Arthur Ransome, Swallows and Amazons (London: Vintage Books, 2015 (1930))
Coot Club (London: Jonathan Cape, 2009 (1934))
Secret Water (London: Vintage Children’s Classics, 2014 (1939))
Arthur Ransome (1884-1967) wrote dozens of books that were a feature of many English bookshelves when I grew up, and I remember two hefty hardbacks in our home: Swallows & Amazons and Coot Club. A paperback of the latter, which I still have, was a Christmas present when I was seven – you can see the Ransome line drawings for the cover of this Puffin edition to the left.
These are perennials being printed in new editions even now: a fresh set of marvelous front cover illustrations is reviewed here, and there is the timeless series by Jonathan Cape, printed on higher quality paper and available in hard and paperback.
It was a delight to revisit Swallows & Amazons (the title of both a book and the series of a dozen stories), and to read Coot Club for the first time along with Secret Water. The books are wonderfully illustrated, in spare black ink lines by Ransome himself, though at one point he claims to have been helped by one of the children who feature in the series (perhaps the character’s real life model really did help him). The illustrations are matched by quality of writing; although it has some vocabulary from the 1930s, it’s never dated and is full of perky-pawky playfulness.
Mostly set in the English Norfolk Broads or Lake District, these are engaging, reassuring stories about good-hearted, venturesome, competent children, who are given astonishing latitude by their parents to mess about in boats. They either get caught up in adventures, or failing that, invent them. While there is no mention of Health & Safety features such as life belts, the children seem guided by their mastery of sailing combined with common sense and parental trust. Even when they war with each other, there are rules they all subscribe to, pure ‘fair play’.
Parents barely feature except to equip or authorize adventures, before getting out of the way. In Swallows & Amazons, father’s permission comes with telegrammatic pithiness: ‘BETTER DROWNED THAN DUFFERS IF NOT DUFFERS WONT DROWN’ (p. 3) and mother happily runs up some home-made canvas tents on her sewing machine so her children can camp on an island in the lake. Once they have set up camp, she rows over to tactfully inspect, reminds them that the youngest can’t swim yet, then rows back to shore.
Several times while reading I wondered if we mollycoddle children today or if parents were more cavalier about safety, or if it was just an era of greater security allowing a more relaxed and humorous attitude. Hard to know, although I was chastened in my libertarian attitudes when I learned from Rosling’s Factfulness that it was relatively common for young children to drown in the past (he himself came close).
‘You know you’ve only got about three days left. We are going home at the end of the week. It would be a pity if two or three of you were to get drowned first.’ (Swallows & Amazons, p. 348)
The parents usually set a few rudimentary ground rules. In Secret Water, the father gives them a sketchy map which sounds like a starting point for every human life, on which he marks a single ‘out of bounds’ area of water. But these limitations are sometimes flouted, albeit unintentionally, as apparent in the cheery title of another story in the series: We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea.
There is an uncomplicated foursquare goodness to these stories which appeals to my simplicity, and I never found the children ‘too good to be true’. Their relationships with each other and with an assortment of adults are kind, robust and open, and I (re)learned fine words for telling people (including myself) that they’re being daft: galoots, gartless, lummocks, duffers.
In Coot Club, they spend most of the book dodging a group of loud and obnoxious adults – city idiots who don’t understand boats or wildlife – after one of the children sets their boat adrift to save a coot’s nest. The stupid adults, who blare gramophone or radio music at all hours, determine to catch the kids and teach them a lesson. An older lady, whom the children call The Admiral, takes them with her for a sailing trip and helps them avoid capture. She’s really the kind of Admiral we all need pacing our foredecks:
I am neither a parent nor a professional children’s book reviewer, but when I think of the children I know, I would recommend this for any between the ages of 6 and 12… noting that I enjoyed reading these books in my own right as a (mostly) ‘grown up’.
Ransome’s writing also zips with throwaway lines which could refreshingly replace half the pious dull-as-suet-pudding life advice lobbed around the internet, instead imparting underrated life skills such as irreverence and general lightening up. Enjoy a week’s worth of wisdom in the quotations alongside and below. Read them, tick that ‘personal development’ box, and then relax in a hammock or go sailing until next weekend, or month, or year.
Note: all page references are to the editions in the opening titles.
“Admirals never do take the wheel. They just hang about and try not to get in the way. Brother Richard always says that’s how you can tell a good one. He knows, because he was in the Navy during the War.”
(Coot Club, p. 290)
‘Where do we begin?’ asked Roger.
‘With breakfast,’ said Susan.
(Secret Water, p. 74)
He was steering because, alone of his crew, he could manage the tiller with one hand and a pork pie in the other without danger of running the Teasel into the reeds. Sitting on the coaming that ran around the well, he could even manage to hold a bottle of lemonade between his knees.
(Coot Club, p. 215)
On time management:
‘I’ve done the most awful thing. I’ve gone and left my alarm clock in the Goblin.’
‘Good,’ said Roger. ‘We’ll be able to go to bed just when we like.’
(Secret Water, p. 61)
On planning and productivity:
“Important meeting?” asked his Mother.
“Very,” said Tom. “It’s to plan what we’re going to do with the last two weeks of the holidays.” …
After all there were two weeks of the holidays left. And you can do a lot in two weeks.
(Coot Club, p. 39 and 43)
‘There’s the boat coming now,’ she said. ‘Roger, you must be sleepy, or you’d have seen it.’
‘I’m not sleepy,’ said Roger. ‘I wasn’t looking. You can be wide awake, and not see a thing when you aren’t looking.’
(Swallows & Amazons, p. 63)