Swallowdale was the first of the Arthur Ransome books I read. Like so many of the things I picked up and read or listened to as a child, it was already there, belonging to one of my older sisters. There are a whole range of things that belong in this category, from Beatles for Sale to Sinatra/Basie and a life-long love of radio. Happenstance: if you’re not careful you might end up not believing in free will.
Probably because it was the first, it remains my favourite. Winding back, later on, to read Swallows and Amazons, the first book, I was underwhelmed, although I did go on to read them all. And it was a little like the Beatles became for me. While someone else certainly owned the first Beatles records in the house, it was me who bought the rest of them. And Swallowdale may have been always-already-there, it was me who bought and borrowed the rest of the books, burning through them all over a couple of years in my obsessive way.
Nancy Blackett was my first literary secret girlfriend. Where the Walker children were safe and sensible (just as I have always – annoyingly – been myself), Nancy was a force of nature: impulsive, quick-witted, imbued with a kind of malice-free rebellion and so much more the person I have always wished I could be.
The Swallows and the Amazons have been on my mind of late; I was called upon to do a Book Day assembly, and preparing it well in advance, I was pondering the question of the books you wish you could live inside. This is a question Simon Mayo asks on his Books of the Year podcast (although I think he says step inside, which for me is a different thing). I asked my daughters: one of them said Twilight, and the other said the Moomin series. And I realised that my answer – notwithstanding my pathological seasickness – was Swallows and Amazons.
Sure, sure, this could be accused of being a white, middle-class fantasy land, but since Ransome doesn’t ever describe the children, I think you can picture them any way you want. They were white in the film, sure, but if you want to make a Benetton Rainbow version, you won’t find me writing editorials complaining about it. The thing about escapism is escape. You can leave this hum-drum world behind, just as Ransome’s characters were leaving behind the turbulent and depressing 1930s. I found the 1974 film on Amazon (fnar) and watched it again, and I think it gets better every time I see it. The recent restoration makes it look wonderful, and the decision to cast the kids for their sailing skills and not their acting chops was a stroke of good luck.
Re-reviewing Swallowdale for the Guardian in 2004, Natasha Walter asserted that ‘nothing, really, happens’ in the book, which is an extraordinary claim if you actually read it, the sort of claim that can only be made by someone who has forgotten what it is to be a child running free in the summer holidays — or perhaps never had that experience. She calls the world of S & A as much a fantasy as Harry Potter, and I suppose I know what she means, but as someone who would sometimes leave the house first thing in the morning and not return until sunset, it’s not so far from my own early teens. I was running around the Blows Downs and up Bennet’s Rec, and for at least two summers I had two friends who were as much like the Blacketts as two girls in the Southern England of the 1970s could be. The main difference is setting, of course: the Lakes and the Broads being a far more exciting and dramatic environment than landlocked Bedfordshire. And the real fantasy element of Swallows and Amazons in the hungry 1930s was food: lemonade, chocolate, and bun cake, and frying trout you caught yourself in butter over a camp fire.
Anyway, loads happens in Swallowdale. A shipwreck, climbing a mountain, getting lost in the fog, catching an enormous fish, escaping from the Great Aunt, and the entire literary geography of the Lake District dreamscape. Arthur Ransome, master spy and world traveller, took the extraordinary events of his own life and miniaturised them into a microcosmic ship in a bottle of adventure. Come Winter Holiday, his world of spycraft and secret signals is a snow globe. But Swallowdale is a wonderful book, a codex of maps and dreams written by the poet laureate of the absent father.