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.’
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.