Anyone who takes on a body of classics with a view to renewing them without in any way diminishing the originals is possibly, as Francis Wheen might say, ‘cruising for a bruising.’ All classics are passionately defended, and some more passionately than others. Take Swallows and Amazons, for instance. If you were a writer, would you dare take them on? Write a series of books for children featuring sailing boats, mysterious Chinese adventurers called Lee, with characters named John,Flint, andWalker?
Well, Julia Jones did, and I thought the first one of her proposed Strong Winds Trilogy, The Salt-Stained Book, was terrific in almost every way. It was about sailing (in waters that Arthur Ransome explored in We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea), and introduced us to a group of young people as diverse as the Walkers, the Blacketts and the Death and Glories. It tackled sailing and small boats in great, and accurate (trust me!) detail, and uncannily echoed Ransome’s disjunction of understanding between young and old that grabbed me by the throat as a young reader and leaves me pondering on its mysterious depths even now. The Swallows and Amazons books were never straightforward adventures; never straightforward anything, in fact. And Ms Jones captured that.
The first book’s most daring exercise in ‘bringing up to date’ lay in the fact that the protagonists, while exotically different from the average child, were not rich, or privileged, or lucky. The original Walkers and Co were, of course – however little that impinged on a young reader’s consciousness. I, for instance, was of a completely different class – and never even noticed. The children who bear the load of this trilogy are also exotic, in that they are misplaced, abandoned, and in the clutches of a potential modern tragedy. The grandmother, a lone round-the-world yachtswoman knows as Golden Dragon who has lived in China for decades, has to bring the hero John (Donny) up ‘by hand’ because his mother is deemed by the social services to be incapable. Donny and his friends are in care. The villain of the first book is the horrendous social worker Denise Tune, known as Toxic, and a bent policeman. This Captain Flint, though, is not a friendly uncle. He is a swine.
By the second book, this strange battle between good and evil as perceived by children, has moved on to something altogether darker. In the hinterland of Harwich and Felixstowe, some really unpleasant criminality is gradually uncovered. The children still do not fully understand it, but Golden Dragon’s Chinese connexion is more than just a coincidence. Donny and his friends are not merely in contention with the social services and a corrupt policeman, but an organisation involved in kidnap and people smuggling. As the children struggle to stay free of mad bureaucrats, they get deeper and deeper into very real danger at the hands of violent and ruthless men. Only their own resourcefulness and courage can save them.
A Ravelled Flag is not a simple book, but I’m absolutely certain that young readers will find it very rewarding, in many more ways than one. It pits children against some real, intractable, violent and extremely complex problems, worked through by characters who live and breathe. It’s exciting, and it’s deep. Ransome would have loved it. I’m looking forward to part three.