Island Summers

Swallows and AmazonsWhen I was a child, I adored the Swallows and Amazons books. I read them all once and then, discovering that I had been given them in the wrong order, read them all over again. How I longed to be like John, Susan, Titty and Roger, adventuring on an island and commandeering a boat. The Lake District became a Mecca for me, and my parents very sweetly agreed to take me up there on holiday and even gave me a sailing lesson. Needless to say, I was acutely disappointed with the unavoidable life jacket, grown-up sailing instructor and decidedly unromantic modern dinghy.

In spite of my best Lake District efforts, my childhood wasn’t remotely like Swallows and Amazons. But what I didn’t have by way of sea-faring quests, I made up for with imagination, transporting myself to all sorts of adventures between the covers of a book, or in a corner of the garden. I suspect that books and games are as close to adventure as most children get. I mean, growing up in suburban middle-class North-West London, what were the chances of really opening a cupboard door and finding Narnia, or having a whole island to explore with a band of siblings?

Island SummersWell, perhaps I had to rely on books and a lively imagination, but Tilly Culme-Seymour did actually have an island to maraud around when she was a child. Island Summers is her beautiful memoir of a Norwegian island, which – as family legend has it – her grandmother bought in exchange for a mink coat. Her grandmother made it a summer home for her family, and so Tilly grew up relishing its wild freedom, roaming around with a million sisters and one brother – swimming, crabbing, fishing, enjoying faintingly-hot saunas and long lazy ‘dyne’ (duvet) breakfasts out on the rocks.

In Island Summers, Tilly Culme-Seymour explores her family’s connection with the island. She imagines her pioneering grandmother Mor-mor, who used to frolic naked on the island, then her Mamma’s childhood, before looking back at her own memories of the island. The book closes after Tilly’s time at university, when, struggling to settle in London, she returned to the island with her boyfriend to survive the island’s isolation for the inhospitable end of winter.

Island Summers is like The Hare with Amber Eyes in that it pretends to be a family memoir but is in fact far more. It is in part a lesson on Norway, as glossed Norwegian words pepper the text – my favourite is Døgnvild, the ‘wild twenty-four hours’ created by the summer short nights – as well as descriptions of Norwegian Christmas rituals and Constitution Day celebrations.

Tilly Culme-Seymour is also a food writer, and much of what I loved about her book  are the memories of food, the passed-down recipes and recollections of island-inspired dishes. It left me immensely hungry as I devoured descriptions of delights such as sukkerkake made with island raspberries and whipped cream, chocolate-chip bøller and endless hot pots of coffee. Many of the ingredients are sourced on the island – such as wild raspberries, or mussels ingeniously snared on the brush of a broom, or freshly-caught cod. She thrives on a paradoxically wild domesticity, that is inspiring and also surprisingly comforting to read.

What really comes to the fore in Island Summers is childhood. It’s clear that both Mor-mor and Mamma made this island a paradise for children, a marooned wildness where imaginations could take root. Going back to the island after university, Culme-Seymour reflects:

Being in a place well known, with little in the way of novelty or distraction to capture the mind, allowed old memories to stir, sometimes resurfacing in bizarre and rambling dreams … I discovered it was not only I, but Paddy too, who in the solitude of the island roved through his past, and through childhood.

What a contrast to day-to-day life! Usually, we’re so busy getting on with things, rushing about, constantly surrounded by people. It’s so rare to have any time without little daily distractions, existential worries, or lack of sleep. We’re always so busy pushing forwards, that we don’t stop to dip into the store-cupboard of the past, pulling out old jars and bottles and inhaling the memories stopped up inside.

I often wonder what happens to all those years of experience – such a huge wealth of time – which dissolve into the present moment. If someone were to ask me for ten memories from when I was eight, for instance, I’d be hard pushed. It was consoling, reading the memory-thick Island Summers, to think that all those memories might be still there somewhere. It made me wish that I could have a month or so off, to go somewhere isolated and let them all float to the surface again.

Strangely, just as I’ve been reading this beautiful evocation of childhood, my mother made me remove a huge box of stuff from home, filled with old school reports and a few kept birthday cards and letters. I had rather a nostalgic evening as I read bits out to the husband, who thought I was a total swot. (Best not to dwell on the ones for P.E.)

juvenaliaAmongst the  reports, I also found what I think must be my first book – When I climbed Mount Everest with Hillary – a story written when I was about nine, complete with a not-so-beautifully-hand-drawn jacket. To summarise the plot: one day a letter arrives saying that Edmund Hillary is inviting boys and girls to climb Everest with him. Needless to say, I am one of the lucky chosen few, and dress very warmly, set off on the expedition, have lots of tea, take some photos and then return home. It is essentially what was to happen in my Gap Year, minus the dead celebrity mountaineer. Who knew I had such a prescient imagination? In this piece of what I will now pretentiously call juvenilia, I display a keenness to make detailed lists

I put on a balaclava, a vest, a teashirt, a jumper, thick knickers, some warm jeans, three pairs of woolly socks and a pair of sneakers

And then, in comparison:

Hillary was wearing a wooly hat 6 pairs of socks 2 vests 3 jumpers.

This extended to food too:

For my food I had yogart, chips, bacon, toast and eggs.

And then, revealingly, the last line:

Mummy was very pleased to see me again and gave me my best tea. (It was chocolate cake and sweets.)

Nice use of parenthesis.

I loved reading Island Summers, and found it transported me to the barren beauty of the island, and also to an accompanying luxurious spaciousness of time. Tilly Culme-Seymour captures a wonderful childhood of games and adventure. How special to have your own real treasure island, rather than just an imaginary one, and how lucky we are to be able to read about it, let it take shape in our own heads, with extra details no doubt supplied by our own childhood dreams.

Looking back through this box of stuff and reminded of other fantasies I had and games I used to play, I realised that what is so very special about childhood is that it doesn’t really matter where you have it or what you do. Yes, roving about wildly on an island sounds incredibly special, but hanging out in North-West London needn’t stop one from climbing the odd mountain. If only we kept hold of this wonderful land of the imagination as we grew up, life might stay every bit as exciting as it used to be.

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11 Responses to “Island Summers”

  1. Ben Shiriak Says:

    A character named “Titty.” The British are different.

  2. Anonymous Says:

    I am in the U.S., 77 years old , and an Arthur Ransome groupie. Read the Swallows and Amazons set about fifteen years ago when we had built a house on an island in Maine. I found the books in a wonderful bookstore that has now closed, unfortunately. Our 11 grandchildren have summered on our island and mandatory reading was S&A. We even have a flag that we march around with every summer! thanks so much for your blog and this particular one that means so much to our family. I will pass it on to everyone. Julie Brawner

    • emilybooks Says:

      Hello Julie, thanks so much for your very thoughtful response. I’m thrilled to hear of your own island adventures, although sad to hear the fate of the bookshop – all too common an occurrence. For Swallows and Amazons fans, I’d also recommend this series of children’s books by Julia Jones:

  3. teamgloria Says:

    oh! Emily! Swallows & Amazons!

    this took us back.


    thank you.


    _teamgloria x

  4. juliamharrison Says:

    I was moved by your memories of childhood, and by the idea of life being a bit of a mystery, with a world of imagination to be explored. I don’t think we ever feel things quite as deeply as we did when we were 10 years old: in my case discovering Narnia, the Treasure Seekers, and yes Swallows and Amazons for the first time. Arthur Ransome took two school girl writers under his wing, Katherine Hull and Pamela Whitlock who wrote one of the bed-rocks of my childhood years, the Far Distant Oxus (in which the landscape of Dartmoor are turned into the romantic lands of Azerbaijan and the Oxus river. Arthur Ransome was the only journalist living in Russia at the time of the revolution in 1917. I love to think of him retiring after such extraordinary adventures, to live in the Lake District and write his romantic and utterly safe children’s novels. We all had freedom to roam and play our imaginative games (in my case my father took on the role of Shenaniki Dah, a rhubarb farmer from Russia who needed complicated itineraries planned for his business trips! (I had an older dad who was always at home to play with during my childhood). Thank you for your evocative piece, that made me dwell on my own secret worlds…

    • emilybooks Says:

      Thanks Julia for the glimpse into your secret worlds! I love the thought of Dartmoor being transformed into Azerbaijan and of your father being a Russian rhubarb farmer – just wonderful.

  5. juliamharrison Says:

    also – if you haven’t read Out Stealing Horses by Per Peterson, read it now – it will tie in so well with Island Summers …

  6. Alex Says:

    Having read all the Ransome books while I was at school when I finally got the chance to sail at College I was convinced that I could step into a boat and know exactly what to do – and what do you know, I could! Whether this was simply because I had a very good skipper and a great deal of confidence, I don’t know, but I think the credit should be given to Ransome.

    By the way, have you ever read anything about his life? His time in Russia during the First World War, when it was quite seriously thought that he was a Soviet spy, makes fascinating reading.

    • emilybooks Says:

      Alex, I love this!

      Last summer I was on a beautiful sailing boat in America for some friends’ wedding. A fellow guest asked me if I knew much about sailing, and I told them that I used to feel pretty expert thanks to the Swallows and Amazons books – at which he looked at me a bit funny and swiftly moved on. Glad to know it wasn’t just me who was so convinced – and it sounds like you had every reason to be.

      I’ve not read about Arthur Ransome’s life, but I remember a very well-regarded biography came out a few years ago. Perhaps one to be added to the TBR mountain.

  7. Alice Says:

    I have Swallows and Amazons sitting on my shelf, perhaps now the temperature has risen it is the right time to read it.

    I don’t know how I missed this growing up really, I made my way through almost all Enid Blyton (I really wanted to join the Famous Five’s adventures) to whom I credit my childhood desire to go off exploring and playing pirates. I was lucky enough to have siblings and neighbours to go off into the countryside and play with, not to mention wonderful parents allowing us to do so.

    I absolutely love your story, especially your childhood concept of gravity, adorable – that’s definitely the way I climb up mountains.

  8. biblioglobal Says:

    It makes me happy to see all the love for the Swallows and Amazons series. It is an absolute favorite of mine. I will definitely have to read Island Summers (doesn’t look like it’s out in the U.S. yet).

    I’m working on a project to read a book from every country- sounds like this one might be a good choice for Norway.

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