangman has set up the gallows before the verdict.
Obviously, this book goes into what seems to be a mass more detail about events in Russia in 1917 and afterwards. But for all this, I learned very little that I hadn’t known. Chambers is mainly concerned to present Ransome as, at his very best, shallow. The reporter is alleged to be stupidly impressionable, particularly in his adoption of the Bolshevik cause. Brogan reports this course through Ransome’s eyes, as a patriotic Englishmen observing at first hand the disintegration of one of his country’s allies in a major war, concerned for the effect on Britain and, on a pragmatic assessment, presenting the Bolshevik’s as the only source of stability. Chambers draws the like at accusing Ransome of being Bolshevik himself, of believing in all aspects of their political creed, and especially its viciousness and brutality, but the distinction between the true believer and the ‘useful idiot’ is deliberately blurred.
Chambers’ attitude is clearly the Trollopian one that ‘one cannot touch pitch without being oneself defiled’. That Ransome does not present whole-heartedly against the Bolshevik menace, that he doesn’t denounce it at every opportunity, that he doesn’t highlight massacres and executions damns him for all time.
That Ransome’s value lay in his having close contact with all the major figures of the Revolution, and that skating them at every opportunity may have potentially damaged that connection does not even enter Chambers’ thinking or, if it does, is ruthlessly suppressed.
But it’s the same everywhere. Ransome is mocked for his Bohemian period, bears the sole responsibility for the failure of his first marriage, and is in the wrong over every aspect of his relationship, or non-relationship with his only daughter: it is apparently perfectly alright for Ivy Walker to refuse to allow Tabitha to go on a Norfolk Broads holiday with her father by telling her that Ransome means to drown her, or for Tabitha to write to her father flatly telling him he is burnt out and will never write anything decent, before Swallows and Amazons. Ransome alone is responsible for this.
And Chambers is dismissive of the books for which Ransome gained his fame. They are a hollow, unrealistic fantasy that take no account of working class lives, nor War and there’s nothing about the Bolsheviks in them, which in Chambers’ eyes is utterly damning. Despite the fact that Ransome had never wanted to be a Reporter, that he saw that period of his life as an intrusion that threatened his true ambitions, he should instead have allowed his Russian experiences to dominate his every thought and word since: how dare he be allowed to forget?
The Last Englishman is a mean-minded book, the work of a writer who has determined to dislike his subject and to attack everything he did or thought. There is a measure of praise, balancing things out, but it is limited, only occasional and unconvincing: clearly, Chambers heart is not in allowing Arthur Ransome any triumph.
That, more than anything, is why, having finally re-read it, I shalln’t be holding on to this book. I’m not blind to Ransome’s contradictions, nor his failings, but I’m also aware of his qualities, and I can balance these out. Roland Chambers can’t or won’t. His stance is that of the men in England who wanted Arthur Ransome imprisoned or executed as a Bolshevik, and yet somehow never actually went ahead and did it when they had the opportunity: one gets the feeling Chambers wouldn’t have hesitated.

Film 2018 – Swallows and Amazons

It’s my working Sunday again, which influenced my choice this week to a film I’ve already written about, here.

This is the third time I’ve seen this film, the second time on DVD, and to be frank I’ve no new thoughts to add to those I recorded in 2016, home from a visit to the now-closed Showcase Cinema.

With more time to consider the film and the degree to which it succeeds in animating a book both classic and archaic, it becomes even more a film of two halves, two stories rather, joined at the hip in a manner that is well done enough without ever convincing anyone here for Arthur Ransome that it was worth doing.

On the one hand, we have a decent representation of the bones of Ransome’s original story, the children’s holiday adventure, the first of its kind: camping and boating and rivalry and making up your own world that is perfectly real behind the adults’ backs. I’m still no more convinced of Seren Hawkes as Nancy Blackett, but one understrength child actor is bearable, and any defects in the young lady’s wooden performance are more than made up for by those of the Swallows, and especially the two genuinely child actors, Teddie-Rose Mallesen-Allen as ‘Tatty’, and Bobby McCullough as Roger.

And I simply cannot watch young Bobby onscreen without a sense of awe that fortunately does not interfere with the flow of the film: he isn’t acting, he’s a seven year old boy from 1929 (sod the film’s updating to 1935) brought into the Twenty-First Century. They’re all good, but he just is Roger Walker, untouched by nearly ninety years since the Altounyans spent that summer on Coniston Water.

Whilst it would have been nice to have had more of the film take place on Windermere and Coniston Water, the modern world has impinged too much on the former, always the most accessible Lake from the south-east and thus the most commercial. Derwent Water may be wrong for ever so many reasons, none of which will affect anyone not a purist, but it has the advantage of consistency: unlike the 1974 film, the constant distraction of watching the little boats glide from lake to lake to lake indiscriminately is not present. And it is, of course, beautiful from every angle.

It’s still noticeable that, even though the film explicitly acknowledges it’s taking place in the Lake District, there isn’t the faintest effort to provide a Cumbrian or Westmoreland accent. If anything, particularly in the Blackett family, the accent drifts vaguely in the direction of Yorkshire, which is heresy so far as I am concerned.

That aside, there’s a comfortable familiarity to language in use by those Northerners. In the book, Ransome makes no play with accents or dialect. Beyond individual characteristics, the Amazons speak with the same middle-class voice as the Swallows. Like his prose generally, Ransome goes for a clear, limpid, smooth speech that assumes intelligence on his listeners’ parts but which never offers them any difficulties.

The film, however, unashamedly goes for northern epithets. Peggy Blackett calls her elder sister ‘cleverclogs’, and the General Store lady, upset at her corned beef display being knocked down, sends Tatty out of the shop with the words ‘you cheeky monkey’. Not having been brought up in Cumbria in the Twenties/Thirties, I can’t speak to local authenticity, but this is the language of my East Manchester boyhood all right.

Of course, the film still has its other half to negotiate, the spy plot that’s half John Buchan and half Arthur Ransome’s background. The book’s Jim Turner/Captain Flint has always been Ransome himself, spiritually as well as physically, and so the idea of turning him into the secret agent Ransome appears to have been in Russia during the Revolution at least has the merit of authenticity, though turning him into Rafe Spall doesn’t.

Spall underplays his part with a genuine sense of period overlaid by a low-key Buchan heartiness, which provides a useful contrast with the spicier Andrew Scott as Laslow, supercilious and cold, adapting his manic Moriarty to a role demanding naturalness. For what it’s worth, with the exception of the attempt by the two little boats to halt the seaplane from taking off – which in isolation is exactly the kind of thing children of their age and resourcefulness would think of trying – the spy plot works and works effectively. The jury is still out as to whether trying it in the same film should have been done at all.

As a Ransome fan possessed of all twelve books in those classic greenbound Jonathan Cape hardbacks, naturally I find against the film. But I enjoy it too much, and respond too much to those parts that represent the book at its most honest to hold it too badly against the film.

It’s getting on for three years since Swallows and Amazons was filmed and there are no proposals of which I am aware to adapt other books in the series. And Bobby McCullough is now ten, or thereabouts, so unless you’re going to clone him and grow the clone to age seven (or at worst eight), more fundamental damage would need to be done to Swallowdale to have him repeat his role. More’s the pity. I’d love to see a decent stab taken at that, at least once, especially if they genuinely climb Coniston Old Man as part of it.

But this film enables me to go back there whenever I want, not just to the Lake of 1929, but the sitting room at Brigham Street where I received my first Swallows and Amazons book from my Dad: he’d have found Rafe Spall and Andrew Scott stupid, but he’d have drunk in every other bit of it, the way I do.

Uncollected Thoughts: Swallows and Amazons (2016)

The Swallows

Speaking as an Arthur Ransome fan and a Lake District buff, I have to say that this was nearly a very good film. And in large part, being the parts that were derived directly from the book, this was close to being an excellent adaptation. Those bits where the film dipped below its generally high standard were, naturally, when the absurd Russian spy plot was allowed to intrude, which included the out-of-whole-cloth all-action ending. It was decently done for what it was, and could have been very much worse, but what it represented was a lack of faith on the part of the Producers in the film that they felt it couldn’t perform without adding so uncharacteristic and ill-fitting a story.

We’re going to have to deal with that part of the film eventually, but first let’s look at what did go nearly all right, and this was the Walker family, and especially the Swallows. Dane Hughes, Orla Hill, Teddie-Rose Malleson-Allen and Bobby McCulloch play John, Susan, Tatty and Roger respectively, and they are all completely convincing in their parts, but little Bobby McCulloch especially deserves praise for being perfect in every moment.

All the Swallows are written to their personas in the book, though changes have been made to the two elder siblings. Susan simply cannot, in 2016, be portrayed as the impossibly domestic, docile mother-substitute she is in the books, but by representing her gently-increased aggressiveness as a form of sibling rivalry with her dominating elder brother, a more modern female emerges without doing damage.

If anyone is shown to be out of character, it is Captain John. In the books, he is a natural leader, already a decent sailor, a totally trustworthy and honest boy. As might be expected from one of two of Ransome’s personae in the series: Captain Flint, balding, perspiring, fixed on writing his book, is Ransome in real life – that’s not ‘Mixed Moss’ that Jim Tyrner is working on, it’s ‘Swallows and Amazons’ – whereas John, a substitute for a real life elder sister, is the boy Ransome, bringing himself into the book to join in the games as the boy he was never allowed to be.

John Walker in the film is not a paragon. He accidentally breaks a window on the houseboat but doesn’t admit to it, he’s not as good a sailor, as Susan getting a crack on the head from the boom, and the loss of all their food demonstrates, and he has a tendency to blame his sister for whatever goes wrong.

I can understand, if I don’t welcome, the change, and this bleeds into the spy plot in due course. It alters the family dynamic to a degree, but not so much as to radically change the story, which is anchored in the utter naturalness of the younger pair and cannot escape being grounded as a children’s holiday, and a children’s adventure.

As in the book, the Amazons don’t come into the story until almost halfway through, though in the film, they appear out of nowhere, unforeshadowed. Surprisingly, the Blackett sisters have a distinctly minor role in the film, even though they are Jim Turner’s nieces. Hannah Jayne Thorp is very good as Peggy, though she’s a bit more assertive against her elder sister than is written, but the true disappointment is Captain Nancy: Seren Hawkes is simply not up to the standard of her fellow junior actors and actresses, being wooden in speech and personality whereas Captain Nancy has to be tomboy-forceful and bursting with life. I suspect this, more than anything else, is what reduces the Amazons’ role.

And she speaks with a strange, unplaceable accent that comes closer to Yorkshire than anything else. This is the place to make a few points about the film in general. The Walkers are southerners and speak as such: the film starts with their train journey from Portsmouth to Cumberland.

Now the Blackett girls are nearly as middle-class as the walkers in the book, but if the ‘Lake’ has been identified as being in Cumberland, then surely the locals, if not the Amazons, should betray a Cumberland drawl in their speech. (If we’re being technical, as Ransome’s ‘Lake’ was a composite of Coniston Water with the middle of Windermere inserted, the accent should strictly be a blend of Westmorland and Furness Lanacstrian). Harry Enfield and Jessica Hynes, as the Jacksons, are generic northerner, as in every other local in the film.

But authenticity is out for the afternoon. Mrs Walker’s accent has been shifted from Australian to Scottish for no apparent reason other than (presumably) to accommodate Kelly Macdonald whilst even Ransome’s map of the ‘Lake’, originally designed by Clifford Baker, has been totally transformed, with all the salient locations shuffled around. It’s not as if they’ve been redesigned to accommodate the actual lake being used for 99% of the sailing shots: this is Derwent Water (ironically, a genuinely Cumbrian lake).

Though the actual Lake on which ‘Swallow’ and ‘Amazon’ sail is Derwent Water, except for the few brief scenes of Jim Turner’s houseboat, which are, ironically, on Coniston Water, I shalln’t kick up a fuss: the filming is gorgeous and any film that allows itself that many spectacularly sunlit shots of the Jaws of Borrowdale, and the fells surrounding the Lake will get no complaints from me.

Though I was intrigued by the first shot of the ‘Lake’, a narrow, winding body of water with a single island in it, which corresponds to neither Coniston nor Derwent (nor even Windermere). I could not place it.

I suppose we are going to have to deal with the spy bit, or Rafe Spall and Andrew Scott won’t get to be mentioned. If it had to be done, it was at least cleverly done and integrated well into the story. Instead of Jim Turner being a kind of black sheep who’s knocked around the world and is now writing his memoirs, the Producers have borrowed the confirmation that Arthur Ransome himself was, in one degree or another, a British Agent feeding information during the Russian Revolution, and converted Turner into an active British spy, who has smuggled vital information out of Russia which, instead of taking to his superiors at MI-pick-a-number, he’s concealed on his remote houseboat in the Lake District (maybe this isn’t so well done after all).

But Turner – a decent if unspectacular performance from Spall – is being pursued by two Russian agents, Laslow (Andrew Scott being a very calm, cool, composed version of Andrew Scott in Sherlock) and his confederate (whose name and part I can’t find on any internet cast listing, not even imdb).

Through an entirely plausible set of circumstances, Commander Walker’s knife – entrusted to John but temporarily lent to Roger, who drops it into Flint’s boat when Laslow is searching it – John is blamed for the vandalisation of the houseboat and the theft of Mr Turner’s papers. His previous lack of candour tells against him and he, and the rest of the Swallows are banned from the Lake and returned to Jackson’s farm.

Where the children put all their several bits of info, work out that the Russians are holding Captain Flint prisoner on their island. So, in complete defiance of their banning, they steal ‘Swallow’ and join up with the Amazons to rescue him. John, having taken Turner’s service revolver, attempts to hold Laslow at gunpoint but is incapable of firing, especially as Turner is urging him to lower the gun.

So it all comes down to the big action ending, which, though well-made, is utterly stupid. By stringing a rope between both prows, the two little boats try to stop the seaplane from taking off by getting the rope across the floats. It’s a kids notion, and it’s doomed to disaster: both boats end up having to cut the rope to avoid being dragged into the Lake by the greater force of the seaplane.

Still, it buys Turner time to gnaw his way through his bonds (how old-fashioned) and force the plane to land, so the kids done good, the adults queue up to apologise to John, who is thus redeemed, and there’s time for a party on the houseboat and Captain Flint walking the plank in the grand manner.

That stupid ending, which really really doesn’t belong anywhere near this story, apart, most of Swallows and Amazons works with an easy and believable naturalness. There are still parts where inexplicable changes have been made – the story has been moved from 1929 to 1935 so as to drag it closer to the onset of war, despite the Russians not having anything to do with that terrible event, and the film containing no international elements at all.

And there’s a totally purposeless carnival in Rio, featuring women dressed up in Japanese costume that’s ridiculous in the extreme.

But let’s get back to Dane, Orla, Teddie-Rose and Bobby, who make this film the joy it was to watch, and on the strength of whose performances, I would dearly love to see a sequel. That depends on this being a success, and enough people holding their noses during the stupid bits, but I’d definitely sign up to watch a film adaptation of Swallowdale next.


Britain’s Lost Waterlands: An Arthur Ransome Excuse

I’d been looking forward to tonight’s BBC4 Nature Documentary for half the week, thanks to the official sub-title: Escape to Swallows and Amazons Country. You know my lifelong enthusiasm for Arthur Ransome, and if that were not enough, it’s impossible to do anything with the real landscapes without going to the Lake District, and I’ll watch any TV programme that does that.

Though the Swallows and Amazons books provided a thematic link, in the end the Ransome connection was not much more than a hook to draw together three entirely disparate kinds of waterlands: the natural, glacially-formed Lakes of Cumbria, the man-made, ancient flooded peat-cuttings of the Broads of Norfolk, and the tidal waters of the Orwell Estuary and Hamford Water on the Suffolk/Essex border.

The programme was jointly presented by Dick Strawbridge, engineer, sailor, and occasional presenter on the long-running Coast and naturalist, anthropologist and Coast mainstay, Alice Roberts. Strawbridge evidently drew the long straw, dominating screen-time (he was the only one of the pair to be let loose on the Lakes, more’s the pity) as he pursued the sailcraft, the engineering and the people whilst Roberts brought up the rear, revelling in the countryside and the wildlife.

It was a shame, not because she was far better looking than Strawbridge (who was at least possessed of a moustache of truly Ransome-esque proportions) but because she’s incomparably the better presenter. Strawbridge was all enthusiasm and expostulation, greeting everything as fantastic, but his larger-than-life approach came over as tv puff rather than natural, like ITV commentators desperate to convince you that the bore-all draw you’re watching is the most exciting football match ever played. Roberts, on the other hand, is much quieter and calmer, and less extravagant in her choice of words, yet her genuine love for what she sees and her endless fascination with nature shines through at all times.

Like I said though, the Ransome connection was little more than an excuse. Strawbridge had the Lakes to himself, progressing from sailing on Coniston Water (with one sly, unadvertised shot of the Fairfield Horseshoe from Windermere, a subtle nod to how Ransome’s Lake was an amalgam of the two) to mines in Coppermines Valley, reaching high into the Coniston range.

But there was no pointing out of any places connected to the Swallows and the Amazons, and Pigeon Post, which was directly connected to Coppermines Valley, was only mentioned in passing, without its context being identified.

There was more of a Coot Club theme to the Norfolk Broads section, which taught me things I didn’t know about the landscape, and which had a couple of quotes from Coot Club itself. I have been to the Broads a very long time ago, when I was very young, too young to associate any memories with it. One thing that impressed me was the sheer scale of it, the breadth: I have always seen the landscape in the two Broads books as narrower, more confined than it really is.

But what moved me most was the final section. Not Strawbridge, arriving in Pin Mill, the start of the epic We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea, nor his evident belief in the reality of that experience, but Alice Roberts at Hamford Water, the Secret Water, the hidden lagoon, as she called it, a place I’ve never been nor seen before, a place lacking in fame beyond its locality and this equally splendid Ransome book. She, here, was the only one to really relate the landscape to the book that was supposedly the cause of her presence, and for the only time, the programme acquired that additional layer of significance, and seemed to stretch across time to Ransome’s days, to his ‘children’s days.

An interesting hour, though I for one could have done with far more of the landscape and the waters than we got, and certainly less of Dick Strawbridge.

Crap Journalism: Re-naming Titty

This next example of Crap Journalism is by regular Guardian columnist Ben Child. The article is about the forthcoming new Swallows and Amazons film, which I mentioned here months ago. Famously, the Swallows themselves were based on a real life family of four children, the third of whom, Mavis Altounyan, was immortalised under her family nickname, Titty.

Yes, I know. Times change and the book was written in 1928. For the forthcoming film, Titty has become Tatty (she was Kitty in the 1963 BBC TV adaptation). You could hardly do anything but change the name, but the late Mavis’s niece has complained about the change, calling it disrespectful to her aunt.

In that she’s objecting to applying the name ‘Tatty’ to her late aunt, Barbara Altounyan would appear to have a case. It seems to be completely unsuitable. On general terms, however, objecting to any change at all, she’s on dodgy ground.

But the crap journalism that made me snap at this article is when Childs sets up the background of Ransome’s using the Altounyan’s as templates for the Swallows. He names them all, starting with Mavis’s elder brother John, the model for Captain John Walker. There’s just one problem: John Altounyan never existed!

The eldest Altounyan child was the tomboyish Tacqui, a daughter (who later wrote a memoir, In Aleppo Once). Ransome used her as a model, but changed her into the boy, John, for commercial reasons (a two boys, two girls split read better), sexist reasons (a girl giving orders?) and possibly unconscious personal reasons (John Walker was a means by which the 40+ Ransome could take part in his children’s adventures).

This isn’t esoteric information, it doesn’t take ages to dig out, it’s crap journalism. Get the facts right, Child, it’s your job to be accurate.

Incidentally, if the film is a success, there are hopes to turn it into a series. I for one would support that gratefully. But I’m on the family’s side over ‘Tatty’.

Swallows and Amazons: Let’s Try Again, or maybe…

Can you imagine this man in ‘Swallows and Amazons’? Me neither.

Reading a feature interview in today’s Observer magazine with Andrew Scott, the impossibly charismatic Jim Moriarty of Sherlock, I was startled by a passing mention of his filming a re-make of Swallows and Amazons, set in the Lake District (I’m sorry, did someone think you could possibly set it somewhere else?).

The news of a new film, some forty plus years after the good-hearted but ultimately unconvincing Virginia McKenna/Ronald Fraser version in 1974, came as a simultaneously welcome and unwelcome thought. I mean, I love the book, and anything set in the Lakes that uses the landscape will drag me down Grand Central, but what the heck are they going to do to it this time? I mean, Andrew Scott, utterly brilliant, but who the hell is he going to play? Surely not Captain Flint?

One hasty Google later, I am left yet more concerned. No, Scott is not playing Captain Flint, that honour goes to Rafe Spall (so we’re not casting according to descriptions in the book then). No, silly me, I should have realised, Scott’s going to play Lazlow. How obvious.

That there is, of course, no such character in Swallows and Amazons alerts us to the fact that some serious fuckery could be about to take place. The news that they’ve also been filming in West Yorkshire (I’m sorry, but reservoirs off the M62 don’t look anything like the Lake District) doesn’t fill me with anticipation, either.

What the film plans to do, I would surmise, is to shift the balance of the story well away from the Walker and Blackett children, who are the whole point of the novel, and towards Captain Flint. Notably, Spall’s part is not being referred to by the cognomen that Nancy and Peggy Blackett have long since lavished on their Uncle, but as Jim Turner.

Turner/Flint in the book is a mainly offstage character, until the final phase of the book, where he is brought properly onscreen by the robbery on the Houseboat. It’s widely recognised that the preoccupied author is Ransome himself, and that’s the key to the new film. It’s now recognised that Arthur Ransome was not merely a journalist in Russia during the Revolution, but that he was also an operative of MI6.

What the film plans to do, according to reports, is to bring that hitherto hidden aspect of Ransome back to Jim Turner: Lazlow is an old enemy from the spy world. This has the potential to be A Very Bad Idea Indeed, not least if the film intends to follow through on this descriptive paragraph: “The story follows four children dreaming of an escape from the tedium of a summer holiday with their mother. When finally given permission to camp on their own on a remote island in the middle of a vast lake, they are overjoyed. But when they get there they discover they may not be alone… As they battle for ownership of the island, they learn the skills of survival and the value of friendship, which helps prepare them for the real danger they must face from the adult world.”

Does that fill you with dread? It does me. At least the probability is that if Turner is Ransome 2.0, the tale will take place in the late Twenties/early Thirties, though I shudder at the devastation that could be caused if they update it.

(One necessary updating has already occurred: Mrs Walker’s middle daughter will be called Tatty).

Nevertheless, I am prepared to be more open-minded about this film, which should appear in 2016 than I am about the ever-nearing Dad’s Army re-make. As long as the scenery’s plentifully in sight, and they have filmed on Peel Island on Coniston Water, I shall be partially satisfied.

Obscure Corners – Miterdale Head

MiterdaleThat in this day and age, almost sixty years since the publication of The Southern Fells, it is still possible to call Miterdale Head an Obscure Corner is a telling comment on the vast majority of Lakeland visitors in that time. Miterdale is a shy, overlooked side valley with no obvious features, save for its unusual dale head, yet it borders upon and is easily accessible from the ever-popular Eskdale, its whole length being possible to walk in little more than an hour, and sweet in every yard. It’s been talked about continually. And still they do not come.
Isn’t that absolutely brilliant?
I first visited the valley in the late Sixties, a brief, evening excursion before the long drive back to Broughton-in-Furness. Wainwright describes there being two ‘roads’ into the valley, neither of them sign-posted. We parked in Eskdale Green, at a corner in the road, where what looked like a private road, between walls, led uphill. In reality, this was a rough track, climbing up and down across the low ridge guarding the valley mouth.
Once in Miterdale, we followed the path about half way down the valley, until the way grew wet underfoot and the sky began to dull.
All my later visits have been under my own steam, by car, using the actual road into the valley, which looks equally private (may it never acquire a signpost or, if it ever does, let it be torn down instantly), which leads to a rough car park at the road end, just short of the first farm.
The path is, initially, a tractor track on the north of the beck – or rather, the River Mite, one of the three rivers coming together to form the Ravenglass Estuary, once the busiest port in England. Further up, the way becomes a track, crossing back to the south of the beck, bordered by a wall, sometimes crossing wet ground, mostly under the shade of trees.
It’s a level walk without difficulties, though there is still an air of sadness about the middle valley, in the form of abandoned farms, working establishments in the most recent century, now empty.
The character of Miterdale changes abruptly at the end of the middle valley. The enclosing fells close in, the Mite is a winding beck carving a bubbling channel through a narrow, grassy divide, impossible to discern ahead for more than twenty yards or so at a time. The path is narrow and sporty, hugging the beck, dancing up and down.
Slowly, a low line of grassy bluffs forms a horizon, growing nearer, until this shy ravine broadens out into the wide, flat cirque of Miterdale Head.
It’s a completely unexpected sight, a grassy bowl, flat and wide, terminating in miniature grass cliffs down which a waterfall really ought to decently tumble. It is silent, even the rush of the wind diminished. There is the immediate urge, even in those who only ever sleep in beds, to start a camp here. It is a place to be alone, where it feels as if you will never be disturbed.
Several people have suggested that Miterdale Head forms part of the inspiration for Arthur Ransome’s Swallowdale, in the book of the same name. It’s a romantic notion, and the valley head supports the suggestion, but it is far and away from the Furness features that Ransome built upon to create the fictional landscape of his sailing children, and the honour more properly lies in the environs of Beacon Tarn, on the moorlands west of Coniston Water’s lower reach.
But to find a neat row of tents here, and a very practical 12 year old girl boiling a kettle over a fire between two stones and cutting slices of pemmican would seem very appropriate.
Miterdale Head’s unique structure can be explained by a simple climb out of the valley, up the slopes on the south side of the cirque, to gain the lip of the valley. Ahead, a half mile distant, the flat and uninteresting waters of Burnmoor Tarn lie, invariably looking miserable. Only a low, green swell of land prevents Burnmoor from doing the geographically orthodox thing of draining into Miterdale (instead, its outflow is at the north-eastern end of the tarn, side-by-side with its main infiller).
But if nature had done what it ‘should’ have done, we would not have Miterdale Head, which would be a real loss.
It’s difficult to incorporate Miterdale into a larger expedition, the only feasible approach being to ascend to Whin Rigg from the foot of Miterdale, walk the ridge of the Screes and, descend from Illgill Head, either to the Wasdale Corpse Road or else avoiding the complete circuit of Burnmoor Tarm by taking a short cut across trackless and dull grasses to make your way to the lip of Miterdale and back from its wonderful Head.
May the millions never decide to get out of their cars!

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.


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.