Swallows and Amazons is the first book in the Swallows and Amazons series by English author Arthur Ransome; it was first published in 1930, with the action taking place in the summer of 1929 in the Lake District. The book introduces central protagonists John, Susan, Titty and Roger Walker (Swallows) and their mother and baby sister, as well as Nancy and Peggy Blackett (Amazons) and their uncle Jim, commonly referred to as Captain Flint.
At the time, Ransome had been working as a journalist with the Manchester Guardian, but decided to become a full-time author rather than go abroad as a foreign correspondent. He did continue to write part-time for the press, however.
The book was inspired by a summer spent by Ransome teaching the children of his friends, the Altounyans, to sail. Three of the Altounyan children's names are adopted directly for the Walker family. Ransome and Ernest Altounyan bought two small dinghies called Swallow and Mavis. Ransome kept Swallow until he sold it a number of years later, while Mavis remained in the Altounyan family and is now on permanent display in the Ruskin Museum. However, later in life Ransome tried to downplay the Altounyan connections, changing the initial dedication of Swallows and Amazons and writing a new foreword which gave other sources. In 2003, the novel was listed at number 57 on the BBC's survey The Big Read.
The book relates the outdoor adventures and play of two families of children. These involve sailing, camping, fishing, exploration and piracy. The Walker children (John, Susan, Titty and Roger) are staying at a farm near a lake in the Lake District of England, during the school holidays. They sail a borrowed dinghy named Swallow and meet the Blackett children (Nancy and Peggy), who sail a dinghy named Amazon. The Walkers camp on an island in the lake while the Blacketts live in their house nearby. When the children meet, they agree to join forces against a common enemy - the Blacketts' uncle James Turner whom they call "Captain Flint" (after the character in Treasure Island). Turner, normally an ally of his nieces, has withdrawn from their company in order to write his memoirs, and has become decidedly unfriendly. Furthermore, when the Blacketts let off a firework on his houseboat roof, it is the Walkers who get the blame. He refuses even to listen when they try to pass on a warning to him about burglars in the area.
In order to determine who should be the overall leader in their campaign against Captain Flint, the Blacketts and the Walkers have a contest to see which can capture the others' boat. As part of their strategy the Walkers make a dangerous crossing of the lake by night, and John is later cautioned by his mother for this reckless act. The Walkers nevertheless win the contest - thanks to Titty who seizes the Amazon when the Blacketts come to Wild Cat Island. During the same night Titty hears suspicious voices coming from a different island - Cormorant Island - and in the morning it transpires that Turner's houseboat has been burgled. Turner again blames the Walkers, but is finally convinced that he is mistaken and feels he was wrong to distance himself from his nieces' adventures all summer. The Swallows, Amazons and Turner investigate Cormorant Island, but they cannot find Turner's missing trunk.
The following day there is a mock battle between Turner and the children, after which Turner is tried for his crimes and forced to walk the plank on his own houseboat. They agree at the post-battle feast that on the final day of their holidays Titty and Roger will go back to Cormorant Island while the others go fishing. Titty finds the trunk, which contains the memoirs on which Turner had been working, and is rewarded with Turner's green parrot.
James Turner appears in some ways to be modelled on Ransome himself. The story, set in August 1929, includes a good deal of everyday Lakeland life from the farmers to charcoal burners working in the woods; corned beef, which the children fancifully refer to as pemmican, and ginger beer and lemonade, which they call grog, appear as regular food stuff for the campers; island life also allows for occasional references to the story of Robinson Crusoe.
A British film Swallows and Amazons is scheduled for release in 2016, with director Philippa Lowthorpe. The film features Sherlock's Andrew Scott, plus Teddie-Rose Malleson-Allen as the renamed Tatty.
Swallows and Amazons review – sails on merrily, despite spy ballast
3 / 5 stars
Children messing about in boats is not enough for this adaptation, which injects an adult espionage twist more Famous Five than Arthur Ransome
Sunday 24 July 2016 17.30 BST
Arthur Ransome’s wholesome prewar classic of children’s literature is all about fresh-faced girls and boys sailing dinghies around the Lake District with no health-and-safety nonsense about flotation jackets. The 1930 novel is now given a good-natured, if self-conscious period adaptation that grafts on a new grownup plotline of treachery and derring-do, probably closer to Enid Blyton’s Famous Five or John Buchan.
It is as if the children’s innocent fantasy world of pirates and adventurers isn’t enough. The action must be ramped up. They have to get real baddies to vanquish, but this new and implausible line in melodrama is taken at the same pace and treated the same way as the children’s innocuous high-jinks. There is even a frankly bizarre and not entirely logical chase sequence aboard a train in which sinister trench-coated figures behave strangely – to say the very least – though somehow without drawing attention to themselves.
Kelly Macdonald plays Mrs Walker, who is taking her boisterous four children away for a summer holiday in the idyllic Lakeland fells while her husband, an officer in the Royal Navy, is away in the far east. They are Susan (Orla Hill), Roger (Bobby McCulloch), John (Dane Hughes) and Tatty (Teddie-Rose Malleson-Allen) – her name was “Titty” in the original, and rather coyly changed.
On the way, the children chance across the mysterious Mr Flint (Rafe Spall) who appears to be being hunted down by an equally enigmatic figure played by Andrew Scott – and the casting of these two principals should probably tip us off as to which of them is the good guy.
The family arrive at their cottage run by a hatchet-faced comedy yokel couple, Mr and Mrs Jackson, played deadpan by Harry Enfield and Jessica Hynes. And the children beg to be allowed to sail to an island in the middle of the lake in Mr Jackson’s dinghy, the “Swallow”, and camp there – only to find that two other children, Nancy (Seren Hawkes) and Peggy (Hannah Jayne Thorp) have already staked a claim to it, and have a dinghy of their own, called the “Amazon”. A high-spirited battle commences, complicated by the unlikely danger they are in from the adult world of espionage.
Swallows and Amazons was always treasured for its innocent charm, and maybe Golding’s Lord of the Flies made this kind of story unfashionable even before our modern preoccupation with the danger that unaccompanied children can be in. There’s no point updating the story, of course, and in fact the girls do in any case take a reasonably bold and assertive role in the adventure. Perhaps what there is to like about it is the simple, almost action-free shots of people sailing their little craft across the rippling lakes. And in fact nothing in the film rivals the very real catastrophe of the children’s wicker basket full of picnic food being lost overboard. This is despite the deployment of a failed “man overboard” rescue manoeuvre – although in trying this out, the children have in fact perfected it, and it is to come in useful when there is a real man-overboard emergency.
This Swallows and Amazons is decent enough: but probably best savoured on the small screen after tea on a rainy Sunday.
Backwards to the future: how Britain’s nostalgia industry is thriving
From the new film of Swallows and Amazons to Harry Potter, Britain is obsessed with a past that never existed. What is this endless Downtonisation all about?
Monday 25 July 2016 18.02 BST
Ron Howard had a theory about why the US sitcom Happy Days was such a hit. The Oscar-winning director, who played Richie Cunningham in the show, argued that central to its appeal was that it was set in the 1950s, before Vietnam, drugs and hippies, when teenagers were civil to their elders. Happy Days – which ran from 1974 to 1984 – was, he told me, a return to lost innocence before Watergate. It put the 50s back into the 70s and made people happier.
The new film adaptation of Arthur Ransome’s novel Swallows and Amazons, starring Rafe Spall, Kelly Macdonald and Andrew Scott, has a similar nostalgic function. It takes us back to 1935, a time before multicultural Britain, swinging London, gay marriages, gender fluidity, online avatars and goggles for conker contests.
It’s set in an era before the Sodom and Gomorrah of onesies and flip-flops, when there were only two kinds of nightwear – winceyette nighties and winceyette pyjamas – and there was never any question of you wearing either if you went to the shops.
Most importantly, director Philippa Lowthorpe and writer Andrea Gibb take us back to the time when the Great Outdoors was a place for wholesome prepubescent rampaging rather than one so overrun with stabbings, abductions and drug scores not to mention health and safety infractions, that today’s fearful parents have decided for the most part to keep their little twerps indoors. Better our Vitamin D-deprived kids are under lock and key, safely eviscerating aliens during PS4 Doom marathons.
At the press screening for Swallows and Amazons, Gibb said her adaptation sought to address our anxieties over helicopter parenting. That certainly is what gives Ransome’s story relevance to our anxious, nostalgic society. We have apparently raised – as the father of the four sibling heroes of Swallows and Amazons would say – a generation of duffers.
At the start, the four Walker children are heading off for a Lake District holiday with their mother, while their father is away with the Royal Navy. The removal of the patriarch is a recurring plot device in nostalgic children’s literature that involves urban kids finding themselves giddily adrift in rural England. Think of Edith Nesbit’s The Railway Children (in which the Edwardian paterfamilias is falsely imprisoned as a spy) or, more recently, Michelle Magorian’s Goodnight Mister Tom (in which a second world war evacuee finds a surrogate father in a grumpy village widower). Both were made into stirringly nostalgic films set in a simpler, gentler England.
Perhaps, if you believe the premise of such books and their adaptations, only when parents are away can children play. Even Harry Potter, though an orphan, comes to imaginative life the further the Hogwarts Express races him away from the quotidian dullness of his muggle family. And how striking it is that the Hogwarts Express is a lovely old steam train rather than a grisly Pendolino. For all that JK Rowling’s franchise starts in the early 1990s, its charmed world time travels back to an earlier Britain of retro locos and school gowns.
In Swallows and Amazons, the Walker siblings, once installed in their lakeside rental owned by a couple of satisfyingly lo-fi rustics called the Jacksons, demand that they be allowed to sail across the deepest lake in England and camp out on the island in the middle. Kelly Macdonald’s Mrs Walker agonises over the risks of death by burning and drowning such autonomy would entail, but eventually agrees. “I don’t want them frightened of the world,” she says. “If life was always early to bed, we’d never learn ’owt,” counsels Jessica Hynes’s Mrs Jackson.
And so the Walker siblings set off on theirawfully big adventure, one that would have present-day health and safety ideologues crying into their risk-averse muesli. Will they survive? Are canvas plimsols and knitted sleeveless sweaters really what one should wear for an excursion in Cumbria? Go see the film and find out.
Swallows and Amazons could be seen as part of a reactionary nostalgic industry, part of the Downtonising tendency. To Downtonise the past is to rid a book or film or TV drama of the things that some in the audience might dislike about the present – black people, uppity proles, uppity Poles, women who don’t know their place, kids who have exchanged their right to graze their knees outdoors for the right to contract carpal tunnel syndrome indoors.
The tendency to reverse backwards into the future is a particularly British phenomenon. “Fifty years from now,” said John Major in 1993, “Britain will still be the country of long shadows on county grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and pools fillers and – as George Orwell said – ‘old maids bicycling to holy communion through the morning mist’ and if we get our way – Shakespeare still read even in school.” Wouldn’t you like to live there? Me neither.
Conservatives have regularly used an apparently gilded past age as an alibi for rubbishing the present. It is the basis of one of our most successful export industries. In 1981, for instance, Jeremy Irons narrated the lyrical introduction to Charles Sturridge’s ITV adaptation of Brideshead Revisited: “Oxford in those days was still a city of aquatint. When the chestnut was in flower and the bells rang out high and clear over the gables and cupolas, she exhaled the soft airs of centuries of youth.”
Evelyn Waugh’s 1945 novel already dripped with nostalgia for a pre-war England and its allied oleaginous underlings (think Sebastian Flyte’s ever-so-’umble barber). Sturridge effectively put that nostalgia to work in Thatcher’s Britain. Just as Waugh’s novel, behind its lament for lost innocence, expressed posh contempt for upstart prole scum, so its TV adaptation was handily broadcast at a time when it could serve the reactionaryagenda of a Conservative government that spent the 80s destroying the organised working classes.
Thirty years later, Downton Abbey similarly aided a later Tory government with its depiction of Edwardian England as one in which the lower orders knew their place and were contented with their lot. It fitted into the reactionary Keep Calm and Carry On ethos that has permeated austerity Britain from 2008 onwards, urging political quietism on those suffering most from George Osborne’s public expenditure cuts. No wonder the Tories gave that Downton creator and inveterate snob Julian Fellowes a knighthood. Kirstie Allsopp should have been made a dame, too, for her craft programme which, so far as I understood it, had the subtext: crochet your way out of recession like they did in the 1930s, whiney proles.
But British period drama doesn’t always have a reactionary agenda. It is striking that Lowthorpe worked as a director on Call the Midwife, the BBC series set in London’s East End in the late 1950s and early 1960s based on Jennifer Worth’s memoirs. Since 2012, it has been broadcast in the Sunday-evening vintage slot. With its sweet midwives in cardies and starched uniforms, it fits into that slot perfectly and courts the Downton demographic perfectly. But, as Radio Times’ Alison Graham argued, it should “take its place as the torchbearer of feminism on television”, since it has dealt with domestic abuse, illegal abortion, rape, the pill, women enslaved by dull marriages, poverty and big families. “I believe the series should be shown to teenage girls in schools across the country,” argued Graham.
Swallows and Amazons, similarly, comes on cosy and nostalgic, but then wrongfoots us. Lowthorpe and Gibb’s adaptation cunningly punches up the subversive storyline of the Amazons. Lowthorpe rightly points out that the proto-feminist girl gang are startlingly modern (and apparently in keeping with Ransome’s counter-zeitgeisty views on women). “They are definitely not your archetypal 1930s girl, and for that they are wonderful,” says Lowthorpe. “They’re like warriors, and they are funny and brave and up to no good.”
Otherwise, though, the film helps make the past seem, not a foreign country, but a better realm than the rubbish one we have inflicted on our enfeebled offspring. It chimes with recent rose-tinted eulogies to childhood of simpler times, captured in the following viral email: “Congratulations to all my friends who were born in the 1940s, 50s and 60s…. We ate white bread and real butter; drank cows’ milk and soft drinks with sugar; but we weren’t overweight because... we were always outside playing!” The corollary? Modern life is rubbish.
It’s an abiding theme. In her memoir of a growing up in suburban Ruislip in the 1950s, Michele Hanson wrote: “So what did ‘play’ mean back then? There was barely any telly, no mobiles, iPhones or iPlayers, no internet, computer games, PlayStations and no pop stars. We had only the simplest of equipment: jacks, marbles, skipping-ropes, bats, balls and bicycles. Most of the time, my friends and I made our own games up: making perfume from rose petals, brewing ginger beer, holding snail races, picking blackberries, making dens in the woods.”
The conviction that the past was better speaks to our current anxieties. If Philippa Lowthorpe and Andrea Gibb are looking for another book to adapt for a film corrective to modern life, they should try Robin Stevens’s cunning series of novels Murder Most Unladylike, set in a boarding school in 1935, about two girls who run a detective agency. “Bother,” says Hazel in Murder Most Unladylike at one point. “Daisy, my pullover’s in the gym.” Bother? Pullovers? Is there any thing more vexing than misplacing one’s knitwear? Not in this corner of Downtonshire there isn’t.
Stevens’s genius is to produce a mash-up of English fiction from the 1930s, 40s and 50s, borrowing the boarding-school setting (from Enid Blyton’s St Clare novels no doubt) and erasing the unpalatable bits (PG Wodehouse’s occasional racist stereotyping, say, or Blyton’s insistence in the Famous Five mysteries that Anne is a wannabe housewife to Dick and Julian, or Waugh’s posh-boy wail against the rise of the common man).
But like Lowthorpe and Gibb’s retread of Swallows and Amazons, Stevens wants to have her twee and subvert it. Her heroines Daisy and Hazel are proto-feminists like the Amazons, girls out of time gently challenging the patriarchy. What’s more, instead of dramatising the past as a means of going back to a time in Britain before immigration, Stevens time-travels to right a racist wrong. The book’s narrator is Hazel Wong, the daughter of a Hong Kong businessman, who yearns to become the Chinese Sherlock Holmes. In a lovely scene in First Class Murder, nasty Little Englanders travelling on the Orient Express assume that Mr Wong must be a servant. He, marvellously, and with great dignity, exposes their racist assumptions.
One reason Stevens’s books are so successful is because, while part of a lucrativeBritish nostalgia industry, they aren’t really about depicting the past authentically but about recreating it to escape a present we don’t like much. Her books teem with polite girls in boaters, white ankle-socks and sensible plaits – the whole sartorial panoply of a bygone age.
It’s hard to read them, or watch the new film of Swallows and Amazons, without thinking how much kinder, better-dressed, and simpler the world was in 1935. Why can’t we have those times back? Because they never happened. And Happy Days didn’t exist until we invented them.
• Swallows and Amazons is released in the UK on 19 August