This is my favourite chapter. (Have I said that before? It’s possible I might have more than one.)
It begins with a casual reference to mature, dignified Captain John turning upside down to look between his knees and the reflection in the lake. And then Titty and Roger row off on their own, which is a lot of responsibility for quite young children, and having watched my 5-year-old whittle a stick with a very sharp knife at a Woodcraft camp last weekend, I heartily approve.
The weather is all wrong for war so the Swallows take some time out to explore. This is actually pretty realistic, based on my understanding of how war works. I was taught at school that the weather had a significant effect on the outcome of the Battle Hastings: had the wind been blowing the other way, William might have invaded while Harold’s army was still assembled, and the Bayeux tapestry would be… well, not in Bayeux, for a start. And resting armies do do recreation, and get to know the local area.
So this chapter is not such an anomaly as I once thought, but it is still a nice diversion. It somehow has the ring of truth about it, in the level of detail about the fire and the snake and the vivid conversation. In my previous Favourite Childhood Books, the ‘Milly Molly Mandy’ stories, a few chapters end with the tantalising words “and that was a true story”… I suspect that this chapter is a ‘true story’, too.
For those who are not reading along, the Swallows go to visit some charcoal burners who are staying nearby: ‘Old Billy’, who is very very old, and ‘Young Billy’, who is only a little bit less old. They talk a lot about the Billies being ‘savages’, reminding me of how recently it was deemed perfectly acceptable to refer to whole continents of people as ‘savage’ because they were a bit different from us and we didn’t understand them very well. Let’s not go back to that.
But actually, the whole chapter is quite lovely and nuanced. The children set off to look for the ‘savages’, telling each other stories of cannibals and corroborees, but the men they find are friendly, intelligent, and experts in their field. Unlike the other adults who are only pretend savages, part of the children’s game, the Billies are genuine outsiders; as Roger says:
“‘I asked Mrs Dixon if they were savages, and she said some people would say so.'”
At the same time, they’re our link to the real world, and the prophets of what is to come. They’re outside the children’s imaginary universe, just as they’re outside mainstream adult society, and that enables them to communicate effectively between the two. They provide a different perspective on the adults in the book, “little Miss Turner and Master Jim”, and share news from the ‘Bigland’ pub. And Susan, the go-between from ‘our side’, takes responsibility the Serious Adult Business..
The description of the actual charcoal building is Really Cool, and described in a level of detail to appeal to the most ardent of geeks. There’s a detailed description of how and why the fire works, which is both technical and poetic:
“‘Can’t leave him a minute but he’s out. Like the adder is fire. Just a bit of a hole and out he comes.'”
And Susan is captivated – she makes sure she’s understood enough to make her own little captive fire. She likes learning things and being good at them, and order and tidiness, but I think she also just really likes fire. That’s what makes cooking fun and satisfying for her – the challenge of providing interesting meals on a campsite with minimal provisions, but also the sheer joy of playing with fire and bringing it under her control.