Friday, 4 April 2008

Coot Club - Arthur Ransome

In summary, this doesn’t like a particularly gripping book. A group of children teach two others to sail on the Norfolk Broads, with a subplot involving some idiot adults in a motor cruiser. No violence, no sex, no drugs, no loud music (apart from when the idiot adults are about), not much in the way of danger. Yet…

…I was gripped. Again, this is partly nostalgia. Not only did I read Ransome as a child, but at the time I lived in Norfolk. Norwich, to be precise. And we spent a lot of time in the countryside and visiting the fun fair at Yarmouth. The nearest I got to sailing (something I’ve never really wanted to do, despite enjoying these books) is when my brother worked for one of the boat hire companies.

So, I know the scenery of the book, and know it from a time when it was not much different from when the books were written. And with Arthur Ransome, the scenery is not just a back drop. The children live in the landscape. Their actions are dictated by the natural world. They are affected by the weather and their adventures are part and parcel of the world in which they live.

I know all about the arguments (accusations, even) that Ransome is middle class and these are the adventures of privileged kids. Maybe. So what. Shouldn’t they have adventures as well? Besides, when it comes to Ransome, this is only partly true. As with the physical landscape, the children are also part of the social landscape and they are remarkably mobile.

The other aspect of this book that has me hooked is that one of the central characters does something he knows to be wrong (casting a boat adrift) in order to protect a bird’s nest. It is done after polite attempts to ask the idiot adults to move their boat fail. And it sets the tone for this and other Ransome books. Because the landscape, the natural world, is not just integral to the books, it is also portrayed as something to which we owe respect and which we should treat with care. Ransome’s characters are sensitive to this. If they were real people, even though most would be in their eighties by now, I like to believe they would be fully paid up members of Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace and still be doing their bit to protect the wild places and the wild life that we share the planet with.