In the highly anticipated lead-up to the release of Swallows, Amazons and Coots later this month, we were able to catch up with author, Julian Lovelock to hear all about his motivations, interests and upcoming projects!
1. What inspired you to write Swallows, Amazons and Coots: A Reading of Arthur Ransome?
It began life as a research dissertation on Ransome’s East Anglian novels: I was drawn to them because I knew the Suffolk coast well, sailed on the Norfolk Broads, and spent three years at the University of East Anglia at Norwich. And the novels had been childhood favourites.
Inevitably I was drawn into the world of Arthur Ransome enthusiasts, and, when I retired from full-time work, I thought I’d turn to the other novels as well (and also discovered the weaknesses of the original dissertation!). I thought it would be an interesting book to write and was delighted when The Lutterworth Press were enthused and agreed to publish it.
2. We understand from your author questionnaire that you have been heavily involved in education for a number of years. How do you think this has shaped your writing career?
I rather think my career in education blighted my writing career. In the five years after leaving university I edited or co-edited four books (for Macmillan and Routledge), and co-wrote a survey of English poetry. Then I became a headmaster for more than twenty-five years, followed by a ten-year stint in university lecturing and administration, so I only had time to write the occasional article or lecture (on literature, education, or boats).
But of course teaching makes you realise the importance of enthusing other people and explaining things simply and clearly. And that’s important in writing too.
3. What does your writing process consist of?
I’m afraid I’m not a very disciplined writer. Like Arthur Ransome, I like to have a plan before I start, and then, like him, I tend to write the chapters in order of what inspires me at the time. This means that the first draft has to be carefully edited to ensure that the argument is clear and there are no repetitions. At this stage, having critical friends is vital – they can be more objective and see the errors and weaknesses better than I can. I seem to get the best ideas while walking the dog, and scribble things in long-hand before shaping things on my laptop.
4. Which writers or academics do you think have had the greatest impact on you and why?
I had some good English teachers at school, and at university (East Anglia, in its earliest years ) there were some outstanding lecturers (including the novelists Angus Wilson and Malcolm Bradbury, who taught Creative Writing). The critic A. E. Dyson was especially encouraging, and after I graduated he commissioned me to edit three volumes, on Donne and Milton, in the Macmillan Casebook series (of which he was General Editor). I went on to write a book on English Poetry with him called Masterful Images and to co-edit Education and Democracy.
5. What are the main ideas that the book explores?
Swallows, Amazons and Coots explores the themes that run through the twelve novels: the ‘romantic transfiguration of fact’; the colonial imagery of ‘explorers’ and ‘savages’, and all those virtues of honesty, courage and leadership; the absent father; the debt to fairy and folk tales; the nature of girlhood and the place of women in society; growing up; the shadow of war; and, of course Ransome’s skill as a storyteller.
I’m not sure that the novels are quite as conservative as they seem at first sight. Ransome, after all, was, as a young man, a radical journalist and (apparently) a Bolshevik sympathiser, and I suggest that he questions as much as reinforces the changing colonial and middle-class world in which he lived.
When I was at university (nearly fifty years ago!), the critical fashion was that you had to consider the poem, play, or book, for what it was, and divorce it completely from the life and the ‘intention’ of the writer. There’s still a lot in that, and only recently the novelist Sebastian Faulks has warned against biographical reductionism – the job of the writer, he argues, is to transform experience into art, and it’s the art rather than the experience that matters.
Admittedly Ransome’s novels are more than usually tied up with his life and I highlight the relevant aspects of his life in the introduction to Swallows, Amazons and Coots (though some readers will know all this already). But my aim has been to focus on the novels rather than on the writer – to look at the themes, the structure, and the images. So it’s very much a critical book, in fact the first full-length study devoted wholly to the Swallows and Amazons novels.
6. Who are your favourite authors?
As a young child, I have to confess to devouring Enid Blyton. Then it was on to Percy Westerman, W. E. Johns (Biggles), Arthur Ransome, Aubrey de Selincourt, G. A. Henty, and the like. Looking back, they were all reflecting a colonial era that was in decline. I loved any books to do with the sea.
Having taught the classic English novelists, poets and playwrights for some forty years, today I read mainly for pleasure. Glancing along my bookshelves, Sebastian Faulks, Rose Tremain, Pat Barker, Susan Hill, Ian McEwan, Patricia Highsmith and Muriel Spark take up a lot of space. I delve into poetry too. Hardy’s Cornish poems are wonderful, and T. S. Eliot, W.B. Yeats and R. S. Thomas are great poets of the last century.
7. We understand that you have been involved in previous works and recorded lectures exploring subjects such as Milton, Donne and Shakespeare. How do you feel your writing style or interests have changed?
It’s not really an either/or. I’m preparing a lecture on ‘Shakespeare’s Daughters’ at the moment. I’ve toyed with the idea of a book on Shakespeare, but so much has been written on the plays that I wonder how much more there is to say. But working on Ransome has certainly rekindled an interest in children’s literature and, given a career spent in education, I’m now delving happily into ‘school stories’. I suspect those will be the next project.
As for style, I’m not sure that it’s changed that much. I hope what I write is not too heavy and is accessible to a wide readership. I can’t see much point in academic books written for other academics which, if not deliberately obscure, are pretty hard-going. Surely books should be enjoyable?
8. From your author questionnaire, you detail your role as editor for Mixed Moss, the Journal of the Arthur Ransome Society. How do you think your passion for Ransome has developed since undertaking this role?
I’ve only taken on the role this year – and my first volume comes out this month. We’ll see what people think of it. I don’t think my interest in Ransome has changed (and I’m not sure that as a person he was always as nice as some people make out), but what has struck me is the passion other people have for a myriad of aspects of his life and work. I hope I’ve been able to select articles that reflect this, but I have also put a little more emphasis than recently on his writing rather than his life. I may be shot down for it!
9. On this note, which audiences do you think your book will most appeal to and why?
I think the book has three main audiences. First, there are students studying children’s literature at university, and I hope Swallows, Amazons and Coots will be interesting to them. Secondly, there is a fairly large band of Ransome enthusiasts, both in this country and internationally: I hope they will discover even more in Ransome’s novels than they’ve found already (and they’ll certainly be quick to highlight any mistakes I’ve made!). Finally there are so many people who enjoyed the Swallows and Amazons novels as children, and I hope they will be encouraged to re-read the novels from an adult perspective, renewing their enjoyment, but realising that there are far more levels of meaning.
10. With the release of the new film, could you give your opinion on it? Likewise, how do you believe it compares with older versions?
As a classic interpretation of Swallows and Amazons, you’re never going to better the 1974 film. Sophie Neville, who has written a Foreword to Swallows, Amazons and Coots, played an enchanting Titty in it and is now a very active President of The Arthur Ransome Society. But times and tastes have changed, and while the new film is based on Swallows and Amazons, it introduces elements that are more John Buchan or even James Bond. I know some Ransome purists are appalled, but I loved it, and I think it’s been very cleverly done, drawing on Ransome’s life and the other novels for inspiration. After all, Ransome himself was a spy of sorts, tangling with Russians, so why shouldn’t Captain Flint be a spy tangling with Russians instead of a pirate – even down to the detail of using Ransome’s own MI6 title – Agent S.76. It’s a genuine and exciting family film. Go and see it.
11. As 2017 marks the fiftieth anniversary of Arthur Ransome’s death, are there any particular events that you are looking forward to attending (or even hosting)?
I think this book is my contribution – even if it’s a few months early. Mixed Moss 2017 will be a special edition, with reprints of the best early articles. I know that the Ruskin Museum in Coniston will be putting on an exhibition and I look forward to seeing that. And I’m sure that The Arthur Ransome Society’s International Annual General Meeting (not like other AGMs!) and its Literary Weekend will be special occasions.
12. If you had to select one, which of the original Ransome novels is your favourite and why?
I think Peter Duck is the most cleverly written, Winter Holiday is the most magical, Coot Club is a wonderful evocation of the Norfolk Broads, and The Picts and the Martyrs is undoubtedly the most amusing. But I think Ransome’s masterpiece is We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea, where for a time the children aren’t playing games and have to confront real danger. It also has a special meaning for me, since my childhood holidays were spent at sea and when I first read it I already knew the novel’s settings in both Suffolk and Holland. I could and can really empathise with the characters.
13. Alongside your diverse involvement in the world of education, we would be interested to hear about any hobbies or projects you have coming up!
Retirement from full-time work seems to have made me busier than ever. I am Chair of Trustees for the PACE Centre in Aylesbury, a school and charity which supports children with cerebral palsy and their families.
Although we live far from the sea, I have always enjoyed messing about in boats, and we have a narrowboat on the Grand Union canal. We have just enjoyed a fortnight’s cruise – and when time allows I can catch up with thirty years of neglected varnishing and the like.
As I’ve already mentioned, I suspect my next project will be a study of ‘school stories’. But we’ll get Swallows, Amazons and Coots launched first.
Swallows, Amazons and Coots is available to pre-order now, and due for publication at the end of this month.
For more on Julian Lovelock, reviews and extracts of the book, click to visit our website!