In the years 1911-1913 Arthur Ransome contributed frequently to the Belloc/Chesterton weekly The Eyewitness (later renamed The New Witness). This short but resonant review, and its last sentence in particular, looks forward to the time when Arthur and Evgenia were settled in Estonia, bought the unsatisfactory Slug and Kittiwake, and built the never-to-be-forgotten Racundra. Arthur could now fulfill his ambition of thumping his own horny hand on the cabin table, which he did in an article 'Sailing in the Eastern Baltic' that appeared in the Spring 1923 Bulletin of the Cruising Association, an article that combined such diverse information as the virtues and failings of The Baltic Pilot, what languages were spoken on which islands, where there were still mines uncleared after the World War, and what the difficulties were in obtaining good pipe tobacco. It is not too fanciful, I think, to see Racundra's First Cruise also as an example of 'telling what happened' in the spirit of Walter Ledger and his fellow members of the Royal Cruising Club: indeed, seen in this way Swallows and Amazons, with its richly circumstantial detail of sailing, camping, cooking and fishing represents a further development in the direction outlined by this review.
The Art of Telling What Happened
The art of not telling what happened, or of telling what did not happen, is neither difficult to acquire nor easy to forget. Every newspaper is a school that teaches it with astonishing speed. The most honest young man learns in a week the way in which things transpire, or events take place, or phenomena occur. In as short a time he forgets the way in which a thing simply happens. He may remember it in reading Milton, the Bible, or Daniel Defoe. He may not find it easy to read such books in an atmosphere of transpiration or phenomenal occurrence. He may choose to look for a corrective in the journal of the Royal Cruising Club.
The Royal Cruising Club is an association of yachtsmen who prefer navigation to racing and are full of passionate interests – in barometric observations, in timber, in dodges of all kinds, in the taking of vertical shore angles, in the correction of soundings, in the making of charts. They make discoveries, and, thumping their horny hands on cabin tables try to make each other understand what they have discovered. They sail about in their little ships, and write down every day what happens and how many miles (nautical) they make, and when they sight such and such a light-house, or such and such a cow in the meadow by the water-side.
And the astonishing thing is, that most of these gentlemen write literature. Mr. C.C. Lynam, who contributes "The Log of Blue Dragon II" has written books, and consequently tries to make points and be amusing. But almost all his fellow contributors are simple seamen, writing literature as simply as Defoe.
For examples: (1) "For taking bearings an ordinary land surveying prismatic compass, with the cardinal points marked on and set in light quintals, is an excellent instrument." (2) "I stowed the mainsail, but kept the mizen set while I went below to study the chart and consider things." (3) "Outside the churchyard gates are the village stocks and a whipping-post with three sizes of iron manacles graduated to fit all scoundrels. I take number two." (4) "The water bubbles without ceasing. We did not bathe."
These men say what they think, and it is pleasant to listen to them. They are at once personal and impersonal. They can state a plain fact, and without doing violence to plain facts they can set themselves before us with all their simple seamanship. The best thing in the book is Mr. Walter Ledger's account of The Blue Bird, and his adventure in her on the Norfolk Broads. It is a wonderful little piece of literature, at once dedicated and honest, and able in its honesty to turn from yachting to saucepans. from a dead seaman to a tally of miles with no more jar than that of the incalculable motion of life.
The Royal Cruising Club, no doubt, does much for the better kind of yachtsmen; but not the least of its good deeds is the provision for one journalist at least, of a delightful corrective to the English of the newspaper. The Royal Cruisers have not lost the art of telling what happens. I envy them. I think I had better buy a boat.
The Eyewitness, 4th April 1912, pp. 502-3.
I am grateful to the executors of the Arthur Ransome literary estate for permission to place this article on the Web