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 …
|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.)