Tag Archives: inspirational books

Why is ‘Swallows and Amazons’ so inspirational?

'John, Titty & Susan on the Swallow' by Fadi Mikhail

‘John, Titty & Susan on the Swallow’ by Fadi Mikhail

As you can see from these paintings, Fadi Mikhail, the artist famous in the UK for painting one of our Christmas stamps and being commissioned by the Prince of Wales, as well as the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, was certainly inspired by the film of ‘Swallows & Amazons’ made in 1973. He has kindly let me publish this remarkable series of paintings.

Look-Out-Another-boat

‘Look out! Another boat’ by Fadi Mikhail

Since my last post, comments have flooded in as to why the simple story is so popular:

John-And-Susan-Coming-About

‘John and Susan coming about’ by Fadi Mikhail

‘…the Swallows don’t own ‘Swallow’ – they’re having a farmhouse holiday and the boat belongs to the farm, and that could just have happened to any of us. Norman Willis… used to rise up against critics who considered that children from poorer backgrounds should read books full of gritty reality related to their daily lives: he pointed out that they wanted to escape from their daily lives for a few precious hours, not always into a zone of dragons and princesses but into an alternative realistic world.’ Jill Goulder of The Arthur Ransome Society.

'The Swallows in the boat' by Fadi Mikhail

‘The Swallows in the boat’ by Fadi Mikhail

‘What I liked most about these stories was that the Swallows and Amazons and their friends behaved like real children, but lived in a completely different world from the one I inhabited. I’d camped with the Girl Guides, but the Swallows and Amazons had astounding freedom – camping alone on an island, going out at night and sailing wherever they liked without needing to ask permission.’ Emily Lock ‘…the books gripped my imagination forever’. Please click here to read Emily Lock’s full review.

Titty-and-John-Eating-Apples

Titty and John eating apples by Fadi Mikhail

Christopher Tuft thought the enduring success is, ‘Because it’s a wonderful adventure story, with well rounded characters, played out in a beautiful setting, reminding us of a time now gone.’

The-Swallows-In-The-Wood

‘The Swallows in the wood’ by Faid Milhail

‘The combination of practical realism – everything that happens could happen – and the child’s viewpoint makes the story and it’s sister volumes almost unique even now,’ Andrew Craig-Bennett of The Arthur Ransome Group on Facebook.

'John and Susan hoisting the sail'by Fadi Mikhail

‘John and Susan hoisting the sail’ by Fadi Mikhail

The whole series of books clearly have a worldwide following popular from one generation to another. ‘I don’t find this surprising. I got my first Arthur Ransome book (Swallowdale) as a present, in 1948. At the time it was a copper-bottomed dead cert as a present for any child, couldn’t be criticised, known to be virtuous, and incidentally known to be good. All that is still true and has been for decades. I don’t think it could fail to be up there. Children may now prefer Star Wars, Lego books or Minecraft (my grandsons certainly do), but books are still *bought* by adults.’ Peter Ceresole Roger-In-The-Boat ‘The book has lasting appeal, particularly for children, because there is nothing in the adventures of the Swallows and Amazons that readers feel they could not do themselves. They felt they could sail a dinghy like the Swallows. I know, because when adults came aboard Ransome’s restored boat Nancy Blackett in recent years, many had tears in their eyes and said: ‘I learned to sail from the books; and Arthur Ransome was the biggest influence on my life.’ The story is not like so many others an unachievable fantasy. This must stem in part from the fact that the characters are based on real children and on Ransome’s observation of those real children. The quality of the plotting is superb. Ransome was utterly clear about the stories he wrote, sometime writing chapters in the middle of the book before writing earlier ones. His prose is spare and simple and very easy to read, and bears comparison with the writing of Jonathan Swift in Gulliver’s Travels — another writer with appeal to both children and adults.’ Michael Rines Do add your own thoughts in the Comments below.

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‘The Swallows chasing the Amazons’ by Fadi Mikhail

Hugh Shelley wrote, in his Bodely Head Monograph of Arthur Ransome, that it is the joy with which the story is written that makes Swallows and Amazons a great book. In many ways it is a reflection of Arthur Ransome’s own childhood holidays with his brother and sisters on Coniston Water. And even today, children can discover the places mentioned for themselves. Holly, aged six, wrote to me recently saying, ‘My Mummy and Daddy took me to Wild Cat Island. It was my favorite day… When I am bigger I want to be like Titty.’

Roger-Ties-The-Swallow-Down

‘Roger ties the Swallow down’ by Fadi Mikhail

While ‘nearly all enduring books do so because of the writing,’ as another reader commented, children enjoy the camaraderie and the action that have been captured in these semi-abstract oils.

'Titty and John at Camp' by Fadi Mikhail

‘Titty and John at Camp’ by Fadi Mikhail

Some of these paintings have already sold, some are available from the Lawson Gallery in Cambridge, some from Gallery Rouge in St Albans, at Highgate Contemporary Art, the Aubrey Gallery in Great Dunmow and direct from Fadi Mikhail, the artist himself. You can see more here.

John-Susan-&-Roger-Waving-To-Titty

‘John, Susan and Roger waving to Titty’ 60x50cms  by Fadi Mikhail depicting Sophie Neville, Suzanna Hamilton, Simon West and Sten Grendon in a scene from ‘Swallows & Amazons’ (1974)

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Filed under 1973, adventure, Arthur Ransome, Bestseller, British Film, Cinema, Cumbria, Duchess of Cambridge, Family Film, Film, Film Cast, Film History, Lake District, Movie, Richard Pilbrow, Sophie Neville, Suzanna Hamilton, Swallows and Amazons, Vintage Film

Why is ‘Swallows and Amazons’ still a bestseller?

An orange flag has been labelling the Vintage paperback edition of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ as a #1 Best Seller in the Amazon UK sales.  Not bad for a book written 88 years ago.

I was asked to give a talk at the International Annual General Meeting of The Arthur Ransome Society recently, when I was able to ask learned members, ‘What has made it such an enduring success?’

Is it that ‘Swallows and Amazons’ set in the Lake District where so many of us long to spend our holidays?

Or that we can buy a set of wooden postcards depicting Ransome’s inspirational illustrations?

wooden_postcard_swallows_and_amazons_large

Is it because the stories are driven by the characters of the children themselves, as Jill Goulder has observed, and that adults are relegated to native status, featured as little as is possible so that we enter a child’s world? Do children relish the idea of independence and being in control of all they do, as John and Nancy seem to be? Is it that dressing up as pirates is cool?

swallows_and_amazons_wooden_postcard_sailing_large

Swallows and Amazons is about the importance of listening to children. It’s about integrity. Do we love the fact that Titty, the lowly able-seaman comes out as the unexpected hero? It was, after all, a brave thing to capture the Amazon at night and perhaps even braver still to return to Cormorant Island with Roger to look for the treasure no one believed was there.

Could it be because the story is about sailing, instructional on how to handle a simple dinghy? Claude Whatham, who directed the 1974 movie, recognised Ransome’s skill in describing how to make a camp was of huge appeal to children. Do we like to learn without the indignity of being taught?

Arthur Ransome’s style of writing is certainly vivid, drawing you into the world he created having been inspired by reading ‘Robinson Crusoe’ ‘Treasure Island’ and exotic tales himself. Martin Smith, whose comments on this strand have been endlessly interesting, has observed that there is something of ‘The Tempest’ by Shakespeare in the adventures set on Wild Cat Island.

Ransome was able to draw on years of experience as a writer before he launched the Swallows & Amazons series and this shines through. Since really only six children and two adults appear in his first book we get to know them well and are ready to welcome others such as Dick and Dorothea when they come along in Winter Holiday.

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Is it because, ‘nothing happens in the books that couldn’t really have happened’, as Caroline Lawrence wrote recently in The Outlaw, a magazine written for children who readily identify with the characters. You can certainly enjoy looking for Ransome’s locations yourself. Those who do so are almost certain to buy the books for their own offspring.

Adults read the books, saying they bring great solace, evoking nostalgic memories and taking them back to a carefree childhood when summer days were spent devising camps and imaginary sailing adventures. Perhaps the traditional values act as an anchor in our stormy lives.

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Despatches?

One thing is for certain. While many of the forty-two books Arthur Ransome wrote are now seen as obscure, his series of twelve ‘Swallows and Amazons’ novels line the shelves of almost every bookshop in Britain and are ever popular overseas. The Arthur Ransome Society has a thriving membership, enabling families to live the adventures for themselves. You can find out about joining yourself by clicking here.

The new feature film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ starring Ralp Spall, Andrew Scott and Kelly Macdonald and released in 2016 has hopefully brought the story to the nation’s consicousness. It has begun to win awards in the USA where it is being released in cinemas by Samuel Goldwyn.

The film adaptation of ‘Swallow & Amazons’ made in 1973 and repeated on television so many times, helped to keep the flags flying. It too has been labelled as ‘a timeless classic’ and ‘an enduring success’. StudioCanal released a 40th Anniversary DVD with footage so beautifully restored that if it wasn’t for the extras package you might think it had been shot last summer. I have just found its original, official trailer. The commentary is so dated it’s hilarious, but the film itself seems fresh. Why is this?

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Filed under 1973, Acting, adventure, Arthur Ransome, Bestseller, British Film, Cinema, Claude Whatham, Cumbria, family Entertainment, Family Film, Lake District, Movie, Richard Pilbrow, Sophie Neville, Swallows & Amazons, Swallows and Amazons, Vintage Film

Questions I am asked about being in Swallows & Amazons

Sophie Neville - a portrait by Sylvain Guenot

I am always interested by the questions I am asked on the making the feature film of the 1974 film of ‘Swallows & Amazons’, in which I played the part of Titty  when I was twelve years old.

Did you have to wear make-up?

What did you do about school?

Did you still live in a tent?

These are some of the questions I’ve been asked recently by a journalist:

How different do you think your life would have been if you had not been in Swallows & Amazons?  I am not an actress but working on Swallows & Amazons, as well as a subsequent adventure movie called The Copter Kids, gave me enough experience to gain a graduate placement at the BBC and work behind the scenes on interesting television dramas including the adaptations of ‘Coot Club’ and ‘The Big Six’, written of course by Arthur Ransome.  Funnily enough, it was only when I was producing a documentary in Cumbria that anyone recognised me as Titty.

How different do you think your life would have been without the publicity that the film has brought you? While publicity generated by the film did not count one jot amongst my peers in television production, it does help me as an author since fans of the film appreciate the books I’ve written and often invite me to give talks.

Sophie Neville

Do people expect you to be an expert on Arthur Ransome? Are you?  I’ve just been elected President of The Arthur Ransome Society, which is a great honour. Although I have read many biographies about Arthur Ransome and grew up reading his series of twelve Swallows and Amazons books, I only claim unique knowledge of the 1974 film and the BBC series ‘Coot Club’ and ‘The Big Six’, which I worked on as an adult over nine months in 1983.

There is huge interest in how these adaptations of the well-loved stories were made, especially since both are being restored and re-leased on DVD this summer. Being a landscape movie, Richard Pilbrow’s movie of Swallows & Amazons looks amazing on the big screen will be shown in cinemas from July in celebration of its 40th Anniversary.

Sophie Neville - a portrait by Sylvain Guenot - May 2014 JPG

Are you surprised that there’s still such an interest in the film?  The film of Swallows & Amazons has gained in popularity over the years. This seems unusual but parents, and now grandparents, want their children to see the same film they loved growing up. They trust it as a baby-sitting DVD.

I hope its popularity has kept Arthur Ransome on the shelves of bookshops as they are truly inspirational. Together, the film and books seem to have figure-headed a ‘Swallows and Amazons lifestyle’ advocated in magazines, along with camping and picnic food, themes for weddings, knit-wear and even cat-walk fashion. ‘Very Swallows and Amazons…’ is the often used phrase, alongside a black and white photograph of me as a little girl, heaving on an oar.

Tomboy style icons in the Telegraph Magazine

Telegraph Magazine

Are you surprised that you are still so involved in it?  I wasn’t much involved until we clubbed together to buy Swallow, the original dinghy used in the film. After displaying her glorious new coat of varnish at the London Boat Show in 2011 there has been an endless stream of requests to know more about how the film was made. Looking back through my diaries there were a surprising number of film-making secrets. I’ve only just remembered the funniest one.

Sophie Neville - a portrait by Sylvain Guenot taken 2014

What’s it like to be famous?  This is the most difficult question as I always dreaded becoming celebrity. We all loathed publicity as children and found projecting ourselves excruciating. I now wish that it had been explained to us that it was part of our work to sell the film as I could have understood the need for that. Instead I felt desperately self-conscious about appearing on television or radio,  especially as I wasn’t a glamorous actress and didn’t want to be one.  It’s my character that is well-known. Titty is loved worldwide. Forty years on, I am still receiving fan mail, more so than ever since the advent of social media. I have just received a sweet tweet saying:  hello titty :o) the family are enjoying the book, thank you. We have watched the film, conservative estimate, 20 times.

If you have any questions, please ask them in the comments blog below.

To read Sallie Eden’s review of ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows & Amazons’ please click here

Portrait photographs by Sylvain Guenot

from Country Life, July 6th 2010

from Country Life, July 6th 2010

 

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Filed under Acting, Arthur Ransome, Autobiography, Cinema, Film, Film History, Memoir, Movie, Movie stories, Richard Pilbrow, Sophie Neville, Swallows and Amazons, truelife story, Uncategorized