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!