Arthur Ransome’s “The Big Six”

When boats are being mysteriously cast adrift on the Norfolk Broads, suspicious eyes are turned on Bill, Joe and Pete, the three young sons of boat-builders. The three boys have to call on the help of their friend, doctor’s son Tom Dudgeon, and visiting fellow birdwatchers Dick and Dorothea Callum to nail the culprit.

On the Norfolk Broads (c) John Bainbridge 2015

On the Norfolk Broads (c) John Bainbridge 2015

“The Big Six” is a 1930s set detective story for children, which means that adults can enjoy it as well. It is, of course, one of the famous “Swallows and Amazons” novels by Arthur Ransome. It is a thrilling tale of suspicion, chases, subterfuge and social comment.

It is the direct sequel to Ransome’s “Coot Club”, which has the same Norfolk setting and characters. In that book, Tom Dudgeon has to set loose a boat to save a bird’s nest – hence the local people’s belief that members of the Coot Club are responsible when lots of boats go adrift a few months later.

Are they guilty, or is someone trying to blacken their good name? This is a wonderful page-turner, and quite an amusing homage to 1930s detective stories.

Ransome was a fascinating character; after years of apprentice work as a hack writer in pre-Great War London, he went to Russia to study its folklore and story-telling traditions. He became a first-hand witness to the Russian Revolution, played chess with Lenin, and came away married to Evgenia, a jolly young lady who just happened to be Leon Trotsky’s secretary. He was probably a spy as well.

Settling, at various times, in the Lake District, East Anglia and London, he became an acclaimed feature writer and the author of the children’s novels about the adventuring Swallows and Amazons. Those children don’t actually appear in “The Big Six”, though there are links through their friends Dick and Dorothea Callum.

The novel, though set at the beginning of the ‘thirties, was first published in 1940 – a time when the very survival of the United Kingdom was questionable. The first readers must have perused its pages against the background of air-raid sirens, perhaps huddling in shelters against the falling bombs, or as young evacuees sent to safety in remote areas of the countryside. By that time Norfolk itself was part of an armed camp, soldiers on the march, airfields being constructed, fighters overhead and members of the Home Guard preparing to repel Nazi parachutists. Looking back a decade to a quieter England, must have been quite a relief to the book’s early fans.

A Heron at Horning (c) John Bainbridge 2015

A Heron at Horning (c) John Bainbridge 2015

The book, like its predecessor “Coot Club” is Ransome’s love letter to the Norfolk Broads. He writes quite beautifully about the countryside there. Years later, when I was an undergraduate at the nearby University of East Anglia, I used to journey up to Wroxham or Horning and hire a little boat and explore these same waters. The Broads are one of the delights of England. I was inspired very much by my childhood reading of Arthur Ransome.

Ransome writes with wonderful veracity about the Broads at a most interesting time. We see the early effects of tourism and boat hire, but there is a beautiful portrait of an eel-sett at night, the activities of an old-style village policeman, pre-war boatyards, doctors, solicitors and fishermen. More than a vanished world in so many ways. But the echoes are there if you go to the Norfolk Broads and look for yourself.

Norfolk Broads (c) John Bainbridge 2015

Norfolk Broads (c) John Bainbridge 2015

Ransome is particularly good at defining the class system, that silly institution that still bedevils so much of British existence. It’s interesting that the doctor’s son Tom Dudgeon is only very briefly suspected of being the culprit, even though he has form for casting off boats in the previous novel. But Bill, Pete and Joe, working class sons of boat-builders, are immediately under suspicion and persecuted in ways they wouldn’t be if they were perceived to be higher up the social scale. You can sense Ransome’s impatience with the class nonsense all the way through the book.

Like all good detective novels, there are lots of clues, red herrings, a race against time and a thrilling denouement. And characters that leap off the page.

If you haven’t encountered Ransome before this is a good one to start with, though you might like to try “Coot Club” first, or better still read all of the Swallows and Amazons novels in the order they were written.

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