Taqui Altounyan

Wednesday 18 July 2001 00:00

Barbara Harriet Taqui Altounyan, writer: born London 16 May 1917; married 1944 Robert Stephens (died 1992; three sons, one daughter); died Dorking, Surrey 14 July 2001.

Taqui Altounyan was the author of two celebrated memoirs of Syria, In Aleppo Once and Chimes from a Wooden Bell. She was also an important inspiration for the children's author Arthur Ransome, who taught her and her brothers and sisters to sail on Coniston Water in two 14ft lug-sailed dinghies, Swallow and Mavis, and then settled down to write Swallows and Amazons.

Taqui was born in Hampstead, north London, in 1917, the eldest daughter of the five children of Dr Ernest Altounyan and Dora Collingwood. Ernest, an effervescent and vigorous man, was the son of Aram Assadour Altounyan, who established an innovative hospital in Aleppo in the 1890s, and his Irish wife, Harriet Riddell. Sent to Rugby School for an English education, in 1902 he became friends with Robin Collingwood, later an historian and philosopher.

During school holidays spent at the Collingwoods' lakeside house, Ernest met the rest of the family and learnt to sail. Robin's father, W.G. Collingwood, a notable artist, archaeologist, and novelist, was also secretary to John Ruskin, who lived nearby at Brantwood. "In our childhood, John Ruskin loomed great and mysterious, like a super-ancestor," Taqui wrote in In Aleppo Once. Arthur Ransome, who treasured his own friendship with the Collingwoods – they had met him in 1903 when he was a mooning poet of 19, and taught him to sail – at first jealously referred to Ernest as "quite unnecessary", but they later became friends.

Ernest was still studying medicine when he married Dora, a gifted artist, in 1915; he was fighting in France in 1917 when Taqui was born. After the First World War, four more children followed: Susan, Mavis (always called Titty), Roger and Brigit.

In 1919, the Altounyans had moved to Aleppo so that Ernest could work at his father's hospital. Taqui grew up with a "patchwork education" among olives, oleanders and lemon trees, a muddle of languages and ancient souks hung with silk rugs and fragrant with spices. Her books recreate her wildly unconventional childhood with astonishing vividness: riding a horse called Pegasus, playing at shop in the hospital pharmacy, going up into the hills to make tree-houses and camp in them and swim in mountain pools, helping with the grape and walnut harvests.

It was in 1928, on a summer holiday at Coniston, that they met Arthur Ransome. Taqui was 11, Susan nine, Titty eight, Roger six and Brigit two. It was a hinge year for Ransome. After years as a foreign correspondent, he was considering giving up journalism to concentrate on children's stories. Two boats, Mavis and Swallow, were acquired and Ransome became their sailing instructor. "Write me something to make me smell the wind and water again," said Ernest to Ransome, as they set off back to the dusty heat of the Middle East and the children handed him a pair of Turkish slippers as a keepsake.

Ransome kept Swallow for himself and brooded. Soon he was tapping away so fast that he would "chuckle as if someone were telling me a story instead of writing one for other people". When Swallows and Amazons was published, less than two years later in the spring of 1930, it was a wonderful amalgam of experiences from his own childhood and with his new friends. He dedicated it "To the six for whom it was written, in return for a pair of slippers".

Ransome nervously sent the Altounyans an early copy ("I thought of tigresses defending their young"). Ernest wrote back:

I especially marvel at your extraordinary accurate characterisation of the kids . . . damn fine sporting kids I think . . . and then I realise they are mine . . . a most exhilarating experience.

The children too wrote to Ransome, providing him with a host of new ideas for the adventures of their fictional counterparts.

In 1932, Ransome and his second wife, Evgenia, came out to Aleppo, bringing with him a new sailing dinghy for the children, and he spent long hours writing away at his third book, Peter Duck. But he was in poor health and left suddenly. He may have resented the facile assumption that his characters were not his own creation; certainly Ernest and Dora resented his insistence that the children should be sent to England to be educated. But within two years Taqui, Susan and Titty found themselves at a Windermere boarding school, which Taqui hated; she left it for the Perse, Cambridge, where she was very happy.

The influence of Lanehead and the Altounyans can be detected more or less subtly in all 12 Ransome novels, not only the lakeland ones. As teenagers, Taqui and Titty spent several holidays sailing with the Ransomes on the Norfolk Broads and the escapades of "Northern River Pirates" provided material for two later Ransome books, Coot Club (1934) and The Big Six (1940).

But Taqui soon grew out of piracy and pranks, and grew to distrust the ephemeral fame of "being a Swallow". She returned to Aleppo in 1938; then to Jerusalem when war broke out and the English in Aleppo had to be evacuated. She found it "a liberation and a widening of horizons", in the first of many cities that she would enjoy hugely.

She worked in the Public Information Office, relaying news from England and involved in intelligence work. Among her colleagues were Olivia Manning and Robert Stephens, whom she married. After running the Tripoli Times, Stephens became an Observer foreign correspondent; over the next few years Taqui got to know Paris and Berlin well and had four children.

When Stephens became The Observer's Foreign Editor, they settled in London. But Taqui never lost touch with the twin pillars of her childhood – Lanehead, in Coniston, where her children in their turn learnt to sail in Mavis, and Aleppo, which she revisited to write her haunting memoir of childhood, In Aleppo Once (1969).

Once her children had grown up, Taqui was free to enjoy what she liked most – meeting people and travelling. She developed considerable talent as an artist, and never lost her energetic curiosity. She also remained deeply involved in the Middle East, working for Caabu, the Council for the Advancement of Arab and British Understanding, and supporting the Armenian community in London. In 1990, she published Chimes from a Wooden Bell, a fuller account of "the life of a Euro-Armenian family".

When I met her in 1984 while I was researching for a book on the real people and places behind Ransome's stories, Taqui Stephens, aged 77, was living in a flat in Bloomsbury, the very heart of London. It was a mini-souk of memories of the past and signs of her present interests – drawings, textiles, Middle Eastern spices, research into archaeology.

In 1987, she gave her support to a campaign to raise enough money to restore the sadly rotting Mavis. Its success saw the birth of Tars, the Arthur Ransome Society, of which her sister Brigit was the first President. This year it published a new edition of In Aleppo Once, with many additional photographs of the Altounyans' life in Aleppo and Coniston, and colour reproductions of Dora Altounyan's paintings of them.

Happily it was out just in time to be enjoyed by Taqui at a birthday party given for her by her family and friends. "She was as warm and witty as I remember her in Jerusalem when we first met," says Cynthia Davidson, one of her oldest friends.

Christina Hardyment

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