We did mean to go to sea

Oc­tavia Pol­lock re­lives the ad­ven­tures of the Swal­lows and Ama­zons aboard the Nancy Black­ett, the red-sailed cut­ter on which Arthur Ran­some based Goblin in his ever­green se­ries of chil­dren’s books

Country Life Every Week - - Contents -

Oc­tavia Pol­lock re­lives the ad­ven­tures of the Swal­lows and Ama­zons aboard Ran­some’s Nancy Black­ett

Have you ever climbed into an old wardrobe and knocked on the back of it, hop­ing for the brush of snowy branches? Or fol­lowed a robin, ea­ger to find a for­got­ten door and a se­cret gar­den be­yond? Few would pass up the chance to step into a beloved book and, when I set sail aboard the Nancy Black­ett on the River Or­well in Suf­folk, I did just that.

We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea by arthur Ran­some, pub­lished 80 years ago, is set on board the Goblin, a red-sailed, 28ft, seven- ton cut­ter on which the Swal­lows of Swal­lows and ama­zons ac­ci­den­tally sail to Hol­land (Coun­try Life, April 5, 2017). Ran­some based Goblin on his own Nancy Black­ett, named af­ter the cap­tain of the Ama­zon, and she’s in­stantly recog­nis­able: ‘They looked down into the cabin of the lit­tle ship, at blue mat­tresses on bunks on ei­ther side… and the lit­tle white sink op­po­site the tiny gal­ley [with its] lit­tle cook­ing stove.’ There is even a pair of clogs, like the ones the Swal­lows bring back for their baby sis­ter Brid­get.

Out­side, the only change from the ru­ral views Ran­some would have known is the con­tainer ships that have re­placed the ‘tall mills’ of Felixs­towe. Har­wich sky­line and Pin Mill, that ‘happy place where al­most ev­ery­body wore sea-boots’, are just as he sketched them. even our skip­per, Ian Mcg­lynn, ex­ud­ing calm ca­pa­bil­ity, sported a Ran­some-es­que mous­tache.

We slipped past Pin Mill on a bright blus­tery morn­ing, laden with pork pies, grog and ‘the right sort of choco­late, in squares’. In the book, fog­bound with owner Jim

Brad­ing ashore, Goblin drags her an­chor off Shot­ley when the tide rises. Un­able to see and fear­ful of run­ning aground on sand­banks, John, Su­san, Titty and Roger set sail to get clear of land.

We had no such fears, but there was a def­i­nite fris­son as we passed a cer­tain buoy. ‘“Oh John,” gasped Su­san. “That was the Beach End buoy. We’re out at sea.”’ This marks the point at which they break their prom­ise to Mother and the wild voy­age to Hol­land be­gins.

As so of­ten in his books, Ran­some drew on per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence, but there is a deeper mean­ing in We Didn’t Mean to Go

to Sea. John be­rates him­self for not think­ing to let out the an­chor chain, but af­ter he skip­pers her safely to Flush­ing, his fa­ther pays him the unimag­ined com­pli­ment: ‘You’ll be a sea­man yet, my son.’ In his bunk that night, ‘John said those words over again to him­self, as if they were a spell’.

‘The books are a sub­con­scious out­pour­ing of grief for his fa­ther,’ says my crew­mate So­phie Neville (see next page). ‘John is Ran­some show­ing he could be trusted.’ Des­per­ately short-sighted—a con­di­tion that went un­di­ag­nosed un­til no­ticed by his Rugby house­mas­ter—ran­some was bad at games, bul­lied and, only 13 when his fa­ther died, al­ways thought he was a dis­ap­point­ment. He longed to prove his ca­pa­bil­ity to his fa­ther and, in the char­ac­ter of John, fi­nally does.

The irony is that Ran­some was as­ton­ish­ingly re­source­ful, with a child­like au­dac­ity. ‘Ran­some loved boys’ things, ad­ven­tures and fish­ing,’ says life­long devo­tee Griff Rhys Jones. ‘He re­mained on the cusp of be­ing a lit­tle boy, but with adult skills.’ Hav­ing fled to Rus­sia in 1913, os­ten­si­bly to study its fairy­tales, but in part to es­cape an un­happy mar­riage, Ran­some grew to know and love the coun­try. At the out­break of hos­til­i­ties, un­fit for ac­tive ser­vice, he stayed on as a war cor­re­spon­dent and For­eign Of­fice agent, watch­ing the revo­lu­tion from his rooms op­po­site the Mari­in­sky Theatre.

Af­ter a brief spell in Eng­land fight­ing sus­pi­cions, now dis­proved, that he was a dou­ble agent, he made a jour­ney back to Rus­sia that reads like a fairy­tale it­self. Charged with bro­ker­ing peace be­tween Es­to­nia and Lenin, he reached Moscow by strolling across no man’s land smok­ing a pipe, be­liev­ing no one would shoot so in­con­gru­ous a fig­ure. Hav­ing de­liv­ered his mes­sage, he made a per­sonal re­quest, to take his lover, Ev­ge­nia, Trot­sky’s sec­re­tary, home with him.

Their de­par­ture from Rus­sia took, ap­pro­pri­ately, three mir­a­cles: they gave a cop­per ket­tle to peas­ants as a bribe to avoid be­ing re­ported, evaded ar­rest from a rab­ble of ir­reg­u­lar sol­diers when Ran­some as­sumed the author­ity lent by his great­coat and es­caped be­ing shot when a Russian cap­tain recog­nised him as an old chess part­ner.

The con­straints of fil­ing copy via tele­graph and years of study honed Ran­some’s ini­tially overly ro­man­tic lan­guage to the vivid text of his fa­mous books. His bi­og­ra­pher Hugh Bro­gan pays trib­ute: ‘Ran­some, like Tolkein, was able to draw upon a rich well of schol­ar­ship and ex­pe­ri­ence. There is a mind be­hind his words.’

His skill in draw­ing upon his own var­ied life—frozen win­ters on Lake Win­der­mere

(Win­ter Holiday), the ‘An­cient Mariner’ who sailed with him in the Baltic (Peter

Duck), re­port­ing from China (Mis­see Lee) —lends an ex­tra sin­cer­ity to the sto­ries. He hoped to in­spire chil­dren to sail and he did: Dame Ellen Macarthur, pa­tron of the Nancy Black­ett Trust, cred­its the books for her round-the-world voy­age and Sir Ben Ainslie has called his child­hood a Swal­lows and

Ama­zons af­fair. Peter Wil­lis, pres­i­dent of the Nancy Black­ett Trust, re­mem­bers ‘ly­ing on my tummy on the liv­ing-room floor aged 11, de­vour­ing them. Their mer­its are a lot to do with lan­guage—it’s seem­ingly sim­ple, but sub­tle, with an un­der­ly­ing hu­mour’. They’re ‘top ad­ven­ture sto­ries’, adds Mr Rhys Jones, for whom a high­light of child­hood hol­i­days was sail­ing into the Ham­ford Wa­ter mud­flats of Se­cret Wa­ter.

Hap­pily mar­ried back in Eng­land, the Ran­somes owned a suc­ces­sion of boats, of

which Nancy Black­ett was the au­thor’s favourite. Her cabin proved too con­stricted— some­thing I can un­der­stand af­ter crouch­ing to scram­ble into the head—and they sold her in 1938, but her im­mor­tal­i­sa­tion as the

Goblin proves Ran­some’s high opin­ion of her sail­ing qual­i­ties. To­day, her ship­shape-and-bris­tol-fash­ion con­di­tion is a trib­ute to the trust that has owned her for 20 years, af­ter Mr Wil­lis led the cam­paign to buy her and keep her as ‘a liv­ing ves­sel, not a mu­seum piece’.

On June 4, she set sail to Hol­land, where she’s host­ing a suc­ces­sion of crews, and the an­niver­sary year, also 50 years since Ran­some’s death, will cul­mi­nate in a marathon read­ing of We Didn’t Mean to Go to

Sea led by Mr Rhys Jones in Oc­to­ber. The tele­gram to the Swal­lows in the first book that starts all the ad­ven­tures runs: ‘Bet­ter drowned than duf­fers, if not duf­fers won’t drown.’ Any­one who hopes they pass the test should step aboard Nancy Black­ett and into Ran­some’s world.

To buy Swal­lows and Ama­zons on DVD or Blu-ray, visit www.stu­dio­canal.co.uk

Fac­ing page: The

Nancy Black­ett sets sail down the River Or­well. Above: Arthur Ran­some wrote We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea to prove his ca­pa­bil­ity to his fa­ther

The au­thor on board the Nancy Black­ett

‘Bet­ter drowned than duf­fers, if not duf­fers won’t drown’: John, Su­san, Titty and Roger be­gin their ad­ven­ture on the dinghy named Swal­low in the 1974 film Swal­lows and Ama­zons

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