Tuesday, 15 July 2008

To the Summit of Kanchenjunga

I can't remember which came first: was I trying to recreate something that made a deep impression on me as a child, or had I been reading about Arthur Ransome's activities at the time of the Russian Revolution? Either way, not so long ago I found myself re-reading Swallows and Amazons.

Yes, it has its shortcomings. The characters can be wooden: Titty dreams, while Susan builds fires. Roger pulls everyone's leg, while John (perhaps the most fallible and the least wooden) broods on his ability to fulfil his parents' expectations.

The formula has quite a lot going for it: the quartet of children who are the main characters in CS Lewis' Narnia stories (written after Swallows and Amazons) bear an uncanny resemblance to the Swallows. And perhaps I'm guilty of judging the stories by a yardstick they were never intended to be judged by. They do their job. The characters may have a tendency to be wooden, but once you've read about their adventures it's hard to stand on the banks of Coniston Water, overlooking Peel Island, without imagining the Swallows camping in its dense woodland, or the Amazons moored in the secret harbour which actually exists among the rocks at the southern end.

I've touched here on a quality the stories share with those other famous works of “good bad” fiction, the Sherlock Holmes stories. Both lead the imagination of their readers to entwine fiction and reality, albeit in slightly different ways. Fans of Conan Doyle are famous for searching the texts for clues about the “real life” of Holmes and Watson. Fans of Ransome are drawn to his locations, which are sometimes real and sometimes composite creations based on his haunts in the Lake District and Norfolk. The fact that he based the children (whatever he said later) on members of the non-fictional Alhounian family and often inspired (and was inspired by) the adventurousness of the children he knew also fuels speculation as to who inspired his characters. If, like me, you live quite close to the Lake District, it is easy to get caught up in it.

For example, it is quite possible that Ransome based the tearaway Captain Nancy and her sister Peggy at least partly on two children he knew: the sisters Pauline and Georgina Rawdon-Smith (1). Not long ago I read George Melly's three volumes of autobiography, Owning Up. I was interested to see that one of his wartime London friends was also a Pauline Rawden-Smith. Were both Paulines one and the same? I've no evidence either way, but I like to think so. If one were to write a fictional account of Captain Nancy's adult life it would be hard to improve on her living it up in the dives of wartime London with the adventurous, anarchic surrealist. [A 2010 update: yes, the two Paulines were one and the same].

I finished Swallows and Amazons raring to have a go at the sequel, Swallowdale. This, it turned out, is quite a book. It is hard to think of any moment in any other books in the series to match its epiphanic climax. In case you haven't read it, I won't go into it. Needless to say, I went on to the other books and followed the children's fortunes through their expedition to the North Pole (in Winter Holiday - more of this later), their efforts at gold mining and their hair-raising voyage to Holland – not to mention their perilous encounters with the Great Aunt.

Great Aunt Maria, more commonly referred to as “the G.A.,” is one of a group of adult characters who are, in a way, more interesting than the central children. Nancy and Peggy are children of a single-parent family. Their father, Bob Blackett, is dead. They live with their mother, Molly Blackett, who shares a house with her brother, Uncle Jim (aka Captain Flint). We see, through the eyes of the children, the obvious problems faced by adults coping in such a situation. Mrs Blackett is caught between the thoughtfully laissez faire, charismatic Jim (with whom her natural sympathies lie) and the strict Victorian values of the G.A., who considers it her duty to come and stay from time to time to advise Jim and Molly on the girls' upbringing. Terrible arguments about the way the girls are raised take place off-stage and Mrs Blackett is often visibly upset. The books' allusions to this unseen, ongoing drama is one of Ransome's strengths.

Jim understands children better than most. Although he lives with his sister, he frequently travels abroad or retreats to his houseboat on the lake. On one occasion he returns from his travels to find his houseboat taken over by the children, who have made it the base for their Polar Expedition, renamed it the Fram (after Nansen's ship) and eaten all his provisions! He immediately realises that they have simply followed where their imaginations have led them, and so falls in with their plans. He clearly sees the difference between “bad” behaviour and behaviour that seems reasonable to children living in a child's world. (It should be said he also has a motive for so doing, as he cares deeply for the well-being of his nieces and is aware of the importance of good friends to the larger-than-life though potentially vulnerable Nancy).

In the end I re-read all the books, except Missee Lee and Peter Duck. These are stories within stories, fantasies invented by the children, and as such never appealed to me. Nowhere in the books I read did I seem to find any hint of Ransome's elusive politics. There was an all-pervasive humanism. There is a lot about values, decency, the love of nature and the spirit of fantasy and adventure. I don't remember there being any reference to religion: the nearest we get, as I remember, are the draconian strictures of the G.A. as to appropriate behaviour on a Sunday. All the ritual in the stories (and there is quite a lot) is carried out away from the adult gaze and usually involves a reversion to the primitive. Ransome's most sympathetic characters value the decencies of civilisation while remaining in touch with their “inner savages”.

His children often refer to the adults as “natives” (in the first book they even invent a stupid pretend language to communicate with them, which Ransome subsequently -and sensibly- dropped). The children are the “explorers”,and though they often invent games which mimic the likes of Nansen, they are not extending the boundaries of civilisation and civilised knowledge as the "natives" understand it. Rather, they are literally redrawing the maps of the world around them, rediscovering and renaming things the "natives" around them, who consider themselves to be civilised, take for granted. The term "friendly natives" is reserved for those adults who recognise the limits of this civilisation. For the child explorers, exploration is an act of rediscovery and renewal - and this, surely, touches on the political, in the broadest sense.

Perhaps any political theme to the stories is so over-arching that it is almost impossible to see. And yet, who makes the audacious plans? Who is frequently credited with drawing the maps in the books? Who adopts a pseudonym (her real name is Ruth)? Who, to return again specifically to Winter Holiday, announces the start of the Polar Expedition (albeit unwittingly) by raising a scarlet flag? If we need to look for real life models for the character of Captain Nancy we should perhaps look not only to children known to Ransome but also at his earlier friend, VI Lenin (real name Ulyanov). One could even compare Nancy's late arrival at the North Pole having been prevented from leaving Beckfoot by the mumps with Lenin being delayed in Europe before finally arriving at the Finland Station (2). If all this sounds fanciful, it is only because being a friend of Lenin in itself sounds fanciful. If any other less famous or controversial friend of Ransome's had been a born charismatic leader who lived under a pseudonym, raised a red flag and been delayed from taking part in a plan he had played a major role in shaping, his biographers would have rooted him out long ago.

I'm not suggesting that the stories abound in allegory, any more than the maps in the books are actual representations of the Lake District. However, they do seem to contain interesting allusions and themes relating to Ransome's experience of the Russian Revolution, his feelings about it and the people involved in it. He would be a very unusual writer if they didn't. Was he aware of them? Possibly. Surely, in the case of Winter Holiday. Did he want people to see them? He was shrewd enough, surely, never to let us know directly. What we do know is that he wrote (and wanted children to read) dramatic stories about young explorers who set out to remap the world. And that, I think, speaks for itself.

(1) Hardyment, Christina, Arthur Ransome: Captain Flint's Trunk, Francis Lincoln Ltd 2006

(2) These are not the only possible allusions. Take, for example, Nancy's and the explorers' determined efforts to communicate during her illness and isolation. Winter Holiday is a book about the enforced exile of a leader.


The Solitary Walker said...

This is fascinating, Dominic. I really enjoyed reading it.

The Weaver of Grass said...

Interesting article but am not sure I want to know this - surely the book can be enjoyed just for the narrative alone? From The Weaver of Grass

Dominic Rivron said...

Of course, books should be picked up, read and enjoyed. But there are lots of reasons why a reader might want delve further. For a start, as the solitary walker says, it's fascinating. (For example, if the beck that runs past your house might have been the model for the river in Wind in the Willows, it's nice to know).
It is also the case that a culture appropriates its heros and its texts and interprets them to its own ends.
"Our culture" is a diverse thing, and where our paths diverge, we argue over the meaning of our texts and the heroism, or lack of it, of our heroes.
So in a way, it's impossible to read a book "for the narrative alone", because readers bring all kinds of cultural assumptions with them when they try to do so. They don't read the text, they read what they want and expect the text to be.
This is inevitable. However, if you ask me, it is refreshing to question assumptions - it can add to, rather than detract from, one's enjoyment of the narrative.
This, just to be clear, is not the same thing as looking "hidden meanings" in a text which are somehow supposed to enhance our understanding of the story. Nancy raises a scarlet flag because she happens to have a scarlet flag. For all I know (without going back to the book to check) it started life as Mrs Blackett's tablecloth. It's just interesting that Ramsome's imagination led him to leave it lying about at Beckfoot.

The Solitary Walker said...

Aha... the old Leavis v. Barthes debate, eh?

I don't think it's possible nowadays to consider a work of art in a vacuum outside its historical, cultural and politiacl context, surely?

Dominic Rivron said...

I couldn't put it better myself.

Duncan Hall said...

You know, you might just be right!

Dominic Rivron said...

Thanks for this, Duncan. Having read the post on Ransome's politics on your blog, I was hoping you'd drop by!