Children, as any parent will tell you, are innocent beings whose sensibilities it is the first duty of every parent to protect. They are sensitive, impressionable marshmallows, easily swayed, all too often led astray. St Ignatius of Loyola warns us that if he is given the child he will mould the man; Lenin likewise cautions, ‘Give us the child for eight years [or, according to some sources, four] and it will be a Bolshevik forever.’ As thunder tails lightning, it follows that the greatest care must be taken when giving children anything to read.
I can vouch for this as a parent myself; also as someone whose children grew up in the deep shadow cast by Harry Potter. I was more fortunate. Well before the age of reason I was drip-fed Edward Lear, Lewis Carroll, Richmal Crompton, Anthony Buckeridge, C. S. Lewis and, above all, Arthur Ransome and his Swallows and Amazons series.
Born in 1884, Ransome was the eldest son of a Leeds academic. He sought fame and fortune as a writer in Edwardian London and achieved notoriety when he was accused of libelling Lord Alfred Douglas in his 1912 biography of Oscar Wilde. He eventually made his name as a Manchester Guardian journalist covering the Russian Revolution, when he also eloped with Trotsky’s secretary Evgenia Petrovna Shelepina, whom he would marry. Eventually returning to England, he refused a permanent post as the Guardian’s foreign correspondent, determined to make his way as a children’s novelist.
The Swallows and Amazons books were something of a novelty in focusing on children’s outdoor holiday adventures; they celebrated Ransome’s own love of sailing with a level of knowledge and detail that was unprecedented; and their exemplary narratives reflected the author’s extensive study of New World and Continental, as well as English, storytelling. Yet of the twelve books published between 1930 and 1948, it is for the five set in the English Lake District that Ransome is best remembered. The two tall tales Peter Duck and Missee Lee, the East Coast novels (Secret Water and We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea) and the coda Great Northern? are less celebrated, as are the pair set on the Norfolk Broads: Coot Club (1934) and its sequel The Big Six (1940). This is a pity.
Some of the best English writers have taken their inspiration from our meadows, coppices and hedgerows, our downs, uplands and wet- lands, our coloured counties and blue remembered hills. Ransome stands high among them. ‘If you know a bit of country really well,’ he wrote, ‘it takes a very active part in the making of your book. You can count on it. It is always there and, somehow or other, life flows from it into your story.’
The landscape of the lakes, where Ransome was schooled and where he lived for much of his adult life, certainly infuses the first book of the series. Swallows and Amazons (1930) features the Walker and Blackett children, the title taken from their sailing dinghies, the vividly rendered setting an amalgam of the lakes of Windermere and Coniston. The peak in Darien, the Amazon River and Wild Cat Island are as much a part of the story as the master of revels, the tomboy Nancy Blackett. Much the same can be said of the sequels Swallowdale (1931) and Winter Holiday (1933). In the second of these Ransome brilliantly evoked the Great Frost of 1895 that saw Winder- mere frozen from end to end.
There was the lake, and the moonlight pouring down on the white hills on the farther side. And there, out in the bay, lay the Fram, dark and motionless, frozen in the Arctic ice.
In Winter Holiday, Ransome also introduced two new characters, the metropolitan outsiders Dorothea Callum and her brother Dick. The one is a novelist manqué, the other a budding Einstein – though that makes them sound far stuffier than the thoroughly endearing pair they are.
In Coot Club he gives the Callums an adventure of their own on the Norfolk Broads. A splendid story it is too, springing from their need to acquire the sailing skills necessary to keep up with their new Lake District friends. Like the lake books, though, Coot Club is also a celebration of a corner of England to which Ransome moved in 1935 and which he came to love. Not far from his home on Suffolk’s Shotley peninsula lie the reedy meres and meandering rivers of the Broads, a sprawling marshland drained by picturesque wind-pumps and graced by white-sailed yachts and great black-sailed trading wherries. Indeed, the book is structured virtually as a guidebook to the web of lakes that sprang from medieval peat diggings.
The club in the book’s title brings together some of the young inhabitants of the Broads village of Horning in the common purpose of protecting coots – small black water birds – from their human predators. Among these latter is an older boy, George Owdon. When a pair of nesting coots is disturbed by noisy holiday- makers in a motorboat (the ‘Hullabaloos’), the oldest member of the Coot Club is driven to cast off their craft. This is Tom Dudgeon, the Horning doctor’s son with whom Dick and Dorothea have made friends. Tom and the Farland twins (nicknamed Port and Starboard) are persuaded by the Callums’ host Mrs Barrable to teach her guests to sail in her yacht, Teasel. Tom, the twins, the Callums, Mrs Barrable and her pug William are then chased all over the Broads by the vindictive Hullabaloos, while Owdon acts as their informant on the Teasel ’s whereabouts.
‘What can be devised by way of Triumph, to be achieved by effort and so to provide the happy ending that must almost to the end look as if it can’t come off?’ That was the question posed by Ransome to Margaret and Charles Renold, from whom he sometimes sought literary advice and to whom he later dedicated The Big Six. I will not spoil your enjoyment by revealing the denouement, but instrumental to it are three extras – the Horning boatbuilders’ sons, Joe, Bill and Pete, who vacillate between playful piracy, bird protection and boat salvage, and who take their collective name from their pirate vessel, an old ship’s lifeboat, the Death and Glory.
Coot Club was followed by Pigeon Post (1936), in which Ransome returned to the Lake District to evoke a summer drought with all the skill with which he had depicted the winter fells. Blacketts, Walkers and Callums turn gold prospectors. This was the very first winner of the Carnegie Medal, the UK’s oldest and most prestigious award for children’s writing. We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea followed in 1937, thought by some to be Ransome’s masterpiece, though for me com- promised by the absence of the Blacketts. Secret Water came in 1939, set on the Walton backwaters in Essex.
Casting around for a new subject, a sequel to Coot Club seemed a natural progression. Ransome appears to have owed the idea of a detective story to Margaret Renold. This was the golden age of detec- tive fiction, and Ransome was a devotee of the genre. He at once recognized that the established cast of the original Broads novel could readily turn their hands to new roles. To the Renolds he wrote:
Detective. Why not? Now then. George Owdon of Coot Club is obviously the right criminal. Tom and the Death and Glories are the right detectives, with the help of Dorothea’s imagination and Dick’s scientific mind. NOW, I see it this way. It would be all wrong for the detectives to snoop out of public spirit with the hope of handing George over to justice. The detective work must be forced upon them TO CLEAR THEMSELVES of some villainy of which, thanks to George Owdon, they are bearing the blame. What the devil can it be?
The plot Ransome developed was a logical extension of the events of Coot Club. The Coots, with their president’s record of casting off boats, would be the first port of call for the authorities should other boats be loosed. So reason George Owdon and his accomplice Ralph Strakey. The pair embark on a campaign of vandalism, casting off boats in Horning itself and in two nearby villages, Ranworth and Potter Heigham. Constable Tedder and the public duly rise to the bait and fall on Joe, Pete and Bill, the Death and Glories.
At this point Dick and Dorothea arrive on their holiday. At once rejecting suggestions that any of the Coots could be guilty, and despairing of any help from Constable Tedder, they turn detective. The Coot Club shed in the Dudgeons’ garden becomes Scotland Yard, and the Big Six is born.
‘But who are the Big Six?’ asked Pete.
‘It’s the big five really,’ said Dorothea. ‘They are the greatest
detectives in the world. They sit in their cubby-holes in Scotland Yard and solve one mystery after another.’
‘But why Six?’
‘There are only five of them and there are six of us,’ said Dorothea.
The story uses some of the standard ploys of detective fiction: the scattering of clues, the laying of false trails, the stoking of moral outrage against the innocent unjustly accused, and the raising of stakes as a second crime (the theft of boat shackles) is committed. But it is elevated above the generic by Ransome’s tireless integration of the storyline with his characters’ lives. Mrs Barrable’s pug is recast as a bloodhound, the Death and Glory’s chimney becomes a vital piece of evidence, Dick’s tyro skills as a photographer are turned to police work. There’s also an ingenious sub-plot about the catching of a huge pike, a feat which provides the indigent Death and Glories with unexplained wealth, which Constable Tedder attributes to the sale of the stolen shackles. Ransome gives Dorothea the role of leading detective, allowing her to develop her forensic skills and to put herself in the perpetrators’ shoes. Finally, there is a masterly climax.
Owdon and Strakey, fearful that the evidence has yet to clinch the guilt of the Death and Glories, are tempted into Dorothea’s trap to cast off one last boat before the hands of the law close on the Coots’ collars. On the eve of their formal interview with the local solicitor – Port and Starboard’s father Mr Farland – the Big Six take their turn to stake out the Cachalot. Hiding in Horning’s riverside bushes, they plan to take by flashlight a photograph of the criminals casting off the boat. The criminals take the bait. Whether or not the photograph – taken by debutant photographer Pete – has come out and will dis- close the miscreants’ identity is withheld until three chapters later.
With great ingenuity Ransome conjures up ‘the happy ending that must almost to the end look as if it can’t come off’. Mr Farland dis- misses as circumstantial the considerable evidence of Owdon’s guilt that the Big Six have amassed. Enter stage left Constable Tedder, in the company of Strakey and Owdon. They witnessed, they say, Bill casting off the Cachalot. ‘Open and shut,’ says Tedder. ‘We know who done it now.’ Enter stage right Dick and Pete, bearing a photographic printing frame. Several more nerve-racking moments pass before the photo- graph is sufficiently developed to be handed to Mr Farland.
‘A very remarkable likeness,’ said Mr Farland. ‘What do you think, constable?’
Mr Tedder looked at the photograph.
‘Well I’ll be danged!’ he said.
Mr Farland thought for some minutes.
‘The value of evidence’, he said, ‘fluctuates with its context . . . This photograph will in any court of law (here he looked gravely at George and his friend) serve as proof that the boat was cast off by George Owdon and . . .’
‘Strakey,’ said Mr Tedder.
So Ransome spins on a sixpence, the tables are turned, the guilty are identified, the innocent are vindicated, and justice is done.
The Big Six is a superb detective story and demonstrates not only Ransome’s determination never to repeat himself but also his ability to develop still further the heartening theme of children’s ability to rise to life’s occasions. It provides an indelible portrait of the Norfolk Broads between the wars. It is a book with a crystalline moral purpose. It is, all in all, an irreplaceable contribution to his Arcadian world.
And much of this is more than can be said for some of the books I have been obliged to read aloud from time to time. This is worth parents bearing in mind, particularly if they wish to provide the happy ending to their children’s adolescence that almost to the end looks as if it can’t come off. My wife and I managed to leaven our daughter and son’s diet of less desirable literature with a fair dose of Ransome. The result was that they turned out all right, in the end.
Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 70 © Jim Ring 2021