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Swallows, Amazons and Shattered Moons

A few thoughts about an author who had a significant influence on me from an early age.

I'm prompted to write this now because I've been invited to speak at the Literary Weekend of the Arthur Ransome Society, to be held in Harrogate next April. I'm planning to base my talk on one I gave at Kendal Mountain Festival a few years ago, titled Swallows, Amazons and Adventure, but I'm updating it to say a little about my own venture into fiction and how Ransome has influenced me here.

My first encounter with Swallows and Amazons came when I was about nine, at a wedding in Warrington. My mother handed me the book during the reception to stop me dying of boredom during the speeches and (worse!) dancing… and I was transfixed. It may have coloured my view of weddings ever since; it certainly gave a new slant to my reading, and helped sow the seeds for a life-long love of the outdoors, in ground already prepared by family holidays in the Lake District.

Much later, I closely studied Ransome's work, particularly in relation to the Lakes; I wrote and illustrated a book on the subject, later revised (with new photos) as an e-book.  I've also written several articles, created a dedicated blog, and gave that talk at Kendal (undoubtedly Britain's leading mountain festival).

In all, Ransome wrote 12 novels for young people, five of them set in the Lake District. They portrayed a world in which children (aged between 7 and 12) could sail the lake, camp on an island, and have other adventures with almost no adult supervision. But the true magic was the way the children’s imagination added another dimension. Coniston Old Man, a peak of 803 metres, becomes ‘Kanchenjunga’ (the real one is more than ten times higher). When the lake freezes in winter, they become Arctic explorers. Even if I didn't realise it until I was much older, it was the way imagination works on multiple levels that captivated me.

To read requires imagination, much more than watching film and TV, and I think this is why other media can never replace it. Writing, too, is an exercise in imagination. I think this is true for all fiction, unless it's disguised autobiography—and even then you have to wonder about the malleability of memory and the idea of the unreliable narrator. Its importance is particularly obvious in science fiction and fantasy, and also in historical fiction; the three main genres where writers have to engage in worldbuilding.

Ransome taught me a few things about worldbuilding too. The Lake District setting was already familiar to me, but I'd never sailed, or camped on an island. In fact, Ransome didn't simply reproduce the real Lake District but created his own version of it, moving the scenery around as if it were a stage-set. Some of my later work, in books and articles and on the blog, has  explored the correspondence between the real Lake District and the fictional 'lake country'.

I'd like to think there's something vaguely similar going on in Three Kinds of North and its sequels, and one reviewer (Norman Hadley) has picked up on this: "The familiar and the strange are expertly woven through this impressive novel, where multiple moons drift over a land whose placenames can be as reassuringly normal as Thrushgill. Are we in a distant galaxy or the Lancashire moors? Or neither?"

Of course the books have dated somewhat (Swallows and Amazons was published in 1930), and are sometimes criticised for their middle-class whiteness. We can't ignore this, but it is worth recalling that the real children on whom he largely based the Swallows were Anglo-Syrian. As for their privilege, yes: but the boat, Swallow, is borrowed, their tents are home-made, and they sleep on sacks stuffed with straw.

One way in which Ransome was radical for his time is in his treatment of female characters. In Swallows and Amazons itself, four of the six young leads are girls, and in my two favourites of the entire canon, Winter Holiday and Pigeon Post, it's five out of eight. In my early readings, the character I was most drawn to was Nancy Blackett, captain of the Amazon. It didn't matter that she was a girl and I wasn't. She very much defied conventional notions about femininity anyway, repudiating her given name, Ruth, because Amazons were ruthless.

I can't quite say that Nancy was the first female character I really related to: George in The Famous Five probably came first, and there have been many others since. I've never felt constrained by a character's gender, and certainly never limited myself to 'boys' books'. Many of my favourite authors and favourite characters are female. Like Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird, Dorothea in Middlemarch, or dozens of others. There’s another Dorothea in several of Ransome’s books, starting with Winter Holiday and, in a quiet way (quite unlike Nancy) she is another great character—and, as an aspiring author, maybe she influenced me too. (My conception of gender was recalibrated once more when I read Ursula K Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness—but that's another story.)

Another way in which Ransome has influenced my writing is in his use of 'third-person limited' narration, not that I knew this at the time. This tells the story from the point of view (POV) of a single character, only relating this character's actions, observations, or thoughts. Like many writers, Ransome does this using multiple POV characters at different times, and I've taken the same approach in most of my fiction including the whole of the Shattered Moon series. In the first three books there are just two POV characters but when we get to Book 4, there are fewer than four, two of whom will be quite new. But under present plans that won't be out till August 2024. One of my favourites among Ransome's POV characters is Dorothea. She doesn't often lead the action (though she does mastermind the investigation in the detective story, The Big Six), but she's a close and empathetic observer. I'd like to think she grew up to be a successful novelist, perhaps somewhat in the same vein as Rosemary Sutcliff, an approximate contemporary.

I also have great respect for quality of Ransome's prose. The tone is just a little wobbly in Swallows and Amazons, especially on those odd occasions when he addresses the reader directly, but it soon settles down.  It's clear and straightforward, appropriately so for a book for young readers, but doesn't feel 'childish'. This I think is why so many people still find the books satisfying as adult readers. I don't think you can say the same for Enid Blyton.

George Eliot said, "The finest language is mostly made up of simple unimposing words," and Albert Einstein said, "Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler." There are many writers who might do well to take note.

In general, I haven't borrowed too directly from Ransome, or at least not consciously. However, one of his characters did contribute substantially to the development of one of mine. I'm just wondering how much to reveal…? The character in question doesn't appear until Book 3 and the 'source' character also doesn't appear in the first few books of Ransome's canon. Book 3 is due in February and I think I'll leave further spoilers until then… but anyone familiar with Ransome's stories will have little difficulty spotting the connection, possibly in Chapter 1, certainly by about Chapter 6.

If you know Ransome, you may spot other resonances, which may or may not be ones that I've consciously identified. I'm always happy to hear your thoughts about these, or anything else.

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