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Arthur Ransome is nowadays best remembered as the author of the "Swallows and Amazons" series of children's stories -- innocent and fun-loving tales of sailing holidays and boating adventures, generally set in the English Lake District or on the Norfolk Broads in the inter-war period of the 1930s. Few now know that Ransome, throughout the years of the First World War and the subsequent Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, served as the Russian correspondent for (initially) the Daily News and (later) the Observer and Manchester Guardian newspapers in the UK. He was also a regular contributor to American newspaper columns. He spent large parts of each year throughout the 1920s reporting from Petrograd and Moscow, providing the West with a unique perspective of the Russian Revolution and the Civil War that followed. All but unknown to the readers of his stories for children is the fact that Ransome had friendships and an almost intimate rapport with some of the most blood-thirsty revolutionaries of the last century. Few are aware of his affair with Evgenia Petrovna Shelepina, the private secretary of the Bolshevik leader, Leon Trotsky, or of his spiriting of her away from Russia (and their subsequent marriage when his first wife eventually agreed to a divorce).

Better known are his enthusiasms for angling and sailing, which gave rise to many a serious study to these pursuits in book and newspaper column form, including a highly successful factual account of his sailing experiences in the Baltic ("Racundra's First Cruise") long before his children's stories made his name familiar to an entirely younger generation throughout the 1930s and '40s (and, of course, to successive new generations of children ever since).

Arthur Ransome's true passion in life, though, was for story-telling. This was a long and studious love affair for Ransome, which not only resulted in him amassing a large library throughout his lifetime but also found him collecting traditional folk tales from around the world, some, such as his anthology from Russia ("Old Peter's Russian Tales"), making it into print. His writing career began, though, with a number of highly regarded volumes on the lives and works of great writers, such as Edgar Allan Poe and Noel Coward; the latter nearly being his undoing, as its publication infamously led to a libel suit against him. Although he won the case, the publicity surrounding the case was partly instrumental in driving Ransome into exile overseas, which in turn eventually force him into making his living as a journalist -- a move he feared would prevent him from ever fulfilling his dream of becoming a novelist.

All of those exploits (and more) are recorded in Ransoms's own words in his "The Autobiography of Arthur Ransome", published in 1976, some nine years after his death. Unfortunately, that volume is now long out of print and, in any case, only covers the author's life up to 1932 and even then, not altogether with complete honesty.

Hugh Brogan's 450-page tome, "The Life of Arthur Ransome", aims to present a fuller and more factual account of the author's life, including chronicling his later, less productive years, in a level of detail never previously attempted. Published in 1984, and never subsequently revised, it suffers nowadays from being somewhat out of date, at least in regard to Ransome's affairs in Russia and his dealings with the British intelligence services throughout the 1920s. This is largely due to the fact that at the time it was being researched, much of the information necessary to provide those details was either behind the Iron Curtain, firmly out of bounds to Westerners, or else equally inaccessible, locked away in classified documents in the UK. It is to Hugh Brogan's credit, however, that in spite of these difficulties, his account of Ransome's life is hardly any less detailed in these areas than Roland Chambers' more recent (2010) account of Ransome's life published as, "The Last Englishman" and, of the two, remains by far the most detailed in almost every other regard. Brogan's account paints the more masterful rendition of the man himself, provides the greater insight into his thinking, and gives the more thorough assessment of just how much of the author himself is to be found in each of his books.

Indeed, for many, Brogan's work remains the definitive version of the life of Arthur Ransome, especially for anyone with an interest in Ransome as an author. Not only does his account span Ransome's entire life, it also provides a full survey of his literary accomplishments (as well as many of his dead ends, disasters and failures). Hugh Brogan has clearly done more than merely sift through the published (and unpublished) writings of Ransome and of his friends, family and acquaintances in constructing this highly detailed portrait, frequently drawing on details which could only be acquired through additional interviews and fieldwork. Also, in going beyond where either Roland Chambers or Ransome himself end their accounts, Brogan's version takes on a greater intimacy and poignancy, as it follows the author through his decline, as a rather embittered, disillusioned and altogether grumpy old man, to his death in Cheadle Royal Hospital at the age of 82, burial at Rusland and the passing of his widow, Genia, eight years later. The book is written in a scholarly but nevertheless very human -- affectionate almost -- style, making it a moving account of the life and bitter struggles of a man whose stories are loved for their happy and carefree make-believe.

Arthur Ransome always used to offer the same piece of advice to would-be writers: "I believe that no matter who reads it, a good book is always written for the author himself." There are times when I could not help feeling that Hugh Brogan has taken this advice very much to heart himself in the writing of this book; for this he should be thanked. Even though it is hard to find these days, this volume is well worth hunting out by anyone who wants to know the truth behind one of the most enigmatic of English literary figures.
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on 10 January 2016
This was a Christmas present for my Aunt and she absolutely loved it. She hadn't read this in years and couldn't find it in any bookshops. However since she doesn't do the Internet I had to order this on Amazon. I did buy it in second hand condition, but it was fine and didn't look overly aged at all despite what an old book this is. I am so pleased I managed to find this book and although I haven't personally read this book, from my aunts reactions it would suggest that anyone interested in Arthur Ransome and his life and works, you definitely shouldn't hesitate in getting this book.
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on 27 August 2012

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on 14 October 2014
Swallows & Amazons forever!
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