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The Baldwin Project: Arthur Ransome

Arthur Ransome

(1884 - 1967)

1917 Old Peter's Russian Tales Fairy Tales


Autobiographical sketch from the Junior Book of Authors, 1935; courtesy of the H.W. Wilson Company

My father was a fisherman who was a professor of history in his spare time, and one of the earliest things I can remember is watching the river and racing up to the farmhouse where we were staying for the Long Vacation to let him know that the trout were rising. History, thereupon, stood still while my father left books and papers scattered as they were on the table, took up his rod, waiting ready by the porch, and hurried to the waterside.

That was nearly fifty years ago, and my father died when I was still a small boy, but heredity counts for a good deal, and I always find it easier to write books when the descendants of the trout that used to disturb my father are lying dully at the bottom of the river and not dimpling the water with rises to tempt fishermen from their desks.

Those Long Vacations of forty-five years ago were spent in an old farm-house not far from where I am writing now. A rocky hill named from the badgers, who lived in the woods on its lower slopes, climbed up behind it. There were grouse up there in the heather. Below, across a field, was a lake, and boats, and, flowing out of the lake, a little river full of trout. There could not be a better place, and if anybody had asked me then where I was going to spend my old age, I could have told them when I was only five or six. I never had any doubts about that.

But a lot of things had to come first. I went to school at Rugby, right in the middle of England, where (I suppose because some little idiot got himself drowned some time or other) we were not allowed to swim in the Avon, or even to fish in it. After Rugby, I went for a very short time to a university to study science, but badly wanted to write books instead, and so went off to London, where I kept alive and continued my education by running errands and packing up parcels in an office, often working late at night without being paid for overtime, getting to and from the office in an old horse-drawn omnibus painted green, and writing the most terrible rubbish when I got home.

Then, when I had earned my first grown-up holiday, I went, of course, straight back to that lake in the North, and spent my two free weeks in writing rubbish all day instead of only half the night. A year later I was selling my rubbish and making some sort of a living by it. And then for many years I used to go there every summer to stay with a delightful family of writers and artists who lived in a house close above the water, at the other end of the lake from the old farmhouse of my first memories. The eldest of their children was about my own age, and there we painted and wrote and sailed and camped on an island, and used, when indoors, to be waked in the mornings by hearing my aunt (she was not my aunt but called herself so) playing Beethoven on the piano.

They are dead now, the two old people, and all we young ones have scattered hither and thither and grown old ourselves. But still the lake is there, and the river, and even those of us who have gone farthest keep on coming back. The first of the "Swallows and Amazons Books" was written for some of the grandchildren of that family. Their mother was my old friend's eldest daughter.

But before those books were written, all sorts of things had happened to me. I had collected fairy tales in Russia for Old Peter's Russian Tales, and been a newspaper correspondent during the War and the Revolution. I had sailed about the Baltic in a little ship of my own, and later had gone off now and again on journeys to foreign countries, China, Egypt, and the Sudan, coming back to write about them in the Manchester Guardian.

That is all over now, and I live in a cottage more than three hundred years old high up on a hillside. I can see forty miles from my cottage door. The lakes I knew best as a boy are close at hand, and, on the nearest of them, a little boat, "Swallow," lies at her moorings and sails as well as ever she did. There is a long row of fishing rods hanging in the cottage, like the pipes of an organ, people say.

When there is news that the rivers are in good trim, I usually manage to take a rod and go down the hill to one or other of them. This very day, the moment I have put this paper in its envelope, I shall be off to fish a river that was fished by my father long before I was born, and by my grandfather before him. In such a place, what with sailing and fishing (and a pair of spotted fly-catchers nesting just under my window) it is perhaps surprising that I ever get anything written at all. But writing is the one profession in which one can have one's cake and eat it, and it seems to me that in writing children's books, I have the best of childhood over again and the best of being old as well, which is a very great deal more than I deserve.

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