Tuesday 9 March 2010

Dramatising We Didn't Mean to go to Sea

(These were some notes I wrote some months ago, which I was asked to turf out by contributors to Tarboard - I hope they are of interest!)

Given a strong script and strong performances, We Didn't Mean to go to Sea has the potential to be the most dramatic and exciting of all the Swallows' stories when adapted for screen or stage. There is genuine peril, and a claustrophobic atmosphere with great cinematic potential: the four heroes trapped in a small boat (the Goblin) and surrounded by a ferocious sea; the arrival at the strange foreign port, hoping that the Dutch harbour pilot will not realise there are only children on board, etc.

There are also a number of key challenges:

  • most of the action takes place across one night in a small boat in the dark
  • some of the favourite characters of other books (e.g. The Amazons and Captain Flint) are absent; instead the Swallows are more-or-less on their own
  • though it works perfectly well in the book, for modern children used to 'mild peril' right up to the end, the comfortable journey home with 'Daddy' at the helm could be something of an anti-climax after all the excitement

Meeting those challenges

  • there need to be regular 'breaths' when we are taken from the high drama of the wild night on the Goblin to something completely different. Fortunately, Ransome provides us with these: there is Mother and Bridget back on the shore, imagining that the Swallows are having a grand old time touring the harbour, blissfully unaware of their terrifying journey, and there is the story of Jim Brading, the master of the Goblin, discovering his ship is gone, etc. These have to be handled carefully – showing the whole of the Jim Brading story as it should happen chronologically would detract from the Swallows' concerns about what had happened to him; there is not a lot for Mother and Bridget to do other than speculate about where the others are. The bulk of the action still has to be the journey. However, there is plenty of action on board. This can still be visually very interesting so long as it is not pitch black: the stormy seas, the rocking ship, the interaction between the characters, the lightships, encountering other vessels, rescuing Sinbad the cat, etc.

  • From a script-writing point of view, developing the relationship between the characters when we are mostly dealing with four is much easier than some of the stories (such as Winter Holiday and Secret Water) where there can be as many as eight or ten central child characters (with a few adults thrown in!) It is an opportunity to develop these characters further (the character of Susan, for example, is developed very subtly in the book)
  • The end is an undoubted problem. It wouldn't do to end it with just seeing 'Daddy' in Holland and not having the return home – too much would be left unresolved. The final drama all comes down to how Mother is going to find out about the events of the night, whether from Jim Brading (and therefore just that children and boat are missing!) or from 'Daddy' and themselves, where the good news can come before any bad. How can that very personal, family drama be made an exciting denouement after all the peril on the high seas?
    The answer, I think, is through the development of the character of Susan. It is Susan who is most concerned about her mother and what she will be thinking about their disappearance. Because Susan has come through the most emotional journey of all the characters on the North Sea crossing, the viewer will be willing the Goblin to get home in time for Mother to be spared the horror of thinking her children must all be drowned, primarily for Susan's sake. However, the pacing of the journey home will need to be handled very carefully. It must not take long, as it is largely incident free, but too quick a journey home and a speedy resolution would be too much of an anti-climax.

Thursday 31 July 2008

REVIEW: Blood Red, Snow White by Marcus Sedgwick

I bought the book a while ago and it was sitting on my bedside cabinet unread. I have to confess that I was reluctant to read it, as I, at one time, had plans to write a book not entirely different, and still have a screenplay based on the same period of Arthur Ransome's life languishing on the hard-drive of my lap-top. But I took the beautifully-presented volume on holiday with me, and read it in a few sittings. I have to say that it is certainly very readable.

The book is written in two quite distinct styles, though both voices belong to Ransome. Until the Revolution, the story is told like one of Old Peter's Russian Tales (Old Peter, Vanya and Maroosia are borrowed to help this along). After war and Revolution, just as Ransome's style changed, so the voice of Ransome here changes. It becomes quite a straight, first-person narrative.

I suppose this is where the first of my reservations about the book surfaces. Ransome's Autobiography focuses on this period of his life and is there for anyone to read. To re-write the story, still from Ransome's perspective, is brave. And to change the story, here and there, braver still.

Marcus Sedgwick defends himself here, with a clear statement that the book is a work of fiction and, while it is based on true events, he makes no bones about using his imagination here and there. Furthermore, it was inevitable that he would have to do something about the secret service files that were released in the last few years, raising that old question of whether Ransome was some sort of spy. He publishes extracts from the files at the back of the book.

Sedgwick decides to go with the idea that Ransome was, for a while at least, an SIS agent: S76. It is a valid interpretation of the archives (though I think it is an incorrect one) but it is hard to then take the rest of the story at face value. If Ransome were an SIS agent, then his arrest, his difficulties at the Foreign Office, his problems in returning to Russia all become very problematic. While it isn't entirely surprising that there was a lack of joined-up government in those days, at the very least he would have had a clear contact in the Foreign Office.

So Sedgwick uses his imagination a little to suggest Ransome accepted an offer that was made (to join SIS) - an offer Ransome wrote about himself, but dismissed as absurd. But following that, he chose to accept Ransome's account of events.

That said, there were rather basic biographical details that were played with a little, with less impact on the plot. Here Ransome was born in the Lakes rather than Leeds, and it was in the lake country that Kropotkin taught him to skate, rather than a Headingley garden pond.

More central to the plot, Ransome is brought into some parts of the life of Robert Bruce Lockhart, not entirely unreasonably, but without an empirical or historical basis. Ransome never wrote about Rasputin (despite him being like something from one of his darker Russian tales) but is here present at his arrest. Ransome played no part in 'the Lockhart Plot' but here his near-involvement is a plot hook for much of this book.

In a work of fiction, none of this really matters - but it is surprising that some of Ransome's real adventures and events of very real interest are minimised. For the most part Ransome's closeness to the Bolsheviks is played down (the only reference to Ransome performing some small services for Trotsky come in the postscript, there's little about Ransome's odd time in a Bolshevik commune eating nothing but cheese, the pro-Bolshevik writings he produced at the time are not considered). At the same time, his small services for the British side are, if anything, played up.

There is something of a simplification of the politics of revolutionary Russia, although there are some very effective passages. One reason for the simplification would appear to be that the book is aimed at a young audience, although it's not entirely clear who that audience is. There are some quite adult references and themes at times.

In conclusion, I strongly recommend the book, particularly to Ransome enthusiasts but others too. But I also recommend caution! Have a read of Ted Alexander's Ransome in Russia, Ransome's own Autobiography and Hugh Brogan's Biography to get more of the detail and the complexities.

*** 3/5

Monday 16 June 2008

Swallows and Amazons - the movie?

It was with enormous pleasure that I read, some months ago now, the news that BBC Films were going to make a new big-screen version of Swallows and Amazons and that they were busy securing the rights to the other books. The thought that, following Lord of the Rings, Narnia and Harry Potter, the Swallows and the Amazons would be the big new movie franchise filled me with excitement and anticipation. I'm not a great fan of J.K. Rowling or C.S. Lewis (though I've enjoyed reading most of their books and watching the films) but I am a Tolkien geek and, as such, enjoyed the build-up to the release of Peter Jackson's movies almost as much as the films themselves (and I'm already getting excited about the Hobbit!) The internet was full of 'Lord of the Rings Movie - rumours and gossip' websites. People with strange online pseudonyms like 'Eowyn' and 'Durin' quarrelled wonderfully about whether Bob Hoskins would make a good Bilbo Baggins, whether Tom Bombadil would play any part (and who was he?), whether Sam would be a girl, and whether the Balrog should have wings! 'Ringer Spies' fed back information about locations, cast members, possible plot alterations, etc, etc.

Now it's not surprising that there should be rather more of a geeky, online Tolkien community than we have for Arthur Ransome. But we can be pretty darn geeky when we want to be. Don't get us started on mousing sisterhooks, or the plumbing in Beckfoot. But we have been surprisingly quiet about the proposed films. And no new news has been emerging from BBC Films.

Do we know if principle photography has started?

Have we any casting news (of course we're unlikely to know the stars, but it is quite likely that Mother, Captain Flint and other adult characters will be well-known cameos)?

Do we know or can we guess anything about locations? Some present themselves very easily, others are more problematic. Even 'Rio' is harder than it was for the 1970s film-makers. The concrete cafe/nightclub will be hard to make disappear.

Will they use special effects? Think of the Lord of the Rings - the landscapes are incredibly real - and that's because they ARE real locations - but ingenious use of modern technology created synthesis landscapes, with grasslands from one part of New Zealand, mountains from another, and misnamed, enormous 'miniatures' located entirely convincingly in the heart of these landscapes. Does this provide the film-maker with the opportunity to recreate Ransome's Lake in the North in a way that none of the lakes quite offer? Friar's Crag could jut out from the east shore of Windermere, which itself could have the Old Man at its head, etc, etc. Or would this be pushing the budget too far?

Do any TARs (Arthur Ransome Society members) know if approaches have been made to use any of the original boats? After all, classic lugsail dingheys are not two-a-penny. Will the Esperance be the Houseboat?

Really when you think about it, there's more than enough to speculate wildly about. So I do wonder - why aren't we!? Please feel free to use the comments facility here to do so to your heart's content!!

Saturday 5 April 2008

A Ransome Adventure

I've just returned from a day in the southern Lakes, and about as Ransome-y day as I've spent in a long time! During the day I've tried to investigate some of the theories I suggested in an earlier post (the one advocating a geographical approach to locations); I've explored High Topps and I've been to the marvellous Kirkland Books in Kendal.

I arrived at Windermere quite early and drove straight to the car-park near Ferry Nab. A short walk around 'Holly Howe Bay' brought me to the stone jetty and little boat-house at the Old Rectory. While Ferry Nab itself makes a poor Darien, deviating slightly from a geographical approach, Cockshott Point is much better. It offers a fine view down the lake to Ramp Holme.

Back in the car, round the north of the lake, and down to a small car park near Wray Bay. I got out of the car and walked along the lakeside road towards Belle Grange. No amount of imagination-stretching could turn Belle Grange Beck into the River Amazon, but in other respects Belle Grange was remarkably Beckfooty. It has a high, rocky promontory. The path up into the woods from Belle Grange is paved as it was once a road. I've been up there before and had no intention of going this time, but I had such an overwhelming feeling of Picts and Martyrs that I went up, despite myself, in search of a Dog's Home I knew was not there!

Back to the car and then down to a small car park by Ferry House. Not a long walk here, just back to the lake again, to see Ramp Holme from another angle. There were lots of people sailing Mirrors around the island. Puddingfaces.

To stave off jealousy I was off, and this time to Coniston. There was a road race and it was problematic trying not to run them over and trying not to crash at the same time, so I headed up into what some Ransome location seekers have considered Pigeon Post country. I ended up at Tilberthwaite and walked up to "High Topps". Well it's a whacking big place! There are other potential High Topps around, but this one is very good. I may even have found the golden gulch! The weather was closing in at this point and I feared it may soon become less like High Topps and more like High Greenland.

I didn't have a sensible mate or friendly native to tell me to stick to paths or be properly equipped: this area (up on Yewdale Fell) is a great place to explore; it's an access area and you could comb it for the gulch if you wanted; but it is quite dangerous: there are shafts, old workings, levels and quarries all over it, and (in late winter rather than in the middle of a hot, dry summer) there are boggy areas too. It's best to be properly equipped and to take a map. And I say that to myself rather!

All was well however; I had no ginger beer unfortunately, but I drove to Ambleside and had a hot chocolate instead. I also decided I had to get on the water. All I had time for was the 40 minute cruise, but it did afford me some very good views of the northern reaches of the lake. I watched out for an alternative Beckfoot. Huyton Hill is VERY big. It doesn't really look right, although Pull Wyke makes a very good mouth of the River Amazon. There were a few other Beckfoot Promontory options, but Belle Grange had one of the better ones up there!

Finally (after a quick look for the site of the North Pole - though I have another North Pole theory) I drove to Kirkland Books at Kendal. I made two modest purchases (Thorstein of the Mere, and an early edition of Peter Duck) amidst all that temptation! Then home.

I think I will theorise a little before I finish entirely (please comment and disagree with me, etc!)

It occurred to me that the lake changes a little between books. There are periodic Conistonisations or de-windermerifications! Swallows and Amazons, Winter Holiday and (perhaps controversially!) Picts and the Martyrs are, to me, very Windermere-based books, while Swallowdale and Pigeon Post are much more Coniston-based. To the extent that the geography even changes slightly. In Swallows and Amazons the foot of the lake is a long way south of the island (consistent with the island location being that of Ramp Holme). The Antarctic is a great unexplored area, despite trips south of the island on more than one occasion. In Swallowdale, the island (and particularly Horseshoe Cove) is much closer to the foot of the lake - they can hear the houndtrail reaching the foot of the lake from Swallowdale. In Swallows and Amazons, the northern end of the lake has High Hills and Mountains of a general sort, but it is in Swallowdale that one principle peak emerges: Kanchenjunga. In Winter Holiday it is a short walk from Holly Howe to Bowness Bay, whereas at other times this is not necessarily suggested.

I do have a theory for why this might be, based largely on a question of the principle motivation for each story. I shall return to that theme at another time!

There are loads of photos from the today that I've not posted here. I'll pop them up at the Tarboard Yahoo group site.

That'll do!

Sunday 23 March 2008

Ransome the Socialist

When I have had occasion to dip my toe into this subject on Tarboard and elsewhere, it has generally caused sparks to fly. People seem far from comfortable talking about the subject and have tended, prompted by Ransome's own remarks (principally to Special Branch!), to cling to the conclusion that he had no real politics at all.

I understand the concern. The Ransome books most of us love – Swallows and Amazons or Old Peter's Russian Tales – are not political. People of all political persuasions and none can and do delight in Ransome's storytelling and sparkling prose. Through the Swallows and Amazons books in particular we feel we come to know Ransome and, also through the books, we become part of an inclusive community of readers. Yes, there's the odd row about rigging and life-jackets but, for the most part, wholesome outside pursuits unite people. Politics has a tendency to do rather the opposite. Many artists who depend on selling their cultural production to people of all politics have a tendency to be rather reticent about their views. And, from the 1930s onwards, a strong political perspective could be a serious disadvantage for the professional artist: while Britain never went in for McCarthy-style witch-hunts, it is no coincidence that some of Britain's finest composers (for example) could get nothing on radio, when the political persuasions of the likes of Alan Bush and Rutland Boughton were public knowledge.

For all that, I think there is incontrovertible evidence that Ransome was, for at least part of his life, a socialist. And there is a reasonable amount of evidence to suggest that part or all of those views stayed with him for the rest of his life.

That Ransome (for 'a week or two') took the Clarion – a socialist newspaper – is mentioned, in his Autobiography, almost like an after-thought. As if it were something that any student might do, as much to impress some girls as it was to plan the revolution. This was 1901, when taking the Clarion was a minority pursuit indeed! (The Labour Representation Committee was but one year old, the Labour Party not yet born). Reading Blatchford's Britain for the British (not to mention Morris' News from Nowhere were all radical acts, showing an interest in (if not necessarily a support for) a socialist politics which, at that time, was almost entirely non-parliamentary. Ransome was a great enthusiast for William Morris – the great 'anarcho-communist'. But these girls who lent him Blatchford's book (after spotting Ransome's copy of News from Nowhere on his lab desk) were not just any old student radicals. As Ransome himself recalls, 'Zelda Kahn was in close touch with the group of Russian revolutionaries who were living in exile in London' while a student in Leeds. An odd coincidence indeed. Ransome is a little coy about this incident, suggesting that in 1901 he would have been amazed if anyone had suggested he was going to become involved in politics. In fact Britain for the British was published in 1902 (by which time Ransome had left college) so it is likely the book was Merrie England. The interesting point being that Ransome was clearly aware of Blatchford's later book, so had evidently not given up all interest in the Clarion movement after that one incident. When you add into the mix that, as a child, Ransome was taught to skate by no other than Kropotkin, the Russian left-wing anarchist, and that he came from a household where politics was a matter of constant discussion (and disagreement) it is hard to believe that Ransome arrived in London as a publisher's office-boy quite the political ingĂ©nue he professed to be.

In London, Ransome busily befriended the Bohemians. Bohemian London was a furiously political place and many of Ransome's friends and acquaintances were very active on the left. In his autobiography he mentions meeting the Fabian Hubert Bland (with whom he is not impressed) and his (more left-wing) wife, Edith Nesbit, of whose children's writing Ransome was a fan. Nesbit also wrote a book of socialist anthems/poetry. Ransome's close colleagues were Fabian Society members, such as Cecil Chesteron (who joined in 1901 so was already a member when he met Ransome). At the same time as he worked with Ransome, he wrote for Alfred Orage (a left-wing proponent of avant-garde art) strongly arguing the case for 'guild socialism' for the New Age journal. While it is interesting that Ransome is not recalled as one of the many notable contributors to that journal it is hardly credible that in all their teas and discussions politics was not a common thread, nor that the shared admiration for William Morris did not lead to a good deal of agreement on modern politics. As New Age took a very strong line against 'the Russian autocracy', it seems very likely that Ransome will have had some knowledge and interest and partiality relating to Russian politics by the time he left England as well.

Before going to Russia, Ransome's political connections – numerous as they are – all appear to be of an artistic, cultural, non-parliamentary kind. Though there are many links with Fabians (the moderate, 'intellectual' wing of the nascent Labour Party) there is nothing to suggest he had any political ambition, nor any particular involvement with the birth of a political movement. The Clarion, 'New Age', 'guild', 'religion of socialism' wing of the movement was interested in art, in how art could produce a promise of the 'golden age' to come. They often focused on an imagined commonwealth in the past – often rural and pastoral in character – and modelled their notions of the future on that. Hence a great interest in folk culture – tales and songs – in the countryside, in rural pursuits, in a kind of pre-industrial, pre-capitalist picture that might form the basis of a post-capitalist, socialist future. It was often rather utopian. Some of Ransome's later friends were already rather contemptuous of it, considering it (as Lenin did) an 'infantile disorder'. The Fabians associated with 'New Age' were consciously engaging in a sectarian attack on the Fabian mainstream of 'scientific socialism'.

Later, Ransome has one or two more clear links with parliamentary socialists. He befriends Molly Hamilton in 1917. Ransome does not explain how the acquaintance comes about. She was a giant of the Labour movement (and also, interestingly, enormously interested in children's literature, sometimes writing the children's columns for socialist papers in the early 1920s). Molly Hamilton and Ransome remain friends throughout their lives, encouraging each others' writing (it is thanks to Molly Hamilton that we don't learn what happened to Jim Brading until as late as we do in We Didn't Mean to go to sea'!). When Ransome goes to see George Lansbury in 1919 (after his ordeal at the hands of Special Branch) we hear (in the Autobiography) that this is their second meeting. Ransome recounts the incident as though Lansbury would be the obvious person to see. Later, in the 1930s when he became Labour leader, he would have been. But in 1919, Lansbury was a far-left anti-war former MP who had lost his seat in the 1918 General Election. Only seven years before he had been on hunger strike in prison (because of his support for the Suffragette movement). He didn't get back into parliament until 1922, and was still a thorn in the side of the Labour Party leadership right through the 1920s (setting up 'Lansbury's Labour Weekly' to be a radical, socialist alternative to the 'tame' and 'conservative' Labour Herald). Why did Ransome think it necessary to seek out George Lansbury in 1919 – who was then not even a local councillor – tell him 'what had happened' and what he 'planned to do'? When had they met previously? Last time Ransome had been in England, Lansbury would have been one of the most notable parliamentarians of the left, but a vocally anti-war one and therefore one marginalised and demonised outside the ranks of left-wing pacifists. More digging will be necessary to find an answer to this puzzle. But it is certainly not the natural, obvious act that it appears in the pages of the Autobiography. Imagine, for a moment, a British journalist unfairly being charged with being 'pro-Iraqi' in his reporting of the recent Iraq War. Rageh Omah, say. It would be an odd act indeed were he, after being arrested, grilled by special branch and threatened at the Foreign Office, to go and seek out George Galloway for an audience.

And of course, much of what Ransome was writing was very radical in character. While there have been suggestions in recent years that Ransome was a British spy, and he had to write like this to maintain his close contact with the leading Bolsheviks, this doesn't seem to stand up to very close scrutiny. Ransome was critical of the Bolsheviks when he wanted to be. His journalism had a profound effect on sympathies in the UK (and was circulated in the USA too) and the Communist-front 'Hands off Russia' made great use of Ransome's work to raise awareness of the post-revolutionary famine in Russia, and to galvanise opposition to the wars of intervention. Ransome was perfectly happy to be 'used' thus, politically, as opposing intervention was the clear, stated aim of his work. Whatever information the British may have got from Ransome would have to be valuable indeed were it to be worth the negative propaganda impact of the articles.

Of course, it stands up no better to scrutiny to suggest Ransome was a Soviet agent. After all, his articles were so furiously pro-Bolshevik at times that it could hardly be suggested he was under cover! His own stated account that he was an honest broker, occasionally working as a go-between or courier for either side in order to get what he needed seems the most easily-supported answer to the riddle. He had an SIS designation (S76) but there is nothing to suggest that he was an agent. Either the designation was attached to him to identify information received (he never made any secret of providing information) or perhaps there was some attempt to 'entrap' him. After all, the Foreign Office 'threat' to Ransome, in 1919, that they could make things hard for him with the left, were they to reveal that he had provided them with information was not a casual one. In Ransome they had an eloquent, likeable, man whom they believed to be of the far left, if not a communist. The fear that he might choose a career in politics in England, though it seems ridiculous to modern-day Ransome enthusiasts, may have seemed a frightening prospect to some in the the British establishment in those early years after the war.

Ransome, in his Autobiography, writes one of the most moving accounts of the Stalinist purges I've ever read, made more moving because of his personal relationships with the men who died their unnatural deaths. There is an uncomprehending despair to the narrative – that people he liked and respected played their own parts in this brutality. But he never rescinded from the view he took, as early as 1917, that:

“...these men who have made the Soviet Government in Russia, if they must fail, will fail with clean shields and clean hearts, having striven for an ideal which will live beyond them. Even if they fail, they will none the less have written a page of history more daring than any other which I can remember in the story of the human race. They are writing it amid showers of mud from all the meaner spirits in their country, in yours' [the USA] and in my own. But when the thing is over, and their enemies have triumphed, the mud will vanish like black magic at noon, and that page will be as white as the snows of Russia, and the writing on it as bright as the gold domes that I used to see glittering in the sun when I looked from my windows in Petrograd.And when in after years men read that page they will judge your country and mine, your race and mine, by the, help, or hindrance they gave to the writing of it.”

Though much of the Autobiography is given to Russia, Arthur and Evgenia did not talk about it a great deal once home. Clues to Ransome's politics are less clear once he gives up political journalism. We must take what clues there are from his letters, his books (the most controversial source!) and from the recollections of others.

Two strands of Ransome's later Marxian philosophy can be identified reasonably uncontroversially: a strong anti-imperialism and a belief that all capital is produced by somebody's labour, and then enjoyed by somebody else (capitalists!) The first of these strands should be no surprise. While some casual readers have suggested there's an imperialism in Ransome's books (lots of references to 'natives' and people naming and claiming bits of land for their own) such an analysis is way off the mark. In fact almost all the discoveries of the books include finding people have been there before (whether it's the Amazons, the charcoal burners, the Mastadon, Jacky, the Gaels, etc.) from whom there is a great deal to learn, and victories can only be achieved through co-operation. More to the point, a book like Missee Lee is almost incomprehensible unless approached with an anti-imperialist mindset. This protection racket – with the occasional beheading – is a way of life we are encouraged to feel deserves to be protected: we do not want the gunboats to come and break up the Three Islands, and we rather want Miss Lee to stay, even though it means she'll never get back to Cambridge. In case anyone thinks this is circumstantial, take John Berry's entertaining recollection of a meeting with Ransome in the 1960s. Ransome was entirely behind 'mainland China' and opposed NATO's support for 'Formosa', and felt this way so strongly that he eventually lifted Berry from his seat by his lapels! A passionate anti-imperialist display by a 74 year old!

On the second point, one source is a rather sad letter from Ransome to his daughter. Talking about Ivy's income, he writes 'the accident of possessing what is called capital allows her to take a little bit off the earnings of quite a number of people whom she has never seen. That may seem to you to be a little unfair to them, but as things are arranged it cannot be helped, and I don't think you need worry about it, though I hope you will not forget it altogether.' (Signalling From Mars p187) As well as the basic Marxist 'labour theory of value', the phrases 'as things are arranged' and 'I hope you will not forget it altogether' imply a political view over and above the philosophy. I have elsewhere suggested examples of this philosophy in the the Swallows and Amazons books themselves (notably in Coot Club, Pigeon Post and Great Northern?) but they are nothing but suggestions, and I'm hoping not to draw too much fire all at once!

Of course, if my analysis is correct and Ransome remained some manner of socialist throughout his life, it raises as many questions as it answers. Why cut down his journalism and finish all public political comment? Is it just pleasure at having got back on track and to writing the stories he always wanted to write? Was the embarrassment at some past events (his removal along with the Bolshevik mission from Sweden, or his arrest) such that he would rather leave that part of his life far behind? Or is there more to be found in that part of his, or Evgenia's, life which he preferred people not to investigate?

Sunday 16 March 2008

Swallows locations: the case for a geographical approach

It is now generally accepted by Ransome enthusiasts that 'the lake in the north' is a composite lake, taking features of Windermere, Coniston and, quite possibly, Derwent Water as well. The photograph on the left shows some of the more obvious Windermere features: Belle Isle as 'Long Island', Bowness as Rio, the other 'islands off Rio', etc. As a child I took these obvious starting points and started making a search for other locations based on careful comparison of OS maps and Ransome's maps. It led me to find some locations that others have concluded through different methods, but also led to some other, more unusual, suggestions.

My early conclusion that Ramp Holme was Wild Cat Island seemed so obvious, when arriving at the decision through the comparison of maps, that it surprised me when, later, 'Captain Flint's Trunk' and other books did not consider the possibility. An OS Lake District guide did suggest Ramp Holme and Peel Island (on Coniston) as the two originals; others (including Ransome himself) pointed to Blake Holme (at the southern end of Windermere). Some of Ransome's maps suggest that the island is towards the southern end of the lake (as both Peel Island and Blake Holme are) but, in Swallows and Amazons, the Antartic is a great unexplored area, and the steamers could just be made out in the far distance at the bottom of the lake. The photograph on the left looks surprsingly similar to Ransome's sketch of 'Wild Cat Island from the South' (included in the author-illustrated editions of Swallowdale) and the buoys in the foreground mark where 'the rocks go out so far'.

I once sailed to Ramp Holme, landed there and explored it. It has a beautiful landing place, close to a perfect camp. Behind the camp the ground rises to the pine (which can just be seen peeking above the other trees in the picture above) - but there the similarities end. It is not rocky or high enough, and there is no secret harbour. Those features are so clearly those of Peel Island, and Peel Island was so obviously an important part of Ransome's childhood and adulthood, that no argument could be made to suggest that the whole of Wild Cat Island can be found on Ramp Holme. Nobody looking at the secret harbour on Peel Island could be left in any doubt that it was the one Ransome had in mind.

Obviously once you accept some composites, it has the potential to undermine the 'geographical accuracy' approach. But not necessarily: it may indeed explain why, not only do hills and island appear to have moved around to make Ransome's world, they also appear to have changed form: like the island they are not one place but several, and that can be as true for houses, views and people as it can for islands. And perhaps, if 'a part' of the island is where it seems to be on the map, perhaps 'parts' of the other places are too.

Take Stephen Spurrier's original map of the lake, and compare with a contemporary Ordnance Survey map:

The two maps are remarkably similar. Clearly Rio and and Long Island are very recognisable. The geographical logic of the Ramp Holme location is also fairly inescapable. Is there a house in the right place for Holly Howe? Yes. There's the old Rectory. It's not Holly Howe. Certainly not on its own. We know about Bank Ground Farm and can compare photographs of it with the illustrations. It is not just its familiarity from the film; it is Holly Howe; it's where the Altounyans stayed the summer before Swallows was written. But you can see this 'other Holly Howe' - the Old Rectory - on this old photograph (taken from Ferry Nab - a most un-Darien-like Darien) and it is not a huge stretch to see it as Holly Howe as well.

The field isn't steep enough, but it has much more of a bay than Bank Ground Farm. There is a perfect stone boathouse and jetty. From the rocky Cockshott Point, along a short path from the house, there is a tantilising view of Ramp Holme down the lake.

Also looking at the maps, my childhood-suggested-Beckfoot - Belle Grange - seems to be in around the right place. There are so many suggested Beckfoots, and I have no knowledge of a Ransome connection to the house. But it is certainly worth considering.
I shall return to Belle Grange for a future article. I shall leave this one here for now - but there is more to follow! Please comment widely!

Saturday 15 March 2008

A new blog!

I seem to start new blogs terribly often! How long I keep posting to them is another matter! However, I begin this one with no illusions! I shall blog occasionally. Part of the reason for blogging here is so that I can write detailed articles on this subject, illustrated with photographs, etc. in a way that isn't quite appropriate for Tarboard or other people's blogs.

I do want to try and engender some debate - so I shall post controversially on Ransome's politics very soon! I would also be keen to add other 'authors' on this blog, so please get in touch if you would like to post the occasional article.