One effect of the multiple layers of reality, the children’s investment in their fictional world, is that it makes these descriptions of eggs and oars and hand-sewn tents seem so realistic by comparison. When I first visited the lake district, at about the age of nine, I saw no reason at all why I shouldn’t be allowed to spend the week camping independently on an island, and I was most indignant to find that the lake was not, in fact, uninhabited and waiting expectantly for my exploration.
The children arrive at their island for the first time – and John doesn’t even get out of the boat. I think this says a lot. It shows their complete faith in and commitment to their expedition: they have said that they’re going to camp on the island, and they don’t need to check that it’s suitable before they unpack. It shows some responsibility, in that they don’t just leave all their essential supplies in an unmonitored boat in (what they have already identified as) an inadequate harbour, but move it straight to safety. And it says something about the characters of the four children and their priorities. In great sweeping generalisations, Roger loves the adventure; Titty loves the exploration and the story; Susan loves the expedition; but John loves the boat.
Then they do go off to explore and set up their camp. John and Susan bicker slightly, which is, to be honest, a bit of a relief. And then John takes Titty to investigate the possibility of a proper harbour. This was always one of the images that stuck most firmly in my mind, and I wanted to be one of the few people who knew how to scull over the stern of a boat, so that I could discover a properly secret harbour that nobody else knew about.
Only somebody else does know. There’s a cross painted on a tree, and it feels for a minute as if it’s going to spoil the adventure. Nothing is new, nothing is secret, everything has been found already. When my sibling and I discussed this series recently, we talked about how many of the stories are about making the best of things, adapting to disappointment and disruption, putting on a brave face and getting on with it. I’d forgotten that this started so early, when the undiscovered island turned out not to be so undiscovered after all. What the Swallows don’t know, of course, is that the old peeling painted cross and the abandoned fireplace are the first signs that their adventure is about to get better than they had ever imagined.
And then it’s picnic time, and everything gets quite Enid Blyton for a while.