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Last of the Swallows

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It is a truth universally acknowledged that the perfect happiness of progeny is achieved only in the absence of their parents. As such circumstances are normally attended by certain obvious practical difficulties and disadvantages, they are to be found less in daily life than in fiction. In the twelve books of the Swallows and Amazons series, Arthur Ransome is ingenious in providing good reasons for keeping their elders and betters out of the revels of the Walker, Blackett and Callum children. In the seventh of the series he is at his most adept in placing Commander Walker in the wings but off stage until the precise moment when he is needed at the climax of the tale.

What a story it is, too! As Ransome wrote to his publisher in January 1936, ‘Spirits here are rising again at last. During the last four days I have seen, grabbed, clutched and pinioned a really gorgeous idea for another book. Swallows only. No Nancy or Peggy or Captain Flint. But a GORGEOUS idea with a lovely climax inevitable and handed out on a plate.’ This was the brainchild that became We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea (1937). Many say it is Ransome’s masterpiece.

Ransome’s own childhood was characterized by idyllic summers spent in the Lake District and – despite a passion for writers like Stevenson and Defoe – by his father’s disappointment at his aca­demic and athletic progress. When Cyril Ransome died in 1887, his 13-year-old son felt he had much to prove. He would make his living writing stories, stories for children.

Following a precipitate marriage and the publication in 1912 of his biography of Oscar Wilde, he achieved notoriety by being sued for libel by Lord Alfred Douglas. He won the case, left his wife and fled to Russia, where he forged a reputation as a journalist with his coverage of the Bolshevik Revolution for the

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It is a truth universally acknowledged that the perfect happiness of progeny is achieved only in the absence of their parents. As such circumstances are normally attended by certain obvious practical difficulties and disadvantages, they are to be found less in daily life than in fiction. In the twelve books of the Swallows and Amazons series, Arthur Ransome is ingenious in providing good reasons for keeping their elders and betters out of the revels of the Walker, Blackett and Callum children. In the seventh of the series he is at his most adept in placing Commander Walker in the wings but off stage until the precise moment when he is needed at the climax of the tale.

What a story it is, too! As Ransome wrote to his publisher in January 1936, ‘Spirits here are rising again at last. During the last four days I have seen, grabbed, clutched and pinioned a really gorgeous idea for another book. Swallows only. No Nancy or Peggy or Captain Flint. But a GORGEOUS idea with a lovely climax inevitable and handed out on a plate.’ This was the brainchild that became We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea (1937). Many say it is Ransome’s masterpiece. Ransome’s own childhood was characterized by idyllic summers spent in the Lake District and – despite a passion for writers like Stevenson and Defoe – by his father’s disappointment at his aca­demic and athletic progress. When Cyril Ransome died in 1887, his 13-year-old son felt he had much to prove. He would make his living writing stories, stories for children. Following a precipitate marriage and the publication in 1912 of his biography of Oscar Wilde, he achieved notoriety by being sued for libel by Lord Alfred Douglas. He won the case, left his wife and fled to Russia, where he forged a reputation as a journalist with his coverage of the Bolshevik Revolution for the Daily News and the Manchester Guardian. He was familiar with the leading revolution­aries, and in 1917 he met Trotsky’s personal secretary, Evgenia Petrovna Shelepina. She became his second wife. After the Armistice he based himself in the Baltic, worked as the Guardian’s Russian correspon­dent and renewed his lifelong love of sailing. His account of the building and maiden voyage of his first proper yacht appeared in 1923 as Racundra’s First Cruise (see SF no. 35). With the arguable exception of Old Peter’s Russian Tales (see SF no. 68), this – actually his twenty-fifth book – was the first of his works that would survive him. By the late 1920s Ransome and his wife had settled on Lake Windermere. He was approaching the age at which his own father had died. If he were ever to escape Grub Street and fulfil his ambition to write fiction for children, now was the time. In his autobiography he calls 1930 the ‘hinge year’. It saw the publication of his story of the meeting on the ‘lake in the north’ of the Walker and Blackett children. They call each other after their sailing dinghies. They are the Swallows: John, Susan, Titty and Roger Walker; and the Amazons: Nancy and Peggy Blackett. Memorably and famously, Commander Walker’s per­mission for his children to camp on an island on the lake comes in the form of a telegram from his ship in Malta: BETTER DROWNED THAN DUFFERS. IF NOT DUFFERS WON’T DROWN. Swallows and Amazons was followed in quickfire succession by Swallowdale, Peter Duck and Winter Holiday. The essence of these four books is that of play and make-believe. The children cast themselves as adventurers, ship-wrecked sailors, treasure-hunters and Arctic explorers, and each book is set in a graphically rendered and realistic setting, peopled by characters with whom his readers could readily identify. They are spellbinding works and they set a new standard for children’s writing. Such was their popularity that in September 1935 Ransome and Evgenia were able to buy a successor to Racundra. The 7-ton, 34-foot cutter was renamed Nancy Blackett in honour of Peggy’s irrepressible elder sister. A couple of difficult coastal passages in the new yacht late that autumn gave Ransome the idea for We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea. The plot is simply described. The Swallows are on holiday with their mother on the East Anglian coast, awaiting the return of their father who has been serving on the China Station. He is making his way back overland via Berlin. The children befriend Jim Brading, owner of a small white cutter with the ominous name of Goblin (modelled, down to the last fastening, plank and halliard, on the Nancy Blackett). He offers to take them on a short cruise round the local rivers, the Orwell and the Stour. To this Mrs Walker agrees, subject to the solemn promise by all concerned that they do not go out to sea. While the cutter is fog-bound in Harwich harbour, Brading goes ashore to buy petrol. Unbeknown to the Swallows, he meets with an accident that lands him in hospital. Meanwhile the Goblin drags her anchor and drifts out to sea. Afraid to ask for help and fearful of the shoals around the coast on which the cutter could be wrecked, the Swallows hoist sail and head out to the deeps of the North Sea. Then the wind rises, a storm threatens and breaks, and night falls. It proves impossible to turn back to safety. Susan is aghast at breaking their promise, but John chooses to press on. When the Goblin reaches the far side of the North Sea, the Swallows find themselves off the coast of Holland. Taking on board a pilot, they sail into the port of Flushing only to see their father leaving on the Harwich-bound steamer. He jumps ashore, is reunited with his children, and sails them back to Harwich. On their return they are met by Brading, who fears he has lost both the children and his yacht, and by an equally distraught Mrs Walker. All are for­given. The Commander, his wife and Brading see that the Swallows had very few choices other than those they actually made. That the children should have sailed by themselves across the North Sea in a storm stretches the bounds of credulity, but it never breaks them because Ransome has prepared his ground carefully. That they might drift out to sea with the outgoing tide is rehearsed when they run out of petrol before the fog falls. That a vessel might be lost to the shoals or to unscrupulous salvagers is woven into an early chapter before the true action begins. John is instructed how to reef the yacht, so he knows how to do so later in the storm; the crew see where the charts are to be found; Brading’s expedient of using transparent Woolworth plates as a substitute for proper navigation lights on an earlier voyage prefigures the Swallows’ own such use. Commander Walker’s progress across Europe is also carefully flagged so that his presence on the Harwich steamer is credible. Inherently implausible though the tale as a whole might be, each link in the chain of events that takes them to Flushing and their meeting with their father follows as surely as autumn succeeds sum­mer. As for the storm and the fog, and incidents like meeting a lightship and rescuing a shipwrecked kitten, in conjuring them Ransome uses all the particularity and evocative detail that had made Racundra’s First Cruise such a success. We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea also presents dangers far more real than those in the earlier books. There is a very real prospect of piling the Goblin on the sands outside Harwich. They are nearly run down by a steamer. Titty and Susan struggle desperately with seasickness. As darkness descends John very nearly falls overboard attempting to reef the cutter in the teeth of the gale. The family as a whole demonstrates a level of cohesion, courage and resourcefulness that has hitherto been no more than sug­gested. Here the skills – particularly of seamanship – that they have learned and honed on the lake in the north are put to the most severe of tests. Despite a series of mischances and mistakes, the siblings emerge from their experience unbowed; indeed, Susan overcomes her fears and seasickness to helm the Goblin through much of the storm. For John and Susan the North Sea crossing is a rite of passage that sees them rise to the grandest of challenges inherent in sailing: that between sailors and the mighty ocean deep. Ransome’s inevitable ‘lovely climax’ is the reunion between father and son when the professional seaman recognizes John’s achievement.
It was the most extraordinary thing, but, though he had never said so, they all knew that for some reason or other, Daddy was rather pleased with them than otherwise. There was something in the way he looked at John.
The Commander’s faith in his children has been justified. Duffers would surely have drowned. Unless in some better place, Ransome was never reunited with his own father and never received his blessing. This he deserved, for these evergreen books explore with considerable sensitivity – among many other things – the balance between dependence and autonomy, free­dom and control, discipline and indulgence, peace and conflict, presence and absence, that see-saws between parent and child. And none of them do this better than We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 74 © Jim Ring 2022


About the contributor

Jim Ring is a novelist and filmmaker, and the biographer of Erskine Childers. He is also a sailor, though notably less accomplished than Commander Walker, John Walker or indeed his own son. You can hear him discussing the beginnings of Slightly Foxed on our podcast, Episode 1, ‘Kindred Spirits’.

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