Obituary: Brigit Sanders

She first appears in Swallows and Amazons only as a plump `ship's baby'. Seven books later, `Bridget' plays a vital part in the plot
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The Independent Culture
BRIGIT SANDERS was the youngest child of the Altounyan family who inspired Arthur Ransome to write Swallows and Amazons.

Her mother Dora was the daughter of the archaeologist and novelist W. G. Collingwood of Lanehead, Coniston, and she and her brother and sisters had encouraged Ransome to learn to sail when, as a young man, he was a frequent visitor to their house in the Lake District. Although Ransome proposed marriage to Dora (and also, with perhaps an excess of enthusiasm, to her sister Barbara), Dora chose to marry Ernest Altounyan in 1915. She moved with him to Aleppo, Syria, where he founded a hospital. Their youngest daughter Brigit was born there in 1926.

The Altounyan family met Ransome again in 1928, when they and their five children, Taqui, Susan, Mavis (always nicknamed Titty), Roger and Brigit, returned to visit Dora's parents at Lanehead. By this time Ransome, after one failed marriage and some hectic years in Russia reporting on the Revolution for the Manchester Guardian, had married Evgenia Shelepina, Trotsky's secretary. In 1925 he brought her to their new home at Low Ludderburn, just east of Lake Windermere.

In the summer of 1928, he and Ernest Altounyan acquired two lug-sailed dinghies, Swallow and Mavis, and taught the children to sail. "I remember him shouting `duffers' at us from the bank," recalled Taqui, the oldest. All too soon, the holiday was over, and the children had to return to Syria. Before they went, they delivered a pair of bright scarlet Turkish slippers.

Ransome kept Swallow for himself to sail on Windermere, and decided to have a shot at writing a story for the children "about the little Swallow they were leaving behind". He was encouraged by the frequency with which they sent their adopted "Uncle Arthur" effervescent letters about their life in Syria, full of exotic tales of roasting boar over open fires, tents made from sheets weighted down with stones, and hazardous shipwrecks in a leaky dinghy.

When Swallows and Amazons was published two years later, in 1930, it told the story of a family of five which matched the ages, names and characters of the Altounyans almost exactly - only the oldest girl Taqui had been replaced by a boy, John. Ransome himself was easily recognisable as the grouchy but essentially sporting "Captain Flint"; John was perhaps a flashback to his own boyhood holidays on the lake. The book's dedication ran: "To the Six for whom it was written, in exchange for a pair of slippers", and a copy was sent post-haste to Syria.

In this first book, Brigit appears only as a plump "ship's baby" in her mother's arms, waving the exploring Swallows off on their first voyage to Wild Cat Island. Permission for the voyage came in a memorable telegram from their absent father Commander Walker: "Better drowned than duffers, if not duffers, won't drown." By the time Ransome came to write Secret Water (1939), the eighth of his 12 superb children's novels, she had become "Bridget", a redoubtable young character who played a vital part in the plot.

Brigit's own first memories of Ransome were when he and Evgenia visited them in Syria in 1932, bringing a sailing dinghy called Peter Duck, and spending long hours at the top of the house working on his next children's book. When Taqui and Titty were older and at school in England, they often met the Ransomes, visiting them at Low Ludderburn and crewing for them on holidays in the Norfolk Broads. Sadly, as the Swallows and Amazons stories became increasingly famous, Ransome, incited perhaps by Evgenia, became over-protective about the originality of his characters. He removed the dedication from Swallows and Amazons, and relations between the two families cooled.

Brigit was less hurt by this change in attitude than her older sisters because she had been less involved with the Ransomes as she grew up. She was educated in Aleppo, and, during the Second World War, in Jerusalem. After the war, and a year studying Arabic at SOAS in London, she returned to Aleppo and took charge of the administration of the Altounyan Hospital.

She was an enthusiastic horsewoman, interested in training young horses for dressage, and helping in the rescue of, and breeding from, thoroughbred Arab mares found among the Bedouin tribes of the north Syrian desert. It was in this period that she survived an assassination attempt on the life of Colonel Stirling, then The Times's correspondent in Damascus and a longtime friend and collaborator of Ernest Altounyan during the events that saw the emergence of Syria and Lebanon as independent states. The experience made a powerful impression on Brigit; it also brought out the courage and cool-headedness which were typical of her handling of other critical situations in her diplomatic life.

In 1953 she married John Sanders, a Diplomatic Service officer under training at the Foreign Office-run Arabic school (MECAS) at Shemlan, Lebanon. They saw service in the Middle East and Latin America, with two interludes in London, and a two-year ambassadorial stint in Panama. In 1980 they returned to England and retired to Nibthwaite, a small village at the south end of Coniston Water.

Their house was only a stone's throw from the farm where Arthur Ransome had holidayed with his parents and siblings when he was a small boy. In a nearby boathouse was Swallow's sister ship Mavis, the model for Amazon, and Brigit took a delight in introducing her own grandchildren to the glories of Peel Island, Allan Tarn and the Old Man of Coniston, the inspirations for Ransome's "Wild Cat Island", "Octopus Lagoon" and "Kanchenjunga".

It was the success of an appeal to restore Mavis to her original glory shortly after the celebration of the centenary of Arthur Ransome's birth in 1984 which led to Brigit Sanders's involvement in the long-overdue formation of a society to celebrate Arthur Ransome's life, works and values.

In 1990, the Arthur Ransome Society (TARS) was launched at the Windermere Steamboat Museum, where Mavis, now officially Amazon, is displayed and occasionally taken for a sail. Brigit Sanders, tireless in welcoming and encouraging, was the natural choice as its founding President. Her inspirational leadership, and her devotion to the enterprise of promoting the values that Ransome held dear, played a significant part in the success of the society, which celebrates its 10th anniversary in May next year.

In the early 1990s, Brigit Sanders began to experience the effects of lung disease, which had already claimed the life of her brother Dr Roger Altounyan, inventor of the asthma cure Intal. In 1992 she and her husband John moved to a house set high on the ridge overlooking Bideford Bay. Brigit turned her remaining energies to TARS and a new venture, the creation and development of the Bideford and Barnstaple branch of Breathe Easy, the British Lung Foundation's support group for people with lung disease. She served as its Secretary from 1993 to 1998.

Brigit Sanders also had notable talents as a photographer and as a researcher into her own family's history. Perhaps her chief skill was as a communicator, an inspirer of people with a rare gift for going to the nub of the matter in simple but arresting phrases.

Brigit Altounyan: born Aleppo, Syria 12 June 1926; married 1953 John Sanders (one son, two daughters); died Bideford, Devon 13 November 1999.

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