Thursday 8 July 2010

Re-reading Swallows and Amazons

One afternoon last weekend, I opened Swallows and Amazons, by Arthur Ransome, and read the first chapter. It starts with the seven-year-old Roger, running in wide zigzags up a hill from a lake towards where his mother is standing in front of a farm house where his family is staying for the summer holidays. Instead of running directly towards his mother, which he is tempted to do, because she is holding an envelope in which he thinks, correctly, is a message from his father for which he and and his siblings have been waiting, he continues to run in zigzags. He is a clipper ship tacking against the wind.

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.

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Alison Waller said...

Keith, this is a really fascinating post. I am currently undertaking some research on adults rereading children's books (particularly those that have not been revisited since childhood) and am interested in the kinds of emotional and intellectual processes that emerge from this activity - exactly the issues you are discussing here. Some of my participants have explained that they enjoyed Ransome's work as children because it contained useful 'facts' about sailing and other outdoor activities. I wonder if you enjoyed them for the same reasons and whether you feel the same about that instructional element of the books now that you have your own knowledge of sailing from experience.

Incidentally, I highly recommend Marcus Sedgwick's _Blood Red, Snow White_ (Orien Children's, 2007), which is a wonderful mixture of fable and fictionalised auto/biography based on Ransome's intriguing time in Russia. Compelling and brilliantly told.

Keith Oatley said...

Thank you so much, Alison, for this comment. What a wonderful study: to research the revisiting of children's books that have not been read since childhood. I find the idea that some of your participants explaining that they learned useful facts about sailing rather intriguing. If I had been a participant in your study this response would never have occurred to me. As I said in my post, I think the main effect on me was motivational, something similar to my reading of Love in the time of cholera having given me the desire to visit Cartagena, but much stronger. I did fall in love with sailing, and the love affair lasted for many years. The fact that (for me at least) the world of water and tides and wind really is another world, and that every time I went out sailing I would learn something new were parts of what made sailing so interesting. So now things to do with sailing seem just ordinary knowledge, along the lines of if you want to post a letter you need to put a stamp on it, and I felt recently rather sorry for people in our reading group because we read a Joseph Conrad recently The end of the tether (wonderful) and some people were a bit mystified by some of the nautical terminology. Perhaps these people, too, would say—like some of your participants—that they learned facts about sailing.

And thank you so much for the tip about the Marcus Sedgwick book. I will get hold of it and read it.

formerly a wage slave said...

Dear Keith,

Like Alison I find this a fascinating piece. It’s precisely the sort of thing that keeps me coming back to “On Fiction” and feeling intensely pleased.

And it makes me think about how the flip side of attachment is loss. In my own life, I have been amazed by the way in which just the thought (seriously entertained) of moving from a place can reveal one’s attachments—attachments which weren’t really noticed or given their weight because they had become so ordinary. And, if one is contemplating moving, one does experience a sense of loss—or, perhaps, one anticipates the experience of loss.

But that anticipated loss is, I think, very different from the real loss experienced by émigrés, as described in Kundera’s novel “Ignorance” or in Eva Hoffman’s memoir “Lost in Translation”. There is in that experience something like helplessness or, even, a painful sense of inevitability akin, perhaps, to the awareness of one’s own mortality. Someone who recalls their youth in their homeland seems to receive a double dose of nostalgia.

Anyway, I enjoyed reading this very much, and I shall have to read it again.

(Actually, I wish I had more time to dip into your archive. I am sure there are more gems like this one to be found!)

Keith Oatley said...

Thank you very much, Mark, for this comment. I am glad you found the piece pleasing. I was worried that it might be a bit soppy.

But I think you are right that much of our attachment to place, in childhood or adulthood, isn't attachment in its common-or-garden connotation, but attachment in its developmental psychological connotation, and that is what can make it stirring and profound.

And I am delighted that you like our site, and find it worthwhile.

Keith Oatley said...

I'm in London at the moment and, still thinking about how Arthur Ransome could be such a delightful and sensitive writer about childhood and such a grumpy old man, I just came across this in the programme of Alan Bennett's new play The habit of art about W.H. Auden and Benjamin Britten: "Real artists are not nice people. All their best feelings go into their work and life has the residue." W.H. Auden.

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