For any Arthur Ransome fan, an ounce of Taqui Altounyan is worth a pound of any other writer on AR, for the unique part she and her family played in the genesis of Swallows and Amazons, her marvellous memory of those events of long ago, and her ability to tell the story with wit and insight. This is a slightly edited version of a talk given to the South West Region of TARS in 1994: I am grateful to Taqui Altounyan and to Roger Wardale, editor of Mixed Moss, for permission to reproduce it here.
My only grand-daughter, Marianne, was seven this year. Roger Walker was seven on the first page of Swallows and Amazons. My son Roger is now 49, which I think is the square of 7. (I won't tell you just yet how old I am).
I go down each week to play with Marianne and Jack, who is 4. Somehow all our games at floor level usually turn out to be about boats. The carpet is an ocean, bricks and tin lids become boats, paper and pencils make sails, yards and yards of masking tape are used, slabs of blu-tack, problems with keels . . . But neither of the children know about real boats. Jack is puzzled about how people row backwards. Tacking is something Mummy does in sewing. I cannot possibly imagine Marianne catching a pike all alone in the dusk, as Roger did at her age.
When we came back in 1924 (the four of us children, Titty 4, Roger 2, Susie 5, and me at that magic 7), it must have been winter, because all my memories are of snow. We went tobogganing in that field behind Lanehead and often found ourselves hitting a very hard stone wall at the bottom. I remember weeping because my toes were so cold – and all the time we chanted tearfully, 'We don't mind if we fall off.' Auntie Barbara, Auntie Ursula and Mummy made a huge snowball. Cuddly Roger was perched on top of it all wrapped up in shawls and blankets, warm and happy: no cold toes for him!
My two aunts were not married then, so they had plenty of time for us. We also had a native Armenian nurse called Perouse, an Amazon of a woman. There are pictures of her wading in the lake after naked children, and she was often with us when we went sailing in the old Beetle, which was wide enough for Roger's wicker-basket to be wedged forward, at the foot of the mast. He sat up in it, gurgling at any wave that happened to splash over the gunwale. Perouse can't have been watching that day when, just after we'd arrived, all three of us escaped naked out of the front door onto the snowy lawn. Our grandfather just stood at the door and laughed.
Barbara was the one who did the sailing, when my father was in London gathering medical knowledge (his excuse for such a long stay in England away from the Aleppo hospital). On that visit my grandparents were still young enough to be able to cope. Barbara was writing to Arthur in Moscow about our visit, faithfully conveying some of my remarks, such as: "Not all uncles are ugly. Uncle Arthur is pretty". Arthur sent back interesting letters about Lenin's funeral, and sailing in Racundra.
Four years later things were different. My grandmother was very ill, and she died while we were there. There were now 5 of us children. Brigit was now two. My parents stayed at Lanehead, but we were lodged at Bank Ground, in the care of an unfortunate young cousin, and another Armenian nurse. The farmer's wife was sorry for her, pushing fat Brigit in her pushchair over damp and stony ground. How her feet must have ached, she thought, after the smooth, burning sands of the desert.
This visit it was Roger who was 7. He at once adopted little Tub (sometimes known as Toob). The fixed oars were much too long for him to row sitting down, so he looked like a water-boatman, but he was almost all the time far out in the lake. We had no other boat then, so it was obvious something had to be done to stop quarrelling among 'the tribe', as we were often called. So Arthur and our father, Ernest, disappeared mysteriously on a Secret Mission. Soon a lorry arrived outside the gate of Lanehead. There were two boats on it. How they got them down the steep hill to the lake, I don't know. They were very heavy fisherman's sea-going boats. Children these days would find them impossible.
Not only were the boats heavy, but everything about them weighed tons. The centreboard, the rudder, the oars, and most of all, the mast. I was always afraid I would brain Titty as I took it down. But we were used to looking after ourselves, and we were told the boats were to belong to us. Roger and Susie had Swallow, and Titty and I had Mavis. Feeling Mavis move under my feet when I first jumped into her is a thing I shall never forget.
My parents were probably thinking of the coming years when we would be at school in England and they were two thousand mile away, in Syria. 'It is not so dangerous on the lake, with hardly any current,' they said. It would take a small tornado for us to capsize. We never wore life jackets, but there were certain rules. We were not allowed to stand up, unless we could swim, and if there were white waves on the lake, we were forbidden to hoist the sails. We had to make do with the Nursery table-cloth on a broomstick, but who can sail with that in a south-westerly gale blowing up from Peel Island? We were not 'Walkers' really, and our father was not in the Navy. Ransome says in Rod and Line in his essay on giving advice to beginners that one should be 'unwilling to steal from a beginner any of the delight of finding out for himself'. I can't remember being taught to sail. Once I had plunged into the lake with all my clothes on to prove I really could swim, I was allowed in Mavis on my own, and I must have learned by watching the grown-ups. I don't remember anyone shouting to me across the water. Nautical terms had always seemed a bit unnecessary to ne. (Now there's a confession!)
Our parents must have been comforted when we could all swim. Georgina Rawdon Smith (sister of Pauline Marshall) and I swam across the lake, from our boathouse to the Gondola Pier – that's 440 yards. a quarter of a mile, carefully measured by my grandfather on his large scale map when we climbed the hill and burst into his study, triumphant and wet.
Uncle Arthur and the 'tribe' really got to know each other on this holiday. Our parents were away a lot and the Ransomes often fished from a native craft within sight of us, but just out of range of all our messing about. They were a benevolent presence. We never guessed we were being observed. We envied the way they pulled out fish, sometimes over a hundred 'for soup'.
When we left, Uncle Arthur did not seem in the best of spirits. I was flattered when he confided in me, as if I was grown-up, that he was sick of turning out articles for the Manchester Guardian with silly titles like 'If I was a Piano'.
Well, Aleppo received us back. and we were soon engrossed in life there, We had to get used to a new grandmother, aged 25, but that's another story. We wrote to Ukartha from time to time, telling him of things we were doing 'in the desert'. We found a lake just like the Broads, and a boat to sail on it. Photographs show us wearing hats down over our faces, like in the drawings he was to do in the books that at that time we knew nothing about.
We had other amusements, such as climbing walls and walking along the top, which was only two feet wide, jumping down perilously from great heights onto a mattress, In the summer when we were in the mountains, we had a club called 'Cassiopeia's Chair Club' (CCC). I haven't the faintest idea why – but we were familiar with the constellations, which seemed so very near us in those unpolluted skies. The club was 'against Muffs', in other words, Duffers. A Muff wore a dress all the time; white socks, patent leather shoes; cried when dirty or clothes tore. We had a special slide for testing Muffs, and various very tricky trees. Not many passed.
And I was a lone Girl Guide. That meant a flag pole on our terrace on which we flew the Union Jack, hauling it up at sunrise and bringing it down at sunset. The unhappy members of the colour party were my brother and sisters. You can see how unhappy they were in the picture in Captain Flint's Trunk. We did a lot of marching and saluting. I don't think we ever played at being pirates.
About a year after we had settled down in Syria again, The Book arrived. Old Sa'id, who had been with us for over thirty years – since Ernest was a boy – and so was really part of the family, always fetched the mail from the post office and brought it into the dining room at breakfast time. We all left our chairs and crowded round behind my mother, who sat at the head of table with the brass jugs full of coffee and hot milk in front to her. As we unwrapped it, we spelt out the title of the book: Swallows and Amazons.
Must be a tale of travelling in South America; bow very dull. Then as my mother turned the pages, those familiar names came jumping out at us : Susan, Titty, Roger, Swallow.
Arthur had been afraid that my mother would be like a tiger defending her young, as he said, but she wrote to him affectionately that we were all reading it in turns – the children with the same enthusiasm as they sucked oranges. Of course it was a heady experience for us all, to find ourselves suddenly famous. We all wrote lively letters: 'Come out at once and see what we're really like.' He was snowed under by requests from children: Are they real?' – I'm still trying to answer that one ...
Sa'id was the man who had ordered the famous extra-large red slippers for Ukarth's birthday.
I think we inadvertently provided the spark that lit up a whole bonfire of irresistible memories. Arthur always seemed to need a small grain of reality to get him going. Like for instance Missee Lee which was pure romance. Long before he started this book, he would talk to us in a half-joking sort of way about what had inspired the story: his two missionary aunts, who were in China during the Boxer riots, One of them had got an enemy arrow through her bonnet. It is no more possible to sort out which of the characters were based on real people, than it is to pin down the various places in the books to actual points on the atlas.
Of course, SA is special, because the names of the three characters and one of the boats are real. The book was meant as a present to a family Arthur knew, who had spent the previous summer with him on his beloved lake. It was to remind himself and them of the happy times, when they were back among camels and desert and dust in their eyes and keeping mosquitoes the right side of the net. He could not really imagine anyone could be perfectly happy anywhere, except in his particular paradise.
The trouble was, we would continue to grow up. Roger and Titty had time after the first book was written before they became boringly adolescent, but Susie and I shot up. I was 12 in 1930, and 15 in 1933 when I found myself at boarding school.
When we went to school in England (all of us except Brigit), we were on our own, like the 'Walkers', during holidays. We had a cook, but she never ordered us about, or told us when to go to bed. We also had 'adopted uncles', who invited themselves tactfully for short periods. They were most welcome. Luckily we had no Great Aunt!
I have just re-read WH with great enjoyment. It is such a bubbling, joyful, poetic book, written in a holiday mood – an unexpected holiday – a holiday for once from sailing – but I do find the obedient and well-behaved 'Swallows' a bit priggish! I can only think that Ransome must have considered that he had to make Susan unnaturally motherly and practical, to make the story of parentless children credible. But we were on our own. I can't remember exactly how we managed, but we did. Anyway, anyone who would disagree is long gone!
When at the beginning of 1994 I saw among TARS Activity Sheets that there was a plan to plant a new Lighthouse Tree on Peel Island, I felt I had to be there. February 19th turned out to be a totally undramatic day from the weather point of view – grey and windless, but very cold. That charming drawing of me in Signals by Jim Andrews shows how cold it was. (I'm a thin person really, but I look fat in all those coats!)
I was glad to have half an hour to myself on the island before the Squirrel Nutkin flotilla of TARS arrived – even though it was torture to scramble about in wellies. Sandshoes, we wore, 70 years ago. But the island was a miracle – largely unchanged, except for some paths more trodden, and a mysterious lack of fallen branches and other firewood.
I bent down at our picnic place on top of the cliff, and groped through the undergrowth to where five generations of Collingwoods had boiled kettles – when campfires were allowed. My fingers came up black with ancient charcoal. The extra large perch who used to patrol the bottom the cliff was not there – nor his descendants. It was so calm that Pike Rock lurked just below the surface making hardly a ripple. No need today for that huge 'duffer' marker, Well, as long as we don't one day find rock markers on all the rocks of 'Secret Harbour' ...
As I sat waiting for the invasion of TARS to plant the new Lighthouse Tree, I thought about how the little tuffet pincushion island has been the centre of the dreams of so many of my family. Soon it will be the 100th Anniversary of the meeting of the Collingwoods and the Ransomes on the island, at about the time Thorstein was published. In this book, my grandfather wrote of 'huge hills tossing like breakers on a stormy beach and rolling away and afar like the heaving waves of the sea.' And echoed by Ransome in Winter Holiday – 'The great hills with their rolling sides gleaming bright with blue shadows'.And then I thought of my father's unpublished novel, written the year I was born (1917), in which he lands on the shore alone, and feels that it is really his. That is the great quality of this enchanted island – anyone landing alone and quiet can, until interrupted, feel he owns it.
I watched the flotilla arrive. Among the first was Martin, my nephew, and his family. He had rowed all the way from Nibthwaite in a leaky boat. All was fairly quiet and orderly till Adam Roger, aged 20 months, was required to disembark. He refused, to cries of 'Boat! Boat!', which held up the traffic and reminded us of his grandfather. Martin is already budgeting to provide him with a 'Tub', as soon as possible.
And now I'm 77. Sometimes I feel 7 or even younger, but I'm happy in my old age to be 'Captain John', and 'Captain Nancy' if required, though I'd like a directive from TARS about autographs. Captain John, Captain Nancy, Taqui Altounyan, Barbara Stephens – it's all one to me!
Legends tend to grow from inaccuracies. I must not let facts crush imagination in a work of fiction: there must be room for all shades of truth. For instance, Roger (my late brother) and Ukartha both claimed to be the first and only one successfully to catch char from a boat under sail. Who is right, and what does this reveal of both of them? Does it matter?
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