On the occasion of the re-issue by Puffin of the first four books in the S&A series, the well-known Anglo-Irish writer offers an interesting perspective on Ransome ('Aren't these children really just too good to be true?) that is broadly in line with the review by David Garnett (also in the New Statesman) of WDMTGTS: compare also the later paper by Nicholas Tucker. I am grateful to William Trevor for permission to use the review here.
The first book I ever read all the way through was The Crimson Circle by Edgar Wallace, for as a child I had developed the habit of reading whatever print I could find, most of which happened to be detective fiction or novels about life in girls' boarding schools. As a result of this I formed an image of England as a country containing a strange, proud and courageous people, invariably too sharp for the Bolshevik spies who posed as visiting Mademoiselles, though occasionally suffering at the hands of knife-bearing Chinese, at night, in Soho. When the japes at Greyfriars came my way this view was not contradicted, nor did the gang warfare of William Brown cause me in any way to think again. Then I stumbled across Swallows and Amazons and I couldn't believe my eyes (Swallows and Amazons, Swallowdale, Peter Duck and Winter Holiday are now all Puffins, at 5s each).
Children see no reason to question what they're told in a story unless the story's so bad that it fails to communicate at all. This is far from being the case with Arthur Ransome, yet when I read about the Swallows and the Amazons I wondered if English children could possibly be like this – creatures of an entirely different species, apparently, from the Owl of the Remove and Terry the Girl Guide. And where had all the Bolsheviks gone?
But no one can read a line of Ransome without being aware of the authority of his word: these are not pages, you feel, on which you're likely to encounter lies and bamboozlement. In fact, you're very much aware if being informed that here at last is the real thing, that all suitably intelligent children whose parents have a bit of cash put by can have marvellous adventures with sailing boats or stranded sheep or whatever it is they fancy. And emphasising the atmosphere of reality are the young limbs themselves: Nancy and Peggy Blackett, the four Walker children and the Callum children, all with their feet firmly on the ground, bright as buttons, adventuring away like mad. How absurd they make poor old Bob Cherry of the Remove seem, that silly duffer who got himself pegged to the ground in the middle of the Sahara while vultures circled ever nearer!
The Swallows and the Amazons would, of course, pretend a situation like that and act it out, as children do. Such normal imaginative play was what fascinated Ransome and became his inspiration. The games you read about in his books are the games of children pretending, but pretending with real weapons. The resultant mixture of illusion and fact is a sophisticated one, very much to the liking of some and not at all to that of others.
My own reaction was to take Ransome at his word and leave it at that. I preferred the vultures and the school stuff, all that rough justice, all the extraordinariness of a system that built an Empire. It naturally didn't occur to me then that the Ransome children, so cosily cocooned within the upper reaches of the well-to-do middle classes, were far closer to the English tradition of empire-making than the lads of Greyfriars – or indeed any other children I've ever come across in fiction. They have all the right qualities, being natural leaders, immensely resourceful, hardworking, sensible at all times, reliable, suspicious of strangers, cunning, quick on the uptake, rich in acquired and useful skills, pragmatic, brave. BETTER DROWNED THAN DUFFERS IF NOT DUFFERS WONT DROWN is the famous message that Cdr Walker telegraphed in reply to his children's first demand that they should be allowed to sail without an adult. It has the ring of ENGLAND EXPECTS . . . , and duffers, or course, they never were.
What separates children who don't take to the Ransome cult from those who do is primarily, I think, a worry about that super bunch of kids being quite as super as they are. It's a question of empathy, which is difficult in the Ransome world because not only do you have to think your way into pretending with the pretenders but you quickly find that there is nothing to choose between boys and girls; the sex difference, so fiercely guarded at this age in real life, isn't recognised at all. As well as which, you soon discover that the super kids are really old, well-trained adults who have in a notably adult way imposed on themselves strict regimentation in all day-to-day matters, who do not tell childish lies, display evidence of childish malice, slouch idly about the place, or go away and sulk in a corner.
Now it seems to me that imperfections in fictional children are not only part of truth but are sheer joy to those who are aware of their own shortcomings, while bad behaviour may often be a more telling form of communication than good. After all, one of the most exciting areas in the whole Topsy and Tim saga is when Tim, with needling repetition, makes the point to his mother that he considers her to be a woman of petty disposition because for no stated reason she refuses to countenance his desire to attend a fancy-dress occasion as a dustman. All good school stories contain a fair complement of unpleasantness, if not actual crime, as do fairytales and such sharp soundings of truth as Dorothy Edwards's My naughty Little Sister. Yet it would be unthinkable for one of the Ransome children to engage in long-term, well-planned thieving as Peter does in The Railway Children, or to behave with such jealous cruelty to a newly-orphaned cousin as in Barbara Willard's The Family Tower (Longmans Young Books, 16s), an entirely believable new family story in which children of all ages behave as individuals with emotions, minds and failings of their own.
It's true that Captain Nancy Blackett does at one point state that she'd like to feed a great-aunt to the sharks because the great-aunt seems intent on spoiling the fun. But the difficulties with this relative, as on other occasions with other adults, are always faced with great good humour, and no Swallow or Amazon could ever be goaded into displaying even a trace of what's suggested in Lord of the Flies. Nearer to Mr. Golding's statement, in fact, is the pitched battle with stones which forms part of the action in Frederick Grice's The Oak and the Ash (Oxford, 15s) and the 'sullen and fretful' little hero of Jimmy and the Wozzler by S.B. Whitfield (Dobson, 16s). It's interesting, too, that these two excellent books, both about the children of the streets and set in the depressed times of the Twenties just before the first Ransome was published, are also closer in spirit to the public-school stories of the day than they are to the Swallows and the Amazons. Such school stories have since become popular among working-class children: I doubt that Ransome is. The intricacies of his myth, involving the twin barriers of class and culture, have an in-group complexity that's quite unlike the jungle law of the public school and is far more difficult for the outsider to comprehend.
Viewed now from the vantage point of age, the world of Arthur Ransome seems to me, despite his honest and admirable effort to create more reality rather than less, to be a fantasy place, and if some children find it too much of a good thing they should be allowed their opinion. On the other hand, no one should be kept away from it, because the fantasy – both in the 'dream' books and in the straightforward ones – is clearly enchanting to those with a taste for its quality. Children are definite about what they take to: it is only a question of exposing them to books and gesturing, if at all, in this direction or that.
If I myself cannot help feeling that had two departments of the civil service cohabited over a number of years they would have produced the magnificently right-minded Swallows and Amazons, I must admit that this is very much a personal opinion and means nothing more than that I failed to respond because I happened to like, or was attuned to, a different sort of thing. But to all those who would sail to Wild Cat Island or trek up Kanchenjunga, may they do so with endless delight and great excitement. Bon voyage!
New Statesman and Nation, 24th May 1968 p. 693