Maggie (age 4), Anna (age 11), Brian (age 7), Holland, Michigan, Summer 1992
I promise this is about my new tattoo (!). So bear with me here.
In 1943 prolific journalist and novelist Arthur Ransome wrote to a young friend, Pamela Whitlock in an attempt to encourage her in her own endeavors as a writer — even as she was pulled into work for the war effort. “The training for your own private job is going on all the time,” he counseled her (Signaling from Mars, 301).
Stick to it, filling your notebooks. Nothing is odder than the way in which a big slice of life, vivid at the time, fades utterly away when you escape from it into something different. It’s like coming back from a year abroad. But notes, no matter how scrappy, are like stones dropped into a pool of still water. They stir up the whole picture and bring to life all sort of other things, including things you don’t happen to have written down at the time (Signaling from Mars, 307).
Coniston Water, Cumbria (30 March 2004)
Ransome knew of what he spoke, having started his own writing career as a young university drop-out, scraping by on the salary of an office boy while trying his hand at memoir and other miscellaneous bits of writing. His Bohemia in London (1907) is something of a classic in the genre of starving artist memoirs, recounting days spent shivering in unheated flats and surviving on apples for weeks at a time so that he had enough money to buy books. From London — and his first, deeply unhappy, marriage — Ransome escaped to St. Petersburg where he witnessed first-hand the Russian Revolution and its aftermath, sending back dispatches to both newspapers and family members (his mother received regular reports on his digestive health, including harrowing tales of surgery in wartime medical facilities; his small daughter received letters adorned with illustrations of papa in great fur coats) and editing a collection of Russian folktales in translation.
Eventually, he abandoned Russia — taking with him one of Trotsky’s secretaries, Evgenia Shvelpina, whom he had to smuggle out of the country through the Mediterranean. The two later married and eventually retired to Ransome’s beloved Lake District in Cumbria where between 1931 and 1947 Ransome authored a series of adventure stories with child protagonists (Ransome himself always protested that he had not set out to write children’s stories, but rather wrote the stories that he himself most enjoyed). Set primarily in the Lake District — though later volumes take the cast of characters into Scotland, south to the Broads, and into the realm of half-fantasy — each book follows the adventures of several families of children who spend their school holidays sailing, camping, and spinning out all sorts of adventure stories that weave seamlessly between fiction and reality. As Ransome observed after completing Swallows and Amazons, the introductory tale,
I was enjoying the writing of this book more than I have ever enjoyed writing any other book in my life. And I think I can put my finger on the thing in it which gave me so much pleasure. It was just this, the way in which the children in it have no firm dividing line between make-believe and reality, but slip in and out of one and the other again and again (quoted in In Search of Swallows and Amazons, Roger Wardale, 32).
Above Coniston Water on my 23rd Birthday (30 March 2004)
While Ransome’s novels have become enduring classics in Britain and, oddly enough, have a devoted following in Japan, they are known only rarely here in the United States. When my family stumbled upon them in the early 1990s, they were unknown treasures. Treasures which we readily devoured, my parents reading them to us every night before bed. Treasures that turned into extended fantasy play of our own. Lacking an island or annual holidays in the Lake District, we turned our own urban landscape into a wilderness, camping in the backyard and repurposing the (profoundly unseaworthy) hull of an abandoned rowboat in which to play captain, first mate, and “ship’s girl” for hours on end.
Suffice to say, the series, its author, and its landscape (both fictional and actual) continue to signify, for me, profound ties to my childhood and my family of origin, as well as my particular affection for the landscape (both literary and actual) of Britain.
Ransome illustrated all of his own stories with whimsical pen and ink drawings … which is where this post finally makes its way back around to tattoos. Because when I began thinking about what sort of tattoo I was looking to acquire in celebration of my completion of library school, I knew I wanted something that was able to weave together in a particular image the part of myself that is at the fore when I am living that part of myself that sought out librarianship as a vocation. And that is the part of myself that is grounded in my childhood steeped in literature — the part of myself that does not distinguish between reading and living, between gaining knowledge and doing. As well as the part of myself that seeks both the comfort of the familiar and domestic … and the sharp edge of political analysis and social critique. And knowing what I know about Ransome as a person, while also relating to the novels he created very much as an ingenuous child, Swallows and Amazons offers just such a mix of the political and personal.
It was my mother who suggested I look to AR’s illustrations — and she who finally located the illustration that became the basis for my finished tattoo. The sailboat is the Amazon, the boat belonging to Nancy and Peggy Blackett of Beckfoot Farm.
We are introduced to the Amazon sisters in the first novel of the series, Swallows and Amazons, and they remain central throughout. One of the strengths of Ransome’s series — which is indubitably visited by the British imperialist fairy on occasion, not to mention the overtly racist fairy — is his range of both male and female characters. He goes much further than his contemporary, C.S. Lewis (for example) in portraying girls who openly eschew gendered expectations — and who are celebrated for their agency. Nancy Blackett (who has changed her name from “Ruth” to a name she feels more aptly reflects her position as pirate captain of the Amazon) abhors wearing dresses is often de facto leader of the expeditionary forces. Neither does Ransome punish boys whose idea of a good time is less conquering and more conservation: The plot of Great Northern celebrates the ethic of preserving a rare species of bird in the wild, rather than harvesting its eggs for scientific study and prowess.
I close this post with the text of a telegram that, in Swallows and Amazons begins the whole adventure. The Walker children, on holiday in the Lake District with their mother, have been anxiously awaiting word from their father (serving in the Navy) who is to weigh in on the proposition that they be allowed to camp sans adult chaperon on an island in the middle of the (unnamed) lake. In the opening pages of the book, young Roger is racing from the house across the headland to his siblings to deliver the final word:
BETTER DROWNED THAN DUFFERS IF NOT DUFFERS WONT DROWN.
On the one hand you can (and I often do) read this in a fairly harsh, survival-of-the-fittist, fashion (see? I said the British-imperialist fairy came to visit!). Yet on balance I prefer to imagine that the absent Walker parent is expressing trust in his children’s judgement and abilities — something I often find is uniquely in the power of a very small set of English literary parents (see E. Nesbit’s fictional parents for another example). These adults are always present — yet rarely intrusive. They engage with their children when called upon to do so, taking their children’s concerns seriously and often deferring to them as the experts of the moment.
It is this act of trust in their own children’s abilities to act independent of them in the world, and not only to survive but in fact thrive while doing so, that makes the wonderful adventures of the following thirteen novels possible.
Which (coming full circle) is precisely the same trust my parents placed in us as children — and made possible, for me, so many things that have led up to this moment.
So for all of those reasons let me say: I am very pleased with my first tattoo. And am already well on my way to envisioning a second!