Saturday, 9 June 2012

Relating to Ransome - Julia Jones

I spent two nights on board Peter Duck this weekend. It had been an unsatisfactory week, unproductive, full of petty stresses. I’m in the marketing stage for Ghosting Home, (concluding volume of the Strong Winds trilogy) and scrabbling for the time to make final cuts and corrections to Fifty Years in the Fiction Factory, another long term project which is scheduled for publication in September. (September? I must be mad!). There’s the ever-present buzz of family life, more insistent some weeks than others – GCSEs for Archie, booking university open days for Bertie, a birthday for Frank, a birthday for the twins, a sharp dip down the confusional roller-coaster for Mum, builders making a start on Francis’s new shed, a close friend rushed into hospital, visits, extra school runs needed – you know the sort of thing. It goes on …

 What a joy to close the computer, hug the littlest ones, reassure the oldest one, turn off the mobile phone and row down the river with the ebb. It didn’t matter that there wouldn’t be enough water to go any further for the next couple of hours. I finished reading Paul Heiney’s The Last Man Across the Atlantic, took off the sail covers, did a bit of deck-painting, opened a beer and listened to the birds squabbling on the mud. The wind was from the east, cold and gusty. Those who had planned to sail had already gone, the rest were staying at home. I had the river to myself.
George Jones (my father) sailing Peter Duck 
It wasn’t beautiful as I set off in the fading light: the sky was overcast and the water brownish-grey with sudden dark patches as the small squalls dashed across its surface. No, it wasn’t beautiful; it was completely and utterly wonderful.

Sometimes sailing can feel like skiing or skating when even a middle-aged yacht like Peter Duck picks up power and speed and the water hisses past, sliced aside by the smoothness of her hull.  No, I didn’t take photos. Or make notes. Didn’t even think of it. Didn’t think of anything at all except keeping my sails full and negotiating the best line against an assertive spring flood. The breeze was freshening all the while and I felt as if I could never bear to stop. Down the river we went, almost to the sea: then back and suddenly tired, therefore, gladly, onto an unfamiliar mooring in the dark and retreating to the shelter of the cabin.

My companion, Peter Duck, was built for Arthur Ransome, author of the Swallows and Amazons series, and she’s been part of my life since I was three years old. Intellectually, I’m proud of the Ransome connection and I’m happy when people want to talk about her, look at her, touch her. John McCarthy came for on board last summer and I could see that he was genuinely moved to be holding the tiller Ransome had held, sitting where he had sat. While writing the Strong Winds trilogy I’ve enjoyed re-thinking what some of Ransome's stories might look like in the contemporary world. How would his characters cope if faced with a Risk Assessment, for instance? Playing with some of these ideas has been fun and my admiration for Ransome's achievement has been enhanced. Through the 1930s and into the 1940s he created a coherent alternative world of adventure and imagination that has stayed with and sustained many people through their lifetime. Many of his early readers were then inspired to go sailing themselves. Through his long and terrifying captivity in the Lebanon John McCarthy cherished the dream of learning to sail. It helped him keep his spirit and his sanity. 

Arthur Ransome sailing Peter Duck
Emotionally, I’ve never felt that close to Ransome. It’s Peter Duck herself who is the direct link to the beauty of the rivers and the small-scale challenges of East Coast creek-crawling – and whatever essential fact it is that makes me myself. I’ve always known that Ransome didn’t really warm to Peter Duck and I’ve thought the less of him because of it. Now I can understand that Peter Duck came at the wrong time in his life, when his creativity was almost at an end, and I feel pity for him – as well as gratitude that he brought her into existence in the first place.
Evgenia Ransome on Peter Duck

Last weekend my feelings changed. I was dipping into Roland Chambers’s account of Ransome’s involvement in the Russian Revolution and the dangerous, complex years that followed. He had fallen in love with Trotsky’s secretary Evgenia Schelepina and by 1919-1920 he was desperate to get her out of Moscow and bring her to some sort of safety. He was already married with a daughter, he was politically suspect as a double agent, his wife refused a divorce, his mother was unsympathetic, his newspaper sacked him. He needed to keep writing and earning and spying for the British: Evgenia had to be persuaded not to smuggle any more roubles or diamonds for the Bolsheviks.

They weren't obviously compatible. He was sentimental, devoted, (probably irritating) and set in his ways: she was awkward, passionate, moody, opinionated and critical. Many of Ransome’s admirers have struggled to like Evgenia but theirs was a huge, lifelong, love story. I could understand the profound relief they had experienced in 1921 when they left politics and the land behind on their first Baltic cruise on board the ketch Racundra.

Julia Jones sailing Peter Duck (1960)
Then, last weekend for the first time, I fully imagined them, both of them, elderly and rather cross, in Peter Duck’s cabin with me. I’ve never done that before and it was awe-inspiring. I could see at once what the problem had been. They were, quite simply, too big – physically and in their personalities. I felt humble, protective and invisibly connected.

(Only the paperback version of Ghosting Home is currently available. The ebook will be ready for publication date, July 2nd 2012.)

10 comments:

CallyPhillips said...

Excellent post, Julia. I sneaked on here before settling down to the 6th day of hard graft on ebook series due out on 18th and it gave me just the 'escape' I needed for a short while. I read a biog of Ransome many years ago and it 'sustained' me through many a long year that he didn't find writing 'success' with his wonderful novels till late on in his life (49 if I remember correctly.) I'm 49 now too and I have reassessed what 'success' even means but I feel a commonality in that I'm on a new venture which is giving me artistic satisfaction (one measure, for me, of success) It's not jealousy I feel for your Peter Duck/Ransome connection but it's some kind of a feeling of how great it is how lives can be shaped and influenced and we can use them as constants in our lives and still come up with new reflections - like you did this week! And mine the creative seams. Without Peter Duck and Ransome you'd never have written Strong Winds trilogy and it's so brilliant that I for one am glad you had this life! The review for Ghosting Home awaits on IEBR and hopefully will do justice to the novel. I turn to your novels (as I did to Ransome) when I want to escape from the realities of day to day life. To which, sadly, I must now get back if I'm to get through my word quota for today. Thanks for reminding me there's a real world out there waiting for me when I finally surface from the computer keyboard!

Bill Kirton said...

Like Cally, I settled down to enjoy this because of my own love for sailing. I used to have a boat moored at Findhorn, on the Moray Firth and loved being out there on my own with the mountains of the Black Isle as a backdrop. But then came your Ransome connection and I realised you were in a different league. What a wonderful link to have. Sailing is glorious, but doing so at such a helm ... Words fail me.

Stephanie Zia said...

Fascinating! Made me want to perhaps try sailing which I've always feared since being taken into a Force Something Big gale on the Solent. The Ransome links too...

julia jones said...

I would love to make people want to try sailing - as long as they realise that there are so many different possible pleasures: there are the racers and the single-handed globe-girdlers and the marina cocktail set and the let's-all-meet-and-have-a-barbeque gang and people like Bill who's clearly in it for the beauty (and me too - sailed in the Moray Firth a couple of years ago with some wonderfully competent friends. Utterly lovely - and the dolphins ...wow!) Then there are people like me who relish the moment when they get down in the cabin at the end of the day with a book. And, Cally, you and Ransome may be 49 but I'm 58 and a multi-gran and I reckon I've only just discovered what it is I really really like doing! Slow on the uptake, or what?

SHERIDAN WINN said...

Lovely piece, Julia!

Dennis Hamley said...

I have absolutely no experience of sailing, would that I had, but Arthur Ransome was still the most important reading influence when I was a boy and he still looms large both as a great storyteller and also as master of the plain style. Absolute clarity, of a sort every writer should try to emulate. Julia, you know how I envy your direct contact with him. A great and complex man and writer. Is Racundra still in print? I look now at my carefully preserved Jonathan Cape editions and see that Racundra's First Cruise is always down there as 'By the same author'. But these editions were in the 40s and 50s, so things have probably changed. I didn't realise it was his first voyage with Evgenia. It now makes the book essential reading.

That's two (the other being Jim Riordan) children's authors with strong contacts with the Soviet government. Are there any more?

julia jones said...

I was thinking of you Dennis when I wrote my piece. It was something you'd said in an email (+ something in a recent review by Peter Willis) that prompted me to think a little harder about my relationship with Ransome. Thank you for that. Yes there is certainly a modern edition of Racundra's First Cruise and a very good read it is too. In between my parents owning Peter Duck and Francis and I buying her back she was owned by a wonderful family called the Palmers (who lent me their names for the SW triology wner the Ransome society was threatening copyright action). They took her on the most amazing adventures including twice to the Baltic following Racundra's wake themselves.

Catherine Czerkawska said...

What a wonderful post, Julia. Must show it to Alan. He's the sailor in the family, and he followed in Ransome's footsteps on a Baltic cruise with friends a few years ago, the last long voyage he did before arthritis curtailed his sailing quite severely. I'm a fair weather sailor - but I enjoyed it when he was skippering a company yacht in the Canaries and I could spend time aboard a comfortable catamaran in the sunshine.

Claudia Myatt said...

Nicely put. I've always loved the connections between books and boats - a concept which would probably be alien to those who treat sailing purely as a fast sport. I've always seen it as an adventure, in the same way that a good book takes you to new places in your mind, or makes you look at familiar places in a new way.

I was lucky enough to read an early draft of Julia's Ravelled Flag whilst lying in a bunk on board Peter Duck last summer. I could feel the rich thread of history there, and the delight (and responsibility) of being at the living edge of the story.

julia jones said...

Thank you Claudia - it's been great having you around as you DO understand about sailing and are utterly truthful and trustworthy about the story. It was a big relief when I discovered that your illustrations still work on the Kindle as well as on paper.