Diary of a Lone Litter Picker – in the time of Corona

Before Lockdown, I was cleaning this section of the Solent shore on a daily basis, mainly collecting plastic pollution that had blown in or been deposited by the tides.

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Being isolated and difficult to reach, and yet near my home, it seemed a good place to continue taking exercise with my rescue dog, using a bucket that can  contain broken glass and handle windy conditions. I have three that I found washed-up, along with a bicycle basket.

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Each bucketful contains between 40 and 260 pieces of plastic. Some items are very small. Barbecue tongs are useful for extracting wrappers from brambles but most sea-rubbish is clean having been floating in the Solent.

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I find quite a few glass bottles, takeaway food containers, PVC fishing rope and always an old cigarette lighter.

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Some items will have been lost overboard.

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Occasionally something makes me laugh.

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I find the task of clearing the bridge across the estuary quite distressing. People have obviously been dropping litter from vehicles, including sani-wipes, plastic gloves and things that had been in their mouths. What do they imagine will happen next?

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There was a lot of drink-driving prior to Covid-19. I’ve noticed less bottles and cans of alcohol chucked out of cars but far more picnic litter. It’s a wonder we are not coping with a more formidable virus.

“What is the worst things you seen dumped in a beauty spot?”

At the beginning of Lockdown I came across this rubbish dumped in a nature reserve where otters bred. There was human faeces everywhere.

“Why do people throw litter?” I’m asked.

It’s no excuse, but think it gives them a sense of release, which is why we are being inundated right now. I have studied the issue in my depth here.

Quite a lot of rubbish blows off building sites. Here I am in my V.E. Day dress, removing builder’s plastic from a New Forest pond along with a war-time can that looked at least 75 years old.

Collector's items - Sophie Neville's litter-picking finds

“What are the most distressing things you find?”

Fly-tipping upsets me. I took my family to help clear half a ton of plastic car parts dipped in a beautiful bluebell wood a mile from our house, last night. It’s been languishing there so long that a member of a UK Litter-picking group has asked me to send him what have become ‘collector’s items’ but there are too many! I dated the haul by a 2004 crisp-packet lodged with the hubcaps.

This was a load of brand new camping gear dumped in the New Forest National Park as if it was biodegradable.

It’s always distressing finding objects that have obviously been stolen, such as handbags, empty jewellry cases, laptops and iPhones. I’ve found eight different lots chucked in the river within half a mile of my home.

Finding nitrous oxide canisters worries me. What is something goes wrong? People are obviously taking it in areas inaccessible to an ambulance.

Sea plastic found by Sophie Neville

This bucket weighed in at 4kg. It can often weigh 6kg.

This is one of the most lethal objects found on a beach frequented by children, dogs and New Forest ponies. No one from the Council is going to find this.

Photo of rubbish - lethal litter - collected by Sophie Neville

Some items seem to have travelled a long way.

“What’s the weirdest thing you’ve found?”

I find long, fluorescent light bulbs washed up in the same place – intact. Here is one I found at the beginning of Lockdown. I’m assured they contain mercury and would be horrific if smashed.

“Do you do art with the rubbish?”

Not using the hub-caps, but during Lockdown I’ve begun to make abstract pictures with sea plastic. You can see the earring and beer bottle caps I found above.

This seascape has gone is proving popular on Facebook:

Seascape - artwork by sophie Neville made from sea-plastic

Those of us collecting sea-plastic along the south coast have found a number of toy soldiers. I incorporated one into this collage:

'The end of the world' a collage made of sea-plastic by Sophie Neville

Being a writer, I usually litter-pick alone so that I can take advantage of good weather and tides while being able to loosen-up after a day typing, but friends sometime join me. It’s fun and gives us plenty to chat about as we view society from the bottom up.

To see more photos and read more about #SolentBeachClean, please click here

Sophie Neville on her 150th beach or river clean of 2019

For a list of the kind of things I find washed up on Solent shores, please click here

Solent Beach Clean

Letters and quotes from fans of the original film ‘Swallows and Amazons’ 1974, currently on BBC iPlayer

AsASwallows and Amazons 1974

‘I have just been watching on BBC catch-up, the famous and wonderfully entertaining film ‘Swallows and Amazons’. As a 12 year old boy in 1974, my little brother and I were taken to watch the James Bond film ‘Live and Let Die’ in Coulsdon. As we sat down to watch it we found ourselves sat at the wrong place. We were so upset! When the film ‘Swallows and Amazons’ started playing we totally forgot about 007 and found ourselves glued to the screen watching this wonderfully entertaining film. In short, even at 58 years of age I still enjoy this beautiful film about four children and their adventures.’ George

Virginia McKenna as mother in Swallows and Amazons
Virginia McKenna as Man Friday in Swallows and Amazons 1974

‘My best #lockdown viewing so far has been the 1974 film version of Arthur Ransome’s ‘Swallows and Amazons‘. Reliving the joy of discovering those books, and remembering the freedom of grubbing about in the wildness…’  Judy Darley

Sophie Neville as Titty on Peel island
Sophie Neville as Robinson Crusoe the shipwrecked sailor

‘Never read Arthur Ransome’s ‘Swallows & Amazons’ or seen an adaptation until yesterday. What a delight the 1974 film was. Captured the spirit of childhood adventure so charmingly. Didn’t stop smiling for a moment during the whole thing.’ David Rattigan

Filming Swallows and Amazons on Peel Island in 1973
The Swallows on Wild Cat Island

‘Watching the original ‘Swallows and Amazons’ with daughter. Get to the “better drowned than duffers, if not duffers won’t drown” telegram and daughter remarks: “I see. So their dad’s gone mad and is writing gibberish.”’ Patrick Kidd – Times Diaryist 

Claude Whatham in 1973
Behind-the-scenes at Bank Ground filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in 1973

‘Ooh. The original ‘Swallows and Amazons’ has come onto Amazon Prime. The one with Titty. The real one. The only one.’

Sophie Neville as Titty getting her makeup done
Sophie Neville being made up for the part of Titty in 1973

‘Best children’s film ever made. Perfect lockdown viewing. BBC iPlayer – ‘Swallows and Amazons’ – Tim Bonner

For homeschooling ideas relating to the films, such as watching the DVD in French, please click here

You can read the first section of ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons (1974)’ for free in the preview here:

The Making of Swallows and Amazons 1974

 

 

Comments on social media while the original film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ (1974) was broadcast on BBC Two this April

‘Hurrah!’ – BBC presenter cried.

RTE Guide declared, ‘The definitive adaptation of Arthur Ransome’s ‘Swallows & Amazons’ is on BBC Two.’ More people than ever seemed to watch the classic film, starring Virginia McKenna, which attracted comments on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram while emails were being sent in.

Virginia McKenna in Swallows and Amazons 1

Gabrielle Baalke Off to the Lakes! 

M.J. Probyn #StayAtHomeAndStaySafe Swallows and Amazons on BBC2 today! Break out the grog and pemmican. Stay home and watch this excellent film adaptation today…

Virginia McKenna as Mother in Swallows and Amazons 1

Graeme Wood – Just what we need in these extraordinary times…

John Greenhough  …such a well loved film

Dr Lucie Bea D – And Swallows and Amazons is on! A very very early cinema memory for me; I saw it in Hereford and was given a colouring in picture of the Amazons hiding in the reeds watching Swallow.

Claude Whatham directing Swallows and Amazons 1974 with Simon West and Sophie Neville

 

I’ve just enjoyed watching the film on tv again (I watch it every time!) I can remember watching the film in 1974 with my mum and grandma when I was a nine or ten year old, at the then called Mecca Cinema in Horsham,Mecca Cinema in Horsham, Sussex (sadly now demolished) I remember loving the natural setting and the adventure in the film and remember it being thrilling and suspenseful! Still my favourite film, so cheerful and uplifting. The lovely music! All still brings a tear to my eye.

Filming Swallows and Amazons at Bank Ground Farm

Back then in the 70s we didn’t have the lakes but at every opportunity our little band of local children would run off over the fields playing, building camps and climbing trees in the woods – such happy, carefree days. Been looking at your website too –  what a huge resource about the film  –  good time at the moment to look through it! Thank you for all the information and being in such a happy film, John Rose

Sophie Neville as Robinson Crusoe with film director Claude Whatham

Michael – I spent my summers up in the Lake District as a boy and loved/love the book

Peter Hamilton – Swallows and Amazon’s was one of my all time favourites as a child, it was an adventure that seemed more attainable than famous five etc. I really hope my son loves it as much as I did when he’s older…. I adore lake Coniston. Even in high summer that water is icy and very deep innocent happy times… I‘ve tried to sail out to the island on Coniston lake but there wasn’t enough wind so didn’t quite make it. I collected a fair few of the books in my 20s, brings back lots of memories

Virginia McKenna with Sophie Neville in Swallows and Amazons

Duncan Hall It’s such a good film. Doesn’t feel dated at all, to me.

Peter Ashby something timeless about the film. I can happily sit and watch it any time

Graeme Wood – Just goes to show how timeless the story is..

Launching Virginia McKenna's native rowing canoe

Graeme Wood – It’s a lovely film. As a kid I wanted to jump through the TV screen and join in (ditto the BBC adaptations of Coot Club and The Big Six). Hopefully kids will watch and want to read the books.
Michael – I’ve loved it all my life. I remember my dad rowing me out to an island on lake Windermere and showing me holes in trees, he said they’re from arrows!!!!!!
Filming with Virginia McKenna on Coniston Water
Maddy Knibb – I also had a wooden swing that collapsed so I turned it into a boat, with broom handle and sheet mast and sail. Guess which books were played out – Swallows and Amazons! It was by a laurel hedge and the leaves made great fish to be cooked on pretend fires!

Perfect opportunity for children to replicate #WildcatIsland with homemade tents in the living room

Glenn Evans – Read this to all my children when they were toddlers. And saw the film in 1974 myself.

Michael – It was only yesterday as far as I’m concerned
Virginia McKenna as Mother in Swallows and Amazons 2
Jude – Remember watching the boats on the lake being being filmed from my bedroom window – what a lovely way to slip back into my childhood
Mandy Morley The most classic, and my favourite quote: “I’ll shiver your timbers for you if you don’t stop chattering Peggy!”
Portway Junior School say, ‘the Portway Press also contained a link to the children’s classic ‘Swallows and Amazons‘ film – an excellent watch in this wet weather’.
The rehearsal and the shot in 1973 3
Alice ShelmerdineI love that music SO much… proper scenic escapism for cooped up people…!
Filming Swallows and Amazons (1974)
Anna – Fantastic – thank you! And since your message earlier, my husband has bought me ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’.
Gabrielle Baalke I love the backstory of this film and so… I took a 1-minute detour from watching and just purchased the Kindle version of The Secrets of Filming Swallows & Amazons!
MarshManJimbo – It’s on my wishlist already! I think you were fabulous as Titty.
'The Making of Swallows and Amazons' by Sophie Neville

 

The original film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ was broadcast on BBC Two on Friday 17th April at 3.00pm

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The 1974 adaptation of Arthur Ransome’s iconic book ‘Swallows and Amazons’ starring Virginia McKenna was screened on BBC Two on Friday 17th April at 3.00pm and will be available on BBC iPlayer for 30 days here

Please add any questions about how the movie was made to the Comments below.

Swallows & Amazons film billing

For the latest edition of the paperback on ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons(1974)’ with details of the film locations and what those who appeared in it are doing now,  Please click here

The Making of Swallows and Amazons' by Sophie Neville

You can read the first section for free in the ebook, entitled ‘The secrets of filming Swallows & Amazons (1974)’ This is similar to the paperback but has a few more stories for adult readers and links to behind-the-scenes cine footage. It can be downloaded from iBooks, iTunes, Smashwords, Kobo and Amazon Kindle

The Secrets of Filming Swallows & Amazons

For homeschooling ideas, why not get hold of a copy of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in French or enter Into Film’s movie review writing contests? Read more here.

Hirondelles et Amazones

It would be lovely to hear from anyone who saw it in the cinema when it first came out in cinemas in the summer of 1974 – more than forty-five years ago.

If you enjoy ‘Swallows and Amazons’, think of joining The Arthur Ransome Society  or the Arthur Ransome Group on Facebook where you will meet like-minded people – of all ages. Most are dinghy sailors who love the books.

Swallows and Amazons mugs
Mugs printed with maps used to illustrate Sophie’s books

There seems to be a great interest in Swallows and Amazons mugs. To find out more about these, please click here

Sophie Neville's booksPlease click here for Sophie Neville’s other books

It is always great to hear from readers on Facebook or Instagram and on-line reviews of the DVD and books are welcome. Please click here for Sophie’s Amazon page.

Screenshot of The Making of Swallows and Amazons book cover on Instagram

 

 

Swallows and Amazons gifts

I’ve used the maps I drew to illustrate my book on ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons, 1974’ to bring out a ‘Sophie Neville collection’ of gifts.

Each of the three different maps, seen above, have been printed on cushions, bedding, bath mats, shower curtains, coasters and items of clothing that make perfect presents for Swallows and Amazons enthusiasts.

To view the collection that feature Coniston Water, Windermere and Derwentwater, please click here.

Windermere clock

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Coniston Water Acryllic block

Windermere duvet cover

Derwent Water comforter

Derwent water throw blanket

Derwentwater tapestry

Coniston Water Throw Pillow

Windermere Throw Pillow

Coniston Water coasters

Derwent Water shower curtain

I now have a range of clothing, including socks, which you can see here.

Diary of a lone litter-picker: cleaning the riverbank and Solent shores

Sophie Neville collecting plastic from the Atlantic Ocean
Sophie Neville on the 150th beach/river clean of 2019

Wednesday 1st January 2020

“Hello Sophie,” a passing driver called out. “Are you still collecting plastic?”

“My first beach clean of the year!”

I manged 150 beach or riverside litter collections last year. My aim is to make it 200 for 2020. As someone wrote to ask why I stopped my last‘Diary of a lone litter-picker’ back in April, I thought I’d start it up again. It may not be that consistent but I am fuelled by rage. The first thing I picked up toady was a deflated helium balloon found on the road to the Solent shore. Isn’t helium a finite resource? Don’t we need it for medical procedures?

Solent beach clean 1 Jan 2020

I came across two ‘disposable’ barbecues lying abandoned on the beach.

“Do you think someone will return for these?” I asked the only other person about on New Year’s Day.

“Doubt it.”

I added the aluminium trays to the purple bucket I use to collect litter. Only one drinks can graced it’s depths today but stopped repeatedly to pick up cotton bud stalks along with small pieces of PVC fishing twine and red, white or blue micro- plastics washed up by winter tides.

A runner ran past. Will all this bending keep me fit, I wonder. There was a little polystyrene and four boxes of fireworks left beside the municipal bin.

It was a mild but misty morning. I walked along with my dog listening to cries of seabirds. How many of them have plastic in their gullets?

Solent Beach clean barbeque 1 Jan 2020

On returning home, I looked up the  Marine Conservation Society and see from their 2019 report that they have a number of different classifications for items such as ‘Sewage related debris’. They need more data to campaign and change Government policies. I decide to join.

Thursday 2nd January

It was windy with rain threatening, so I decided to take my dog down a lane running alongside the river marking the boundary of the Lymington Reedbeds Nature Reserve in the New forest National Park. This is just above the high tide level and prone to flooding. I cleaned the area two months ago. In about 500 yards I collected:

Rubbish 2020

3 x glass booze bottles, 3 x booze cans, 3 x drink cans, 7 x plastic drinks bottles, 5 x cigarette packets and 30 x crisp/sweet wrappers. This weighed 3kgs. Apart from one sandwich the contents of the packaging could not be described as health-giving.

I had to leave a discarded boiler, a rusting wheelbarrow, a length of soggy carpet and a number of bottles lying out of my reach. This fly-tipping has languished in the ditches here for sometime but I need to commander help and a suitable vehicle.

Friday 3rd January

A lovely sunny day when I cleared litter from the rest of the lane running along the river. What do people expect will happen to the cans and plastic flung into the reserve? One tin was dated 2011. Four of the wrappers had been neatly knotted before being chucked in the ditch. From the evidence collected, I strongly suspect their owner to be drink-driving on his or her way to work every day.

Rubbish 4 2020

Sadly, I will need to return with a long poled grabber for plastic bottles chucked deep into the brambles. I need a vehicle to collect a large car part, a plastic tub and a number of ‘Bags for Life’ stuffed with litter lying abandoned near the footpath to the pub. It could be worse. I found nine different items of stolen property along this lane last year – iPhones, lap tops, two empty jewellery boxes and a handbag in which a mouse had made its nest.

Rubbish 3 2002

It was my friend’s Birthday, so took her a card, walking along the estuary with a bucket to collect the inevitable litter. What should I do with parts that have obviously fallen off cars? I hung one up in case its grateful owner comes along along. I also hung a soggy sweatshirt from the railing, although I doubt if it will be claimed.

Rubbish river 2020

I was down by the water, fishing out plastic bottles when a car passed belching clouds of choking white smoke. After extracting an old carry-mat from the reeds I found two puzzled men looking under the bonnet of their car. Their glamorous passenger stood shivering by the estuary. I pointed them in the direction of the local garage but feel I should have left the mat in case they needed it.

Rubbish river 1 2020

Saturday 4th January

In an effort to record data, I sort yesterday’s litter into recyling bags full of tins and plastic bottles. Glass bottles go in an outside sink for washing, wrappers into my domestic rubbish bags. They should go into Council litter bins or litter bags.

Rubbish solent 2020

I returned to the Solent and began collecting plastic deposited by winter tides. When I first moved to this area fifteen years ago, the foreshore was multi-coloured with debris. The coast now looks clean at first glace but I picked up about 200 tiny pieces of fishing twine and micro-plastics in a few hundred yards. There were quite a few spent shot-gun cartridges left by wild-flowlers. I found a baby’s dummy and a used cigarette lighter. There is often one. New Forest ponies roam here and yet I have retrieved buckets of broken glass in the past and find a jagged bottle base that could easily lame a horse. It has obviously been there for years.

Rubbish glass with dog

Sunday 5th January

A stereo speaker was washed up on the shore this afternoon. I wouldn’t want to hit one at sea. I spied a Corona bottle, the bobbly ‘every bubble’s passed its FIZZical!’ type that we yearned for as children in the 1960s. How old would it be? 50 years-old? Could I still redeem the deposit? Hopefully soon.

Rubbish micro plastics

Monday 6th January

I walked back from town, unable to pass littler lying the causeway over the Lymington River. I had no bucket with me but where there is rubbish there is usually something you can use as a container. I found a broken umbrella, filling its folds with plastic cup lids, bottle tops, and assorted trash including a Pepsi Cola tin that would have otherwise rolled into the tidal river.

Rubbish umbrella 2020

Tuesday 7th January

I should have rushed out early when we had two minutes of sunshine but I was distracted and the rain set in. Instead, I read through litter-picking posts on Facebook, absorbing information on bottle return schemes and the call for an end to single use plastics. I reckon we need to support anyone who is doing anything before the world is swamped in rubbish and the food chain poisoned. Do let me know what you are doing in the comments box below.

For a list of things found on Solent Beachcleans last year, please click here

Lymington estuary

 

The Puffin paperback copies of ‘Swallows and Amazons’

The school term is over, ‘Swallows and Amazons’ is on BBC iPlayer and Christmas missives are arriving in the post. I have just been sent this homemade card from someone who came to the premier of the original film in 1974, when I was fortunate enough to play Able seaman Titty.

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~Captain Flint hanging Christmas decorations around his houseboat on a card made from a Puffin book cover~

I dug out the Puffin paperback of Swallows and Amazons my father gave me when I was a girl and read avidly, along with other books in the series, by the time I was eleven years-old. It is a 1970’s edition in which I’d underlined everything Titty said. I must have re-read this copy when busy preparing for filming the 1974 movie financed by EMI.

'Swallows and Amazons' Puffin book cover 1970

Kaye Webb, the editor, had written an introduction saying, ‘This book is about sailing, fishing, swimming, camping, and piratical exploits.’ She wanted to make it available to children, thinking that discovering Swallows and Amazons ‘for the first time must be as exciting as a Christmas morning.’

Underneath, I’d noted down the skills I would need to acquire before playing the part of Titty. ‘Owl Hoot’, was one item, ‘wisle’ (sic) another. I was somewhat apprehensive about dancing the Hornpipe but excited about ‘being a cormorant’, having no idea how cold this experience would prove.

My 1970 Puffin edition of Swallows and Amazons

A new edition of the Puffin paperback was brought out to accompany the film. A still was used from the scene where the Swallows sail both dinghies from Cormorant Island.

Swallows and Amazons 1984 Puffin book cover

Today, I am most interested in Ransome’s prose, amused to find the phrase ‘X marks the spot where they ate six missionaries’ does not appear within the pages of the book. It was given to Titty in 1973 by the screenwriter David Wood. However, there are words of wisdom a-plenty that were not used in the film adaptations:

‘I like cooking,’ said mate Susan.

‘If you want to go on liking it, take my advice and get someone else to do the washing up’, is Mother’s reply. (I wonder who might have said this in reality.)

‘You can be wide awake and not see a thing when you aren’t looking’ is one of Roger’s observations.

John was able to look back to ‘a different, distant life’, which is exactly how it feels when the excitement of Ransome’s world spoils you for the ordinary. It’s true: those involved in outdoor activities develop in leaps and bounds ending up, ‘not at all what they had been.’

What is it about Arthur Ransome’s writing that captures your imagination? Rowing? Sailing? Cooking over a camp fire? Which book has most influenced your life?

Article on Swallows and Amazons on Puffin Magazine
Article on Swallows and Amazons on Puffin Magazine

 

 

The original film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ (1974) screened on Wednesday 18th December on BBC Two

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Please click here for details of the broadcast

If you enjoy ‘Swallows and Amazons’ do think of joining The Arthur Ransome Society who often visit the film locations or the Arthur Ransome Group on Facebook where you will meet like-minded people – of all ages. Most are dinghy sailors who love the books.

At least one film fan held a TV party with and 1930’s theme to celebrate. Others stoked up the wood-burner and settled down to spend an afternoon re-living summer in the Lake District. It is as if Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without ‘Swallows and Amazons’ – a timeless classic to watch again and again.

Swallows & Amazons film billing

For the latest edition of the paperback on ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons(1974)’ with details of where the film was made and what those who appeared in it are doing now,  Please click here

The Making of Swallows and Amazons' by Sophie Neville

The ebook, entitled ‘The secrets of filming Swallows & Amazons (1974)’ is the same with a few more stories for adult readers and has links to behind-the-scenes cine footage. It can be downloaded from iTunes, Smashwords, Kobo and Amazon Kindle

The Secrets of Filming Swallows & Amazons

It would be lovely to hear from anyone who saw it in the cinema when it first came out in cinemas in the summer of 1974 – more than forty-five years ago.

9a. Leaflet programme for S and A film Theatr Clwyd 1976_reverse.JPG

Simon Hodkin kindly sent in this cinema programme that he has kept since watching the movie when he was a boy growing up in North Wales.

9. Leaflet programme for S and A film Theatr Clwyd 1976_front

Can anyone remember the films scheduled later that long hot summer of 1976: ‘The Long Goodbye’ (1973) with Elliott Gould, Nina van Pallandt and Sterling Hayden, ‘What Next’ and ‘Black Beauty’ starring Mark Lester?

Swallows and Amazons comic 1

Swallows and Amazons comic 2

Arthur Herbertson managed to track down these rare publicity sheets for ‘Swallows and Amazons’ typical of movie games of the period:

Swallows and Amazons 1974 camp scene

Arthur has a collection of the four jigsaw puzzles and the Puffin paperback that came out with the film.

Puzzels

There was a vinyl LP narrated by the screenwriter David Wood that you can still purchase.

Arthur found a publicity brochure that I had never seen before.

Swallows and Amazons sales book 2

To read comments from people who saw the film at the cinema in 1974, please click here

The original story was written by Arthur Ransome in 1929 ninety years ago, so the film hits the half-way mark between the original readers and today’s audience.  It’s funny, the critics in 1974 are asking the same question as raised in the billing this week: Do ‘modern youngsters struggle to relate to such old-fashioned game playing’?

Do add your thoughts to the comments below.

Radio Times billing of Swallows and Amazons Christmas 2019

~Billing in the Christmas edition of the Radio Times 2019~

Does Arthur Ransome’s book ‘Swallows and Amazons’ have parallels with missionary journeys?

An article first published in Mixed Moss, 2019, the journal of The Arthur Ransome Society:

Sophie Neville who played Titty Walker in ‘Swallows and Amazons’ (1974)

 

‘I can’t see it,’ the man was standing in the rain outside the cinema, ‘you said Swallows and Amazons has parallels to missionary life but I don’t get it.’ He was a vicar, camping with his family in the Lake District. After spending a week at the Keswick Convention, he’d brought his children to see the original film Swallows and Amazons (1974) at the Alhambra where I was giving a Q&A after a screening of the movie.

‘I once went on a short-term mission to Australia,’ I told him. ‘People would ask me if I was going to convert the natives.’ I explained the archaic idea of berating aboriginal people filled me with horror but use of the word ‘natives’ reminded me of Swallows and Amazons. This led me to consider how deeply Arthur Ransome was influenced by missionary journeys of the early 1900s. As the author, Julian Lovelock points out, ‘exploring, trading and being a missionary were, in Victorian times, all shades of the same colonial activity. Dr Livingstone is often described as an ‘explorer-missionary’. This is the 80th Anniversary year of the publication of Secret Water where ‘missionaries’ enter Ransome’s world in their ‘mission ship’ Lapwing.

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‘Would’t Titty like this?’

Linda Hendry, of The Arthur Ransome Society (TARS), observed that as a boy of ten, Arthur envied his Aunt Edith and Aunt Jessie who were going off to China as missionaries. Did this idea of adventures last with him?

Although his father, Cyril Ransome, came from a clerical background and ensured Arthur received a biblical education in Windermere, Margaret Ratcliffe of TARS reports that ‘there is never a hint of spirituality’ in his letters and diaries. ‘Arthur and Genia were not of an active religious persuasion; Christmas and Easter were ordinary days for them.’ The only time he went to church on a regular basis was when he lived in Finsthwaite and his closest fishing friend was the vicar, the Rev. Roland Pedder. ‘Arthur Ransome never mentions that they discuss spiritual matters, rather hooks, bait and water levels.’ I agree with Margaret’s view that any analogy ‘would have been subliminal on his part, rather than conscious’ but it is embedded in the story, all the more interesting for being unintended.

The reality of going on overseas missions does have parallels with Swallows and Amazons. You tend to set off as a group or family, like the Walker children, and usually end up helping people who need a bit of support, even if it is not what you might expect. Those once wounded often make the best doctors. One of the key themes, perhaps driving force behind Swallows and Amazons is fatherlessness. Is the story an out-working of Arthur Ransome’s grief for his own father who died when Arthur was thirteen? Was he desperate to prove that he is as reliable and resourceful as Captain John, planning the expedition while Commander Walker was in Malta preparing to sail to Hong Kong? As it is, the Swallows gain Daddy’s permission while remaining under the umbrella of their mother’s care, making sensible preparations before setting sail. This is very like missionary groups who usually need permission from the church with back-up and support from their mission organisation.

Peter Wright, chairman of The Arthur Ransome Society, added, ‘The Amazons seek out the Swallows in much the same way as indigenous people came to find out about early explorers.’ Any number of missionaries have had arrows fired at them. The Swallows discover that Nancy and Peggy not only prove to be the same age but share their terminology and outlook on life. They too have no father around and have recently been rejected by their uncle who is busy writing. As a result, they are being naughty, letting off a firework on the roof of his houseboat. The Swallows make friends with them and end up helping Uncle Jim to see sense.

Everyone’s moral values are tested in Swallows and Amazons. Uncle Jim realises he has been neglecting his relationship with his nieces and sees what ‘a cross-grained curmudgeonly idiot’ he’d been to ever doubt John Walker’s integrity. Although this casts a shadow on idyllic island days, it almost visibly builds John’s character before his leadership skills are stretched by challenges set by Nancy. The other characters use their gifts to the full, Susan becoming the practical facilitator and Roger learning to be helpful. Titty is the one keen on diving for fish like a cormorant. She keeps the journal or ‘ship’s log’ and takes guidance from Robinson Crusoe that, ‘tells you what to do on an island’, being well-aware that missionaries could be eaten by cannibals. Although her active imagination is undervalued at first, she comes up with ideas that prove vital.

When the Swallows meet indigenous people of the area like the charcoal burners, they are both polite and respectful, taking an interest in traditional beliefs, such as keeping an adder under the bed for luck. Although Roger makes a bit of a gaff, saying Old Billy ‘doesn’t look much like a son’, the others take an interest in ‘savage’ language and culture.

The Swallow’s mother looks out for them constantly. She reprimands John and sets rules when he goes too far, ‘No more sailing at night’, but continually ensures they are provisioned and their needs met. It might not be expected, but there are battles to be won on the mission field. They are usually tricky, demanding timely action and often involving discomfort akin to sleeping in a dinghy moored by Cormorant Island. Interestingly, it is Titty, the littlest girl, who finds the strength and courage to also find the buried treasure and bring restitution.

‘What did the burglars do when they found the treasure had gone?’ one little girl in the cinema asked?

Quick as a flash, Marc Grimston of TARS EAST, who was in the audience, said, ‘Captain Flint carves a fish for them to find instead of the trunk.’ Repentant and forgiven himself, Jim Turner opts to convince the thieves of their guilt rather than report them to the police.

The great thing is, that whilst fishing from boats and weathering the storm, firm friendships are forged that take the Swallows and the Amazons on further adventures, even to the ends of the Earth. There is something inspirational about these that stories lead others to extend themselves, hoist their sails and live life to the full.

Sophie Neville in China
~ Sophie Neville supporting an adult literacy programme in rural China ~

You can’t go out as a missionary expecting to convert the natives. You need to come alongside people who are hurting, find the key to their needs and help them use their God-given ability to fulfil their dreams. It can be scary and things won’t always go smoothly but you are usually warned of danger. There will be a need for strong leadership when times become testing but it should be fun. If you can gain people’s trust and hold on to the unity there will be celebration and feasting in the end.

~ Sophie Neville on a Bible Society mission of encouragement to China ~

The vicar, standing in the rain beside his bicycle, began to appreciate the parallels. You may find more. One thing is certain: there is something about the Swallows and Amazons series of books that enables adults to enjoy them as much as children. We can escape pressures of contemporary life and are inspired to fulfill our dreams, becoming all the good Lord wants us to be, doing all the things He has prepared us to do.

You may disagree completely, you may can find parallels in other Arthur Ransome books please write in, using the comments box below.

Duncan Hall of the Arthur Ransome Group on Facebook wrote: ‘Of course, throughout (the series of Swallows and Amazons books) there are references to fictional and non-fictional adventures of exploration and discovery which historically sat with Empire, missions and trade as well as with piracy, etc. They do contrast with a political outlook that is clearly oppositional to those traditions. We always end up being impressed by savages (in the Lakes or the Walton backwaters) rather than hoping to civilise them. In Missee Lee, we obviously want to protect the location of the Three Islands, rather than send Daddy’s gunboats over there (despite the pretty monstrous business that Miss Lee presided over, we are convinced that the Brits destroying their way of life would be more monstrous still).

Ten reasons why imagination is so important – inspired by the author and travel writer Arthur Ransome,

The Arthur Ransome Society invited me to speak at their bi-annual Literary Weekend held recently at the Royal Agricultural University. The college is situated outside Cirencester in Gloucestershire, a ten minute drive from the Golden Valley where I grew up next to the Thames and Severn Canal. I spent my A’Level years at Cirencester College just down the road. Just before leaving school, we were invited to a formal dinner at what was then the Royal Agricultural College, in the Gothic hall where The Arthur Ransome Society dinned. I remember gazing up at the high ceiling with its carvings of bunches of carrots and other vegetables. My father was asked to be the after-dinner speaker that night. A quiet man, he did not relish the idea of public speaking but he delivered the most inspiring talk on travel. It gave me the confidence to launch out into the deep.

In the early 20th century, by embarking on a career as a foreign correspondent for the Daily News and Manchester Guardian, Arthur Ransome was able to travel to Cairo, China and through Russia. He sailed home from the Baltic in his own yacht and kept on sailing, taking a small dinghy with him to visit the Altounyan family in Syria. These adventures inspired his writing for us to relive. Our own travels can be guided by walking in his footsteps, even to half-imagined places such as Swallowdale above some great lake in the north.

While Arthur Ransome transported us to snowy lands by re-telling Old Peter’s Russian Tales, his series of Swallows and Amazons books have the attraction of almost being within our grasp. We could reach most of the locations he describes in our own holidays. Theses twelve novels are essentially about travel of a kind that engages the imagination. Gathering enough food and gear to survive on an island is bound to get you thinking. ‘Are you sure you haven’t forgotten anything?’ By including books such as  Robinson Crusoe that stimulated Ransome’s own imagination, as well as frequent references to South America, he takes us on a literary journey, inspiring us further.

  • Our imagination helps us to examine possibilities and predict danger, anticipate the enemy, access risk: Packing, alone, forces one to focus on what might happen. When you set sail in a small boat you need to be alert: ‘At the end of Darien there might be rocks.’  You learn to trust your decisions based on projections and possible outcomes, becoming a better leader, much like Captain John.
  • We use our imaginations to plan ahead. Nancy’s tactical schemes include anticipation of how others would probably behave.
  • Our imagination generates ideas, helps us solve problems or conflict: ‘If anyone was sailing after dark, we could hoist a lantern up there.’ Ultimately it is Titty, the youngest girl with the most active imagination who dreams up back stories for strangers, renames places, draws, writes, casts herself as Robinson Crusoe and wins the war for the Swallows.
  • Imaginative stories help us remember things.
  • By imagining how others might feel we gain the gift of empathy, which enhances our social skills, engaging unity of purpose. Providing children camping on an island in the Lake District with gooseberry tart and buckets of hot porridge is an obvious example, leaving carved fish for burglars to unearth is slightly more cryptic.
  • Imagination expands our perception and enhances our lives, making us more resourceful: ‘Everything had grown smaller except the lake, and that had never seemed so large before.’ The hay bags were being brought to the island by Mr Jackson.
  • Humour demands subtle forms of imagining, lifting us above the mundane, making the prosaic bearable. Titty turns Lakeland farmers into natives, her mother into Good Queen Bess.
  • Our imagination lifts us above the necessary enables our minds to travel. Ransome himself must have longed to voyage further afield. His novels are drenched in references to South America, Africa and ‘the Caribees’. We have the ability to dream big dreams and find a way of achieving them.
  • There are dangers – we can be wrong.  Titty was not at the camp as John and Susan imagined. She was alone in a clinker-built dinghy, without a blanket, out on the lake, witnessing a criminal behaviour. My Granny’s imagination descended into worry, which became rather irritating. I can only hope her pessimistic imagination fuelled ardent prayers for our safety.
  • An over-active imagine can raise expectations too high. Titty’s own imagination was liable to go over the top but she retained her sense of humour: ‘Might be a tidal wave’. Some poor souls become delusional fantasists. Broken dreams can plunge us into despair. Ransome’s own dreams crashed from time to time and probably drove him overseas. Russia was the one place he could escape his first wife. It ended up being the place where he met his second.

I quote from the Jonathan Cape edition of Swallows and Amazons. Re-reading this is a voyage in itself.  I discover something I never noticed before every time.

CR Milne, wrote of his father, AA Milne saying: ‘A writer is a craftsman and a designer. Another man might have made things with his hands; he made things with his imagination.’ It is clear that Arthur Ransome travelled in his imagination and reported on what it was like.

This summer I joined friends to sail up the Norwegian coast to Bodo above the Arctic Circle. I packed with some trepidation, imagining it could get cold and very wet but we enjoyed excellent, clear conditions. Our enjoyment was enhanced by the reality of sunny Summer day, after sunny Summer day, as if floating through the pages of a storybook. It was a dream fulfilled.

Travel and you are stretched, spoilt for the ordinary. ‘Of course, really we are going the other way,’ said Susan, ‘but it doesn’t matter.’ I know why my father wanted us to travel after leaving school. He knew it would increase our self confidence, extend our ability and help build skills beyond those stretched by taking A’levels. ‘Just pack a bag and go,’ he said. ‘There will always be a way. You’ll find there’s a bus that will link to a boat. Don’t worry about getting stuck – you’ll find something will turn up.’

~Sophie Neville off the coast of Norway, sailing across the Arctic Circle, 2019~

My father appreciated the fact travel is expensive but he always managed to work something out, taking advantage of his military travel pass to take a train to the Outer Hebrides and used his annual leave to sail on the Norfolk Broads in the 1940’s. He found a factory in Maryport to visit as part of his job with BIP. This enabled him to drive around the Lake District in the 1950’s. He worked in exports through the sixties and seventies so that he could fly worldwide. Marketing cable-ties and electronic components enabled him to take the QEII to America and planes to places as far afield as South Africa and Japan. These were the days when agents and customers would take him on tours of their country as part of a trade mission. Such journeys would otherwise have been prohibitively expensive. After retiring, my father sold his collection of early sailing books to cruise the Baltic. The question I now ask is: who inspired him? One major influence was the author Arthur Ransome.

Do think of joining The Arthur Ransome Society and coming to their Literary Weekends. To find out more please click here.