Wednesday, 31 May 2006

The Cairn on Kanchenjunga:

Some musings on an ancient debate

First published on Tarboard on May 21, 2006

I found this amongst some old papers. I think I wrote it some years ago with the intention of sending it to Mixed Moss in response to a debate about the origins of the Amazon pirates. I’m not sure if it ever arrived at Mixed Moss, certainly it never appeared in it. Anyway, I read it, quite liked some of it and decided that even if it is not up to MM’s standards I might inflict it upon Tarboard.

The Cairn on Kanchenjunga

I was delighted to Read Pauline’s Marshall’s “The Children on the East Side”. This put forward the claims of the red-capped Rawdon-Smith girls to be the ‘original’ Amazon pirates.

No one who has met Pauline could doubt that she is anything but a “real Amazon pirate”. She is as real as Kanchenjunga. I remember her, a few years ago, on a TARS trip to Piel Island (down the river and along the coast from Peel Island). Piel Island is crowned by a rather splendid but ruined castle which is inaccessible without a stiff, hands on the rock, scramble of the sort not usually associated with ladies, in or approaching, their eighties. I looked up to see a pair of pirates striding the battlements: Pauline and my (then) 15-year old son, Ian, striding the battlements, her redcap and his ponytail streaming out in the breeze.

Pauline’s claim to be the original and authentic Amazon is based on the simple claim “I was there.” Others have argued from their knowledge of AR’s life and letters that the sources of the Amazons lies elsewhere, with the Crossley or Collingwood girls.

The historian R. G. Collingwood (Uncle Robin to the Altounyans) never, to my knowledge commented on this piece of history so dear to the hearts of lovers of Swallows and Amazons. In his “The Idea of History he did, however, say something about historical knowledge in general which I find helpful when wondering ‘how it all began’. He claimed that what is important, when thinking about history, is not the closeness to the event but the ability to “think it again for yourself”.

“Even if a very learned historian or an eye witness, or a person in the confidence of the man who did the thing he is inquiring into, or even [if] the man himself hands him on a plate a ready made answer to his question, all he can do is reject it; not because he thinks his informant is trying to deceive him, or is himself deceived but because if he accepts it he is giving up his autonomy as a historian and allowing someone else to do for him what he, if he is a scientific thinker, can only do for himself.” (1994: 256)

For Collingwood, therefore, history becomes real when it is ”re-enacted in the mind of the historian”. This observation seems particularly apt when applied to the origins of the Swallows and Amazons stories. These books are peopled by characters who make a landscape vivid through their re-enactment of stories of exploration and piracy. Like paintings, the books have a depth conjured out of layers of landscape, action and character; it is this depth which makes the books ‘real’.

Now neither TARS, nor Tarboardistas, are under any obligation to be either historians or scientists; they don’t need to weigh the Rawdon-Smiths against the Altounyans against the Crossleys if the don’t want to. And even if they do want, if they are driven by a desire to know ‘what really happened’, are we not are trying to capture the thoughts of an author at the point of creation? This is like trying to catch sunbeams. Instead we should try to decide what it is which counts for each of us as a true and original Amazon pirate.

If the books are real to us it is because, like evidence for Collingwood, they answer questions we ourselves have posed as we relive the stories and make our own voyages in the “Swallow” or “Amazon”. This latest edition of “Mixed Moss” [I’m not sure which one I was referring to] with its reminiscence and research is like the cairn on Kanchenjunga. Each stone was placed by past explorers each message from them carries our expeditions forward by reminding us of those who came before.

Rawdon-Smith upon Altounyan, Altounyan upon Collingwood, Crossley upon Blackett, Kanchenjunga upon Matterhorn, Matterhorn upon then Old Man, the more layers, the more depth, the more ‘real’. Pauline’s (I always catch myself calling her Peggy) account of her childhood on the East Bank of Coniston Water and her life as an Amazon pirate adds to the messages in the cairn and should be celebrated for it.

No comments: