Reality, an Adventure in (edited)

Posted on June 3, 2007

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When I first read Swallows and Amazons, as a boy, as with many of the other novels that I read, but especially this one – I remember being repeatedly struck by the way that here was a story – .  My life lacked this altogether; it had no story in it. Indeed that feeling of a defining absence was something that children’s stories of the time often mentioned themselves, as part of their expectational framework. The boredom of ordinary life and the yearning for adventure. The children would be moping around at home all of a rainy day staring out the window at the puddles in the street, restless, with nothing to do.  They wanted something to happen. And then something did happen: something had to happen, of course.  An adventure so total swallowed them up that it would make them fervently wish for normality again, for a return to a usual-ness they had so thoughtlessly undervalued.  Here was an irony, I was reading about and wanted to be in an adventure that its participants wanted to be out of, apparently. They wanted its disruption to fade back into the mundaneity from whence it came, whereas I absolutely wanted to be in the adventure!  If I had to compare my life with theirs therefore, it needed to be in the ironic context of this role reversal: they were welcome to my life so long as I could have theirs. This general emancipatory idea – freedom from the mundane – is one that the Ransome novel proved an especially poignant example of, for it contained the further dimension that its concept broke the mundane or routine surface life (that it discovered adventure) through its use of a just vanished world; the tail end of the pre-industrial.  Moreover, its participants did not want to exchange their lives for my mundane one!  The adventure’s very essence stemmed from the sense in which it occupied a just vanished world.  For example, if we look at the book’s symbols of industrial culture it is clear it is very wary about them.  The trustworthy or authority figures, the Mother or Father figures, stand as the custodians of a world just outside the reader’s vision rather than within it, and there is an obvious reluctance to go any further.  

The time in which the novel is set is recognisably this time, it is connected with now.  But there is little traffic on the roads.  Modern industrial objects still form a kind of back-drop to the story (trains, radios, cars) but there are no or very few such objects actually in the story itself … so they form its departure point, quickly lost or forgotten about: in this sense the modern world forms the invisible strictly quarantined backdrop to the novel while still being essential to its form.  The present ‘invisible’, that it is, has to be made invisible, because here is the story’s catalyst.  In other words, again, the story is granted by the way the modern world acts as a means of contrast.  Ransome uses it as a device for off-setting it, as it were, all modernity, the world of the children is entered into by putting that (the industrial) world to one side.  We might compare this dissonance with say C S Lewis’s Wardrobe, the modern world is a kind of mode of disappearance: reality is ‘past possibility’: the present.  That is, this is a tale of old boats, past boats – boats that are effectively mythical in status – by reason of the way that the conjunction of old and new forms an ideal delimiting fantasy.  A comparable example might be a CGI production that enables its makers to produce a wholly authentic seeming image of the prehistoric.  The monsters are at once terrible and harmless, having become mere screen ghosts even while they seem ‘real’.  In Ransome one finds something like this in his image of the natural world.  The picture painted is of an old-style (that is, of an heroic) clinker-built dinghy which of course is powered by and built out of ‘nature’.  The Swallow is the key to it, the heroic and natural component.  The Swallows and Amazons picture of an ideal NATURE is part of the book’s simultaneous believability and unreality in the present’s construction from this deferred coeternal past.  The narrative, or the ‘now’ as it were, consists of a present that is not present: that yet takes its penetrative force – its ability to convince us, and to break with the mundane, and with routine (its story-making value) – from what is actually ghost-like. For its ‘now’ is the now past and the possibilities that seem to inhere in that.  Thus we find how in the very way that it makes the wilderness its subject it paradoxically tames it also, by the way that it achieves this enabling by rendering the industrialised world ‘absent’. The children are in communion with nature, camping, sailing, walking, exploring, but it is a nature from which all industrial reality has been excised – almost.  Thus, I read of this ‘adventure in reality’; but only as a kind of voided now; for it was only in this quarantined nature that nature existed, in a way the narrative being about its quarantine: achieved through images of an idealised present-past.  In other words, I found myself identifying with characters who could survive ontologically (as it were) only to the extent that the link with the past was at least nominally observable: observable, understandable and, brought into play, and experienced in one’s own life, as an Edwardian fantasy.  But of course for me at that time, in the Sixties, it was wholly impossible to enter into that kind of mindset in any honest or realistic fashion.  Swallows and Amazons was truly impossible by that stage.  All dead and gone. The book instead, for me, expressed an acute sense of the past’s irretrievable loss. Again, think of the way that Ransome’s novels can happen only in the absence of ‘adults in general’.  They rarely appear except to frame the story; forming the parameters of what it quarantines.  The way this resonates on different levels should also be obvious in other aspects, since – given that it is only in the ‘days of innocence’ thus identified, when children, fending for themselves, discover that nature is real, that ‘nature’ exists to begin with – nature is shown to be non-existent by an inverse law.  The ideas of natural/artificial are caught a viscious circle.  The under-story so to say, the implication that in the modern world there is no story, is a creation of the way that the world ruled by ‘adults in general’ can only exist as a mundane object: story-less. The two concepts are convergent. There is no story in the child’s mundane life because that life takes place in the adult world – in the industrial or post-industrial landscape of Britain, which does not allow for this kind of innocence … I remember thinking this as a child: what kind of story does a television have?  What kind of meaning? These objects seemed to me to be rootless; to be objects that existed without context.  What was a car?  How was electricity natural?  How could it be?  What kind of meanings – stories – did adult lives have?  As far as I could see, they had none. So they represented a corruption of the ‘innocence’ that Ransome uses so effectively for dramatic ignition in his creations of a convincingly pristine world. To get a story – a meaning – at all, one had to go back to these innocent things, to old or to proper things, to the clinker built boat, to the reality of a true canvas sail, to the natural unspoiled landscapes that are described by Ransome so well; there and in other books like Secret Water and Swallowdale, etc: there we find the ideal worlds that are no longer.  Perhaps they never were understood by adults, ever, or only glancingly, at the periphery, the edges of childhood.

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