Oscar Wilde. Trotsky. Balfour, the Bolsheviks and MI5. One man glad-handed every protagonist of this unlikely cabal. He wrote about those experiences prolifically and, at the same time, gave the gift of an adventurer’s imagination to future generations in an extensive corpus of children’s literature.
The man was Arthur Michell Ransome, and his rather reedy voice was the first to become mine.
You may not agree, but I believe there is a pivotal moment in every man’s life. It’s the moment when a voice speaks to you, quite unexpectedly. Reading – quietly – to yourself, you hear a spoken word that ignites a sense of self-awareness deep inside your mind.
For many, this is the start of a formative relationship with literature. I do wonder if, for some people, the apparition of this narrative without an explanation may be the precursor to lightly disturbed mental health – and I mean that, quite seriously. Then again, not everyone has an epiphany that I did.
Today, I am enthralled by the serendipity of literature, language, and geography. Back then, I was a precocious six-year-old; leaning up against the icy bedroom window of a semi-detached house on the outskirts of Ipswich; completely ignorant of nearby Pin Mill, the Orwellian setting for two of Ransome’s other ten children’s novels.
Dog-eared paperback in hand, the silver circles on my curtains had already marked the imaginary stroke of Dick and Dorothea’s ice-skates many, many times. But it was also a winter’s day; I was cold; I was reading Ransome’s Winter Holiday; and then … then there was something else.
A voice. An unknown person, talking to me, inside my head. Dear God, I thought. (God had been recently explained to me. I was terrified of the concept.) And then I stopped reading. I put the book down and the voice went away. It was a disturbing realisation: I would never be on my own again.
As the offspring of parents who see independence as a virtue, I was singularly content with my version of being happy: it involved solitude and very many books to read. As the voice became a recurrent intrusion in my life, it introduced me to an eclectic cohort. Secret and invisible friends: heroes, voyeurs, and adventurers who shared their worlds with me, every day and every night. Better still, they took me with them. Around the Long Mynd in Shropshire, in the company of Saville’s Lone Pine gang; to Europe, in the company of grown-ups like Dornford Yates’s Berry; and to places that didn’t exist, such as Wildcat Island in Swallows and Amazons, and – on that day, in Winter Holiday – even to Greenland and on up to the North Pole.
It was not long before I took an interest in the persona behind each new voice appearing in my life and – do not laugh – I still see those uninvited whispers, the shouted syllables and softly-murmured syntax as an almost schizophrenic medium: a commentary, a means to help shape my own thoughts.
Ransome’s children’s novels were something else in that regard. It takes a certain agility to describe the natural world perfectly, but he could turn a summer morning into a winter’s afternoon: “Softly, at first, as if it hardly meant it, the snow began to fall.”
He was unashamedly clever with his use of language – much like LJK Setright – and Ransome trusted the enduring relationship with his more dedicated readership to renew that licence, book after book. Instinctively, I knew “pirates are ruthless” was intended to be funny. It took me years to see that Peggy Blackett was validating her sister’s preference for “Nancy”, rather than the baptismal moniker, “Ruth”.
If you read Ransome as a child, you galumphed wholeheartedly into an alternate reality: in her desire to capture the children’s exploits, there was more than a frisson of identity for me in the character of Dorothea. I wanted to be Nancy. I recognised myself in Titty; in Susan; with Mother and – yes – in John and Roger and Dick too. I revisited the texts, over and over, becoming friends with children who would never want to play with me.
When I first heard it, Ransome’s voice told me a story. Other storytellers joined the conversation. Even today, I am always tempted to linger by other people’s bookshelves, and eavesdrop for a moment or two on the fables and fictional tales I find there. I have listened carefully to a thousand other authors since and, now, as a not-so-secluded adult, I am fascinated by the lives and loves and livelihoods that shaped those authors’ worlds. I asked myself, much later, did Ransome – as Oscar Wilde’s biographer – knowingly create Dot as a feminist manifestation of an Irish poet’s wildest taboo? Okay, okay; maybe not. But in every children’s novel, surely, there is at least one nugget of non-fictional adult insight. There are even echoes of the Walkers’ platitudes and philosophies that reflect his experiences of the day.
Winter Holiday was published in 1933. It hinted at family divisions in wartime; stoicism in love; and in the face of dogged adversity, a rather reserved and innocent, safe sense of derring-do. No surprise there.
Codenamed Spy S.76, Ransome was the focus of attention for M15 for many years. The catalyst? His career as a forthright journalist reporting from foreign climes, and a red-hot love affair with Leon Trotsky’s secretary.
Balfour as good as sanctioned the relationship at the time and Ransome’s sympathetic relationship with the Bolshevik regime was far too tasty a morsel for the intelligence services to ignore. His output as a children’s author was always closely monitored and, well, if children’s authors really do speak to the heart, then I do like to imagine that Winter Holiday is still required ‘listening’ for the services today.
That, and Pigeon Post. Or Coot Club. The Big Six. And We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea…