I encountered Swallows and Amazons for the first time when I was about seven. Every night, my mum would read a chapter - or two or three if we could coax her - to me, my sister and my dad who was just as keen to listen in. I remember sitting on the big red floor cushion eager to hear the next doings of the Walker and Blackett children in the Lake District, back in the innocent days of the 1920s.
Compared with today's children's fiction, or even the later Enid Blyton adventures, Ransome's books seem fairly tame and slow. But what they manage to capture is the sheer joy of being a child playing make-believe. The Swallows and Amazons don't need kidnappers, castles or dungeons - all they need is their imagination and encouragement to use it (and a boat, some tents, etc - but that comes under the heading of "encouragement" in my book.)
Swallows and Amazons is fantasy-fulfilment to a child who played make-believe in her back garden in the early 1990s. All very well pretending one's bicycle is a ship, and a clothes-horse covered in a blanket is a tent - but the Swallows and the Amazons had real boats, a real camp, a real campfire. (I had to make do with a pile of twigs, not being allowed to use matches.) Ransome captures the child's voice and imagination without talking down. Corned-beef sandwiches become pemmican. Ginger beer becomes grog. (There is a marvellous moment, when, shopping for rope and groceries - sorry - provisions - John forgets himself and asks the grocer for four bottles of grog, before being rescued by his sister Susan.) The nearest town (Bowness-on-Windermere?) is known only as Rio. And the great thing is, the parents play along. The telegram of permission from Commander Walker, their father, reads "BETTER DROWNED THAN DUFFERS IF NOT DUFFERS WON'T DROWN." And when their mother comes to call when Titty is playing Robinson Crusoe, minding the island all alone, she is quite content to be Man Friday.
But at the edge of their world of make-believe are hints that they are, after all, still children. Their freedom has limits. There is an awful moment of mother being more disappointed than angry after the Swallows' sailing-at-night escapade. As I return to the page as an adult, looking for the quote, I almost miss it. Mother's reaction is very understated - she is jolly decent for a grown-up - but you feel it as a child when she asks John, "Don't you think that was very nearly like being duffers?" On a lighter note, the ferocious Captain Nancy Blackett is caused to surrender to the Swallows, after they captured the Amazon, because of a dread of being late for breakfast.