“I had a private rite to perform. Without letting the others know what I was doing, I had to dip my hand in the water, as a greeting to the beloved lake or as a proof to myself that I had indeed come home. In later years, even as an old man, I have laughed at myself, resolved not to do it, and every time have done it again.” (26)
“Those who rewrite history must see to it that no contradictory witnesses survive. Once history has been rewritten there is always a temptation to rewrite it again.” (317)
Last autumn, my neck of the woods was chilly and damp and grey, with the wind veering between raw and buffeting, blowing off hats and tossing litter along the street, and sneakily piercing, penetrating even the most carefully layered items of clothing, the best insulated houses – of which there aren’t many around here. I had a really miserable attack of the flu. During this time, after I’d hydrated and medicated and steamed and wrapped up warm, the only solace I found was in reading books I enjoyed as a kid – books which transported me far away from the sneezy and self-pitying present to a simpler time and place, where holidays seemed to last forever, when thunderstorms were exciting, where adventures were just around the corner and ended with a cup of hot cocoa. One of the best comfort-reads ever, in my opinion, is Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons series.
Written between 1929 and 1940, they centre on the adventures of the Swallows (named after their boat), the Walker family, two girls and two boys aged 8 to about 15 (I would hazard), and their deadly enemies and best friends the Amazons, two girls in their early teens and self-styled pirates. These adventures mostly consist of sailing (all the children know their way about a boat and some of the most effective passages surprisingly involve descriptions of ropes and sails and ballast), fishing, camping and climbing in the Lake District. They band together against unfriendly grownups (though their own parents are of the right sort), they play Robinson Crusoe, and generally spend their holidays rejoicing in the unfettered freedom to explore both water and land, get lost in moorland fogs, accidentally sail to Holland, catch all the fish they can eat and mount daring raids and skirmishes against each other. They’re great fun, and I’d recommend them for kids aged 7-13, I guess, as well as adults wanting uncomplicated and soothing reading.
After I’d got well again, I came across Arthur Ransome’s (1884-1967) autobiography and being interested in literary lives and suchlike, I thought I’d give it a shot. It was fascinating. Despite the usual problem of autobiographies in which anecdotes involve people one hasn’t heard of and doesn’t know, it manages to remain an interesting portrait of the man, his travels and his times.
Ransome was born and grew up in the North of England, and had an unhappy time at his public school, due partly to the fact that he could see very little without his glasses. The teachers were oppressive, his companions cruel, and curiously the censorship of letters home foreshadows Ransome’s experiences as a journalist in Russia during the Revolution. This theme of miserable public school days seems to be not uncommon among childrens’ writers of the first half of the twentieth century; C.S. Lewis and Roald Dahl spring to mind. Perhaps the experience of rigidly regimented term times among unpleasant characters contribute to the sense of escape and camaraderie in their novels. Summer holidays in the Lake District provided a welcome change and later obviously influenced Swallows and Amazons. After a year of unsuccessfully studying chemistry at Yorkshire College, he gave up and went to London to pursue his dream of a writing career, working in various publishing houses, and giving himself the literary education he desired; he attributed his later problems with ulcers to the fact that he often bought books instead of food.
Ransome married an unstable woman named Ivy, and had a daughter who fades out of the narrative after five brief mentions, her eventual fate left untold. In 1913 Ransome went to Russia to study folklore for a series of fairy-tales; this is when the autobiography gets really interesting, as he gets swept up in the events preceding the Revolution, partly because of his rudimentary self-taught Russian, partly because of his press pass, and partly due to ending up in the most dangerous places at dangerous times.
Told in the same lucid, measured prose as Swallows and Amazons, Ransome reports the tensions and moods of the Russian people and political parties as the Germans advance and morale among Russian soldiers and people crumbles. Ironically, he has no interest in politics; when asked to define his leanings by the British Foreign Office, he answers “fishing.” This, in his opinion, gives him a clarity of perspective on the injustices perpetuated by the Tsarist regime as well as the fanaticism of the Bolsheviks, Mensheviks, and other socialist parties. Ransome recounts the occasional atrocity on both sides, examines the motives behind the machinations of both secret police and undercover anarchist, and analyses the rhetoric of Lenin and Trotsky among others. Ransome ends up fleeing Petrograd with Trotsky’s secretary Evgenia, who becomes his wife. He also, according to his narrative, plays a great deal of chess with Red and White officers, drinks vast amounts of tea with ordinary people, and carried messages between “Esthonia” and what was to become the Soviet Union. The narrative is so detailed that it keeps the reader firmly in the present with him; the occasional glimpses of hindsight almost come as a shock, particularly when they deal with the fates of his friends (whose names vaguely echo down to me from high school history classes):
The revolution eats its children, and almost all the revolutionary leaders of that time have since been removed by execution or other violent means. My friend Vorovsky was murdered in Switzerland. My friend Bukharin, the most interesting talker of them all, after Lenin, was shot in 1937. Rykov: shot; Krestinsky: shot; Zinoviev: shot; Kamenev: shot; Trotsky: murdered in Mexico. I do not know whether Radek is alive or dead. (I do not think he ever came back from banishment to Tobolsk.) (265)
This is a grim litany, enhanced by its dispassionate tone; bleak times lie ahead as Ransome notes the efforts of Stalinist propaganda to erase these men from history.
Yet Ransome does not solely deal with famine, secret diplomatic messages and harrowing travels through occupied territory where even with two sets of papers a mistake could cost a man’s life; he finds time for sailing in the Baltic Sea and the Gulf of Finland, and fishing on the Esthonian coast and Finnish archipelago. Later he travels in Egypt, (a section which drags a bit) and after that decides that journalism is no longer for him and decides to try and earn a full-time living with writing. Swallows and Amazons, a tale of a carefree summer, was the result.
I realise this book has a very niche sort of interest; I’d definitely recommend the book to lovers of Swallows and Amazons, and those who enjoy travellers’ tales, perhaps those who like reading personal accounts of historical events, but I’m not sure who else would find it as fascinating as I did.
Ransome, Arthur. The Autobiography of Arthur Ransome. Ed. Rupert Hart-Davies. London: Jonathan Cape, 1976.
Original blogpost at funkyfacecat.wordpress.com.