The Maid of Buttermere by Melvyn Bragg

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  I don’t think I’ve ever read a novel by Melvyn Bragg before, but I really enjoyed this.  It’s a fascinating depiction of a true story – how Mary Robinson, the daughter of Lake District innkeepers, was so beautiful that she was mentioned in guidebooks and people came to Buttermere to see her, and how she married a tourist who was, or said that he was, a colonel, an MP, and the younger brother of an earl … only for it to turn out that he was an impostor and a bigamist.

The story went viral, to use the modern parlance.  It was all over the newspapers, such a big story that people were practically fighting to get seats in court for his trials.  Songs were being written about it, and being used by kids for street games.  This was in 1802 – even then, an ordinary person’s wrongdoings and another ordinary person’s misfortune could somehow catch the mood of the nation, with everyone and their dog having an opinion about them, and those opinions being influenced by their positions in what we’d now call culture wars, in the febrile atmosphere following the French Revolution.  And, in the middle of this very sorry tale, there are a lot of glorious descriptions of the Lake District, not only the landscape but the lifestyle and customs.

It really is a beautifully written book.  We get these lovely descriptions of the Lake District and of life there, and of how Mary and her family have been affected by her unsought after fame, and how she’s still unmarried despite her great beauty and her genuinely nice personality.   And, if you don’t know the story, you will at first believe everything that her admirer, the supposed Colonel August Alexander Hope says: we aren’t told that he’s an impostor.  We see him courting a wealthy young woman – from Manchester 🙂 – whose guardians are delighted at the idea of her bagging an aristocrat, only for him to decide instead to make a love match with Mary.

And then we see it all come crashing down, as it turns out that he’s really John Hatfield, a man of relatively humble origins – from Mottram-in-Longdendale, as it so happens.  He owes money all over the show, he’s impersonated an MP, and, horror of horrors, he’s been sending out letters without paying postage (which MPs were allowed to do).  He also abandoned his first wife, who later died, and their children, remarried, and abandoned his second wife, who’s very much still alive, and their children.

Coleridge has already written an article about how romantic it is that The Buttermere Beauty has married an earl’s brother.  He now writes several more articles, about how poor Mary has been cruelly taken in by this cad.  Wordsworth also gets involved.  And it’s all over the papers.  In this era of the early Romantics, and also the Rousseau-esque Enlightenment ideas about the nobility of nature, Mary is cast as a symbol of unspoilt nature, living a simple life in the Lake District, until Hatfield came along.

And, in the tense political atmosphere – this is 1802, so we’re in the gap between the Treaty of Amiens and the start of the Napoleonic Wars, and we’ve also got the repressive Pittite legislation in force on the home front, as well as tensions over parliamentary reform, Abolitionism, Catholic emancipation and trade unions -, the upper classes are horrified that someone has dared to impersonate an MP, and an earl’s brother at that, but some members of the lower and middle classes, whilst sympathetic to Mary, quite admire him for cocking a snook at the Establishment.  (The narrative does explain the historical background, for non-historians).  The book was written long before the term “culture wars” was in use, but that’s what was  going on.

He’s hauled up in court in London, with hordes of people turning out to watch him going in, and scrapping over seats in the courtroom.  You really couldn’t make up some of the things that went on in Georgian Britain!   Meanwhile, poor, poor Mary, as if she hasn’t been through enough, has a baby, who dies three weeks after birth.  Then he’s brought before the Assizes in Carlisle, and by this point he’s become quite a celebrity.  People go to see him in jail.  Hotels fill up with people wanting a piece of the action.  Again, people are scrapping over seats in court.  It’s not Team John versus Team Mary: it’s whether you’re for John or against John: even some of those who are desperately sorry for Mary see him as a romantic figure who acted out of love for her.  And, again, there’s this support for a man who’s known hard times and hasn’t been frightened to impersonate one of the ruling class.  The one person who doesn’t seem to feature anywhere is the real Colonel Augustus Alexander Hope, who is abroad and doesn’t seem very interested in any of it!

John was hanged, for forgery.  Mary did get a happy ending, marrying a nice man and having four children.  Maybe if this had happened in mid-Victorian times, she’d have been expected to hide away somewhere and feel ashamed, even though she was a completely innocent party, but the Georgians were more understanding.

You do get these strange stories from time to time.  Remember the man who faked his own death in a canoe in 2002, 200 years after Hatfield married Mary?   And they do fascinate people.  And this one’s particularly interesting because of the way it interacts with the “culture wars” of the time.  Melvyn Bragg’s does an excellent job of writing about it, and it really is a very good book.

 

The Moon Field by Judith Allnatt

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This is a fairly basic (if there is such a thing) but poignant and reasonably well-written First World War novel, which I picked because much of it’s set in the Lake District, in and around Keswick.  Although it ends before the war does, the emphasis isn’t so much on the war as on the longer-term effects, particularly on the bereaved and those left with life-changing physical and mental injuries.  In particular, it addresses the effects on those with facial injuries, and makes some good points about how people who’d lost limbs were seen as heroes but people didn’t know how to react to those whose faces had been severely disfigured.

The main characters are four young people from the Derwentwater and Bassenthwaite areas – postman George, his lifelong friend Kitty, squire’s daughter Violet, and Violet’s fiancé Edmund.  The link between the two pairs is George’s crush on Violet.  Conscientious objection is addressed, with George’s father being opposed to the war on religious grounds, but George chooses to join up, and finds that Edmund is his commanding officer.  When Edmund tries to shelter him from a shell but ends up taking the full force of it himself and being killed, George blames himself for Edmund’s death and Violet’s devastation, and has to cope with that as well as with the serious facial injuries that he’s suffered.

It’s not written in a particularly deep and meaningful way, and it’s not exactly an epic love and war novel, but it is very touching, and the characters are all convincing.  Violet leans on George for support but soon accepts that she isn’t doing either of them any favours and asks him to stay away, and there’s no happy ending for her: we’re left not knowing how her life will turn out.  But George finally realises that Kitty, who’s always seen him as more than a friend, is the one for him, and they get together.

There’s often a feeling that the years leading up to the Great War were some sort of Golden Age.  Think of the song Mr Banks sings – “It’s grand to be an Englishman in 1910”.  This book doesn’t really go for that angle.  Violet’s got it good insofar as she’s got wealth and position and no need to work, but her parents’ marriage is unhappy and she doesn’t have a good relationship with either of them.  George comes from a happy home, but his family have to work hard to make ends meet.  But the lakes and the fells are there, and bring comfort to them both, and to Kitty with whom George explores them.  And, after everything else has happened, the lakes and the fells still there, as they always have been.  I stayed away from the Lake District for nearly four months from March to July this year, because first we weren’t supposed to travel due to lockdown, then they asked people not to come back yet, and then it kept pouring down at weekends.  I never want to stay away again.

And there’s something … I don’t know that “inspiring” is the word, but there’s something about war novels at the moment, reminding us that bad times have come before but that they never last for ever.  This isn’t one of the great epic war novels, but it was a good read and I enjoyed it.

The Windermere Children – BBC 2

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This feature-length film, shown on Holocaust Memorial Day, told the story of 300 Jewish children who survived the Holocaust and were brought to the shores of Windermere to try to begin rebuilding their lives. I thought that the cast and the production team got it absolutely spot on. It was poignant without being sentimental, and uplifting without ever shying away from the horrors that the children had been through. It didn’t show viewers the concentration camps: other programmes shown this week fulfilled that role. Instead, the programme makers chose to focus on survivors, and, at the end and in a follow-up programme, we saw several of them, now in their 80s and 90s, speak about the new lives that they’d made for themselves – the living proof that the Nazis did not, ultimately, succeed in what they set out to do.

I’ve long known about The Windermere Children, or “The Windermere Boys” as they’re usually known (even though some of them were girls). There’ve been exhibitions about their story at Windermere, my beloved Windermere. More importantly, one of “The Boys”, who was portrayed in the film and interviewed afterwards, is a family friend.  I’m not naming names, because I don’t think that’d be appropriate, but that made it particularly emotional viewing, and it was an emotional enough story as it was. Even so, there was so much I didn’t know. I hadn’t realised that some of the children were as young as three: it’s a miracle that such tiny, vulnerable children survived such horrific conditions. And I didn’t know about everything that Leonard Montefiore organised there, the team of counsellors and psychologists and a sports coach. There was a lot to learn, and a lot to reflect on, and so much to be inspired by.

It was filmed in Northern Ireland – which I hadn’t realised, so I kept looking for places I recognised and being confused when there weren’t any. It’s a shame that it wasn’t filmed at Windermere, but I suppose they needed somewhere quiet. And much of the dialogue was in Polish and German. I hadn’t been expecting that, but it was right: it wouldn’t have worked if it’d all been in English, when those portrayed arrived knowing barely a word of English. We saw the children arriving late at night, and Leonard Montefiore, whose initiative it all was, welcoming them to England. There were small touches, small but great kindnesses, like putting bars of chocolate in their bedrooms. Many of the survivors interviewed over the last few days have spoken of the kindness of the soldiers who liberated the camps, and of the people who welcomed them to their new lives.

It showed rather than told, and that worked very effectively.  We saw the older children’s anxiety as they were asked to line up for medical examinations, which must have been horribly reminiscent of the selection processes at the concentration camps. We learnt about their nightmares. We saw a group of the younger ones run, terrified, into the woods when they heard a dog barking. Perhaps the two most memorable scenes were when they all grabbed as much bread as they could from the baskets in the dining room, and ran off, stuffing it in their mouths and hiding what they couldn’t eat, and when the youngest children all huddled together under one of the beds to sleep, unused to sleeping alone.

And we saw, focusing on a group of the older children, the care that was put into helping to rehabilitate them. For all the developments in psychology in the 19th and early 20th centuries, no-one could have been prepared for how to deal with the aftermath of what the Nazis did, not just to care for the survivors physically but to try to integrate the survivors back into society and enable them to build meaningful new lives; but the staff at the Calgarth Estate centre seem to’ve done a superb job.

We saw the physical and psychological effects of the sports training. The sports coach didn’t have any sort of psychological training and it must have been difficult for him, but he clearly played a very important role – and, as we were reminded afterwards, one of the boys, Ben Helfgott, now Sir Ben Helfgott, went on to captain the British weightlifting team at two Olympic Games. There were also daily English lessons – and a bit of light-hearted banter about the boys wanting to learn enough English to chat up girls.

New clothes. At first, they were going about in vests and shorts, but there was such excitement as parcels of clothes arrived. I’ve read an interview with a British Army nurse who worked with survivors at Bergen-Belsen, and she talked about how much it meant to people to get new clothes, proper clothes.

And, most of all, freedom, to run about, to swim, to cycle.  That was why they had to be in the countryside.  And what better place than Windermere?  Windermere is very good for the soul.

We did see some hostility from the local community, even though this was a good few months after the broadcast of the Richard Dimbleby report from Bergen-Belsen.  But there was a wonderful scene in which the psychologist, who himself had fled Nazi Germany, confronted a gang of hoodlums in the street and made them understand what had happened.  At the end, some of the boys played them in a football match.

Progress was clearly being made.  But then the letters came, telling the children that none of their family members had survived. Some of them had already known. Others had still had hope. What a job for the Red Cross and other charities and agencies, in the chaos that was Europe at the end of the war, trying to piece together some sort of record of the dead and the living, in the concentration camps, in the displaced persons camps, with cities smashed to pieces, transport and communications networks damaged and people desperate for news of loved ones. The exact fate of some people still isn’t known.

Just as an aside, it’d be quite interesting to see a programme about the work of volunteers, relief agencies and so on with the concentration camp survivors. I know that some British medical students went out to help. And what an effort Leonard Montefiore put in. The follow-up programme spoke more about what an administrative nightmare it was to organise bringing the children to Britain. The government wasn’t very helpful, initially only agreeing to issue two-year visas, and refusing any financial help – the money was raised by donations from generous members of the public. Leonard Montefiore had to liaise with the Home Office, the Ministry of Defence, the Red Cross and the authorities in Czechoslovakia. Everything involves red tape.

The range of reactions to the news the letters brought was very well-portrayed – brilliant performances by such young actors and actresses, and brilliant scriptwriting. Grief, acceptance, lack of acceptance, hitting out, being able to share grief, needing to be alone.

One of the boys was convinced that his elder brother was still alive, and would come to find him. Just before the end, there was a football match between a team of the refugee children and a team of local boys … and, in the middle of it all, along roared a motorbike, and the motorbike rider was the brother. He had indeed survived, and he had indeed come to find his little brother. It sounds a bit twee, doesn’t it? Everyone sat around watching under the dappled sunshine, drinking cups of tea and eating sandwiches, and then the emotional reunion between the two siblings. But it wasn’t. For a start, it was true – I don’t suppose the older brother actually did turn up in the middle of a football match, but it was true that the two of them were reunited. Another of the boys – Olympian Ben Helfgott – was eventually reunited with his sister, who featured in BBC 2’s “Belsen: Our Story” and also spoke at the Holocaust Memorial Day service in Westminster, several years later. The other children had lost everyone, but they had each other – and that very much came across in follow-up programme, when they spoke about the lifelong friendships they’d forged there. And it was making the point, again, that the Final Solution failed, even though it did take so many innocent lives.

Then, right at the end, we saw the actors portraying the five members of the group who are still alive morph into the dignified elderly men that they are now.  We heard about the lives that they’d made for themselves here, and about the two other members of the group who are no longer living, and the staff. Then, in the follow-up programme, the five men and several other men and women who were also Windermere Children spoke – about their lives beforehand, about how they’d been separated from their families, about the family members they’d lost and about their experiences in the camps, but also about how their time at Windermere had helped them to start rebuilding their lives, about the sense of belonging that they’d found here, and about the families and careers that they’d built here. On a day of reflection about loss and brutality, this was a story of hope.

Camping and Tramping, Swallows and Amazons by Hazel Sheeky

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“Camping and Tramping, Swallows and Amazons: Interwar Children’s Fiction and the Search for England” – to give it its full title.

I felt like playing The Manchester Rambler on loop after reading this!  In fact, if I wasn’t so unfit and lazy, I’d have felt like coming the Cheetham Hill communist and re-enacting the Kinder Scout Mass Trespass 🙂 .  All right, we all know that, as the author discusses at length, most pre-1960s 20th century children’s fiction is horrendously snobbish; but, whilst I can take a lot of it, on the grounds of the past being a foreign country etc, all that Campers and Trampers versus Holidaymakers and Day Trippers stuff always makes my blood boil.  I nearly exploded when the author quoted a bunch of upper-middle-class Southerners in one book talking about “ghastly places in Lancashire”.  Ooh!!

This was a PhD thesis, and the author spent quite a lot of time bemoaning the fact that she didn’t have room within the word limit to say everything that she wanted to.  I believe she has now written a book on the subject, but it probably costs a fortune, so reading this’ll have to do!  Being a thesis, it was inevitably full of methodology and explanation about what she was trying to get at, which wasn’t very interesting – but, OK, it wasn’t meant for a general audience.  It was also a bit confused: it wasn’t particularly clear exactly what it was that she was trying to get at.  And the concluding section referred to children’s literature between “1930 and 1960”.  Excuse me for thinking that the inter-war period was from 1918 to 1939!

The general idea seemed to be to argue against people who’ve said that children’s fiction from the first half or so of the 20th century was a load of rubbish – do not get me started on the primary school teacher who tried to get me to stop reading Enid Blyton books (I took no notice) – and also to argue that it wasn’t overly romantic or fantastical but was in fact realistic and part of the wider culture of the time.  It also seemed to be to discuss whether it was trying to create a myth of nationhood.  The author’s views and arguments didn’t really come across that clearly, but the arguments and debates themselves, the issues involved, were very interesting.

Unfortunately, I haven’t read most of the books mentioned, apart from some of the Arthur Ransomes and a few of the Malcolm Savilles.  Enid Blyton’s Famous Five novels were dismissed as not being “properly” Camping and Tramping, and Lorna Hill’s Patience and Marjorie books (which, like Enid Blyton’s, would count if going up to 1960) didn’t get mentioned at all.  But hopefully I’ve got the general idea!

These books are, as the author says, generally about the middle-classes – but I prefer the term “upper-middle-class”.  Being middle-class in the inter-war period to me means a suburban semi and, if your family could afford it before paid holidays came in, a fortnight in Blackpool every summer.  It does not mean going to boarding school, owning a boat and or a pony and having a dad who’s an officer in the Royal Navy : there’s nothing very “middle” about that!

People do like to read a lot into children’s fiction, and there are various theories about “camping and tramping” novels of the inter-war period, and indeed the interest in nature and the countryside in general, being something to do with trying to colonise the countryside now that Britain’s imperial power was on the wane.  No, me neither!   The author neither.  Britain’s imperial power actually wasn’t really on the wane in the 1920s and 1930s, for one thing.   Other theories involve in being about building a myth of nationhood, stressing rural and maritime traditions.

Well, they do work better, but it was a combination of things, and it went back well before the Great War.  It wasn’t just a British/English thing, either.  It’s probably best not to dwell too much on it, but the Nazi youth movements in Germany were very into the countryside.  The idea of access to the countryside being available to all was also important elsewhere – notably in Norway.

Various things, then.  Well, for a kick-off, the Romantic poets and artists.  Merrie England, rural idylls, folk dancing, maypoles, etc, but mainly the romantic ideas of the countryside, the green and pleasant land.  Whilst I will not have anyone criticising mills as being dark and satanic 🙂 , I buy into the romantic countryside thing completely.  Every April, you will find me going to Grasmere to see the hosts of golden daffodils!   Yes, I have all sorts of romantic notions of the countryside – and I’m talking lakes and mountains, not farms.  I can’t be doing with animals.  Too noisy and too smelly.  Does that come across in “camping and tramping” books?  No: I don’t think it does.  It comes across far better in something like the Chalet School books.  Camping and tramping books are too active!   Too much doing and not enough looking and dreaming!

The Victorian Romantics sadly don’t get much of a mention in this book, although Whitman and Thoreau do.   I can’t really be doing with all that wilderness stuff.  Lakes and mountains and daffodils are much better.

Then there was the Victorian fresh air and exercise thing.  “Muscular Christianity” to build an Empire.  Combined with that, the wake-up call given by the poor health of many of the working-class men who volunteered to fight in the Boer War – not only did it help to bring about Lloyd George’s welfare reforms, but it also led to an increased emphasis on fresh air and exercise for all.  Think the famous images of the Duke of York, the future George VI, singing “Underneath the Spreading Chestnut Tree” at boys’ camps.  And people in inter-war children’s books seem to be able to walk miles and miles without ever getting tired.  Not to mention eat vast amounts without putting on weight!

Then, and this was specifically inter-war, there was the idea of the countryside as a peaceful place, an antidote to the horrors of the Great War.  I recently read a review of the new Christopher Robin film, written by someone who said that AA Milne would have been horrified at the thought of taking Winnie The Pooh & co to London, because the whole point was that they were supposed to be in the countryside.   And, as the author says, there’s an argument that the set-up found in most of the books is a reaction against the imperialism/militarism of organisations like the Scouts and the Guides and the Boys’ Brigades.  No-one’s marching or wearing uniforms; and there are no formal organisations, just groups of siblings, cousins and friends.

So, are the books about imperialism or national mythology or upper-middle-class values, or whatever?  Well, the argument in this thesis really isn’t clear.  There’s a lot of information in it, but most of it isn’t clearly linked to either the introduction or the conclusion.  I don’t particularly think it is.  I think everyone’s got rather obsessed with trying to find imperialism in everything.  The author does come back to this in a later section, about maps, and argues that, when the Swallows and Amazons crew rename all the places around Coniston with the names of far-flung places around the world, and talk about discovering them, they are displaying an imperialistic attitude and trying to impose their power and control on the countryside.

And here was me thinking it was just a bunch of kids using their imaginations to try to make their summer holidays seem a bit more exciting!   Someone – I think it was Dan Brown – once said that you can invent a conspiracy theory by looking at the pattern of letters in the phone directory, if you try.  People read into things what they will, but I’m really not convinced that giving places exotic-sounding nicknames indicates a desire to take over the world.

Another of the big issues was whether or not the books are realistic.  The author seemed keen to argue that they were, but a lot of the subject matter was contradictory.  Arthur Ransome’s books do not belong to the same category as, say, AA Milne’s or Kenneth Grahame’s.  Well, seeing as that they don’t involve talking animals, that’s probably a given.  But a more relevant point was that, unlike in Enid Blyton’s books, no-one ends up chasing spies or rescuing kidnap victims – and I think a lot of people were very annoyed that a spy story was shoved into the recent film adaptation of Swallows and Amazons.  But she then said that you do get wild adventures in Malcolm Saville’s books, which contradicted the arguments that the whole genre’s realistic.

To some extent, it’s a pointless argument.  None of the books are realistic, with young kids being allowed to go off on their own.  It’s like the arguments about the lives of characters in soap operas being unrealistic.  The reality of daily life is not very exciting.  No-one wants to read a book or watch a TV programme about it!    But, no, the books aren’t set in … well, this image we have of the Long Golden Edwardian Summer, this time of innocence before the Great War, “It’s grand to be an Englishman in 1910” and all that kind of thing.

The reality argument was then contradicted again, in a section about how the books treat the countryside as a playground, with rural people only appearing as, say, rosy-cheeked farmers’ wives who produce enormous amounts of home-made food every five minutes, with very little about the harsh reality of rural life and how hard farming people had, and still have, to work.  There was also quite a bit about the idea of both boats and caravans as symbolising freedom.  They always sound so great in books, don’t they?  Both Enid Blyton and Noel Streatfeild had me longing to go off in a houseboat or a caravan.  Ugh!   I wouldn’t have lasted five minutes!   Again, romance trumps reality – and possibly defeated the argument that everything in the books was realistic!   However, the author did argue again for realism by pointing out that the characters in The Wind in the Willows soon find out that life on the open road isn’t very exciting at all – although I’m not sure how valid it is to argue that a storyline involving a talking toad in a flat cap driving round the countryside shows that a book reflects reality!

It was also, rather amusingly, pointed out that no-one in these books ever roughed it!   The Swallows, in particular, take vast amounts of stuff with them, and always eat rather fancy meals.  There were pages and pages in the thesis about the symbolism of Susan Walker’s campfire as showing her establishing her control over the countryside and defining The Great Outdoors as a domesticated space.  Again, I think that might be reading too much into it all!   There was also a section about Geoffrey Trease showing the Lake District as being devoid of people and buildings, which apparently also showed people wanting to establish their power and control over the countryside.  I’m not sure how any of this was meant to fit with the arguments that the books all reflected reality, but never mind!   They were good points about the genre in general.

Then we got to the part that wound me up!   To me, the importance of the countryside in the inter-war years, linked in with the increased affordability of public transport and bicycles, is everything that The Manchester Rambler says: it’s about people from urban, industrial areas being able to get out into The Great Outdoors and enjoy the freedom and the beauty of it.  And, no, that isn’t realistic at all, because it isn’t about rural people and rural life!   But, as the author says, most of the characters in the books aren’t rural people, living rural lives: they’re on holiday.

No, sorry, they aren’t “on holiday”.  Nothing so common.  They’re Campers and Trampers, and the books are full of snotty remarks about “day trippers” and “holiday makers”.  I hate that.  It really, really does my head in.  It’s Them and Us.  The author does try to argue that it’s not about snobbery, and that it’s more about people who appreciate the countryside versus those who don’t.  It’s pointed out that some of the Not The Right Sort characters in some of Arthur Ransome’s books are clearly well-off, whilst some of the Author Approved characters are the offspring of boat-builders, and that being The Right Sort is sometimes indicated by clothing, or general appearance, or traits like the volume at which you speak, rather than by social class.

Hmm.  I’m not convinced!   The characters in the books always have weeks and weeks to spend on holidays.  The “day trippers” and “holiday makers” don’t.  And that’s the point.  “I may be a wage slave on Monday, but I am a free man on Sunday.”  The thesis does quote a historian acknowledging that “it was the northern working-class groups that escalated the power for access reform” – but, bizarrely, the said historian apparently said that this was because the Northern working-classes had so much time on their hands due to the high levels of unemployment during the Depression!  That is one of the stupidest things I have ever heard!   How exactly were people who were struggling to put food on the table supposed to pay for train tickets to the Lakes, the Peaks or the Dales?  No, no, no!   “I may be a wage slave on Monday, but I am a free man on Sunday.”  There was a rather more sensible quote, from a different historian, about the links between socialism and the importance of the countryside and access to it being available to all.

There are some examples in the books of characters acknowledging that access to the countryside should be available to all.  A Geoffrey Trease character said that “The hills, the rivers, they must be free to all”.  But, ugh, the snobbery!   As the author pointed out, characters often seem to think that working-class characters in the books, especially those on farms where they’re staying, are just there to serve their needs.  Characters in Explorers on the Wall by Garry Hogg – a book I shall not, ever, be reading! – apparently apparently whinge about going through “ghastly places in Lancashire”, and even specifically refer to Manchester as “a grim place” – never, ever, shall I read this book!!  And characters in The Compass Points North by ME Atkinson apparently make similar comments about the mining areas around Newcastle, as they pass through it on the train.

Is this snobbery, or is it just the dark satanic mills versus green and pleasant land thing?   Is it about the idea of a creating an adult idea of a pastoral elegy, as the author suggests?  Well, those of us who live in the land of the dark satanic mills are as keen on the green and pleasant idea as anyone.  Maybe more so – you can’t really be a Manchester Rambler if you live in the sort of area that the characters in these books do.  But to dismiss places as “grim” and “ghastly” like that – ugh!!

Again, the thread of whatever argument there was didn’t really follow, but I’m so glad that that section was included, even if there was no direct reference to the Kinder Scout Mass Trespass.  There was then a related section about whether or not Arthur Ransome meant to show that sailing was affordable for all.  As the author said, that was partly more about location than class or financial situation – but the “cruising” boats featured in most of the books would certainly not have been affordable for most people.  There were also some comments about the snotty pre Second World War attitudes towards the Merchant Navy as opposed to the Royal Navy.  Two members of my family (on the Liverpool side) were amongst the Merchant Navy men killed in the Great War, and I find that snotty attitude extremely offensive!

Then came a section about how John Walker is meant to symbolise the sense of duty and responsibility associated with the Royal Navy, and how the storylines in the books are part of his character training.  Fair enough.  That arguments works with school stories as well – not particularly in terms of the Navy, but in terms of character building and leadership skills and so on.  It’s a big feature of children’s literature in the period in question.  But I was less impressed by the argument that the Swallows and Amazons books are intrinsically sexist, and that Nancy Blackett is undermined by John and forced to submit to female gender stereotypes and roles.  A lot of children’s books of the inter-war and post-war era do feature bossy boys, and girls being left out of adventures entirely or else forced to accept a lesser role; but I’d never said that the Arthur Ransome books fitted that category.

It did end with sailing, and an argument that the books were meant to promote a Britannia Rules The Waves type national mythology.  I’m not convinced.  The author had said earlier that ships were a symbol of freedom.  And that’s what I think these books are about – freedom.  Freedom from the ordinary routine of daily life.  Freedom from adult control.  And the whole idea of the countryside as freedom.  That’s what The Manchester Rambler’s about.  And that’s why all those comments in the books about the evils of “day trippers” annoy me so much, because they’re about people wanting that freedom for themselves, because they think they’re the Right Sort of People, but not for others.

As I’ve said, this wasn’t meant to be a mass market read, or even a general academic read, and it’s not particularly coherent and it’s not particularly clear what it’s getting at – but it does contain some very interesting and thought-provoking stuff.  Thank you so much to Janice for recommending it!