Sunday, 14 September 2008

AR's politics - part 2

I'm indebted to the three IND... readers who left comments on the last post for the inspiration for this one.

Dr Duncan Hall wrote: (extract)
I would probably begin from a starting point of suggesting that Ransome was not really trying to 'implant' political lessons in anybody's mind... And then there are certain values - what childhood should be like, justice and fairness, being protective of nature, an interest in traditional industry (charcoal burning) and pursuits (hound trailing), etc. Ransome could easily have arrived at all his rather universal values without having a political view. But I think you can just detect a bit of the politics peeking through, particularly in terms of which values become paramount and which characters are portrayed most sympathetically.

Ambling Aussie wrote: (extract)
His political leanings and his interest in Russia never did sit too well in later decades. however, we love him for all that. I'm a member of TARS in Australia, and armed with the books advertised on this page by Roger Wardale and others, I am heading off to the Lake District June 1 for a glorious few days in his footsteps.
Dominic Rivron wrote: (complete)
To someone who only knows the books and has seen photos of the older Ransome, he so fits into a stereotype of a gentleman writer of improving fiction for young people that most people take its accuracy for granted. Prototypes - e.g., Kipling, Buchan, WE Johns, et al - abound. At first glance, his appearance, his subject matter and many of his interests are very “establishment”. He so looks the part that he must have turned into it!

It is almost like the way a magician attracts our attention to what he wants us to see, while distracting us from what is really happening. But I don't think it was a deliberate act – it just happens like that because the stereotype is so strong. However, the sympathetic adult role models in the books, the "friendly natives" are anything but conventional. Superficially, yes: middle-class professionals who are obviously quite well-off. But they all have hidden depths which lead them to conspire with the children who are seeking to remap all the world that is known to them. I could go on (and do, on my own blog). It's more than a game of let's pretend. The post-imperialist world is turned on its head: rather than the "uncivilised" it's those who take civilisation at face value and can't see beyond it who are the "natives" in these stories.

My favourite photo of Ransome is one in which he look young, idealistic, bright-eyed and a bit dishevelled!

Ambling Auusie's comment led me to a delightful series of posts on his blog describing his pilgrimage from Australia to visit The Lake in the North. Dominic Rivron's comment also led me to look up his blog. His post, To the summit of Kanchenjunga, caught my eye. It sums up much of my own relationship with Arthur Ransome's books in general and the Swallows and Amazons series in particular.

Nowhere in the books I read did I seem to find any hint of Ransome's elusive politics. There was an all-pervasive humanism. There is a lot about values, decency, the love of nature and the spirit of fantasy and adventure. I don't remember there being any reference to religion: the nearest we get, as I remember, are the draconian strictures of the G.A. as to appropriate behaviour on a Sunday. All the ritual in the stories (and there is quite a lot) is carried out away from the adult gaze and usually involves a reversion to the primitive. Ransome's most sympathetic characters value the decencies of civilisation while remaining in touch with their “inner savages”.

His children often refer to the adults as “natives” (in the first book they even invent a stupid pretend language to communicate with them, which Ransome subsequently -and sensibly- dropped). The children are the “explorers”,and though they often invent games which mimic the likes of Nansen, they are not extending the boundaries of civilisation and civilised knowledge as the "natives" understand it. Rather, they are literally redrawing the maps of the world around them, rediscovering and renaming things the "natives" around them, who consider themselves to be civilised, take for granted. The term "friendly natives" is reserved for those adults who recognise the limits of this civilisation. For the child explorers, exploration is an act of rediscovery and renewal - and this, surely, touches on the political, in the broadest sense.

Perhaps any political theme to the stories is so over-arching that it is almost impossible to see. And yet, who makes the audacious plans? Who is frequently credited with drawing the maps in the books? Who adopts a pseudonym (her real name is Ruth)? Who, to return again specifically to Winter Holiday, announces the start of the Polar Expedition (albeit unwittingly) by raising a scarlet flag? If we need to look for real life models for the character of Captain Nancy we should perhaps look not only to children known to Ransome but also at his earlier friend, VI Lenin (real name Ulyanov). One could even compare Nancy's late arrival at the North Pole having been prevented from leaving Beckfoot by the mumps with Lenin being delayed in Europe before finally arriving at the Finland Station (2). If all this sounds fanciful, it is only because being a friend of Lenin in itself sounds fanciful. If any other less famous or controversial friend of Ransome's had been a born charismatic leader who lived under a pseudonym, raised a red flag and been delayed from taking part in a plan he had played a major role in shaping, his biographers would have rooted him out long ago.

I'm not suggesting that the stories abound in allegory, any more than the maps in the books are actual representations of the Lake District. However, they do seem to contain interesting allusions and themes relating to Ransome's experience of the Russian Revolution, his feelings about it and the people involved in it. He would be a very unusual writer if they didn't. Was he aware of them? Possibly. Surely, in the case of Winter Holiday. Did he want people to see them? He was shrewd enough, surely, never to let us know directly. What we do know is that he wrote (and wanted children to read) dramatic stories about young explorers who set out to remap the world. And that, I think, speaks for itself.

(1) Hardyment, Christina, Arthur Ransome: Captain Flint's Trunk, Francis Lincoln Ltd 2006

(2) These are not the only possible allusions. Take, for example, Nancy's and the explorers' determined efforts to communicate during her illness and isolation. Winter Holiday is a book about the enforced exile of a leader.

Sunday, 23 March 2008

Arthur Ransome's Politics

TarBoard, is a very lively discussion board dedicated to Arthur Ransome and his works. Whenever Arthur Ransome's politics have been discussed a consensus quickly arises supporting the view that whatever AR's politics may have been in his youth - and whatever lingering socialist sympathies AR may have retained throughout the rest of his life - the Swallows and Amazon series is completely apolitical. Those arguing the contrary are not taken very seriously.

The S&A series books have been on the nursery bookshelves of quite a few remarkable people such as: Clare Francis, Ellen MacArthur, Philip Pullman, Paul Foot and Norman Willis. Quite a few of his famous readers have admitted that they found the books inspirational. Perhaps part of inspiration is in the way Ransome teaches his youthful readers to think for themselves and not take everything on face value regardless of the source. Character's like forceful Nancy Blackett, Captain of the Amazon Pirates, the respectable Doctor's son Tom Dudgeon, or the quiet and literary minded Dorothea Callum, manage to outwit adults and the 'authorities' by a high degree of intelligence and a certain degree of deception. Of course, this plot element is gently understated or Ransome's books would never have had the enormous sales that they enjoyed throughout the 1930s, 40s and 50s, in the days when parents chose what books to buy their children. In Swallowdale the enemy is fearsome Great Aunt, Coot Club the adversaries are the Hulaballos who endanger a coot and her nest, and in Great Northern? the villain is a rich and unscrupulous egg collector.

As other posts on If Not Duffers... have shown, it is necessary to dig deep when trying to solve the mystery of the model Beckfoot and the original Amazons. Perhaps one has to dig even deeper still to understand what political lessons Ransome was trying to implant in the minds of his young readers! An excellent starting point is Ransome the Socialist, Duncan Hall's latest post in his own AR blog which coincidentally is also called Great Northern?.

Other useful resources on AR's politics -
Arthur Ransome in Revolutionary Russia
- by Paul Foot
The Secret Life of Arthur Ransome - The Sharp Side blog

Sunday, 16 March 2008

Welcome Great Northern!

New Ransome research wins Turner Elephant Prize

It's not every day that a new piece of Arthur Ransome original research wings its way across the Internet, so we are doubly delighted to be able to reproduce Duncan Hall's first article on his brand new AR blog Great Northern. It always a pleasure to welcome the arrival of a new AR e-resource, such as Great Northern, but the article Swallow locations: the case for a geographical approach, breaks completely new ground in its analysis of Lake Windermere based prototypes for Swallow and Amazons based locations. After due consideration the Executive Committee of If Not Duffers... have decided to award Dr Hall the the second James Turner Elephant Prize, for original and audacious research which leads to a reappraisal of the origins of the S & A locations and personalities. The first Turner Elephant was awarded to Iain Hobbs for his ground breaking research paper, Beckfoot Found. Below we reproduce the full text of Swallow locations: the case for a geographical approach.

Swallows locations: the case for a geographical approach

Dr Duncan Hall

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 above 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 Antarctic 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 surprisingly 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!

Friday, 14 March 2008

Colonel Percy Fawcett

An Amazonian Adventure

Source: Lost Cities & Ancient Mysteries of South America
by David Hatcher Childress

Percy Fawcett had always been fascinated in archaeology and history. He often took long walks, exploring. In 1893, while a young British officer stationed at Tricomalee, Ceylon, he ventured out on one of his long walks into the remote jungle areas of the island.

That day, a storm overtook him, forcing him to seek refuge for the night under some trees. The following morning, much to his surprise, he discovered a huge rock with strange inscriptions of unknown character and meaning.

He copied the inscriptions and showed them to a Buddhist priest. The priest informed Fawcett that the inscription was a form of old Asoke-Buddhist that only those priests could understand. Ten years later, a Ceylonese Oriental Scholar at Oxford University confirmed the assertion.

Fawcett now had a keen interest in esoteric history and lost civilizations. During his army career, he led eight (8) South American expeditions under contract with the Bolivian and Brazilian governments to delimit the frontiers that these two countries shared with Peru and Ecuador.

In 1911, at a lecture before the Royal Geographic Society in London, Fawcett described the "lost world" on the borders of Bolivia and Brazil. In attendance was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes and author of a book based on Fawcett's tales, The Lost World: The Adventures of Professor Challenger.

Later, H. Rider Huggard (author of King Solomon's Mines) gave Fawcett a mysterious twelve-inch-long basalt statue. Haggard told Fawcett that he had received the stone idol from the British Consul, O'Sullivan Beare, who in turn had picked it up in a lost city in Brazil in 1913. Based on the inscription, the idol was thought (hoped?) to have an Atlantean origin. Like a good luck charm, in 1925 Colonel Fawcett carried this stone statue with him on his fateful expedition into the Amazon rainforest.

Percy Fawcett was a true believer in the mythological Atlantis. However, he did not believe that the origin of Atlantis could be found in Brazil, but rather Brazil was once a colony of Atlantis. And it was his hope to prove the existence of Atlantis by rediscovering this lost city.

Years later, however, the basalt statue was found to have originated in the Mediterranean region circa 400 BC at Hallicarnassus before Hellenistic times. But how did this ancient statue find its way to a lost city in the Amazon jungle?

This statue (in addition to other ancient Mediterranean artefacts found in the interior of Brazil, such as a Dorian coin, which I will explain later) appears to prove that Brazil was being exploited commercially by Mediterranean traders long before Spanish explorers discovered South America!

With this understanding, it is now a probability that ancient mines and trading centers were developed in South America prior to 500 BC by the people of the Mediterranean region, namely Egyptians, Phoenicians, and later Ptolemaic Greeks.

Fawcett pointed out that Solimoes was the native name of the Amazon, which is also the same as Soloman or Solomon, suggesting the ships of King Solomon and King Hiram of Tyre made voyages to South America many years in the past. Rock inscriptions in the Amazon region even resemble Phoenician letters.

Interestingly enough, evidence appears to be mounting that the mines of Ophir (which I will discuss in the next section) may well have been King Solomon's mines - or the Lost Mines of Muribeca?

Just prior to Colonel Fawcett's ill-fated expedition, a Nafaqua Indian chief (whose territory lay between the Xingu and Tabatinga Rivers) told Colonel Fawcett about a "city" where strange temples could be found and baptismal ceremonies were practised. The Indians there spoke of houses with "stars to light them, which never went out."

Colonel Fawcett was told by the natives of Matto Grosso that mysterious "cold lights" had been seen by them in the lost cities in the jungle. He wrote to the British author Lewis Spense: "These people have a source of illumination which is strange to us - in fact, they are a remnant of civilization which has gone and which has retained old knowledge."

In Exploration Fawcett (Lt. Col. Percy Fawcett and Brian Fawcett, 1953) Colonel Fawcett states: "This is the first but not the last time I heard of these permanent lights found occasionally in the ancient houses built by that forgotten civilization of old. I knew that certain Indians of Ecuador were reputed to light their huts at night by means of luminous plants, but that, I considered, must be a different thing all together. There was some secret means of illumination known to the ancients that remains to be rediscovered by the scientists of today - some method of harnessing forces unknown to us."

Colonel Fawcett was determined to find this lost city, and in 1925 he launched an expedition deep into the interior of the Matto Grosso region of Brazil in search of that lost city.

On May 29, 1925, Colonel Fawcett wrote a letter to his wife, Nina, from "Dead Horse Camp" in the Matto Grosso region (see map). "Dead Horse Camp" was the same location Fawcett had reached during his 1920 expedition, which he had to abandon because his horse had died here; hence the name "Dead Horse Camp."

It should be noted that "Dead Horse Camp" was the very last outpost of civilization. From that point on, only unexplored, dangerous territory awaited him.

In Fawcett's letter to his wife, he said his first objective was to reach a waterfall in a week or ten days. "You need have no fear of failure..." he wrote. This letter was sent back to Cuyaba by an Indian messenger; they were also the last words Colonel Fawcett wrote. He was never seen or heard from again, at least officially.

Read the rest of this article
Colonel Fawcett at the Virtual Exploration Society
Continuing Cronicles of Colonel Fawcett
Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett
Veil Lifts on Jungle Mystery, Guardian

Thursday, 21 February 2008

Treasure Island

Birmingham Stage Company tour

Swallows and Amazons is steeped with references to Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island. Captain Flint, his parrot and his treasure chest immediately come to mind. In Swallowdale we discover that a previous generation of explorers had already requisitioned Peter Duck's cave for Ben Gunn. Thanks to Disney and Brian Henson's Muppet Treasure Island many children have been made familiar with Stevenson's story, but you can't beat the original for its gripping plot and spine tingling atmosphere.

If you haven't got Treasure Island on your bookshelf an e-text version of the book is available here. The Birmingham Stage Company are on tour with an excellent stage adaptation. See here for dates.


If sailor tales to sailor tunes,
   Storm and adventure, heat and cold,
If schooners, islands, and maroons,
   And buccaneers, and buried gold,
And all the old romance, retold
   Exactly in the ancient way,
Can please, as me they pleased of old,
   The wiser youngsters of today:

So be it, and fall on! If not,
   If studious youth no longer crave,
His ancient appetites forgot,
   Kingston, or Ballantyne the brave,
Cooper of the wood and wave:
   So be it, also! And may I
And all my pirates share the grave
   Where these and their creations lie!

Monday, 21 January 2008

Around Witch's Quay

This satellite photograph, courtesy Google Maps, shows Quay House (top), Pilot's Cottage (middle), and Thatched Cottage, aka Ransome's Witch's Cottage (bottom).

In my youth the foreshore was not fenced off. The new fencing is apparent on the satellite picture and also on this map courtsey of DEFRA's MAGIC Project.

The MAGIC map shows an apparent attempt to divert the public right of way along the old sea wall and round the back of Witch's cottage. However, the latest on-line map of the area from the Ordnance Survey shows the public footpath running over the dam that retains the salt water lake.