A Baltic cruise that ended up in Lakeland

Tuesday Book Racundra's Third Cruise by Arthur Ransome (edited by Brian Hammett)
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The Independent Culture

Arthur Ransome's 12 novels for children still stand in their original green bindings and picture-strewn covers on many a shelf. The shabby sets are treasured heirlooms from parents, the new ones gifts from godparents. It's a reflection of the charm of the books that their first publisher, Jonathan Cape, still keeps all 12 in print in hardback and paperback.

Fond memories are leading to the hitherto unpublished Racundra's Third Cruise being snatched from its publisher at record speed: it was reprinted before publication because of a rush of orders. But anyone hoping for tales of children in red knitted hats shivering timbers and sleeping in tents made of sheets on Lakeland islands will be disappointed. There are certainly boats in the book, but they are cumbersome cruisers, not piratical dinghies, and there is more about fishing than buried treasure.

Racundra's First Cruise, this book's forerunner, was one of the most popular sailing yarns ever written. It was published in 1923, seven years before Swallows and Amazons, and was a new venture for Ransome. He had already written a perceptive History of Story-Telling, a literary appreciation of Oscar Wilde, and Old Peter's Russian Tales: a collection for children made while he was in Russia escaping a marriage turned sour and observing the revolution for the Manchester Guardian.

His own life had also undergone a revolution. He had fallen in love with boats in general and Evgenia Shelepina, once Trotsky's secretary, in particular. He got Otto Eggers, a talented Latvian designer, to build him Racundra. A vision splendid rose before him of making money, by combining journalism with books on cruising.

He spent two months cruising the Baltic in Racundra, with Evgenia and a hoar-headed tea-clipper hand he calls the Ancient Mariner. The book's success led him to plan, sail and partly write up a sequel voyage that would in its finished form have included a trip to Helsinki that was Racundra's second voyage, the pottering fishing trip up the Aa which was her third and their return in Racundra to England.

Though he married Evgenia, money problems meant that they had to sell Racundra to buy a little stone house to the east of Lake Windermere. His next boat was a lug-sailed dinghy called Swallow, and the rest is children's literary history. Not quite all, however. For before he wrote Swallows and Amazons, Ransome published Rod and Line (his essays on fishing for the Manchester Guardian) and three books of political comment, two on Russia and one on China.

All sport, as does Racundra's Third Cruise, the "lean, athletic air" he once described the tales of Prosper Merimée as having. "Their author is like a man who throws balls at the cocoa-nuts in the fair: to bring them down, not for the pleasure of throwing... I am reminded of the sporting gentlemen of Hazlitt's day who would now and again would step into the ring and show that they too had a pretty way with gloves". Rod and Line remains in print, a fishing classic.

Although Ransome had to slog away at his writing to pay his way, the key to his brilliance is that effortless accuracy of effect; writing as economical but powerful as the line illustrations developed for his children's books. The voyage he describes here had no notable incidents, no water spouts or serious storms, and a positively ignoble conclusion when Evgenia abandons ship after finding "little three-toed paddy marks in the sour cream". But there isn't a paragraph in it that is not a delight to read.

Few books have been edited with more enthusiasm and dedication. Brian Hammett went sailing in the Baltic and up the Aa himself. He leafed through innumerable tiny negatives in the Ransome archives in order to find the original snaps taken on the cruise. He also provides an excellent preface and afterword, and thoughtfully includes both Racundra's lines and Ransome's description of her. This is a labour of love for which Ransome's many admirers have reason to be enormously grateful.