Ransome Notes

Winter Holiday

Picts and the Martyrs

Did you know that the Arthur Ransome books are out of copyright in Canada? I didn’t know this. I still don’t know this. And I did not discover a web site dedicated to bringing Canadian out of copyright works to a wider public. In general though, public domain is a wonderful thing. It spawns creativity like nothing else. I mean, I already have a knockout idea for a S&A sequel.

Having burned through Swallowdale, I spent the rest of the half-term break re-reading other Ransome classics. The first was Winter Holiday, which was definitely a firm favourite of mine. I loved the semaphore details, and “Nancy’s” illustrations of dancing people in the snow sending a secret message.

A key plot driver for Ransome is that There Is Always Something, meaning that gratification has to be delayed. In Swallowdale, a shipwreck and the Great Aunt. In Winter Holiday, mumps. Quarantine! Lockdown! I was discussing all this with my youngest, now 20, who said that in children’s books these days the stakes are often ridiculously high. End-of-the-world, Ultimate-Evil, that kind of thing. Which is where the contemporary “nothing really happens” idea comes from I suppose. But actually, in the world of childhood, the stuffy Great Aunt ruining the fun is all you need in the way of a Big Bad. I compared all this to the Star Trek movies. Because all the fans of the show really wanted was an extended story/episode with a bigger budget. What we definitely didn’t need were all the Earth/Humanity-under-threat, Enterprise blowing up, Spock dying nonsense plots.

Anyway, Winter Holiday is lovely. No sailing, because winter, but the lake might freeze, and then there will be fun. I noticed a couple of other Ransome techniques. First of all, he brings in Dick and Dorothea and we get our first view of the S&As through their eyes. This is a great way of gently easing the new reader into the world. It also keeps Nancy Blackett, Terror of the Seas, in short supply. She is the best character, and she brings masses of energy into every scene she’s in. But she’s not in it much, so the reader is neatly placed in the position of the Ds, who want adventure and excitement, and then find it all a bit overwhelming.

“You see, we lost our food when the sledge turned over and the mast broke …”
“Capsized!” cried Nancy. “Mast gone by the board! Oh, you lucky, lucky beasts!”

Pigeon Post

This one is also great fun, with Not Much Sailing. It has been a long hot summer and the fells are dry and the becks are just dribbles of water. While they wait for the opportunity to sail (the reason they can’t yet doesn’t matter), the children must make do with camping in the back garden, but then they come up with the idea of prospecting for gold in the hills.

There are all kinds of obstacles in the way (not least the drought), and those drive the first third of the book. Instead of semaphore and morse, the signalling system the kids use this time is in the title. What larks pigeons! There’s a mysterious stranger in a floppy hat to contend with; there are old mine workings in the hills, there’s some seriously stupid misadventure, there’s water divining, a fire on the fells. It’s action packed, and the children’s spycraft is superb.

Pigeon Post is really what I would call competency porn. As well as finding a good camp site and fending for themselves, the kids go hunting for minerals, then make their own charcoal so they can build a brazier and try to extract pure metal from ore. Playing with fire, of course, but there’s your tension.

The Picts and the Martyrs

Still half-way through this, but it too is a joy. Another one with the stuffy Great Aunt and the Ds exiled to a stone hut in the woods while the Blackett girls try to appease the beast. There’s more Ransome spycraft here. As well as the pigeons and the signals, there are dead drops, caches, wilderness survival skills, and the recruitment of agents into the conspiracy.

When I first read these books as a child, I had never read any Le Carré, and Emile and the Detectives was as close as I ever got to the espionage genre. But now I’ve decided that the S&A series was my first exposure to the secret world. Can you trust the doctor? The postman? The kid who delivers the milk? Each new person involved in the conspiracy brings it closer to disaster.

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