Review: Swallows and Amazons, Arthur Ransome

Recently, while trawling through The Basildon Free Books Project, I discovered several old copies of Swallows and Amazons.  Although I normally try to draw the line at picking up books that I already own, not so long ago I had the rather upsetting news that the builder who did the extension on my parents’ house appears to have plugged up the holes he left in the roof with the boxes which contained my childhood books and toys.  Basically, although the formal damage has yet to be summed up, a fairly large percentage of my childhood and adolescent memories has probably succumbed to water damage.  It’s not even as if I had forgotten about them – my mother made me put them all in the loft when I went off to university because my bedroom was essentially bulldozed to make way for the extension but I have frequently looked forward to the day when I would be able to get it all down again and settled in my own house.  Anyway, the grief comes in waves and one of the waves is me trying to replace my books at as low a cost as possible.

So, back to the point.  I started reading Swallows and Amazons when I was about seven and between this and Redwall, I was kept capitally entertained for the next three years or so.  While Redwall has kind of faded in my memory, recent rereads made me feel terribly nostalgic for the hardy children of Swallows and Amazons and I thought that I would share the reasons why here.  It’s funny, my mother would never let me read anything by Enid Blyton while I was growing up because she had read so many things by her during her own childhood and now looks back on it as a wasted reading experience.  I would never dismiss Redwall as a waste of my time – I even once wrote to the author Brian Jacques and got a lovely letter back from him and a free poster.  At the time, the books really impressed me because some of his characters actually died, something that was fairly uncommon in children’s literature at that time.  Later of course, JK Rowling got in on that one.  Still, I don’t feel the same sadness at the idea of my Redwall books being destroyed by the builder’s laziness as I do at the idea of having lost Swallows.

For those not in the know, Swallows and Amazons is a series that takes its name from the first novel and is set mostly around a fictionalised Lake Windermere.  The Walker family are on holiday there and the children (John, Susan, Titty and Roger) want to go camping on the island.  Their mother writes to their Naval Commander father to ask for permission and he writes back with the immortal telegrammed response: BETTER DROWNED THAN DUFFERS STOP IF NOT DUFFERS WON’T DROWN STOP.  With this fabulously British attitude behind them, the four Walkers set off but on Wild Cat Island, they meet the Amazons, otherwise known as Nancy and Peggy Blackett.  And with that, the adventures truly begin.

Must Love Boats.  (c)

I feel as if in recent years, a certain amount of prejudice has built up against this series.  Once when I was watching the News with my housemates at university, an item came on that referred vaguely to the ‘messing about with boats’ of Swallows and Amazons.  Both my housemates heaved heavy sighs of disgust about these ‘boarding school’ stories where the parents ignored the children during term and then left them to their own devices during the holidays.  I felt indignant because one thing that never seemed to be in shortage was family love.  Unusually for children’s stories of this era, the family relationships are well-drawn and have a certain amount of depth.

It’s true that the Walker children rarely see their father, he is a high-flying Naval Commander, but they have their wonderful Mother.  My recent rereads intrigued me about the Commander and Mrs Walker’s marriage – she is Australian by origin spends her time looking after the youngest walker child Bridget who is too young until the sixth book to join in exploring. Either that or Mrs Walker is having to up sticks to visit Commander Walker wherever he happens to be at the time.  In Winter Holiday, the Swallows are staying on the lake during their Christmas break because their mother is taking Bridget to ‘meet’ Commander Walker as he hasn’t really seen her ‘since she was a person’.  Yet through all that, there is a real sense of excitement whenever it seems likely that Commander Walker will turn up.  The third Walker child, Titty, once ponders the very particular quiet way that her mother talks about her father.  Adult relationships are a mystery when you’re a child.  Mrs Walker is a woman far from home with five children to bring up more or less solo but she never seems to mind because she loves her husband.

First appearance of Cmmdr. Walker …

In many ways, Commander Walker is the alpha-dog of the men in the books – although we may see more of Captain Flint, he never really has the wow factor of Commander Walker.  After five books of being sort of out there in the background, he has the most dramatic entrance of the series during We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea, one of my favourite volumes.  During this novel, the Walkers have been staying on a boat The Goblin which was supposed to stay in Harwich harbour.  During a fog, events occurred, they lost the anchor and the boat drifted out into the North Sea and after a fairly hairy night sailing, the family find themselves headed for Holland.  Forced to hire a pilot with nearly no money to guide their boat into Flushing harbour so they can get help.  As the pilot steers the boat in, unaware that the only crew are children who are hiding below deck, John the eldest glances around uncomfortably, not sure how they’re going to get out of this one.  He looks up at a huge ship and sees someone he recognises.  With a incredulous shout of “John?” on one side and “Daddy!” on the other, we know exactly who this guy is.  What’s more impressive though is that although the tiny boat and the huge ship are going in opposite directions, Ted Walker knows exactly what to do.  Without wasting any time, he just runs to the other side of the ship and jumps from there to The Goblin.  Even better, when he lands, he acts as if it is all the most natural thing in the world until they have some privacy and he can ask a couple of questions.  He is a Cool Dad.

The Blacketts family has a smaller nucleus – Mrs Blackett is a widow with her two daughters.  Despite having been baptised Ruth and Margaret, they have chosen the names Nancy and Peggy.  Reading as an adult, I felt kind of sorry for Mrs Blackett.  She had her brother James (aka Captain Flint) living in a houseboat on the lake and having a large number of bright ideas and exciting projects but who never seemed to stick at anything.  It was heavily implied that she and her brother were orphans who had had a difficult childhood at the hands of their Aunt Maria, who made several appearances in the novels as Nancy and Peggy’s awful Great Aunt who was determined to ruin their fun.  Anyway, after all that, she had found happiness with Mr Blackett but then he died prematurely.  No wonder her daughters were forever worried about her.

Dick and Dorothea

Different from both are the Dick and Dorothea Callum, these two don’t make an appearance until Winter Holiday.  They are the ‘intellectuals’ of the group, which means that everyone thinks that they are utterly useless until it transpires that they know how to ice skate.  Regularly posted off so that their professor father can get some work done, they receive helpful advice in the post from their mother which reveals a benign absent-mindedness at the heart of their family.  As late additions to the series, I found them quite irritating at first, particularly Dorothea whose annoying traits are very similar to my own.  Still, during The Picts and the Martyrs, they showed some pretty fancy footwork that averted disaster more than once.  That book is one of my favourites of the series and it doesn’t even have any of the Swallows.  Not bad going.

Probably the weirdest character is Captain Flint. Rereading this in the same year that Operation Yewtree has been gathering momentum made Nancy and Peggy’s uncle look decidedly fishy.  It’s a sad state of affairs when an adult taking the time to play with children immediately starts to ring alarm bells but I’ve learnt over the past couple of years that the only thing worse than being too paranoid is not opening your eyes to uncomfortable truths.  Jim Turner is a middle-aged man living on a boat and setting up adventures with children, going on holidays with them, participating in their meta-fictional fantasies and generally having a suspicious amount of fun for a man who has no fixed profession or family of his own.  Of course he could just as easily be an immature man-child who is just refusing to grow up.  Either way, he’s odd.

Another aspect which I found confusing was Peter Duck and Missie Lee.  Peter Duck is first mentioned as Titty’s imaginary friend in Swallowdale, but then he is one of the main characters of Peter Duck.  This itself is apparently a story which the Swallows and Amazons told each other during a holiday when it rained too much for them to do anything.  Apparently the opening which described them coming up with it all was discarded but to be honest I think that was a mistake because as an eight year-old, I was confused by how a story that was so different in tone and content could fit in with the books which I had already read.  The beauty of so much of Swallows and Amazons was that they were adventures that you felt that you could have yourself.  Just because you never actually did didn’t mean it wasn’t possible.  Peter Duck and Missie Lee were two stories of adventures on the high seas where death was a real possibility.  I didn’t mind reading about that in other books, I just found it a bit out of place in Swallows and Amazons.  Some kind of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang open and closing sections might have soothed my unease.  It’s an unexpected amount of post modernism in a series that is otherwise pretty heavy about British values.

I think that one thing I really like about this series compared to other more recent series for this age group is that the children are able to go away and have their adventures but then they can go home and tell their families all about it.  They don’t live in the dystopian world of Hunger Games or even the ridiculousness of Twilight – they are just children playing around out of doors.  It’s all the fun minus the trauma – I really don’t like the rise of traumatic children’s fiction.  As I mentioned earlier, I was impressed by Redwall for featuring death in its stories but I can’t imagine how I would have reacted as a child to books featuring sexual violence.  When I was teaching my Year Six class, during a class discussion about mobile phones, one of the girls was very keen to offer to the class that that one of the risks of having a mobile phone was that you might be raped for it because she had read that in a book.  I am all for appropriate education, I really am.  I just think that sensationalism is incredibly unhelpful.

Is this Susan Walker in disguise??

Swallows and Amazons is from a bygone world, it was written pre-war and of course society was never ever quite the same afterwards.  John Walker is being groomed to be a naval commander just like Daddy and given that he managed to get that tiny boat across the North Sea in bad weather, things are looking good for him in his future career.  Susan Walker on the other hand makes the tea, does the cooking and lights the campfire.  She has a very well-equipped First Aid Kit and she is rather obsessive about doing what their parents have told them to do.  And she takes care of Bridget when the youngest of the family is finally allowed to travel with them.  However.  While I recognise that Susan Walker is a bit of a nightmare from a feminist perspective … as is Susan Pevensie fromThe Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe by the way (I have a personal theory that they are the same person appearing in two separate series), I actually don’t have a problem with her myself.  Here’s why:

The Swallows (c)

Titty Walker (renamed Kitty during the film, can’t think what the reasoning was there hmm) is a dreamer and adventurer who rescues kittens from the sea and is the only one who can douse.  Nancy is the hardy adventurer who does battle for her mother against the Great Aunt – in many ways, I still think that Nancy’s bravest hour comes during The Picts and the Martyrs when she endures ten days in a white dress so that the Great Aunt will have no complaints to make.  Just because it’s not physically dangerous doesn’t mean that it’s not a challenge.  Similarly, Peggy although the latter is afraid of thunder.  Dorothea for me is the one that’s problematic because she’s just so dreamy that I can’t take her seriously.  I find myself skipping the long-winded Dorothean internal monologues.  The point is though that Ransome has created a variety of female characters.  Everybody’s different.  Plus, when forced to live as Picts while hiding from the Amazons’ Great Aunt, Dick and Dorothea recognise that if Susan were there, things would run a great deal smoother.  You can’t deny that you’d want Susan around if you were going camping.

This has turned into a much longer post than I was planning and I need to get ready because I’m going out for New Year. The point is that I believe that all children should read Swallows and Amazons, they are books from a pre-Health and Safety world, when a plaster and iodine was all you needed for a bump or a graze, when adventure could be found outdoors rather than in a hideously inappropriate computer game.  I am horrified by how many of my seven year-olds are allowed to play Call of Duty at home – children are so vulnerable and suggestible to images being put in their heads.  Rather than zombies and monsters and men with guns, why not read your children a story of sunny days on the water?  I remember how much these books captured my imagination when I was small and how much they influenced the way that I was playing.  I had my Playmobil and a toy canal boat that I used to send on adventures round my bedroom floor and then I would draw maps of what they had discovered.  It’s all terribly cheesy looking back but I loved it.  These are stories that have much still to offer … better drowned than duffers.  If not duffers, won’t drown.

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Swallows and Amazons (Swallows and Amazons, #1) by Arthur Ransome
Published by Puffin Books on January 1st 1970
Pages: 363
ISBN: 0140301712

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6 thoughts on “Review: Swallows and Amazons, Arthur Ransome

  1. Good piece on re-discovering a childhood book, and some interesting observations in relation to today's children and their reading (or lack of) habits.
    One small point, the character Titty was renamed Kitty for the 1960s BBC TV series (to the annoyance of Arthur Ransome), the 1974 film stuck with the correct name.
    Mike Dennis

  2. I am years and years late with this, clearly, but I felt an urgent need to defend Susan! I think Ransome does a fantastic job of showing that she is enormously capable and responsible; that both the adults and the children respect her and explicitly recognise her as the reason their adventures are possible; and that while she is most definitely a domestic goddess, she is also an excellent sailor (OK, We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea stars John in the captain’s role, but after all Susan sailed that yacht singlehanded across the North Sea at night for several hours while he was sleeping).

    1. Oh I agree – I like Susan, I just think that she and Susan Pevensie are totally the same character. It would be interesting to know Susan Walker’s ultimate fate. I doubt she ended up in the Navy and I always feel that Ransome did her slightly dirty in favour of her younger sister Titty. Titty got a lot of the ‘better’ storylines and seemed like a more ‘fun’ type of character. Susan is the person you want on your team for an expedition but she just doesn’t ever seem particularly easygoing … rather unfair really!

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