As I started to read, I found myself in tears, and I continued tearfully to the end of the chapter? Why should this have been? There was nothing sad in the chapter. It is joyous. The message from the children's father, on a ship at Malta bound for Hong Kong, is that the children are allowed to take the small sailing dinghy, Swallow, they've found in the farm's boathouse, and sail it to the island about a mile offshore, and camp there.
I don't think my tears were of the kind that, as Ed Tan and Nico Frijda (1999) have explained, can occur in fiction when one feels oneself in the presence of something larger than oneself. Nor did they come from any sense of loss of a happy childhood. My childhood was fairly solitary with the predominant tone of having to keep my head down to avoid reprimand. I've had good periods of happiness in my life, but all in adulthood.
My tears could perhaps have been nostalgia (defined as memories of things that never happened) but I think they were a matter of attachment, as when one is reunited with an attachment person after a period of separation and danger. In the first paragraph of Swallows and Amazons, I was suddenly reunited with an object of attachment. I have read all of Ransome's children's books, I think when I was between eight and eleven. I used to own the whole set. I remember them on a bookshelf. They must have been given to me, one by one, by my parents. When my own sons were young, I read some of the books aloud to them when we went on sailing holidays. Each book was read on the boat, in the evening, in the setting of the story: the West Coast of Scotland, the Norfolk Broads, the Essex Backwaters.
My attachment to these books was made at a time when neither my parents nor I knew anything about. sailing. It must have been Ransome's books that implanted in me the desire to sail. I did learn to sail, at one point I built and raced a sailing dinghy. Later I bought a second-hand Hurley-22 in which at weekends and holidays I cruised with my family on the South Coast of England, and I have chartered boats in Scotland, Turkey, Greece, the British Virgin Islands, and the Great Lakes in Canada.
And—strange that this should only have occurred to me now—at the same time that he planted the interest in sailing, it could have been Arthur Ransome who gave me my love of fiction. The opening of Swallows and Amazons provides a perfect example. The prose is transparent. Important elements of fiction are present: the imagination with Roger as a clipper ship, the important shift from exterior to interior (Roger wants to run straight to his mother, but continues tacking), and the interpersonal (Roger's mother is patient, she knows her son needs to tack towards her, and Roger knows that she knows).
In many ways Arthur Ransome was a romantic figure. He was a correspondent for the Manchester Guardian. He reported on the Russian Revolution, he knew Trotsky and Lenin, and fell in love with Evgenia Shelepina, who was working as Trotsky's personal secretary. He may have been a spy for the British Intelligence service, though later he was arrested on orders from MI5 and then released.
Despite the romantic elements, a 2009 biography by Roland Chambers reports Ransome as a bit of a cad, rather out for himself. Diana Wynne Jones, another extremely famous children's writer, confirms in her autobiography (click here) that he had a side that was less than benign. During World War II, she was evacuated as a child to a house on Coniston Water that had been owned by a family who were friends of Ransome. It was the original for the house in front of which Roger's mother stood, as the small boy tacked towards her. Ransome has said that Swallows and Amazons was written because he'd fallen in love with the area when he and his siblings had spent summer holidays there when they were children. Wynne Jones recounts how, one day some children who, like herself had been evacuated there, were playing by the lake and she saw a portly and irate man rowing out towards them from his houseboat. He said angrily that he wasn't going to be disturbed by a parcel of evacuees, and that he would come next morning to complain, which he did, still in a fury. The man was Arthur Ransome. "He hated children" said Wynne Jones. His books indicate that he had had a glorious childhood, but the incident Wynne Jones reports seems to suggest he could no longer remember being a child. Perhaps the best of him, as of certain other writers, was in his books. Swallows and Amazons and the books that followed it seem to be pure gifts.
Roland Chambers (2009). The last Englishman: The double life of Arthur Ransome. London: Faber & Faber.
Arthur Ransome (1930). Swallows and Amazons. London: Cape.
Ed Tan & Nico Frijda (1999). Sentiment in film viewing. In C. Plantinga & G. M. Smith (Eds.), Passionate views: Film, cognition, and emotion (pp. 48-64). Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.