‘The island had come to seem one of those places seen from the train that belong to a life in which we shall never take part.’
Swallows and Amazons, Arthur Ransome
Encouraged and supported by my doughty,
doting mother and her two sisters – all
elementary school girls – at nine I passed
the entrance exam for a local, day
boys’ preparatory school. We called the teachers
‘Sir’, irrespective of gender, and ‘Ma’
behind their backs if they were female.
Mine was Ma Riddell and the first task she set
that September was to write a letter
to Arthur Ransome, telling him how much
we had enjoyed ‘Swallows and Amazons’,
which the class had read the previous year.
The Head Master would choose which letter to send.
I was too conscious of my new school cap
and blazer, of being by chance somewhere
I should want to be, ashamed of where I lived
and being found out, to say I had not
read the book, knew nothing about the author.
Of course, my letter was chosen, much
to Ma Riddell’s chagrin – not a word
but an expression, facial and tonal,
I knew. “Time you did joined-up writing, Selzer!”
Ah, pedagogy as command rather than
tuition! I said nothing, of course – nor
at home. I assumed the three sisters knew
what they were saving up and paying for.
I read all of the novels. An only,
fatherless child, I longed for the idea
of siblings, did not snigger at Titty’s name,
fell in love with the stern kindness of Susan.
I cannot remember what I wrote or whether
he replied. Much later I learned he was
supposedly an MI5 agent,
was definitely married to Trotsky’s
secretary. They lived in Westmoreland,
childless, above the lakes he fictionalised.
He was a Guardian writer, left wing
and affable – a father figure.