From How the Heather Looks

by Joan Bodger

In the late 1950s Joan Bodger, her husband and their children, an American family, embarked on a a long-planned dream of spending a summer holiday in England. Joan and her husband were each half-English and had spent time in England as children, while their children had become Anglophiles from conversation, books, games, etc. One goal of their trip was to visit the places which featured prominently in their favorite books, and written about by their favorite authors. One of the authors was Arthur Ransome, and during a visit to the Lake District, Joan Bodger managed to "interview" him. She wrote about it in her book How the Heather Looks, A Joyous Journey to the British Sources of Children's Books.

Joan Bodger passed away several years ago, but the Estate of Joan Bodger has graciously given permission to place this excerpt from How the Heather Looks on All Things Ransome. We would like to thank the Estate of Joan Bodger, Ms. Lynn Bennett, Joan's literary agent, and the Transtlantic Literary Agency,, for their assistance.

How the Heather Looks was originally copyright in 1959 by Joan Bodger and the copyright today is held by the Estate of Joan Bodger. The following selection appears in the Chapter "Beyond the Door".

. . . I came to a house perched high on the bank, smaller and more modest than most farms in the district. I almost passed it by, then decided to ask directions of a woman digging in the garden. Did she know where Mr. Ransome lived? She left off her digging and came over to speak to me. I noticed that she was not English, Russian, perhaps. I learned later that this was Arthur Ransome's Russian-born wife, Eugenia (sic). Haltingly I tried to explain my appearance. I was an American, I was writing a book about children's authors, I had tried to reach Mr. Ransome through his publishers . . .

She said Mr. Ransome was out at present—fishing. He did not grant interviews and he did not especially care for Americans. If I wanted to wait for him I could sit on the wall. She went back to her digging and I sat on the wall, kicking my heels. I would give Mr. Ransome five minutes to appear, possibly ten, and then rush down the hill to join John and the children. I could always feel that I had made an honorable attempt at an interview without actually having to go through with it.

There was the sound of a car, a very ancient car, coming up the road. "There he is," said my hostess, and I slipped down off the wall prepared to do battle or run, I was not positive which. A tall old man came through the gate. He was wearing brown tweed knickers, a brown tweed Sherlock Holmes hat stuck about with trout flies, and a Norfolk jacket. A great white mustache swept down from his nose. A Victorian Viking!

"What's this?" he asked. "What's this?"

"Arthur, this is a young woman from America. A journalist. She wants to interview you."

The blue eyes looked me over sternly. "Interview?" he said. "Interview? I don't give interviews." Suddenly he reminded me of my father—blue eyes, moustache, forty years at sea.

"I tihnk you are quite right," I heard a voice saying (could it be mine?) "I wanted to hear it from you—not just from your publishers—and I'm awfully glad you told me at the outset." I tried to edge around him, to get out the gate.

But now he was giving me another look. "Well, young woman, what are we waiting for? You'll catch your death, sitting around on walls. I'm just going to put my rod up, then I'll get some chairs." He was back in a moment and the chairs were arranged so that we could look out over the purpling hills. "We could go inside, but it's getting dark and we have no lights, of course. Besides, I like to sit here every evening at this time and watch the sunset. Now?"

I hardly knew how to begin. I hated to ask him questions that were too personal. I was not certain how he felt about telling the whereabouts of the places in the stories. I decided to advance cautiously. Was Windermere the lake where most of the adventures took place?

He sighed. People often asked that. Yes, it was, but things were scrambled somewhat, of course. He hated to be too literal. People had always taken him too literally. The stories were written for fun and to please the grandchildren of some old friends. But at least one woman took his stories so seriously that she had actually written him a long letter to ask about the Walker family. She thought it perfectly dreadful that children should be left to the tender mercies of a father who sent such a telegram as BETTER DROWNED THAN DUFFERS IF NOT DUFFERS WON'T DROWN. "I think she thought I might be the father. I think she would have had some society after me. Silly woman!"

Determined not to fall into the same category, I abandoned the literal tack altogether. How about his boyhood? Had he spent most of it in the Lake Country?

He brightened visibly, then almost dashed my hopes with an emphatic, "I only wish I could have." His father was a professor at Leeds University. The family had come to the Lakes only for the long vacation. "My poor mother," he said. "We never brought any toys with us—we weren't like modern children. We didn't need a lot of extra playthings when we had the Lake. But at the last minute, hurrying through the railroad station at Leeds, my mother would remember the rainy days and a houseful of children. She used always to stop at a little stand and buy us transfers, packages and packages of them." He paused and peered at me from under shaggy white eyebrows. "Do you know what transfers are?"

Almost involuntarily I cupped the palm of one hand and brought it down with a smack on the back of the other. He laughed. I seemed to have pleased him. "Perhaps modern chileren are not so different after all," he said, giving me the compliment.

"The Lake Country was a different place then," he went on. "Not crowded with all these trippers who come just because it is a place to come to and who never care at all about it, really, but just dash through on those dreadful motorcycle things. There were not automobiles, of course, and we were quite isolated, except for out own families—and the Lake. The Lake was everything. I remember we used to arrive at night and we could hardly wait until next morning to rush down to the water's edge to dip in our hands. Dip them in up to the wrist, you you know. I suppose it was a kind of ritual, to show we could come back." He paused again, looking out over the miles and miles of mountain turning crimson and mauve and purpose before our eyes.

"When I was a boy? I went to school at Windermere, that was before I went to Rugby. I ran away from school one day. I was trudging along the road when the coach came along. There were still coaches then. The man on the box was the friend of an aunt of mine, so he stopped the coach and hauled me up beside him and took me home. I remember my aunt used to be very fond of archery. She had friends who lived on Belle Isle, and in the afternoon the ladies would stand about in their long skirts and bend those great bows . . . Well, the old people are all dead now, and all we young ones have scattered hither and thither and grown old ourselves. But we always come back to the Lake . . ."

He paused and pointed out toward the mountains. The Old Man of Coniston, the highest peak in the Lake District, stood out against the sky. That must be the Katchenjunga (sic) of the stories, I thought. "Do you see that skyline? When I used to be correspondent for the Manchester Guardian I sometimes thought I might never see England again. But I could always close my eyes and see that skyline—every peak of it—silhouetted against a sort of screen in my mind. Even in Manchuria I could close my eyes and summon it at will."

He was silent for so long that I thought the interview was over and I pushed back my chair intending to leave. He must have heard my chair scrape, for he put out his hand and said, "I notice you brought one of my books. Wait a minute while I fetch a pen and an electric torch." He was back in a moment and with quick, deft strokes sketched in a little pen and ink drawing of Swallow and wrote his name underneath . . .

I decided to make one last try about the maps. Was Ambleside the North Pole? "Yes, well near it . . ." Was Bowness really Rio? "Yes." Was this house Holly Howe? "No." Where was Swallowdale? At once he became vague. The stories rather scrambled about . . . I mustn't be too literal . . . The same for Wild Cat Island . . . I realized that he was not going to give out any information except to confirm what we had discovered for ourselves. He walked to the gate with me and he hung over it a minute or two, watching me walk down the road.

"Come again," he said, "or write to me ..." I had gone a few yards farther when he suddenly called out, "Wait a moment. I've decided I like you. Wild Cat Island is not in Windermere at all—it's borrowed from another lake." And he gave me its name. . . .

Joan and her son Ian talked about what Arthur Ransome had finally told her, about where Wild Cat Island really was, and decided it wouldn't be fair to tell. And she didn't.

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