Monday, October 27, 2014

Coots in the North and Other Stories

Roger, aged seven, and no longer the youngest of the family, ran in wide zigzags, to and fro, across the steep field that sloped up from the lake to Holly Howe, the farm where they were staying for part of the summer holidays.

As a young boy growing up in a part of England that could not have been further from the sea, and which contained no lakes of any description, those were the first words that I read by the author Arthur Ransome. I cannot remember the year but it was so far back in time that I prefer not to try. Swallows and Amazons and its sequel Swallowdale were a formative part of my pre-teenage years. A large vicarage lawn was my Windermere (or was it Coniston?) and a variety of wheels, that included a home made go-cart, an old tricycle and an ancient iron funeral bier, were my boats (or were they ships?) From the sloping grass bank outside my father's study window to the far corner where a gap in the tall hedge allowed passage to the orchards a long sea voyage could be imagined. And it was, with storms and pirates and the occasional shipwreck, survivable only by my mother appearing with corned beef sandwiches and pop. How she walked on water remains a mystery, but that is what mothers surely do.

Those two books, Puffin editions from 1962, are long lost copies, but many years later (again, more than I care to count) I found their titles again in a second-hand bookshop in Chichester, England. And so, as a grown man (debatable) I sailed to Wild Cat Island once more.

I think my passion for “All Things Ransome” was ignited when, on moving to the United States, I unpacked those two paperback volumes and placed them on a shelf. It has not been so much an obsession but rather a gentle desire – not only to read all that he has written but also find out more about the man and experience the places that inspired him. Thanks to the internet and e-libraries I have read most of his works written in and around the 1917 Russian Revolution; almost all of his fishing essays; and possess all of his twelve books in the Swallows and Amazons series. Yet I have ever been aware of his “unfinished” book in that run of adventures, but until now have not seen it.

Hugh Brogan is Arthur Ransome's most accomplished and masterful biographer, and in going through the author's papers after Ransome's death in 1967 he came across what he described as “buried treasure.” The first five chapters of the thirteenth, last and never completed (or entitled) Swallows and Amazons adventure. Brogan threaded the papers together (“tidied them up”) and he gave the work the title, “Coots in the North.

Three days ago I received my copy, long overdue because the cost of this volume has been prohibitive. But I knew that a paperback copy was published by Random House Books in 1993. Difficult to find as collectors pounce on such editions, but I ran one to ground.

Joe, Bill and Pete were sitting on the cabin top of the Death and Glory.

And so am I!

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