One of my treasured memories is of a family friend giving me the Puffin box set of the first four books from the Swallows and Amazons series. I remember reading them and marvelling at the way these kids knew so much about sailing. All that special terminology. Right from the first page where we meet Roger and see him tacking across a field pretending to be the tea clipper Cutty Sark. Then later when their father says the four can sail to their island the Master (John), Mate (Susan), Able-seaman (Titty) and ship boy Roger just seem to know exactly how to sail their little boat Swallow.
"Is there a cleat under the thwart where the mast is stepped?"
"Susan got the sail ready. On the yard there was a strop that hooked on one side of an iron ring called the traveller up to the top of the mast, through a sheave and then down again."
I had no idea what all of this meant as a young reader (and I still have no clue) but that did not take away from my enjoyment of this adventure story. Better still the setting is an island and I have long had a fascination with the idea of living on a small island. You can read the plot for yourself on this wikipedia entry.
This week I have been listening to the audio book of Swallows and Amazons and I found myself lingering in my car so I could continue with the story long after I should have moved on to other things. I had thought I remembered the plot but in reality most of my memory had faded with time. I was surprised by so many things and even laughed out loud several times. I enjoyed all the feasts, the lake and island exploration and the crime solving after Captain Flint is robbed but the aspect I enjoyed most was meeting Titty all over again. John is too busy being the perfect Captain, Susan is too busy (yes it is a stereotype) with cooking and caring, Roger is sweet little boy (perhaps a little too compliant) but Titty is the character I loved. There has been some debate about the name Titty and sadly this was changed for both movie adaptions. Putting that aside here are some words of wisdom from Titty:
"Instead, Titty took Robinson Crusoe. 'It tells you just what to do an an island.'
"It'll be best for him to walk the plank,' said Able-seaman Titty. 'Then we'll take his treasure and buy a big ship, and live in her for ever and ever and sail all over the world. .. We could discover new continents ... There must be lots that haven't been found yet."
Talking with mother about illness : "Of course we've had plague and yellow fever and Black Jack and all other illnesses belonging to desert islands ... But we cured them all at once."
"Abe-seaman Titty, as surgeon to the expedition, washed the knee, and tied it up with Roger's handkerchief. Roger tried to blow his nose in the corner of it that was left after the tying."
"There were two tents, and a shipwrecked mariner on a desert island ought only to have one. .. then she remembered that for part of the time she would not be a shipwrecked mariner, but would be in charge of an explorers' camp, while the main body had sailed away on a desperate expedition."
"Captain Nancy shook her by the hand and slapped her on the back. 'By thunder, Able-seaman,' said she, 'I wish you were in my crew. This morning when I saw that you'd done us all by yourself, I could have swallowed the anchor. You did just exactly what we had planned to do."
"Then there was a big rice pudding, which had been bought with them on the top of the things in one of the big biscuit tins. It too became a common dish, like the frying pan. Then there were four big slabs of seed cake. Then there were apples all round."
"Then there was cold chicken. Then there was a salad in a big pudding basin. Then there was an enormous gooseberry tart. Then there was a melon. Then there was a really huge bunch of bananas which the female native tied in a tree as if it was growing there."
"Look here,' said Susan, 'hadn't we better have dinner before all the lemonade has gone.' 'Jamaica rum,' said Titty with reproach. 'We've got a lot of sandwiches,' said Peggy. 'We've got pemmican,' said Susan, 'and sardines. We finished the meat pie and the next one doesn't come until tomorrow."
It is interesting to compare audio editions. My copy was narrated by Gareth Armstrong. Here is a different one (audio sample) with Alison Larkin.
I have been thinking about why I loved Swallows and Amazons so much as a child. Partly it was the setting on an island (which I have mentioned), partly the delicious sounding food but I think the heart of the matter would have been my fascination with this family of four kids (five really but I am not counting their baby sister). I know this could be a criticism, but I did enjoy the way they all got along so well. No conflict, no arguments, no disputes. These kids are kind, but not in an overly sentimental way, to one another. They genuinely encourage each other and seem to accept that each of them have their own talents and strengths. Mother is pretty special too - happy to take on various roles, allowing the kids to have such freedom, arriving with cake and presents, organising the supply of fresh milk and other treats and best of all those amazing tents she made anticipating their expedition.
Here are several cover designs below.
BETTER DROWNED THAN DUFFERS IF NOT DUFFERS WON'T DROWN