:: RETROSCOPE ::
Retroscope is a monthly series that mines the past for literary travel writing gems.
Deep moats, gorodki, enormous white ostrich feathers, ketches, convict labour, football, Canterbury bells, playful hares, the Roogö islands
& fifteen fathoms of water.
In 1922, British writer Arthur Ransome took his newly built ketch Racundra on a shakedown cruise in the Baltic Sea, a round trip between Riga and Helsinki in August and September. His account of the voyage was published the following year as “Racundra’s” First Cruise. There were many ports of call. The chapter excerpted here is a nostalgic portrait of one, the small community of Baltic Port (Paldiski in present-day Estonia), and the changes that had overtaken it in even the short time since his visit a few years before in his previous boat, Kittiwake. (An armchair traveler’s look at online maps and photos of Paldiski today finds nothing at all recognizable from a century ago.)
Ransome (1884–1967) is best known for a dozen beloved children’s books, beginning with Swallows and Amazons (1930), about the adventures of a group of boys and girls, mostly on and around small boats, that take place mainly in England’s Lake District and the Norfolk Broads. They are indelible for the ideal world they conjure of summertime childhood exploits largely free of adult interference and grounded in the natural settings and schemes of lakes and rivers, island campsites, exploration for treasure, solving mysteries and overcoming minor adversity. The children are particularly self-reliant. The occasional benign parental hand is epitomized by a telegram from a Royal Navy father sanctioning the first sailing adventure: BETTER DROWNED THAN DUFFERS IF NOT DUFFERS WON’T DROWN.
The everyday prelapsarian innocence of the characters and their world plays a large part in the books’ enduring popularity, from their first appearance between two world wars to our current overdetermined predicament. The innocence is of a piece with Ransome himself, whom friend and publisher Rupert Hart-Davis described as “a perpetual schoolboy” whose two greatest delights were fishing and sailing. (Ransome: “Houses are but badly built boats so firmly aground that you cannot think of moving them.”)
But this “most articulate, knowledgeable and amusing boy” had an uncommonly adventurous past that stretched from literary bohemia in Edwardian London to foreign-correspondent duty in Moscow during World War I and the Russian Revolution. His early career as literary critic and biographer embroiled him with Lord Alfred Douglas in a libel suit stemming from his Oscar Wilde biography. Mutual sympathies with Bolsheviks led to involvement with British Intelligence and conveying secret communiqués. In 1919, he crossed battle lines on foot to return to Moscow and rescue his lover, Evgenia Shelepina, who was Trotsky’s personal secretary and would become Ransome’s second wife.
Before settling in England, he and Evgenia lived in the Baltic States for five years, where he reported on Russia for the Manchester Guardian and where he owned three boats, the last and largest of which was Racundra. —Alan Bernheimer
“Old Baltic Port and New”
I first found Baltic Port in Kittiwake, and having found it, made it our headquarters for a happy summer of minor exploration. I had heard of it as the Russian Naval Port, and imagined it a kind of Sheerness, busy with motor launches, steam pinnaces and other forms of naval activity. I found it a sleepy little old-time harbour, made by moles from the shore enclosing a square basin, the shore being left as it always had been, so that the fishing-boats used to beach themselves upon it at full speed, a man jumping on the thwart and swinging backward from the shrouds to save the mast at the moment of grounding, when they often ran a boat half out of the water. The day Kittiwake struggled in, there was a British steamship, a Wilson boat, the Cato, in the harbour, and though she is a small ship, she left very little room for anything else. I think the Cato called twice that summer, but all the rest of the traffic there was made up of local schooners, and the harbourmaster had little else to do but to sail a smart little skiff to the bank off Pakerort for fishing, or across to Roogö, or round between the islands to see how fast she could do it. There was never any hurry in Baltic Port, and there seemed to be a lot of holidays. On one of them I watched the crew of the Cato beaten at football by a local team. Eleven played on each side, but the Cato’s crew had no spare men, whereas every man in the Port was waiting round the field to take his turn in the local team, and as one tired another took his place. On another the Cato lowered away a lifeboat, and we went off to the fishing grounds under a standing lug. At one side of the harbour was a low stage beside which a grey Government launch was moored, end to end with a converted fishing-boat, partly tarred and partly painted blue, in which, on Sundays, stray visitors were transported to the Roogö islands and back. Once a week the three or four lads on the Government launch took her out to sea on mysterious business. But for the most part they lay half naked on the stones on the far side of the mole or had splashing matches with each other.
The little town had much the same character. Small boys played gorodki (a very exciting Russian form of skittles) on the broad streets that were nearly all grass. Cattle grazed there. I met three sheep coming out of church with the sedate manner of respectable parishioners. I watched a hare playing by the railway station, where a large part of the population used to meet in the evenings to see the train come in from Reval. There was a post office, and I think three or perhaps even four shops. There was also a fire brigade, who played various instruments and now and again stirred the whole town by giving a concert. Some young women visitors tried to organise a flag-day there, but it was a failure, though everybody in the town was very much interested and asked them how much they got. There could not be a pleasanter little place.
How they had managed to get the explosives out I do not know, but here was the mine with a good fire under it, boiling away like a domestic kettle, and being used for making boats instead of for their destruction.
But with growing traffic in the Baltic, such quiet could hardly continue in a port which in all but the most exceptional winters is free from ice. There are fifteen fathoms of water between the mainland and Roogö, and the water is deep almost to the shores. Long after the way into Reval is blocked with ice, ships can come freely into Roogowik and into Baltic Port itself. Peter the Great and Catherine after him realised what could be done with such natural advantages, and relics of their work show what Baltic Port may yet become. Just north of the harbour is the old fort, carved out of the cliff itself, with deep moats which must once have been sunk to sea-level, or very near it. There are the old bastions, cunningly laid out as in Peter’s project, the old gun-positions, with sheer cliff below them on the side facing the bay, and on all other sides cliffs also, invisible from a yard or two away, made by cutting the moat down from the high land—a moat a hundred yards across, winding this way and that all round the fort, with perpendicular sides of solid rock. The work was done with convict labour and the labour of prisoners of war, and all this stuff cut out of the rock was tipped into the sea to make the mole that he had planned to stretch across the bay and to turn it into the finest enclosed harbour in the Baltic. I have seen old pictures of the work in progress, the masons busy in boats about their business. Yard by yard the mole was pushed out to sea, and from Roogö island over on the other side, where you can still see that the natural line of the coast is broken, they began building another fort and a second mole to meet the first. On that side they did not get so far, but on this the spar-buoy north-west of the harbour marks the end not of a natural reef but of Peter’s artificial causeway and breakwater, which, unfinished as it is, serves to protect the stretch of beach always covered with fishing-boats and drying nets between the fort and the harbour. When I was there there were wild roses growing in the fort. Columbines and Canterbury bells were growing in the moat, and, lying up there on the top of the old gun-positions, I used to spend hot afternoons looking out to sea, thinking of Peter and his passion for ships, and eating the wild strawberries.
On the shingle below the fort, where the women sit, with their children, fastening small flat stones as sinkers to the bottoms of the nets, I saw a German mine being put to a purpose precisely opposite to that for which it was intended. The fishermen were building a new boat. Her keel was laid and they were putting on the planking. They were busy steaming the planks, and their boiler was a German mine, emptied of its explosives and neatly fixed over a small furnace of stones from the beach. How they had managed to get the explosives out I do not know, but here was the mine with a good fire under it, boiling away like a domestic kettle, and being used for making boats instead of for their destruction.
My chief friends in Baltic Port in those days were the harbourmaster and his wife, who fed me with coffee that day when I first came in there, so tired that I fell asleep with my head on the table before ever I could put the coffee to my lips. With him I used to sail in his little skiff, which he could steer by merely shifting his own huge weight forward or aft. With her I used to remember my own North country, where also the good wives will tell you what a fool you be at the very moment when they are drying your boots and mixing you a hot grog to save you from the cold that you have earned. I met her one day going to Reval with great bundles of lilac blossom under her arm for a friend in town and on her head, instead of the pretty green shawl she wore at home, a hat with an enormous white ostrich feather, exactly in the front of it, waving like a helmet plume. She had had this feather for nineteen years, she said, had never washed it, had never gone into Reval without it, and yet it was still as white as when it was new. It had survived many hats. Nineteen years before, her husband, a sailor then, came back from a voyage. She had forgotten where he had been, but no matter; he came back in a hard winter, when even Baltic Port was frozen in, and he left his ship stuck in the ice and came home to her to Pakerort Lighthouse on Christmas Eve, across the frozen seas, with two ostrich feathers, this and another, between his shirt and his skin, so escaping the Customs officers. “And were you pleased with him ?” I asked, and was delighted by her reply: “Pleased with him?” said she. “Why, I gave him a proper talking to straight away for being such a fool as to bring two white ostrich feathers. If he’d had but a ha’porth of sense, he’d have brought one white one and one black.”
What with talks with the harbourmaster and his wife, whose roughness of tongue was only a defence for the softness of her kind heart, with the lighthouse-keeper from Odensholm, who used to sail in now and again in a little half-decked sloop, and with the skippers and crews of the little sailing vessels which, but for the Cato, made all the traffic of the harbour; what with days fishing on the river six miles away, whither I took Kittiwake’s dinghy on a country cart, and days in wind and sunshine on Peter’s fort and the cliff by Pakerort, I liked Baltic Port well at all times, but perhaps best of all in the evenings, after sundown, when we used to sit on Kittiwake’s green cabin roof, there being no other dry place after the swilling of the decks. The old watchman would carefully lay his long pipe on the bench outside his wooden hut, and wander slowly round the harbour to climb the rickety iron ladder and light the light at the harbour mouth. When we were there, in May and June, it was never really dark. A guitar would tune up in one of the schooners, an accordion in another. Most of the little ships carried family parties, skipper, wife and little skipperlets, and there would be dancing on the decks, while the local beauties would lie back in the stern-sheets of the dinghy belonging to the Government launch and be rowed about by the sailors. And, just at this time, cutter or schooner would warp to the harbour mouth, and, with the glow of the evening sky on her sails, slip silently away to make the most of the landbreeze that comes with the setting of the sun.
Once a week the three or four lads on the Government launch took her out to sea on mysterious business. But for the most part they lay half naked on the stones on the far side of the mole or had splashing matches with each other.
Now all is changed. There, where Kittiwake lay to her anchor, is now the new quay, on which they say there is to be a railway and a crane. Things may be better when the works in progress are finished, for new moles are to be built and the harbour will be twice the size. Things will be better for the big ships busy on the Russian trade, but I doubt if they will be better for us. The harbourmaster is too busy to sail his little skiff. The few shops have already multiplied to a dozen or more, and whereas, in the old days, the harbourmaster’s wife was only sometimes willing to give lodging to those whom she counted her friends, there is now a regular hotel, the rooms of which are full of busy, serious people, interested in the new activity of the port. Big steamers with steel cables will soon leave no room for the schooners and little ships like Racundra and Kittiwake will never again find Baltic Port the delightful lazy anchorage that it was a year ago.
Alan Bernheimer’s latest collection of poetry is From Nature. Born and raised in Manhattan, he has lived in the Bay Area since the 1970s. He produces a portrait gallery of poets reading on flickr. His translation of Philippe Soupault’s memoir, Lost Profiles: Memoirs of Cubism, Dada, and Surrealism, was published by City Lights in 2016.
Lead image: David Yu
Video cover: Videvo
Inline images: Adapted from “Racundra’s” First Cruise: Sailing in the Eastern Baltic, by Arthur Ransome (B.W Huebsch Inc., 1923)