Swallows and Amazons Forever!

SwallowdaleThere were shrieks of excitement at our place last week when we arrived home to discover a flat brown cardboard box on the front doorstep.  Now, my kids have both wised up to the fact that there are really only two things that get delivered to our house with any regularity, and since this carton was not big enough to contain a dozen bottles of wine, they immediately deduced — correctly — that this box contained an equally precious cargo: books.

“SWALLOWDALE!” yelled Marvel Girl, elated.  When given the choice between a sparkly ice-blue Elsa dress and the second installment of Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons series, my darling girl — bless her — picked the book.  For me, her choice speaks volumes (if you will please, please pardon that dreadful pun).

Swallows and Amazons and the series of books that follow it were first published in the 1930s.  They recount the adventures of the Walker and Blackett children during their summer holidays, first in the Lakes District of England and subsequently in other parts of the world.  Much of the action involves sailing — in dinghys named Swallow and Amazon, hence the title — camping, and a great deal of outdoor exploring and imaginative playing.

My parents read these books (yep, all twelve of ’em) to me and my younger brother when we were children.  At that time the stories were already more than half a century old and evoked an obviously bygone era, but they still motivated us to embark on a variety of nautical escapades.  The most memorable of these took place on a particularly windy day at Narrabeen Lakes, when my mother and I were careening so quickly — or maybe even recklessly — through the water in the family’s trusty Mirror dinghy (both of us high on adrenalin and the rush of freedom every sailor knows and loves) that my father, waving his arms in consternation on the sandy lake’s edge, turned as crimson as our tiny boat’s sails, while my brother fell about laughing watching the combined on-shore/off-shore spectacle. Our other adventures took place on a slightly grander scale on my Grandpa’s yachts, first Aphrodite and later Saracen II (who was built for speed had competed in seven Sydney to Hobart races), before increasing age finally forced my sea-faring grandfather to stow away the sailcloth, and we all putted about Pittwater with him on a Halvorsen cruiser called Chloe.

Strangely enough, The Bloke spent half his childhood on the water too.  His father remains a keen sailor and still races his yacht twice a week, despite being well into his seventies.  More significantly, however, The Bloke’s dad also built a Pirate Boat (from scratch, in his garage) for Marvel Girl, Miss Malaprop and their cousins, and even took the time to outfit this marvelous vessel with a mermaid Barbie figurehead and a bespoke Maltese Cross-bearing sail.  Watching his grandkids sailing about, every last one of them bedecked in a life jacket and pirate hat, brings a huge smile to his face — and to that of anyone else watching that little dinghy tack about the shallows with the Jolly Roger flying atop its mast.

I suspect that Marvel Girl’s own piratical capers have contributed enormously to her taking to the Swallows and Amazons series like a certain proverbial duck…that, and the fact that even though this is only her first year of school, she is loving reading.  She is, apparently, the second best reader in her class (a fact that she is nearly as proud of as her mother is).  When she emerged from her latest school assembly clutching a merit award praising her fluent and expressive reading, the spontaneous fist pump and grin of utter triumph she gave when she saw me in the playground more than made up for the fact that I wasn’t there to see her get the certificate.

But an equally big thrill for us both, and for Miss Malaprop, too, is that there are eleven — yes, eleven! — more books in the Swallows and Amazons series for us to read together.  I will enjoy reading my girls the stories of John, Susan, Titty and Roger (the crew of Swallow) and Nancy and Peggy (the Amazon pirates) and their summer holiday

Swallows & Amazonsadventures — even though there is no way I would ever let my own children camp, completely unattended, on a small island in the middle of a lake for over a week.  (More to the point, I suspect any parent remiss enough to do so these days would be reported to the relevant authorities faster than you can say “Child Protection Officer” or “Lord of the Flies“.)

But I am looking forward to re-visting that age of innocence which, although lost, lives on in print.  And I can think of no better way to spend our own summer holidays than revelling in the tales of theirs.

Swallows and Amazons forever!

Farewell to the Old Plastic Cubby House

It’s school holiday time in this Great Southern Land of ours, and we have been blessed with some wonderful spring days: the sun has been blazing up the blue, keeping the chill from the afternoon sea breezes at bay.  Blossoms are budding.  I’ve started sneezing more (a lot more).  And the kids have been relishing the opportunity to play — raucously, for hours — in the back yard.

So far, these holidays, there have been no casualties.

Well, not until Friday afternoon, that is.  Marvel Girl came belting into the house, barefoot and wild-haired, shrieking at the top of her lungs: “The cubby house! The cubby hoooouuuuuse!”.  She was closely followed by Miss Malaprop, wide-eyed and aghast, wailing that, “It’s fallen over! And the roof has come off…and now it’s broken“.  These last words were uttered at a whisper, her hushed tone no doubt adopted in anticipation of the maternal tirade they both expected to follow.

“Well, that was good timing!” I responded brightly, “We have Council clean up this weekend, so we can put it out for collection.  Let’s have a look at it.”  Two pairs of eyes, one dark greeny-brown, the other light greeny-blue, watched me suspiciously.  Surely they were not going to get away with this so easily?

Like most siblings, Marvel Girl and Miss Malaprop are a study in contrasts.  They are two very different individuals who love and fight each other in fairly equal measure but, fortunately, they complement each other too.  They’re like chorizo and haloumi, smoked salmon and capers, any other quirky combination you care to name.  When trouble is afoot, however, they tend to follow that timeless pattern of behaviour I remember falling into with my own brother: stick together, deny everything, and when all else fails — blame the other person.

Outside, surveying the damage, it was clear there was no coming back for the cubby house.  It was busted.  Completely kaput.  Bits of broken plastic were littering the lawn and a surprisingly large number of spiders crawling out from the newly exposed cracks in the frame.  Just regular, garden variety spiders, you know.  Nothing to get upset over.  This is Australia, after all — we don’t get too wound up over arachnids unless they are the poisonous kind, and we learn to identify them from an early age.  “They don’t have red spots, Mum,” said Marvel Girl cautiously, peering down at the rapidly disappearing spindly-legged creatures.  “Nup,” I replied definitively, “No Redbacks here, but it’s always good to check.”  She nodded solemnly in response.

Miss Malaprop, uncharacteristically blasé about the spiders, had other things on her tiny mind.  “You pushed it over,” she said accusingly, pointing at the shattered panels, glaring hard at her sister.  Once the ensuing shouting match had been dealt with, we set about dismantling the rest of the cubby house, the setting of so many imaginary adventures.

Ah, the old plastic cubby house.  It has been an ice cream shop and café that catered to customers’ every passing whim, a pirate boat from which many a scurvy dog as been sent to walk the plank, a hidden base for jungle explorers when covered with fallen fronds from the palm tree in the corner of the yard.  Climbing unassisted onto the faded yellow roof was a rite of passage for you and so many of your little mates, with the cry of surprise that “I can reach now!” inevitably being followed by a triumphant rooftop shout: “Look at ME!”

The back yard looks a whole lot bigger now, and perhaps even a little bereft now that those garish plastic panels, stairs and slippery slides have disappeared.

Farewell, old plastic cubby house.  You served us well.

Just Getting it Out There…

Last weekend, having a rare evening to myself, I sank into the sofa with a glass of red wine and watched Only Lovers Left Alive, Jim Jarmusch’s take on urban decay and modern life (more decay) through the eyes of a disillusioned and depressed vampire.  I had been wanting to watch the film for a while, and its languid pace and dark palette suited my mood perfectly.  Not to mention the fact that the inimitable Tom Hiddleston plays the part of the disenchanted vampire, Adam, opposite Tilda Swinton as his blood-sucking though weirdly ethereal wife of many hundred years, Eve.

“I’m sick of it—these zombies, what they’ve done to the world, their fear of their own imaginations,” Adam complains to Eve, compelling her to travel from Tangiers — all night flights, of course — to where he is living as a reclusive and very reluctant rock star in Detroit.  The suggestion that it was possible to live in fear one’s own imagination was one of three things that stayed with me long after the film was over.

The second thing that lingered for me was the film’s soundtrack, comprised mostly of moody guitar riffs in minor keys, lit up towards the movie’s climax by a mesmerising performance by Lebanese singer Yasmine Hamdan.  I had not thought the music would remain with me for so many days afterwards, but strangely enough there it was, the memory of it filling my ears at unexpected moments.

And then, finally, there was the idea of “getting the work out there” which posed such a problem for these long-lived vampire types.  How is it possible for a vampire to create, publish, record or (gasp!) perform, without revealing something of their identity or, shall we say, the “peculiarities” that constrain their nocturnal lives?  And what of the “delicious chaos”, as Eve puts it, that would result from owning up to authorship?  As Andrew Tracy says in his review of the film, “[t]hrough equal parts design and conceptual confusion, Jarmusch sets up his vampiric protagonists as both the secret source of some of our culture’s greatest accomplishments and admiring, discerning critics of the best that we have attained, both participants and observers.”

So why did this third idea, in particular, haunt me?

Because I am neither a vampire, not any other sort of immortal.  The problem of “getting it out there” is not one that I face.

Nor am I afraid of my own imagination.

And so, here it is: my first blog post.  It won’t be Shakespeare (or Marlowe), it won’t be Mozart (or Salieri) either.  What I write here may never be great, or even particularly good, but it will be mine.