Some while ago I heard mention that there was a new film coming out of Swallows & Amazons. For those unfamiliar, this is a book by the journalist and author Arthur Ransome, who after reporting on the Russian Revolution came home to the Lake District, wrote comment articles for the Guardian and then met up with the family of a girl he once proposed to. With the encouragement of girl and her husband, he taught the children to sail. When they returned home to Syria (nice people, Syrians) he wrote a book of imaginary adventures for enthusiastic 1920s children with a boat, two tents and some form of access to an island in the Lakes. (What sort of access is never discussed, except in Secret Water. This is one of the bits of fantasy in the books.)
Swallows & Amazons was what might be called a sleeper hit, but the series became iconic after the sequel (Swallowdale) came out and Ransome was able to live comfortably on the proceeds of the (eventually 12) books for the rest of his life – along with his wife Evgenia, who before their marriage had been Leon Trotsky’s secretary.
The Swallows books are often accused of being rather quiet and slow these days. Obviously anyone who says such things hasn’t read:
- several bits of Swallowdale;
- the middle of Pigeon Post;
- We Didn’t Mean to go to Sea;
- the wet bit of Secret Water;
- very much of The Big Six;
- the key scene in The Picts and the Martyrs; or
- any of Peter Duck or Missee Lee (but particularly the climaxes).
What they do offer is a remarkably egalitarian fantasy world. If you already happen to live in a fantasy world, you too may enjoy adventures out of Philip Pullman’s creations. If you have access to a large rambling house with empty rooms and wardrobes unvisited for years, it is quite possible that you might find yourself in a despotic dictatorship with a deeply entrenched class system where lions provide eternal distant government and beavers talk at you. If you get to dig in old gravel pits outside your house, there may prove to be a Psammead down there as delightfully promised by Edith Nesbit. J. K. Rowling offers a glorious world of more entrenched class systems for people who turn out to have magic powers, and then goes on television to complain about class.
These are all excellent bits of escapism that have entranced children (and adults) with imaginations of a world that they cannot really visit.
But Ransome’s landscape involves no magic. It is accessible to anyone who can get hold of a tent and a boat, and some of the more peaceful bits of the Lakes could still be borrowed for such adventures. Failing that there’s always a Scottish loch or four (Loch Morar is nicely out of the way, well-endowed with islands and apparently home to Morag, the Loch Morar Monster). It can remain believable as a possibility, and his characters are so real and human (especially the Swallows, being based on real people) that they almost walk out of the page. There is no need to abandon the family altogether and there is no class system.
This all meant that I was looking forward to this new film with interest. Here’s the trailer:
Aside from the curiosity that Ransome made Susan the sensible one and she seems to have been all but written out of the trailer…
Ransome of course never did expand on Captain Flint’s backstory, but the “retired pirate” is never really confirmed beyond Titty’s imagination (Nancy merely says that it is “quite a good thing for him to be”). By Pigeon Post he seems to be connected with mining in some way. What is certain is that the character in the books was not thin or built for clinging onto trains of 1950s suburban stock. He was also always rather polite to Mrs Walker, although as they didn’t meet until after he’d slandered her son this may be for more reasons than his amiable personality. All-in-all, there is an air of “from the stable of the films of The Chronicles of Narnia“. As with Narnia, the cast look alright and have a family-ish air which probably works better in the full thing.
I liked the Paddington update, bringing the concept into the present day, giving the children more vim and building a new adventure around the base idea of the original short stories. I’ve been enjoying the Professor Branestawm adaptations the BBC has been doing as well (again, building up short stories). When reading bits of Swallows books that I am too familiar with, I like to picture how to update them to a bunch of modern kids with mobile phones. (The “Better drowned than duffers” telegram is clearly an email written in a hurry; the lack of mobiles is simply because Wild Cat Island has no mains electricity so they all go flat by sundown; Mother thinks she can trust the children without life jackets – I’m fairly sure I’ve been rowing without a life jacket; candles can be replaced with battery lanterns; the boats haven’t changed much and Coniston is still not all that busy.) Actually, bringing the Swallows into the present day would be rather appealing.
Part of the concept is to bring in elements of Arthur Ransome’s life, which actually would warrant a film of their own. (Even with his “Ransome already left” embellishments to his autobiography.)
We’ll leave it there. It looks like something that might have been better under a different title (Blah & Witter, based on Swallows & Amazons). That doesn’t necessarily do you any harm (see the recent Lady Susan film adaptation, done as Love & Friendship but clearly the same story from one look at the trailer – Lady Susan might have no name recognition, but I’m never quite sure Swallows is that widely read these days). Under a different title I might be interested in seeing it, but as Swallows it feels like I’d be coming back in and picking up the book to make sure nobody’s changed it in my absence. I might, on reflection, go and see it, but then I might sit in and put this on – the trailer (in a way which suggests the 2016 Swallows may be better than it looks) fails to fully grasp its innate humour, humanity and liveliness:
But Susan looks happy in this older one, and I like the ’70s Titty. She has a blog, in case anyone’s interested; I picked up her book while holidaying in Coniston. Being in the area of course provides an opportunity to take way too many pictures of the Lakes, so here’re a few.
My sunset picture of Peel Island on Coniston, which found its way onto here with a lengthy description back in October.
Windermere, at Bowness, as I saw it on arriving late on a Saturday evening – astride an overladen bicycle, fresh off the train, looking for a chip stall and ready to sail to Ambleside.
The cross-Windermere ferry, mentioned in the previous post.
The landscape – high above Coniston, on the quiet way across from Ambleside (with bike), looking across at the hulking form of the Old Man of Coniston. I should have cycled over earlier that day and gone up him that morning; the view would have been something. I saved it for the last day of the holiday, by which point the weather had broken and the Old Man was wearing hat and balaclava.
Swallowdale Country, in the form of Stable Harvey Moss near Torver. It is easy to picture the Swallows tramping across this towards Kanchenjunga or Titty and Roger getting horribly lost in the fog (who needs guns when you have fog on boggy moorland?). This is where the bike proved less handy; it is impossible to hunt out Swallowdale with a road bike and aside from trying to stretch the lock round a tree by the road there is (it being the sticks) nowhere to secure it.