Swallows and Amazons – Arthur Ransome (1930)

As a child growing up in England, this was a title that I frequently heard about, but I can’t remember if I ever read it or not. If I didn’t, then I should have as it’s one that I would have probably enjoyed: siblings going to camp on a “deserted” island unaccompanied by parental units all having some harmless adventures without any major repercussions. Yes please.

Whether I had read it or not, this time around the read seemed brand new to me. Published in 1930, it’s clearly written in a more innocent time when children go off and have harmless adventures without supervision and if you take it in that spirit, you’ll enjoy this.

It’s a kid’s novel along the same lines as the Adventures of Mallory Towers/Blyton (and their ilk), but this is a slightly more grown up version of life. Set in the Lake District, the narrative revolves around the Swallow family having their holiday on the shores of the lake in Conistan (a real place).

uk-mapFour siblings (very gender-stereotyped but them were the times) find an “uninhabited island” in the middle of the lake and claim it for themselves in a world of Make-Believe. The adults left on shore are “natives” and play a peripheral role for the most part, the oldest boy bosses everyone around, the oldest girl cooks and cleans (!!) and it’s all rather jolly hockey sticks and ginger beer.

The adventure ensues when another family’s kids also end up “discovering and claiming” the island – they of the Amazon clan in the title – and so it turns into a very tame gang war complete with a potential pirate in the mix. It’s a fairly straight-forward goodies/baddies set up, although the two rival groups of kids do end up collaborating against a common enemy (who isn’t that bad in the end), and it runs along the lines of a Scooby Doo episode but with more kids.

One thing that I was impressed with was how familiar Ransome assumed his readers would be with the sailing terms. It’s packed with these suckers, and since I have less-than-zero sailing experience myself, it was a bit mystifying at the start. However, sailing or no sailing, you can still keep up with the story itself and it all sorts itself out in the end. Just know that there are a LOT of nautical terms to keep up with.

I made a list of the ones that I remember, just to give you the scope of things:

  • “careen” the boat
  • Ballast
  • Aft/fore
  • Stern
  • Painter (something that was attached to the boat and was fastened to a tree)
  • Gunwale
  • Thwarts (a thing on the boat, not a verb)
  • Starboard
  • Foredeck
  • Let out a “reef in sail”
  • Broadside
  • Windward side
  • Sailing “close-hauled”
  • Halyards
  • On the “port tack”
  • Yaw
  • “Following wind”
  • Boat’s “forefoot”
  • Lee of an island

I have a passing knowledge of some of these terms (thanks to Star Trek mostly :-)), but it’s interesting to me that Ransome could assume that most of his readers would already have this sailing knowledge. Perhaps kids did back then? I’ll have to check with my mum.

So, a fun read and a journey back to simpler times (at least it seems to me).

The Man from the Norlands – John Buchan (1936)


Another caper novel from old John Buchan (1936), this one is set in mostly Scotland and England, along with some larks in Denmark, and features eponymous hero Sir Richard Hannay as he assists old comrades in rescuing a kidnapped daughter from the hands of enemies. (The “Norlands” reference in the title is to the Northlands and which refers in this case to Denmark.)

In a similar vein as the earlier “The Thirty Nine Steps”, this story relies on completely eye-rolling coincidences and some leaps (or perhaps lapses) of logic, but if you read it as it’s intended to read (as, I assume, a fun way to while some time away and to fall into a world completely different than your own), then it’s a good read. Nothing too deep and meaningful here, it is just a fun read featuring a “Golden Age hero who battles baddies in order to rescue a young maiden from the dragon” sort of idea.

Despite the superficial plot, Buchan is a good writer with an expansive vocabulary and a strong descriptive voice who can effectively weave the various strands of the plot together in a way that makes sense. I do think that this is a book to be read in huge big chunks of time as opposed to picking up and putting down (which is what I was doing). The large cast of characters (one of whom is a Viking descendent) travel up and down England so there is quite a lot of journeying for all involved.  That’s one of the reasons why I recommend you to read this in big chunks, as if not (or as was the case in my own experience), it can get a wee bit confusing at times. It’s quite fascinating just how well Buchan has managed to pack in so many car chases in the plot that they end up making this quite a thrilling read.

Again, classified as a YA book (as was The Thirty Nine Steps), this is a pretty fun and enthralling story about a time gone by. I think this would make a good movie (if it hasn’t been made into one already). Lots of car chases, airplanes, and chasing each other over the moors…

(It’s also titled “The Island of the Sheep” (UK title) or Richard Hannay #5, if you are a serious series kind of person.)

So just a fun read and nicely balanced out a rather heavy book I’m reading about medical apartheid in the U.S. If you’re searching for fast moving fiction and an overall palate cleanser kind of read, you can’t go wrong with one of Buchan’s books.

The Worst Journey in the World (Volume II) – Apsley Cherry-Garrard (1922)


Exploring is all very well in its way, but it is a thing that can be very easily overdone.

Goodness me. What a ride this autobiographical book was as it follows the (true) travels of a well-meaning (but rather poorly trained) crew of men trying to reach the South Pole of Antarctica. It was heart-breaking to read of their efforts knowing that, in the end, a significant portion of them would die of hideous things such as starvation, frost-bite, and other causes.

apsleyI had read Volume I of Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s book earlier, and had been mesmerized by its details, so happily picked this volume up to continue the journey. Volume I had clearly shown how challenging the expedition had been for the crew, and Volume II, now including excerpts from the journals of some of the other expedition members, was absolutely harrowing in terms of hardship and misfortune for these well-meaning men.

“We did not suffer from too little brains or daring: we may have suffered from too much.” Excerpt from one of Sir Robert Falcon Scott’s more modest entries in his journal.

The expedition had had two goals, neither of which really supported the other, a situation which could be argued to be one of the fundamental reasons why it went so haywire in the end. Let me explain:


The ship, Terra Nova, in 1911 when it first arrived in Antarctica.

The two competing goals were both very focused on England taking the lead in both the scientific world and the exploring world – to be the first team to officially reach the South Pole (and thus “claim” for the Empire) and to also engage in some serious scientific research thought to help further understanding of the still fairly young idea of evolution. Funding had been short, and so the months before the expedition had been spent traveling around looking for financial donors, all of whom expected to have a stake in the outcome, and with only a small government grant to support them, they were heavily dependent upon the private sector.

The media at the time was very focused on which country would reach the South Pole first, a focus that has been compared to the media frenzy of the Space Race between USA and USSR in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Ernest Shackleton (1874-1922) had tried to reach the South Pole on two earlier attempts without success, and indeed, this particular expedition’s leader, Sir Robert Falcon Scott, had attempted to reach it just a few years before. (Shackleton was a third officer on Scott’s 1901-04 unsuccessful Discovery expedition, and in fact, was interested in making a bid to reach the South Pole around the same time as Scott. He and Scott had a pretty big argument about this and treading on each other’s toes on the southern continent and this led to all kinds of ramifications for both of them, including who had the most honorable intentions. Scott won that battle, but really, I think Shackleton wasn’t a bad guy.)

This was also just before the start of WWI, and so England had not yet been exposed to the huge mass casualties and psychological damage of losing an important war and large swathes of its young men. England was still supreme in the world, the “sun never set on the empire”, and it seemed that there was absolutely nothing that an Englishman could not do if he applied himself.


Map showing both Scott’s (green) route and Amundsen’s (red) route to South Pole. (Credit: Wikipedia.)

Combine this with the fact that Norway (the upstarts! :-)) were also in the race for the South Pole, and things were a bit fraught all around. When the Scott Expedition left England to sail for the Antarctic (via New Zealand), they left with loads of optimism and with the knowledge that Norwegian Roald Amundsen’s team was not going for the South Pole but would be, instead, heading for the North Pole. All seemed to be running smoothly with little competition, until, around the Cape of Good Hope in Southern Africa, Scott was informed that Amundsen’s team had done a switcheroo and were instead racing his team to Antarctica. (Not very good sportsmanship, what ho?)

So, two expeditions were hurrying seaward towards Antarctica, both with the weight of their countries hanging heavily around their necks. Scott’s ship almost sunk at one point in a terrible storm losing some of their ponies and dogs overboard (a detail which would become important later on), and it was all rather awful.

Keep in mind that few people had ever been to this continent, and so it was almost the equivalent of going to the moon. No one really knew the terrain that well or its seasonal weather, so there was a lot of guesswork going on with regards to equipment and life experience. The equipment was also technically terrible (although cutting-edge at the time), with plenty of wool, cotton, leather, canvas and fur (for boots, gloves, sleeping bags etc.) None of this helped.


Siberian ponies on board the Terra Nova prior to arrival.

They finally landed in Antarctica after being stuck in pack ice for a delay of 20 days which affected food supplies, and meant that the expedition would land later in the year than planned which meant less prep time and more bad weather. Unloading the ship meant other calamities, including losing one of their motorized sledges which fell off during the landing process and upon which the expedition had been banking on. The weather was terrible (not surprising when it’s close to the Antarctic winter months) and the expedition were also intent on using ponies as pack animals to haul supplies around. With such obstacles to their planned time line, Scott was advised to kill some of the ponies for food, but Scott refused to do that.


Captain Scott in his end of the hut in 1911. He thought it would be a good idea to organize the one hut along the same lines as a Naval ship: officers at one end and enlisted at the other. divided by a  blanket. He, of course, got the better end of that deal…

Before they’d even started, three ponies had died from the cold or because they slowed the team down, three more drowned when sea-ice unexpectedly gave way, but Scott was still confident about meeting the end goal. And after reading this whole document, I’m still not sure whether Scott was too over-confident with his expedition goals. Looking back, it seems somewhat foolish to gamble with all these unforeseen misfortunes, but was there really an alternative to moving forward? Perhaps not at this point.

And so the expedition moves forward. It survives appalling weather conditions, frequent blizzards, an ever-lowering stock of pack animals (including dogs). The team receive more ponies half-way through to supplement their stock, but these new ponies have been sent from India and thus are poorly suited to Antarctic conditions. The men work closely together, and there is no mention of any insurrection among the ranks, but boy. I bet there were plenty of grumpy comments inside their heads!

“The day really lives on in my memory because of the trouble of [one of the expedition members]. He fell into crevasses to the full length of his body harness eight times in twenty-five minutes. Little wonder he looked a little dazed.”*


Emperor Penguins.

So, I mentioned that the expedition had two feuding goals, one to reach the South Pole first and one to do scientific research work. One of the main scientific objectives was to collect some specimens of embryonic eggs from the huge Emperor Penguins who inhabited land down there. (Some penguins weighed up to 6.5 stone/88 lbs and some 45“ in height, and their embryos were believed to be important evidence in proving a point of evolution. As it turns out, theories had evolved by the time the expedition returned to England which was heart-breaking for me as the reader. Some of these men had risked their lives to get samples and to bring them back in one piece, and then when they were turned into the museum, the expedition rep was told that the specimens weren’t wanted. Yikes.)

cherry_garard_sign_revSo, anyway, as you can probably tell, I really enjoyed this read and could chat for quite some time about it, but am pretty sure that perhaps not all of you will share this new obsession. It sent me down Wikipedia rabbit holes for quite some time. There were also overlaps between this expedition and our recent trip to England, as the young author and researcher mentioned earlier (Apsley Cherry-Garrard and only 24 years old) happened to be born in Bedford (my home town), we saw one of Scott’s original journals on display at the British Library, and then at the Royal Mews, there is one of the Queen’s carriages that contains a piece of wood that was the actual hut that Scott and some of his team lived in during this expedition. It also contained some wood from the earlier Shackleton expedition as well. (Amazing how things can overlap sometimes, isn’t it?)


The Queen’s carriage at the Royal Mews. This vehicle contains a piece of Scott’s main hut during the Antarctica expedition 1910-1913. (It also contained some wood from Shackleton’s polar hut as well.)

Apsley, btw, had no polar experience, was not a scientist, had few relevant skills, but gave quite a bit of financial backing to the expedition (twice!) and thus was selected based wholly upon that. His journal entries about his novice skills can be witty, but are also heart-breaking:

“I confess I had my misgivings. I had never driven one dog, let alone a team of them; I knew nothing of navigation; and [the depot} was a hundred and thirty miles away, out in the middle of the Barrier and away from landmarks. And so we pushed our way out… I felt there was a good deal to be hoped for, rather than to be expected.”

[Very sad face.]

One very very sweet factoid about Apsley: He was rather shy and didn’t get married until he was about 50 or so, and when he first met his soon-to-be much younger wife, the first gesture of courtship he did was to give his wife a small stone. This only makes sense when you know that the first gesture of courtship between an Emperor Penguin and his mate is when he gives her a small stone with which to start building their nest. He called the stones “penguin jewels.” Awww. Sweetness.

I’ve just ordered a biography of Apsley yesterday, so very much looking forward to reading that. He seems to be one of the nicest people on the expedition now that I’ve read his journals.

*Hugely massive understatement!


Trying my hand at something different…


As work and life was getting so demanding, I was having difficulty with doing much reading so I turned to other ways to relax. Watched a few movies – the old Roman Holiday movie was a blast to watch. (Really funny in places – much better than I had thought it was going to be!) Still working on The Wire, and started the new Dennis Leary series about an aging rock star. (Good stuff.)

And I wanted to do something with my hands — crafty stuff. I don’t know what came over me, but I signed up for a community evening class to learn how to make wire-wrapped jewelry – earrings in this case.


Way back in my teenaged years, I taught myself how to make earrings using springy wire, some random beads and a round-nosed pliers. They were pretty basic in design, but I enjoyed the process and had fun distributing the end products to friends. Thirty years later, I’m at it again, but this time, I’m learning to do it right from a professional artist.

Our lovely artist teacher...

Our lovely artist teacher…

What fun!


It’s been so long since I’ve done something meditative (such as this) that I’m really interested in integrating this more into my life as balance, and to continue this spate of hand-crafting, I’ve dug out an old cross stitch project and I might even get with some friends to do some coloring.  The world is our oyster. 🙂

Travelin’, Travelin’, Travelin’ ….


I recently was traveling with family to see more family in the beautiful city of Santa Fe in New Mexico. It’s a remarkable small community in quite a compact space that is stuffed to the gills with art of all descriptions and turquoise jewelry of every stripe possible.  

Driving to Santa Fe from West Texas means lots of sky!

Driving to Santa Fe from West Texas means lots of sky!

I’ve been to Santa Fe quite a few times, but it wasn’t until this time around that I decided to learn about the history of the area and how the town became like it is. As seen in the first photo, it’s a community of adobe dwellings (at least in the downtown plaza area), and this is by design. Back in the 1920’s, community leaders came together with a goal of increasing tourism and agreed to have building codes only allowing certain architectural styles, mostly adobe around the plaza. There are of course other architectural styles but downtown is strict on its zoning and building codes. All of this uniformity makes a very pleasing atmosphere actually, and at least it represents and respects the Native American (or First Peoples’) history within these parts.

So – loads of museums to go to: George O’Keefe Museum, Museum of Folk Art (tons and tons to look at with such amazing detail and very enjoyable curating), a children’s museum, and then art dealer shop after art dealer shop showing pieces of almost every school of art, it seemed, including art from Dr. Seuss himself.

BookshopAnd then, of course, I happened to find a book shop. (Quelle surprise!) Called Collected Works, it was slightly off the beaten tourist path, but well worth the walk. It’s a charming lovely indie book shop with an extremely well curated selection of books (including a wide selection of titles in translation which was interesting.)

Of course, I had to buy a book – support an indie bookseller today!

Had a lovely coffee shop and comfortable furniture so we had a nice sit-down and browse, along with some laughs. And on the way home we came across the following sign which made me wince a bit…


Had a good stay and will definitely return to Santa Fe again. It’s only a five-hour drive which is close by Texas standards. (Distance in Texas is usually measured in the number of hours it takes to drive somewhere else from where you are. For example, Houston is a ten-hour drive from where I live, and Austin is a good six hours.)

Fun weekend. You should go if you can…

The Thirty Nine Steps – John Buchan (1915)


This was a pick from the library shelves for my monthly book review column and was classified as Young Adult. However, I would argue that this rather wild adventure story would tick all the boxes for a good read for adults as well. It’s not a deadly serious novel and some of the events that happen are remarkably coinkidink, but it was still a good read that had an exciting narrative.

The Thirty Nine Steps is the first of a shortish series of espionage and cloak-and-dagger type of action from the eyes of protagonist Richard Hanney. (Hanney is like an early James Bond type hero, except less s*x and fewer gadgets.) It is a very fast read and I found it difficult to put down, so I thoroughly enjoyed it once I had stopped trying to make it believable. (Again, the adventures Harry has are ridiculous, but it’s a great read.)

“I returned from the City about three o’clock on that May afternoon pretty well disgusted with life. I had three months in the Old Country and was fed up with it.” (Chapter One.)

The narrative begins with Hanney complaining about how dull life was now that he had arrived from South Africa and was living in London. In fact, he was so bored that if nothing happened soon (no job, I see), he was going to move back to then-Rhodesia.

That evening as he was relaxing in his flat, a neighbor knocked on the door and asked for his help in stopping an anarchist plot by evil German spies to destabilize Europe and assassinate the Greek premier of the time when he visited UK. After proving that the story is real, the neighbor is found dead with a knife in his chest, and Hanney takes up the cause, going on the run as a fugitive to avoid being caught by the Germans (called Black Stone) and at first, the English law enforcement who were chasing him as a suspect in murder.

Lots of adventures on trains, in stolen cars, living as a fugitive and a life on the run, Hanney’s story is full of phrases like “Tally ho!”, things being “beastly”, “ripping good chaps”, and “being haled from the other room” to “sup on biscuits”. (The writing reminded me of Enid Blyton’s tales except with grown-ups and guns.)

It’s all a bit much if you read this with a serious mindset, but once I realized that it was a caper-type story, it was really good.

One not so good point was that it is a reflection of the times, and has quite a lot of negative stereotypes and descriptions of minority groups. It’s difficult to get past that sometimes but this stopped after the first few chapters so I kept reading. (There was a lot in the first third of the novel, but once adventures start, the story stops doing that. And, as mentioned, it was a reflection of the times which doesn’t make it right, but it is what it is.) This prejudicial writing is strange as well when you learn about Buchan’s political beliefs as he was a multicultural supporter in numerous ways.

His take on the Germans is also not positive, but if you look at that time in history when it was written, it’s more understandable. (England was in the horrors of World War I, just had the Boer Wars, and numerous other conflicts. Germany had sunk a battleship off Dorset coast killing more than 500 crew, and Zeppelins had quite bombed Great Yarmouth and King’s Lynn… It was a time of destabilization which was reflected in the plot.)

Hmm. Points to ponder.

Once Hanney reaches Scotland, he is chased by aeroplanes, by cars, by opposing spies and dogs. He has to fend for himself, and it’s all pretty clichéd but the writing kept me going. Buchan had a lot of exposure to life on the Scottish moors, and this was obvious when I read his descriptions of the glens and muirs and fells etc. I just fell into the world of the highlands and it was such fun.

There was also quite a bit of dialect which was challenging in a good way. To set the stage, Hannery has come across an isolated road mender in the Highlands and is asking for a favor. This is what the roadmender replies:

“You’re the billy…It’ll be easy enearch managed. I’ve finished that bing of stanes, so you needna chap on my mair this forenoon. Just take the barry, and wheel enough metal frae yon quarry doon the road to make anither bing the morn…”

(And it wasn’t all like this – just bits and pieces. If it had been all like that, I’m not sure I could have made it to the end!)

I’m not usually a spy novel reader for the most part, but I loved this. Not only was the adventure fun, but Buchan’s writing was impressive as well and he utilized his large vocabulary. Shelved as a YA novel, I think that strong young readers could pick up the meaning of these words from context clues, but not sure that a more impatient or less confident reader would do the same. So long as that didn’t bog you down, the story itself was just plain exciting and fun. It’s also good for grown-ups too. 🙂

I’m definitely going to read more about Hanney. It’s not a deep and meaningful read, but it’s fast-paced and it’s fun.

As an aside: Buchan was nominated for Governor General of Canada in 1935 and received the title of 1st Baron Tweedsmuir (great name for a mostly Scottish guy). He was one of the first Governors to be appointed once Canada had passed the 1931’s the Statute of Westminster. (A Governor General of Canada is the federal viceregal representative of the Canadian monarch (who is Queen Elizabeth II). The commission is normally about five years or so, and it’s now traditional to switch between anglophone and francophone incumbents.) Buchan seemed to do a good job, with a heavy emphasis on literacy, multicultural causes, and other causes. Also had a pretty natty outfit (see below for details).


The Worst Journey in the World: Antarctic: 1910-1913 (Vol. 1) – Apsley Cherry-Garrard (1922)

A hard night: clear, with a blue sky so deep that it looks black: the stars are steel points: the glaciers burnished silver. The snow rings and thuds to your footfall.The ice is cracking to the falling temperature and the tide crack groans as the water rises. And over all, wave upon wave, fold upon fold, there hangs the curtain of the aurora. June 22 1912 Midwinter Night – Apsley Cherry-Garrard.

This blow-by-blow account of an Edwardian expedition of the South Pole/Antarctic is an exciting description of what it was like to live for weeks in 65 below zero when your tent has been blown away by a blizzard, it’s dark 24 hours a day, your food is very repetitive, and you don’t know if you’re going make it home.  When one compares the equipment of the this century with the heavy woolen and cotton clothes that this group was wearing, it must have been doubly hard.

“There is something after all rather good in doing something never done before.”

Apsley Cherry-Garrard was a young assistant zoologist on the 1910 expedition led by Captain Robert Falcon Scott with the quest of being the first to reach the geographical South Pole. (This was the expedition that was pipped at the post by Norwegian explorer Roald Armundsen.) This expedition was privately funded and aside from the Pole goal, more focused on scientific discovery.  One focus of the expedition was to study the embryos of Emperor Penguins, thought only to exist in the Antarctic. Embryos were believed to be important as they could prove to be the missing link between reptiles and birds at that stage of development. Additionally, the earlier Discovery expedition had missed the eggs when they were there last time, so it was even more important this time. The team also needed to get the penguin blubber as they were running very low on oil fuel for the stove (their only source of heat and cooking).

As the expedition continues throughout the Antarctic winter months, different teams of men were sent off to complete different parts of the mission. Cherry-Garrard’s “I was there” descriptions are detailed and do not gloss over the details (or over-emphasize the difficulties). There were frequent gale force blizzards which made it hard to travel; their tents were blown away leaving them in their fur sleeping bags (which were not water-proof and froze). They built an igloo of sorts, but because the ice was so hard, each block took ages to cut and then when they put together in the wall, there was large gaps that the wind could whistle through as there was no soft snow to fill in the spaces. Cherry-Garrard and his team-mates dreaded having to get into the sleeping bags, as they were not warm and were uncomfortable as the bags froze into awkward shapes as the men slept.  (He describes their sleeping bags as “frozen coffins” at times.) Things were so rough that having hot water to drink at supper was a high point of the day.

The freezing temperatures meant frostbite was only a minute or two away all the time – frostbite would lead to blisters which then had the fluid inside each blister (between the layer of skin and the flesh) and this fluid would freeze leading to enormous amounts of pain. The men had to wait for the blister fluid to thaw out before they could pop their blisters – it was that cold. It was minus 66 degrees frequently during the day (and less at night), and it would take the team eight hours to move a couple of miles due to heavy sledges of equipment and frequent falling into hidden crevasses. This was all complicated by the poor vision of Cherry-Garrard who needed to wear glasses to see. With the temperatures as they were, he was frequently not able to put the glasses on (due to the snow and ice) and this made him become more or less blind and therefore very slow progress for the rest of the team (who could not, of course, leave him behind).

I just read volume one of this amazing story, and so have not reached the point where things really began to go haywire for the expedition later on. However, I am struck full of admiration for the bravery of these men (no women, of course) who really did not know whether they would be coming home (or even back to base camp). This diary is frequently put into “Top 100 Adventure Stories” and is really very exciting to read.

(Another side note: Cherry-Garrard was born in Bedford, England, where I grew up. Hometown boy does good.)

For a review of Volume II of Cherry-Garrard’s diaries, see here.

“It is extraordinary how often angels and fools do the same thing in this life, and I have never been able to settle which we were on this journey….Endurance was tested on this journey under unique circumstances, and always these two men with all the burden of responsibility which did not fall upon myself, displayed that quality which is perhaps the only one which may be said with certainty to make for success, self-control.”