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Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome

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'BETTER DROWNED THAN DUFFERS IF NOT DUFFERS WONT DROWN'

So starts the biggest adventure that John, Susan, Titty and Roger, better known as The Swallows, had ever experienced! Their exploits are told in the book Swallows and Amazons , a superb story of boats and lakes, exploration and discovery, wholly capturing the magic and innocence of childhood.

The tale starts in the native settlement of Holly Howe, situated near the bustling lakeside town of Rio, where the family are staying on holiday. As the story explains, 'if there had been no island, no sailing boat, and if the lake had not been so large, the children, no doubt, would have been happy enough to paddle about with oars in the bay by the boathouse. But with a lake as big as a small sea, a fourteen-foot dinghy with a brown sail waiting in the boathouse, and the little wooded island waiting for explorers, nothing but a sailing voyage of discovery seemed worth thinking about'!

Once leave had been given from Daddy, whose ship was at Maltabut under orders for Hong Kong, the four children start making ready for their voyage of discovery. The whole expedition is prepared with the sort of fervour one would expect in anticipation of the best kind of ship passage. The ship's articles and log book are prepared and finally the boat Swallow is laden and ready to set sail, complete with a new swallow flag.

The first portion of the book ambles along with gentle anecdotes of island life, including the making of camp, the finding of a suitable harbour for their prized ship, and the mapping of the island and surrounding seas. All is told in salty sailing terms, as is suitable of explorers and sailors! However, the Swallows are met with a challenge on the third day when they meet the Amazon, a feisty pirate vessel containing the two sisters, Ruth, (who is called Nancy as Ruth is not a very suitable name for a pirate) and Peggy. Parley is agreed between the two groups long enough to declare war. Which ever crew wins the war will be declared flagship in any future joint piracy acts!

Another captivating character introduced to the story is the Amazons Uncle Jim, better known as Captain Flint. In one splendid extract of the book, Nancy gives Captain Flint the black spot in no uncertain terms, writing to him 'If you want to know who singed your beard (see Philip of Spain) by exploding a mine on your cabin roof, it was the undersigned. You deserved it. This is the Black Spot. You are deposed from being an uncle or anything decent. NANCY BLACKETT (Amazon pirate)'. The resulting fiasco is amusing to say the least!

The whole story is a delight to read and entertaining to the end. The style of the volume is captivating in its simplicity and honesty. The Sunday Times stated with regard to the book 'a master story teller, sympathetically in touch with real children and their interests, has created characters who are accepted as friends by children everywhere, not to mention plots which are eminently plausible and unexpected'.

In fact, although Ransome went on to write a further eleven books in the series, Swallows and Amazons remained the book with which he was the happiest. The author was born in Leeds in 1884 and studied at Rugby School and Leeds University . After leaving the University, Ransome became an office boy at the publishers Grant Richards before later giving this up to achieve his goal of becoming a freelance writer. Ransome wrote many essays, articles and books, on the subjects of politics, nature studies and his personal favourite, fairy tales, prior to returning to his roots to pen a series of books about the Walker family, better known as the Swallows. The original story was prompted by a summer in 1928 which he spent with the Altounyan family, during which he taught their five children to sail. However, the inspiration for the book was drawn from his own childhood experiences.

When a youth, his family had taken annual summer holidays to his father's beloved Lake District, much of which were spent on Coniston Water. These holidays became a high spot of each year, and had a strong influence on the author's later work. Many happy memories of himself, his brother and sisters were from their time on the farm at the south end of Coniston, in or on the lake or on the hills above it! In the introduction to the book Swallows and Amazons, the author simply writes 'Swallows and Amazons grew out of those old memories. I could not help writing it. It almost wrote itself'.

Although the book Swallows and Amazons proved to be a slow seller (barely 1,600 copies were sold in its first eight months), reviewers were enthusiastic. The story was first printed in 1930 by Jonathan Cape and Harrison Smith. This edition contained a vignette to the title page, illustrated endpapers and frontispiece maps, all by Steven Spurrier. The remainder of the book was not illustrated. It was not until 1931 that Jonathan Cape produced an illustrated edition containing the artwork of Clifford Webb. Later, in 1938, Ransome provided his own illustrations for Swallows and Amazons.

Ransome's publisher, Cape, was sufficiently pleased with the book's performance to urge the author to produce a sequel. In fact, Ransome had already been thinking along the same lines and the second book in the series,Swallowdale, was published in 1931. The series finally contained twelve titles, all of which have proved to be well loved masterpieces.

In conclusion, all I can say is, quite simply... 'SWALLOWS AND AMAZONS FOREVER'!

For more information regarding the Arthur Ransome Society, please write to: The Arthur Ransome Society, c/o The Abbot Hall Gallery, Kendal , Cumbria LA9 5AL. or visit www.arthur-ransome.org/ar/tars.html

Titles in the Swallows And Amazons Series:

Swallows and Amazons (1930)
Swallowdale (1931)
Peter Duck (1932)
Winter Holiday (1933)
Coot Club (1934)
Pigeon Post (1936)
We Didn't Mean To Go To Sea (1937)
Secret Water (1939)
The Big Six (1940)
Missee Lee (1941)
The Picts And The Martyrs (1943)
Great Northern? (1947)

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Several images kindly supplied by John T. & Pearl Lewis (ibooknet member).

Article submitted by Claire Waldron.

 

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