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).

Swallows and Amazons parties and presents

Holding a party with a Swallows and Amazons theme is a great idea, especially if you can be under canvas. A campfire and either swimming or archery with geo-cashing or a treasure hunt would keep your guests occupied. Everyone can dress up as explorers or pirates. If it’s wet you can always show a DVD of the film, the BBC serial of ‘Coot Club’ or organise a cinema outing to see Swallows and Amazons.

There have been some wonderful cake designs. This impressive creation was put together by Evie and Sam Rose:

Over the years the most amazing ‘Swallows and Amazons’ creations have risen to fame. I have put up a few more ideas on Pinterest here

The cookery book writer and ‘Great British Bake Off’ finalist Miranda Gore Browne transformed her garden into Wild Cat Island, served iced buns and a cake worthy of a pirate feast, sending everyone home with old-fashioned sweets in a tin mug.  You can see some of her wonderful party ideas here

Miranda Gore Browne mugs

You could hang ‘Swallows and Amazons’ flags or bunting. The Gingerbread  House show you how to make these:

Pippa Middelton and her family, who are related to Arthur Ransome, have a company called Party Pieces who have loads of ideas for Pirate Parties on their blog here. They cater for the younger age group but do sell chocolate pieces of eight and a retractable telescope very like Titty’s on their website for only £2.99. I liked the idea of an inflatable parrot, although properly it should be a green one.

I found these 38mm badges and fridge magnets for sale on eBay. They’ve used my own drawing of the crossed flags, without permission, but never mind. They might be something fun to award as prizes for games such as ‘Walk the Plank’ or catching crabs, which you could do literally if you live by the sea. You might find a few ideas for party games here.

I’ve been collecting further ideas for Swallows and Amazons presents. The Nancy Blackett Trust shop has some great ideas. They used to stock these small porcelain mugs:

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and dishes, so may have some left.

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They have T-shirts and hats for Amazon pirates of all ages:

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StudioCanal have broadened their collection of movie memorabilia on offer to include cushions. They also sell mugs, mouse mats, prints and 400-piece jigsaw puzzels. I like these 300 piece jigsaws.

A scene with the Swallows from Swallows and Amazons
-A scene with the Swallows from ‘Swallows and Amazons’ (1974) –

I once found this lovely design for Swallows and Amazons wash-bags made by Rachel:

She did have Swallows and Amazons bags available:

Swallows and Amazons bag made by Rachel

I’ve listed more gift ideas here

A year’s subscription of Classic Sailor magazine makes a gift for adults as it keeps coming all year.

Why not give a year’s membership to The Arthur Ransome Society? For information please click here.

Or chose a book. They always make good presents.

The Making of Swallows and Amazons' by Sophie Neville

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~Sophie Neville at Aldeburgh Bookshop~

Literary Christmas presents

I’ve been collecting further ideas for Swallows and Amazons presents.

Kate Lowe of Bagsymefirst has brought out these pocket mirrors carefully made form re-cycled book pages.

Swallows and Amazons pocket mirror

Kate also makes a handbags out of old books – and will make up your favourite. She says, ‘The last one was made for a bridesmaid at a sailing-themed wedding.’  Please click here for her sales site.

Swallows and Amazons bag

While a DVD of a new film or a book makes a good present, the illustrator Jago Silver has brought out some wonderful Swallows and Amazons notebooks perfect for keeping a ship’s log:

sketchbook by Jago Silver

as well as inspiring enamel mugs in two designs:

Swallows and Amazons mug designed by Jago Silver

Swallows and Amazons mug by Jago Silver

Jago’s other nautical mugs and and limited edition screenprints, which you can spot on his website here.

Print by Jago Silver

The Nancy Blackett Trust have a shop, the proceeds of which go towards the upkeep of Arthur Ransomes’s favourite little ship. Their new items including beautiful coffee  mugs and lovely tea towels – can be viewed by clicking here.

Nancy blackett product shop

If you know anyone who has pierced ears you can find appropriate Literary Gifts here  They also sell Swallow broaches.

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‘Little bookish things can make up pendants featuring your favourite book cover, please click here for the site. There are cufflinks, pendants and makeup bags can be found on Esty here.

The Arthur Ransome Trust can make up ‘Swallows and Amazons’ T-shirts

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, StudioCanal offer a selection of mugs, puzzels, prints, mousemats and film posters on their website here. If you search around the site you can find stills from the film made into similar merchandise, click here for an example.

 

Otherwise, why not give a year’s membership to The Arthur Ransome Society. For information please click here.

President of The Arthur Ransome Society

Sophie Neville, President of TARS

A Swallows and Amazons childhood

Swallows and Amazons fly sheet

The first swallows have arrived and summer is here. You only have to look around to see parents advocating a ‘Swallows and Amazons’ childhood for their offspring. They want to go camping, catch fish and learn to cook on open fire.

Titty’s dream of being alone on an island to experience what it must have been like for Robinson Crusoe has never been seen as worrying. Parents want to encourage their offspring to use their imaginations and explore the wilderness, knowing it will be memorable. As long as the weather holds they are happy to act as Man Friday. By exercising her imagination, Titty comes up with ideas that ultimately win the war and develop courage and resourcefulness by taking part in the adventure even though Captain John is at the helm. The fact that the mere able seaman becomes hailed as the hero of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ has inspired a generation.

Cobnor Camp 2015

TARS at Cobnor Camp

If you want the real deal, become a family member of The Arthur Ransome Society and sign up for one of our summer camps while there is still space:

If you can get to the Lake District, there is a camp on Coniston Water in Cumbria – 2nd to 13th August 2016

If you are nearer the south Coast, there is a weekend camp at Cobnor, sailing around Chichester Harbour – 14th to 17th August 2016

There is a ‘Swallowdale’ Camp in North Derbyshire – 27th August to 29th August 2016

and a sailing weekend in Staffordshire.

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Swallow at Cobnor

If you are keen on sailing find out about the Nancy Blackett Trust. They offer memorable opportunities for children and teenagers, as well as adult sailors who’d love the opportunity of going out in Arthur Ransome’s yacht and meeting like-minded people.

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The Nancy Blackett is based on the Orwell near where the Ransomes lived in Suffolk but she ventures forth and was even spotted on the Hamble last year.

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Wading to the Island

‘Where are they now – the cast of ‘Swallows and Amazons’?’

I can see from my admin page that this question is often typed into search engines – three times before 8am this morning.  An awful lot of people seem to want to know what the children who played the Swallows and the Amazons back in 1974 are doing now they are all grown up. For this little Swallow it really has been ‘Swallows and Amazons Forever’. I’m still wading out to the island.

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‘Titty the Isrealite’ photo of Sophie Neville taken by Hilary Weston

Now a writer, I am officially President of The Arthur Ransome Society, one of the largest literary societies in the United Kingdom with six branches and quite a number of overseas members. They even have association with the Arthur Ransome Club in Japan.

TARS in Dumfries

This year we held our International AGM weekend in Dumfries in the lowlands of Scotland, when we much enjoyed walking along the Solway and across the wade to Rough Island, just as Titty walked out across the mud in Arthur Ransome’s book ‘Secret Water’. There seems little difference except that I have a dog called Flint rather than a kitten called Simbad.

Sophie Neville with Flint on Rough Island

The great excitement at our IAGM this year was that Nick Barton, the CEO of Harbour Pictures came up to Dumfries with his screenwriter Angela Gibb to tell us about their new adaption of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ due to be released in cinemas on 19th August. I helped him to carry a huge plasma screen up to the hotel where the conference was taking place so that members could watch the thrilling new promo. We were sworn to secrecy, but you can read of all Nick told us in a feature article in the Saturday Telegraph by clicking here. This online version has more photos than the print version and mentions The Arthur Ransome Society. There is additional comment in the Sunday Telegraph.

Sophie Neville on Rough Island

Sophie Neville who in 1973 played Titty Walker in the EMI movie of ‘Swallows & Amazons’ dressed up to face the Scottish weather

The Dinghy Cruising Companion

The Dinghy Cruising Companion -10 001

If you are keen on dinghy sailing and looking for adventure, this is a book to accompany you through the summer months ahead.  It is full of sound advice from Roger Barnes who learnt to sail on Windermere in Cumbria and is now President of the Dinghy Cruising Association. He has written for Classic Boat, Watercraft, Dinghy Sailing Magazine and currently writes for Classic Sailor.

Roger emailed me to ask if I had a photograph of us sailing Swallow without life jackets. I supplied him with this shot my mother took in 1973 since I am standing in the dinghy. I am not sure how we managed to go about when we sailed off, as it also contained the parrot’s cage.

I will certainly take The Dinghy Cruising Companion with me if I manage to get Swallow to Brittany in the near future. As you can see from the cover Roger often takes his own boat to regattas in France.

The Dinghy Cruising Companion

I bought my copy of Roger’s paperback online but it’s available from all good bookshops. To find out about sailing Swallow, the dinghy used in the 1974 film of Swallows and Amazons, please click here for Sail Ransome.

Last weekend we had the IAGM of The Arthur Ransome Society in Dumfries. Why not join this literary society who organise great events and summer camps. If you are not able to get out and about there is a wonderful Arthur Ransome Group on Facebook

To read my own article for Classic Sailor please click here

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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