There can’t be many books people will read happily nearly 30 years after they first read them, but the Swallows & Amazons series are still books I read at least once a year, even now. It took me a while to collect all 12 books, because most bookshops would only hold 3 or 4, and usually the same titles, Swallows & Amazons, The Big Six, Coot Club and maybe one other. They were always good for presents too, I’ve three from the original 12 I collected, all inscribed by now deceased grand-parents that are priceless to me. The bindings are falling apart, they’re too fragile to read, but having those handwritten messages in them mean their irreplaceable.
Most of the books are set in the UK, in the Lake District, on The Broads or near Shotley in Suffolk. Most follow The Walker children; The Blackett sisters and their Uncle Jim, nicknamed Captain Flint from Treasure Island; The Ds, Richard and Dorothea Callum, so Dick and Dot. The Ds link the Lakes to the Broads, through The Coot Club and their adventures. I could picture the Lakes (although not visited until I was an adult), I pootled about on a boat on the Broads with my family while I was a teenager, and the tidal inland waters of Suffolk reminded me of the river into Rye and the marshes reclaimed on the edge of the town.
For years I waited to get my hands on Missee Lee to complete the dozen books, when I read it, I was bitterly disappointed. As I simply couldn’t picture the locations in Missee Lee or Peter Duck with any clarity. Peter Duck originally was a story made up in a wherry by the children over a winter holiday, but that explanation was missing from the final edition of the book that went to print; that they made up the story is referred to in Swallowdale, but only in passing. No wonder I struggled with the storyline as a child, it draws heavily on Treasure Island, with Captain Flint buying a schooner called ‘Wild Cat’ and the Walkers and Blacketts crewing it to a distant island to look for buried treasure, with Peter Duck, a retired seaman, to help them out. Missee Lee returns them to the ‘Wild Cat’, but this time, the boat catches fire and they have to abandon ship, ending up in China where they’re forced into a school room run by a female pirate, the Missee Lee. Both Peter Duck and Missee Lee were simply too far removed from the other 10 books to hold my interest. I’ve read them repeatedly, but now I am an adult, I don’t read them.
So why do I have a complete folio set sitting in a box in my study? Well, partly because Hubs brought me them for my birthday before we left the UK, absolutely dumb-founding me, he does that with presents every so often. But also because, they were my childhood, like Harry Potter was for children now heading into University all over the world. The books are also a refuge when times get tough, and are as familiar as a worn-in pair of jeans. It was either my Dad or my Grandad who gave me Swallows and Amazons to read when I was about 7 years old, I was a precocious reader, my school library couldn’t keep up with me, not least because my reading age was years ahead of my actual age and they had problems lending me books that an 11 or 12 year old would normally be reading. I’d pretty much exhausted the children’s section in the local libraries too, and was looking, itching for something I could read. I should explain when I read, a bomb could go off beside me and I wouldn’t hear it. Even now, I cannot not read for a day. Something which always prevented me from applying for Big Brother. I get cranky when I can’t switch my brain off from the day and read.
I can still remember reading Swallows and Amazons for the first time, the smell of the book particularly. It was one of the first books I finished, then turned it around and promptly started reading it again. The books are old, you can’t pretend they aren’t. But unlike Enid Blyton, they’ve aged well. There are lots of ‘Gosh!’ and ‘Well done old chap!’ the adventures happen thick and fast, but it is a much gentler, quieter time. The children go to farms to collect milk in milk cans, they talk about buttering burns, tie knots in their handkerchiefs to remember to do things and any danger mostly comes from situations they put themselves into. Adults drift in and out the stories, providing stores, advice and occasionally assisting out of a scrape, but it’s the interaction between the children the pushes the stories along.
The Swallows & Amazons series are a glimpse into childhood before the Second World War, and a glimpse into middle-class upbringing, (there is a Nurse to look after the youngest Bridget Walker for a couple of books), most of the children go to Boarding schools; but also as a glimpse into letting children run around and be children, they’re second to none. I love reading them, because they are a testament to a time long past, but one that shouldn’t be forgotten. Inside my head there is always a glimpse of England, where it’s always sunny, you can swim in lakes and rivers, catch your supper and sleep under canvas. Roger is 7 years old in the first book, but under the care of his older brother John, and oldest sister Susan, he’s allowed to camp on an island in the middle of a lake. John, Susan and Roger disappear off to the other end of the lake leaving Titty on the island on her own, overnight. You cannot imagine that happening now, but I don’t need to imagine it, I can just read it and I’m right there with them.