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About A Week: Swallows And Amazons For Ever!

Peter Hinchliffe enthuses about Arthur Ransome, an author whose books have engaged his imagination for the past 65 years.

I’ve sailed lakes and seas with the Swallows and Amazons.

Sailed, that is, in my imagination. The Swallows and Amazons are fictional characters – adventure-loving children created by author Arthur Ransome.

They mess about in small boats. They fish. They camp on an island, unsupervised by adults.

I’ve been sharing in their escapades for the past 65 years.

The six children who call themselves the Swallows and Amazons are far removed from Superman, Batman, Spiderman and other special effects film heroes. Yet the BBC has announced that it is splashing out a good deal of cash and creative effort in bringing their fun-filled days to the big screen.

The gamble is that a generation of youngsters weaned on video games and an indoors life-style will enjoy the open-air explorations and adventures of the resourceful rivals who call themselves the Swallows and Amazons.

I first met the “famous six’’ when I was seven years old. I joined a small village library which operated from the school I attended – a school with only 28 pupils.

Those were the days before television. Children's Hour on radio finished at 6pm. Dick Barton, Special Agent was on for 15 minutes at 6.45. Then, particularly during the dark nights of autumn and winter, while serious voices droned from the walnut-cabineted wireless, children were left to yawn in boredom until bedtime.

Reading was a miraculous cure for the yawns. By chance, one of the first volumes borrowed from the village library’s modestly-stocked shelves was one of the best books ever written with children in mind.

Here was enchantment! Children let loose in the Lake District, to play at pirates, to explore Wild Cat Island…

"Have you another like this?" I begged the librarian on returning the book.

"Ah, Swallows And Amazons," said she with a knowing grin. "You like Arthur Ransome, do you? I'll see what I can do."

She did marvellously well. In the ensuing months she brought me, one by one, the other 11 books in the Swallows And Amazons series.

Years later, I was delighted to discover that Arthur Ransome was a Yorkshireman and a journalist. Me too! He was born in Leeds in 1884, the son of a history professor. His boyhood holidays were spent on a farm on the shore of Coniston Water in beautiful Lakeland.

As a young man he led a Bohemian writer's life in London. His first book in 1904 was The ABC Of Physical Culture.

In 1913 he went to Russia, learned the language to study folklore, then became correspondent of the Daily News, and later the Manchester Guardian. (For a short time I was also a Guardian foreign correspondent.)

He knew the Russian revolutionary leaders. He played chess with Lenin - and beat him. After divorce ended an unhappy first marriage, his second wife was Evgenia Petrovna Shelepina, Trotsky's secretary.

There were further assignments as a foreign correspondent in China and Egypt. Then in 1930 he settled in the Lake District to write his famous children’s books.

Arthur Ransome died in 1967. His ashes are buried in the Lakeland church, St Paul's, Rusland, set in idyllic countryside between Lake Windermere and Coniston Water.

Fans come from all over the world to pay respects. The Swallows and Amazons books are still read worldwide. There’s an Arthur Ransome fan club in Japan. The first Chinese editions of the stories were recently published.

In the visitors' book at Rusland is the following entry: "Thank you Arthur Ransome for the stories of my childhood."

Another says: "Swallows And Amazons for ever!"

The BBC obviously has faith that the Swallows and Amazons live on. The Corporation is negotiating options on all 12 books in the series. And the UK’s National Theatre has a musical version of Swallows and Amazons underway. An exhibition based on Arthur Ransome’s work will open later this year at the National Maritime Museum in Falmouth.

Arthur Ransome said of his childhood Coniston holidays, "We played in or on the lake or on the hills above. Going away from it, we were half drowned in tears.

"While away from it, as children and as grown-ups, we dreamed about it. No matter where I was, wandering about the world, I used to look for the North Star, and, in my mind's eye, could see the beloved skyline of great hills beneath it."

And so can I, Mr Ransome. So can I...

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