Arthur Ransome famously said he didn’t write for children but for himself, and it shows in the series of books which begins with ‘Swallows and Amazons’. He and his characters are having a wonderful time. The first book was inspired by adventures he had with his brother and two sisters when they were young and on holiday at the south end of Coniston Water in the Lake District. As he says in the Author’s Note, ‘Swallows and Amazons grew out of those old memories. I could not help writing it. It almost wrote itself.’
I can’t remember when I first read it, or whether it was read to us before I tackled it myself, but when we moved to the Lake District ‘Swallows and Amazons’ and its sequels gained a new excitement and relevance which I can still remember. We didn’t have sailing dinghies, but we did have the use of a rowing boat on Crummock Water, and my brothers and I would go out to two tiny islands and look for ‘treasure’ and for bird’s nests, and I longed for a camp just like the one in ‘Swallowdale’.
Granted that the books are very much of their time – ‘Swallows and Amazons’ was first published in 1930 – and that the children involved are definitely from well off upper-middle class families, the stories still have a wide appeal. The adventures the children have are within the reach of most modern children, (adventure centres and Scouting groups around the country now enable anyone to learn to sail a simple dinghy and to go camping) and the Swallows’ imaginations work as most children’s do.
I recently saw a most enjoyable stage production of Swallows and Amazons, and thanks to the drawing out of the comedy in some of the dated attitudes, the children present became totally involved in it. The only drawback for me was a fresh realisation of just how annoying Susan is with her grown-up ‘We can’t do that!’ attitude. I wanted to get up and thump her, and then to change my name! What is it about the way Susans are portrayed in books? – Susan Pevensey in the Chronicles of Narnia is just as bad!!
My grandparents had a full set of the books down at Four Mile Bridge on Anglesey, and I remember lying in bed in the little white-painted room above the front porch reading my favourite of all Arthur Ransome’s twelve books about children and boats, ‘Secret Water’. This tells how the children are left to make a map of low-lying islands, creeks and inlets on the Suffolk coast not far from Pin Mill. I fell in love with the character who was known as the Mastodon because he could walk across the mud on splatchers, which left huge round footprints, and who lived in an old hull.
Perhaps older children wouldn’t enjoy the books as much today as I did, they grow up too fast, but their appeal amongst the eights to twelves has lasted well. Sadly I have a suspicion that not all of them are still in print. But it’s true that as I wander around the Lake District my responses to the lakes and fells, and particularly to the small islands scattered here and there, are still influenced by the child in me who sees them as the Swallows and Amazons would have done, and enjoys imagining the adventures that could be had on them.