Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Book 3 of 2014: Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome

Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome was another of my set texts while I was studying EA300 Children’s Literature with the OU. I was actually late starting it in the course materials because I was determined to finish reading The Stories of English before moving onto my next book. As it happens I probably could’ve read both simultaneously and enjoyed them both more but I didn’t think about doing that at the time.

It’s a story which is in a similar sort of vein to the Enid Blyton stories of the Famous Five and the Secret Seven in which a group of children get to be independent and help solve a mystery. In short it’s the story of four of the five Walker children, John, Susan, Titty and Roger, who are on holiday and have been given permission to go camping by themselves on an island in the middle of a lake. They become embroiled in a war of sorts with the ‘Amazons’, a pair of sisters who also like to visit the island in the lake. Both groups of children take their names from the boats that they use on the lake and after a short battle become friends. And along the way they help to solve a crime that they themselves had been accused of committing.

At the beginning of the year I found myself in a bit of a reading funk. I think in part it was due to the fact that for the second year running I was having to read books that I was supposed to read, rather than the books that I actually wanted to read. Even when I was reading books I wanted to read I felt like I was just plodding through them because I would inevitably have to move on to read something because I had to next. It’s something I’ve kind of broken myself of now but there were times at the beginning of the year when I felt, dare I say it, bored with reading.

I suspect that this was part of the reason why it took me so long to get through Swallows and Amazons. Even though I wasn’t actually reading it for that long (I started it on Saturday, January 25th, and I finished it the following Saturday, the 1st of February) it seemed like I was reading it for ages. On the whole I enjoyed it, but at times it was quite slow moving – there were sections of it where there were whole pages given over to describing the way that the children handled the boat while they were sailing and it sort of pulled me out of the story. I don’t know anything about sailing so just telling me they sailed up the river would’ve been enough, I didn’t need explicit descriptions of the commands John issued to his ‘crew’ and how they tacked across to the harbour or whatever.

It is very definitely a product of the time when it was written. There are so many things about it now that make it feel dated that it’s almost sad. These children were given permission to go and stay on an island in the middle of a lake in an unfamiliar area (they were already on holiday), in fact when their father sent a telegram to say they could it included the directive ‘BETTER DROWNED THAN DUFFERS IF NOT DUFFERS WON’T DROWN’. In this age of health and safety gone crazy how many parents would willingly let their children head off in a boat to a small island to take care of themselves for a week? And what would people say if they found out that they’d actually done it?!

It’s also dated in the way that people talk and the children behave. Oh, and the names. I’m sorry, but I have to admit to giggling a little bit at the fact that one of the children’s names is Titty. Honestly, if the review for the film Jersey Girl brought some dodgy search terms to my blog because of a reference to *ahem* adult viewing material, I dread to think what Titty is going to do to my search terms statistics!

I remember having this read to me as a child. In fact I can vividly remember the exact spot on the shelf in the children’s section of the library that it came from. I also remember watching an adaptation of it on TV at some point, which some searching on Google and Wikipedia leads me to believe it was the 1974 film version. I’m going to have to get myself a copy to confirm that though.

As much as I felt like I was dragging my heels whilst reading this, I suspect it was because I wanted to get on with reading the books I wanted to read and I was experiencing a sort of post-Christmas studying fatigue. Also, it’s a book set at the tail end of summer and I was reading it in the middle of Scottish winter (which is like English winter but colder and wetter). Funnily enough, I’ve noticed that the time of year a book is set can influence when I feel like reading it. Some books I automatically associate with particular seasons and I found it hard to read about people camping out and sleeping in boats on a lake when it was blowing a gale outside!

I think it is more of a summer book and as I’m aware it’s the first in a series featuring the same characters I’m actually tempted to get the others on my Kindle for some summer reading at some point in the future.


  1. An interesting piece in various ways for me, I came across it searching once more online for anything connected to Arthur Ransome.

    I have been a devotee of Ransome since childhood (I am now in my sixties) when the three or four of his books owned by my older brother came in to my possession, as it were, when he was killed in a road accident at the age of ten (I was seven.) Once I got the reading habit I started on them and for some years then lived in them and through them, they gave me the childhood I did not have, despite being cared for by my parents the tragedy changed the shape of all our lives.

    The other aspect was that you read ‘Swallows and Amazons’ as part of an OU course, in the 1970s and 80s I did an OU degree but back then the idea of a course on children’s literature was probably unheard of (though I was already reading books such as John Rowe Townsend’s ‘Written for Children’) Your observations on TMAs etc brought it back to me (I did end up with a 2.2 but in an odd mixture of courses from the arts and social science faculties.)

    I would take issue with you on your comparison of Ransome with Enid Blyton, to me this would be the same as comparing Jane Austen to Barbara Cartland!

    There are two things that make Ransome such a great writer, he never writes for children and he always explain how to do things. Helen MacArthur, the round the world yachtswoman, was inspired and learnt from his works (the book ‘Secret Water’ set on the Essex Backwaters in particular.)

    Lastly, I am envious on your lifestyle – the idea of living on an island – I can thank Ransome for that too!

    Please read some more of his works!

    1. Hi Mike and thanks for stopping by to comment.

      Obviously the books formed an important part in shaping your childhood. It's also interesting that you studied with the OU. I wonder how things have changed since your course.

      I'm definitely looking to read some more of his books. I think having a secret place of your own is a bit of a childhood dream of most people, I remember a little island in the middle of a pond at my local park as a child which could only be accessed at certain times when the water level went down. My own island is a little bit bigger than that but no less idyllic. :-)


Let me know what you think. :-)