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British Children Have More Fun
by Georges T. Dodds

With the critical acclaim for Susanna Clarke's tale of 19th century magicians in London (Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell: A Novel), the popularity of Worst Witch, a TV series set in a British private girl's school for witches, and the Harry Potter series, it is clear that British wizards and magicians are seeing a wave of popularity not experienced since the days of John Dee, and that this magic is particularly popular when placed in the hands of pre-teen wielders. However, it is a different sort of magic -- that of the outdoors, of Nature, of imagination, of play and of learning and social dynamics it brings to children -- that interests Georges.

[Editor's Note: Here you will find the other British Children Have More Fun columns.

Swallows and Amazons
Arthur Ransome
(London, 1928-1947)

Swallows and Amazons Swallowdale Peter Duck Winter Holiday Coot Club

Arthur Ransome

Arthur Ransome Arthur Ransome C.B.E. 1953, Hon. Litt. D. (Leeds), Hon. M.A. (Durham) was born in Leeds in 1884 and educated at Rugby. As a child, Arthur spent much of his vacation in sailing, camping and exploring the countryside in England's Lake Country near Lake Coniston and Lake Windermere -- these adventure were to later inspire his Swallows and Amazons books.

He began eking out a living writing books of literary criticism and on storytelling. In the summer of 1913, he was commissioned to write an English guide to St. Petersburg (Russia). While in Russia, he began work on Old Peter's Russian Tales. With the outbreak of WWI he was recruited by the Daily News as war corespondent from the Eastern Front,and later worked for the Observer.

Friendship with Russian leaders like Vladimir Lenin, and reports sympathetic to the revolution resulted in his arrest upon his return to England in 1919, but he was later released. While in England he wrote Six Weeks in Russia (1919), which resulted in his passport privileges being revoked for a time. He returned to Russia, reporting for the Manchester Guardian and the Observer. In 1924, Ransome married his second wife, Evgenia Shelepin, Leon Trotsky's secretary. Assignments followed in Egypt (1924), and China (1925-26)

In 1925, the Ransomes bought Low Ludderburn, an old farmhouse at the head of the Cartmel Fell valley with views as far as Ingleborough, in Yorkshire, and Helvellyn in the Lakes. They continued to live in northern England after he gave up journalism in 1929. Between 1930 and 1945, he wrote his famous Swallows and Amazons series.

The Arthur Ransome Society
Ransome gravesite
Book covers of Swallows and Amazons Series
Biographical material: 1, 2, 3, 4

Series Titles
Swallows and Amazons (1930)
Swallowdale (1931)
Peter Duck (1932)
Winter Holiday (1933)
Coot Club (1934)
Pigeon Post (1935)
We Didn't Mean to Go to Sea (1937)
Secret Water (1939)
Big Six (1940)
Missee Lee (1941)
Picts and Martyrs (1943)
Great Northern (1947)
Well, if you found Richard Jefferies attitude towards child safety very much politically incorrect, whatever are you to do with Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons series? Pre-teens sailing and even wrecking their small sailboat on a lake in northern England! Some see elements of the first book in the series, Swallows and Amazons, as having originated in Jefferies' Bevis. Certainly if one compares the map of Bevis' lacustrine haunts (esp. rotated 90° clockwise) with that of the lake upon which the Swallows and Amazons have their adventures, one can see strong similarities. This notwithstanding, Ransome, in writing stories which take his heroes and heroines on a great number of adventures, certainly expands a great deal on the original concept.

Of these 12 titles I must confess to have read only the first five, not yet having been able to track down copies of the rest; still, I think these titles are fairly representative of the overall series. In Swallows and Amazons we are introduced to John, Susan, Titty (Letitia), and Roger Walker (the latter 7 years old), British school-children spending their summer holidays with their mother near a lake in northern England. From an overlook they can see a large island, and plan to sail there and camp. After some planning and gathering of equipment and food, they do so, with John as captain of the small sailboat Swallow, Susan as mate, Titty as Able-Seaman, and Roger as ship's boy -- setting up camp on the island they name "Wild Cat Island." They settle into a routine of going to shore each morning to pick up milk and eggs from a farm, fishing between the island and the mainland until the sharks (pike) discover them, and meeting colourful characters such as the charcoal-burners. After having seemingly annoyed the owner of a houseboat, the Swallow is taken, and are they ambushed on their island by two older female pirates, Nancy (Ruth) and Peggy Blackett, master and mate of the sailboat Amazon. The Swallow is returned, but the two groups declare mock war on one another, the spoils to the ones who can capture the other's ship. Night attacks are confounded on both sides, a seemingly successful raid on the island instead stranding some participants on the island. All this eventually leads to the discovery of the stolen belongings of the grumpy man on the houseboat, the Blackett's uncle, Capt. Flint.

The next summer, told in Swallowdale an over-aggressive John pilots the Swallow into a partially submerged rock and sinks her. As the Swallow is being repaired, the Walkers find a secluded dale up a narrow valley, complete with a secret cave, and set up camp there, while the Blacketts are kept at home by great-aunt trouble. They eventually do manage to come to climb great Mount Kanchenjunga with the Walkers; however, with the Blackett girls and John and Susan following the river back down to the lake, Roger and Titty are lost on the moors in a blanket of dense fog, trying to regain their camp at "Swallowdale" across country. Roger injures himself and must be rescued.

The next book, Peter Duck, is by some accounts a fictitious story, made up by the Walker children, around a sailor character of their imagining who "appears" in Swallowdale. There is a sailing on the high seas, nasty pirates, a devastating hurricane, and a treasure hunt on a seismically-active Caribbean island. However, it can certainly be read as a slightly out-of-sequence account of a real occurrence.

In Winter Holiday the heroes of the previous books are joined by the Callum children, Dick and Dorothea, who are staying at the Dixon farm where the Walkers obtained their milk and egg supplies in Swallows and Amazons. Dick brings his knowledge of astronomy to the mix and Dorothea is a budding author, who sees material for the great novel in everything. Together they explore the Arctic wastelands, skating on the and hiking about the frozen lake.

Finally, in Coot Club the action shifts to the many small waterways of the Norfolk Broads. Here Dick and Dorothea are spending the spring holidays with their mother's old schoolteacher, Mrs. Barrable, aboard a small yacht, the Teasel. They meet the members of the Coot Club [Tom of the Titmouse, sisters Bess (Port) and Nell (Starbord) of the Flash, and Bill, Pete and Joe of the Death and Glories] a group devoted to the protecting local birds and sailing about the riverways. When Tom sets a boat of rowdies (hullabaloos) adrift from beside a coots' nest they are disturbing, he makes himself a hunted man. Dodging the "Hullabaloos" takes the Callums, the Teasel, Tom and others on an adventuresome trip through the waterways of Norfolk.

Besides the quasi-absolute freedom the children have (though their mother does get concerned when accidents happen), they have a wonderful imagination, seeing exotic locations and adventures in the Nature around them, Ransome Map imagining and undertaking grand adventures, and trying not to muck things up too much and be labelled "duffers," yet all-in-all being able to make their own fun. Sure, the stories reflect the attitudes of late colonial era -- adults are termed "natives" and are outsiders to the magic of the lake and its surroundings -- much in the same way as the non-wizards are termed "muggles" in Harry Potter. However, both the boys and girls have strong roles in the stories and their individual skills vary. The boy who knows his constellations is as valued by his friends as a girl who can talk like a pirate and build enthusiasm for any project. Both the boys and the girls have strong roles in the stories and their individual skills vary. Susan Walker who is the cook and campsite organizer might seem at first glance to be inferior in status to her brother John, but she has a quiet way of running the outfit. While more conservative in her ways, she isn't prone to the impulsive and sometimes "dufferish" actions of her brothers (John in sinking the Swallow, Roger in injuring himself on the moor). Quietness, self-control and kindness are respected. One of other consequences of their independence is that when problems arise, even though they may fantasize about what their surroundings represent, they must and do figure out a real-world solution for themselves. This is particularly apparent in Coot Club when food must be transferred from one boat to another when both are stuck some distnace apart on a mud flat: a rope link is established between them by a most ingenious means.

The children are clearly of a social class to be able to afford a summer in the Lake District and sailboats and so on, but it neither defines the children nor the books. The children are, however, very very British, pausing for tea, uttering things like "Jolly good!" and have an inordinate knowledge of sailing terminology. Among some of the most wonderful aspects of the books is that the children are generally good, befriending each other with a sense of fair-play, apologizing and being forgiven when they make a mistake.

Lest you think they're all namby-pamby goody-two-shoes kids, they're not, but they're more the strong silent types, and certainly in Peter Duck the boy Bill they pick up at sea after he escapes the pirates' ship is severely beaten as is the old sailor Peter Duck himself, but this is all part of dealing with what life present one. And worse than a pirate is what Blackett's dreaded great aunt can be!

Copyright © 2005 Georges T. Dodds

Georges Dodds is a research scientist in vegetable crop physiology, who for close to 25 years has read and collected close to 2000 titles of predominantly pre-1950 science-fiction and fantasy, both in English and French. He writes columns on early imaginative literature for WARP, the newsletter/fanzine of the Montreal Science Fiction and Fantasy Association and maintains a site reflecting his tastes in imaginative literature.

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