As many of you know, a large part of my career was spent lecturing in children’s literature and although I’d rather let the association drop over the last decade, I’ve been feeling a real hankering to go back and start to explore the area again. Obviously, I want to catch up with what has been published in recent years, but with the times as they are it’s also very comforting to go back and re-read old favourites. With that in mind, I checked back on the winners and, where possible, the shortlists, for the Carnegie Award, the leading British prize for novels targeted at children and found that the very first was presented in 1936 to Pigeon Post, the sixth in Arthur Ransome’s series featuring the children known collectively as the Swallows and Amazons.
It is almost exactly sixty years since I first read Swallows and Amazons. I was nine years old and was completely captivated by the entire series. I loved the detail that Ransome provided about sailing and camping and cooking and doing all the things that I, as a city bound child, simply didn’t have the opportunity to do. An avid library member already, I read them all again and again and was convinced that if I were to step into one of those small boats I would know exactly how to sail it. And do you know what? Ten years later, as a nineteen-year-old student, that is precisely what I did. Whether it was bravado born of overconfidence, I don’t know, but I was not a Duffer and I did not drown! (I did, however, have a very interesting experience with a herd of cows that decided to swim across the river just as my friends and I were sailing down it! But that’s a story for another day).
Of course, there was a lot more to Arthur Ransome than he is remembered for most clearly today. Having gone to Russia in 1913 to study its folklore, at the onset of the First World War he became foreign correspondent for the Daily News, covering the conflict on the Eastern Front. He also reported on the Russian Revolution of 1917 coming to sympathise with the Bolshevik cause. He was personally close to a number of its leaders, including Lenin and Trotsky, and during this time met the woman who would become his second wife, Evgenia, then working as Trotsky‘s personal secretary. He provided information to the British Secret Intelligence Service and at one point was very near to being exposed as an agent. Influential in bringing about the peace between the Bolsheviks and Estonia, Ransome and Evgenia set up home together in the Estonian capital, Reval, (now called Tallinn) before returning to England after his divorce enable them to marry.
Swallows and Amazons was published in 1929 and featured the Walker children, John, Susan, Titty and Roger and Nancy and Peggy Blackett as the eponymous Swallows and Amazons. By the time Pigeon Post was written the original six had been joined by Dick and Dorothea Callum, known as the Ds, and in many respects Dick is the leading character in the 1936 publication. Having fought for the right to lead the fleet, camped both on Wild Cat Island and in Swallowdale, climbed Kanchenjunga and built igloos on a snowbound fell, in a long hot summer when drought has reduced the River Amazon almost to a trickle, the combined forces of Swallows, Amazons and Ds decide that the time is right to search for gold. Slater Bob tells them the story of a young man who was said to have discovered gold in one of the old mine workings before going off to war and dying without having given up the secret of just where the precious metal was to be found. With the summer holidays stretching out before them and unable to sail for another fortnight, the children decide to capitalise on Dick’s love of all things scientific, discover the mother lode, mine and extract the metal and turn it into an ingot before Captain Flint (otherwise known as Uncle Jim) returns from his own failed expedition to find gold in South America.
Of course, their plans are not without opposition. The land is tinder dry and all the natives (a.k.a. the adults) are concerned about the possibility of seriously damaging fires. Mrs Blackett is also worried because she has responsibility for all eight of the children until various other parents turn up later in the holiday. However, Homer, Sophocles and the unreliable Sappho save the day, enabling the system of pigeon post to be set up so that messages of reassurance can be sent on a daily basis. A pigeon a day keeps the natives away. Then there is the question of the ubiquitous Squashy Hat, who seems to turn up wherever the children want to explore and who they are sure is out to jump their claim and make off with the gold for himself. And what about the mysterious Timothy, sent on ahead by Captain Flint? Why hasn’t he turned up? Has he died at sea? What, for goodness sake, is he? It all makes for what can only be called a rollicking good adventure.
Inevitably, time has dealt less kindly with some aspects of the book than others. Susan still does all the cooking, helped by Peggy, but never John. However, there is always Nancy to tip the balance in favour of a feminist reading. And, during this excursion through the book’s pages, I was away for the first time just how different the upbringing of these children was when compared with mine in a backstreet in Birmingham. I have to say that at nine the class issue really didn’t bother me at all. Something else which struck me this time round was how attuned Ransome is to the character of Titty. We see into her thoughts and emotions to an extent that simply isn’t the case with the other characters. This is particularly true during the episode when they are dousing for water, but it comes out at other points as well, for example, as the book draws to a close:
Titty slipped off into the dusk. The bramble thicket had been saved from the fire, but the little hedgepig, she thought, might have died from fright, with all the smoke, and the roaring of the flames, and the trampoline the firefighters…And then she heard the stirring of dry leaves, away under the brambles. She heard a sniff…a grunt… a sneeze. Perhaps some of the ash blown down from the Topps was tickling its nostrils. Then, in the dim light, she saw it. With steady lumbering trot it was making for the well. She watched a little dark lump work itself down the steps. It was drinking. The water got into its nose, and she heard a small impatient snuffle. It climbed out again and trotted off. She lost sight of it in the shadows. But she had seen enough and slipped back to the camp.
I’ve not been well this week (NOT the virus) so this trip down memory lane has been a really relaxing way of spending some time. The following year, 1937, the award was won by Eve Garnett’s The Family From One End Street. I remember enjoying that as well, although ironically, given that the background of the children was much more like my own, not as much as Ransome’s tales. Maybe I’ll add that to the list for June’s reading.