Arthur Ransome is best known, of course, for his children's books but in this biography Roland Chambers chooses to throw light on his previous career as a political journalist. Indeed, during the time of the Russian Revolution, Ransome was one of the few, and at times the only, Western journalist to have access to the leaders of the fledgling Communist government and it's fascinating to gain first-hand accounts, through Ransome's eyes, of what it was like to meet figures such as Lenin and Trotsky.
Ransome emerges as both a beguiling and alarming figure. Whilst he was beloved by generations of English children for creating a kind of juvenile utopia of water-based adventure, he was estranged from his only daughter and made no attempt to get to know his grandchildren. One can only guess at the bewilderment they felt at being ignored, whilst their relative was heralded as something approaching a national treasure.
Chambers writes lucidly and orchestrates a mass of information about Russian politics to good effect. I found it utterly engrossing, despite only having an O-level standard history brain. Ransome's domestic and literary lives are discussed as skillfully as his political activities. Indeed, I wished this had been a full biography of Ransome rather than merely (!) a political one but perhaps Chambers felt the already existing lives were sufficient.
on 4 November 2009
I came to this book expecting a certain sort of story: effete English literary type gets caught up in world events beyond his ken, falls in love and retires to his homeland to write books that bear no hint of his early life. That version would make sense as a film but would rob the story that Chambers has written of complexity and surprises. Ransome, it turns out, was the last man in the world you might consider a typical Englishman. He was complicated, paradoxical and apparently able to be several people at once, and this book brilliantly turns to its advantage what ought to have been a biographer's nightmare by capturing the oddness and richness of his character. If Ransome is more knotty than we might have imagined, the backdrop of the Russian Revolution against which most of the book plays out is both messier and less grand than we're used to reading elsewhere. The really extraordinary fact about Ransome is that he wasn't just close to the leaders of the revolution, he was more or less their intimate, and through him we see the likes of Lenin, Trotsky and Radek in a fresh, human light.
This is a wholly enjoyable book. Chambers writes beautifully, and Ransome supplies enough incident - and enough largely unintentional comedy - to make it entertaining throughout, and often rather moving. Good stuff.
As achild, I remember my mother reading the Swallows and Amazons stories to me. It was about the time we moved out to the Norfolk Broads, so the stories stick vividly in my mind. Later, I learned that Ransome had been in Russia during the Revolution, as a journalist. We had his memoirs on the bookshelf, but I never read them. I'm sorry now. In this book, Chambers paints a vivid portrait of Ransome's early life, before Swallows and Amazons. The last years of his life, when Ransome assumed the status of a literary celebrity, are contained in the final thirty pages of a book which runs to more than three hundred and sixty pages.
It would be easy to dislike Ransome and write a hatchet-job, portraying him as egotistical and vain. Chambers does not do this, although the portrait is warts and all. Most of the work is occupied by the Russian episode, which is painted as far more complex than mere journalism. Ransome knew the leaders of the revolution personally, and was suspected of Communist leanings. Chambers takes the view that these were largely emotional, and Ransome was nothing more than a fellow traveller, if that. The Russian Revolution is presented as Ransome experienced it, a revolution of personalities as well as policies. It is an intensely human, as well as a fascinating story, in which Ransome, a young man searching for a literary identity, found himself, and also found romance. It is a reminder that the revolution affected people, and that people were affected in different ways. The family of Evgenia Shelepina, Trotsky's Private Secretary, and the woman with whom Ransome fell in love, for example, were split down the middle, one brother fighting against the Bolsheviks, while his sisters worked for them. And Ransome seems to have worked for just about everybody at some time or another, certainly answering Captian Flint's description of himself as a rolling stone.
I made time to read this book, and I strongly suggest that others do so.
Arthur Ransome - Swallows and Amazons. Go together like a horse and carriage don't they? Job done, well not quite: This book suggests that "celebrated children's author" was only the latter persona of many that Ransome adopted through his life.
If the author is to be believed, Ransome spent most of his life trying to please a long succession of heroes (many of whom were left-wing inclined creatives such as writers and artists). In each effort to please his latest hero he more or less reinvented himself and very often took steps to erase the paper trail of his previous incarnations. This erasure was mostly carried out, not because there was something to hide, but to make the reinvention more convincing and complete. Throughout this book you can sense Roland Chambers' frustration at how fragmentary the trail sometimes becomes. This perhaps increases the perception that Chambers really didn't like his subject very much?
I came away from the book wanting more evidence that Ransom had lived his life in this fashion, but of course the very mode of such a life must mean that direct evidence of how it was lived (diaries and so on) is thin on the ground. So it's no discredit to Mr Chambers that I came away with such a feeling, in fact I'm pretty sure he shares it. The fairly extensive use of Ransome's own autobiography is - throughout this book - heavily hedged around with scepticism that is often, but not always, justified by citing conflicting evidence.
I finished the book without a clear of idea of a consistent Arthur Ransome. The kindly old author who turned out Swallows and Amazons and its many sequels and spin offs is clear enough, but it is suggested that this was merely a front for a much less graspable character underneath - The "Swallows and Amazons" phase Ransome was, it is suggested, just a shell that some other creature wore.
As for Ransome's earlier life: We're told that an abandoned academic career seems to have been caused, in part, by his non-engagement with his teachers (except for just one). Then, the premature death of his father meant he had to and seek alternative role models and abandon school to find work.
He initially found work as a gopher in a string of London publishing firms. This work gave him contact with Eastern European émigrés living in London. These, in their turn, gave him the ability to go to live in Russia around the outbreak of WWI and on into the time of the revolution. During this turbulent period he seems to have been able to remain as everybody's friend and to have remained a neutral in all senses - again this is according to his own somewhat unreliable testimony. There are other versions.
Perhaps due to his self-reinvention habit, Ransome seems to have been able to stay in good stead with both sides of the revolution and the war. He seems to have kept this up as things settled down during the early 1920s and the communist state needed to be spied upon by the Western powers. But, again, a lot of this is surmise, hearsay and gossip - apparently Ransome's not telling!
By the 1940s the British state was deeply suspicious of him when he returned home, yet they never charged him with anything. There followed a short interval during which he again shed his skin, reinventing himself as a children's author.
He wisely did what all authors do best, he wrote about what he knew and what he valued. He combined the English lake lands with thinly disguised versions of members of his extended circle of family and friends (much to the fury of some of them) into "Swallows and Amazons". When the book was a huge hit, he kept on repeating the recipe for many years with enduring success.
And yet, and yet, Ransome was not only the children's author he appeared to be, he was also other people. This book shows quite convincingly that it was hard or perhaps impossible to know who he really was - even for him. The book doesn't make the case in a neutral way, that's for sure, but nevertheless it makes a convincing case.
I came away from this book thinking that Ransome was rather like Peter Sellers - who was also intentionally impossible to know. They both seem to have been quite savage to anyone who got too close. This suggests that they either did not know themselves and were afraid to reveal that fact, or maybe they knew, but didn't like, their "real" self and wanted to keep it completely hidden?
As the book suggests, it may be best that we put these strangenesses to one side, and just revel in our enjoyment of Ransome's work. Sometimes that is a better alternative than trying to get behind the mask of the author.
Arthur Ransome is well-known (and mostly adored) by generations of children from the 50s and 60s (and after) for his delightful romances of the Walker family on holiday in the English Lake district (and elsewhere). John, Susan, Titty and Roger were based on real children - the family of his friends the Collingwoods. 'Swallows and Amazons' and its many sequels epitomise the gentle Edwardian world in the last days of the British Empire, and before the World Wars tore everything apart.
Arthur Ransome was also (apparently) a double-agent working for MI6 as well as the Bolsheviks in Revolutionary Russia during and after the First World War. He was an acquaintance of the main players in Russia (Lenin, Trotsky et al.) and even married Trotsky's secretary.
This book uses details from Ransome's own unfinished autobiography as well as recently released secret papers from the MI6 and Russian archives to show light on this most English of authors.
I get the feeling that he was a naive, innocent, "jolly good chap" who just happened (in a typically amateurish English way) to drift into situations, and - being himself fairly harmless - come to no harm. He was arrested by MI6 on one return from Russia, but ended up discussing fishing with another professional English Amateur (the head of MI6).
I have long loved the Swallows and Amazons, and although this is a very interesting book, it does not shed much light on Ransome as Author - it is almost as if Ransome was two separate people - the Russian 'Spy' and the typical English children's author.
This book is not a full biography of the famous author of Swallows and Amazons, but focuses on his, on the face of it very unlikely, association with the Bolshevik leaders of the Russian Revolution, including Lenin and Trotsky, whose secretary Evgeniya Shelepina became Ransome's second wife. While it seems clear that Ransome was not politically a Bolshevik, nor indeed even really left wing in the substance of his politics, he was what a later generation would have called a fellow traveller. His ability to relate to both those early Soviet leaders and to the British establishment probably helped to ease relationships during those early years after the end of the Civil War and foreign intervention before Britain first recognised the Soviet government in 1924. Yet Ransome always denied his political influence and was clearly, from a personal point of view, much happier messing around in boats, fishing and living in peaceful and remote areas - thus his personal temperament clashed with his political associations. I got the impression the author didn't really understand Ransome and didn't really like him, either as an author or as a person - and indeed, some of Ransome's behaviour, especially towards his first wife Ivy and daughter Tabitha, seems very shabby. I didn't really understand Ransome from reading this biography either, so feel ambivalent towards this book.
Arthur Ransome: journalist, bad husband and worse father, probable spy and double agent during the Russian Revolution, when he met and knew all the main characters, bolshevik apologist... oh, and in his later life he wrote some children's books.
Well, that is what the author feels, by the read of it. This is not so much a biography as a very partial biography. His first 30 years take up 20 % of the book, and a quite interesting period it is, too; but the next 180 pages, 50 % of the whole book, deal with the period 1914-1919. The 'Swallows and Amazons' period, 1928-1947, get a mere 20 (yes, twenty) pages.
So why the concentration on those five years? It is because, as Chambers says himself, his book is intended as 'a sharp adjustment to the whitewash that hitherto screened Ransome from anything approaching a candid assessment'. Not that this is the first publication laying out his bad first marriage, and his poor treatment of his daughter. Plenty has been written about that. No, Chambers wants to prove that Ransome was a Bolshevik agent, or maybe a double agent (for both Bolsheviks and the British Secret Service). Does he prove it? No, but he infers for all it's worth. For me this book had an irritating style, with a lot of opinions written as if they were facts, and a clear dislike for Ransome : "a monster of conceit", who shows "condescension" towards his brother (not backed up by the extracts Chambers provides), and who "drifts through the war like a sleepwalker". Luckily, Chambers also provides a lot of *real* factual background, so we, the readers, can fairly easily see where his strong opinion takes over from objectivity. But I found the style so irritating that I was rooting for Ransome, despite all the disdain heaped upon him.
From the small Swallows and Amazons bit: "When the Walkers most intrepid adventure, *We Didn't Mean to Go to Sea*, was published in 1937, nobody saw any explicit irony in the title, or noted that in the same year Ransome's old friend Karl Radek had been the star witness in Stalin's second show trial." I find such a sentence quite amazing - this Chambers has a serious bee in his bonnet, which gets in the way of a proper biography!
A book with doubtful metaphors, over-partisan interpretations (well, antipartisan really) and some 'facts' that must surely be wrong: Hans Christian Andersen wrote his stories in Denmark, not in Sweden; Nicholas II *did* appear in public between 1905 and 1913 (he was at Cowes in 1909, and at Barki church in 1910, for instance); and though the British Expeditionary Force was severely weakened at the First Battle of Ypres, it certainly did not wipe out Britain's entire standing Army.
There is interesting information here, a lot of it, but the authorial voice gets too much in the way for me to be able to enjoy it. And the title? That never gets explained.
on 7 November 2012
In the final chapter, the author admits Arthur Ransome "is a hard subject to pin down." For a former private investigator on a mission to find out if Ransome was a double agent that is quite an admission, despite all the evidence he has dredged up pointing both ways.
Ransome's story is certainly an interesting one, he was more than an eye-witness to the Russian revolution - he was an insider, a collaborator, a mouth-piece - all of which put him in an awkward situation with the British authorities (who themselves were often not sure what to make of the situation or what to do about it). Yet, with only his personal charm to rely on, Ransome managed to flit between opposing sides. In an era of loudly declared ideals and loyalties, Ransome seemed to drift with the tide as the occasion required.
Perhaps Ransome's ideals are better revealed in the `Swallows and Amazons' series of books he wrote: how adventures are accompanied by the innocence of youth, by a sense of fair-play, with a setting of idyllic English countryside and supporting families.
Ransome was regularly incapacitated by illness often triggered by his precarious position. He was deeply frustrated by his wife's refusal to give him a divorce and his work as a journalist when he wanted to be a writer. Despite his affability he could be difficult and unforgiving.
So although we learn a great deal about Ransome's life from this book, some of it between the lines, it is indeed hard to pin down the subject. The private investigator has delivered us the facts, but left us to put the pieces together and figure out who Ransome really was.
Or, to be blunt, the author has failed to get under Ransome's skin, to say who he was or what he though.
Perhaps that is unfair. Perhaps Ransome's main attraction is as a bundle of contradictions. Perhaps Ransome can show us we live in an age where we are too quick to judge and take sides, too quick to express our thoughts and feeling which might be better kept private. (...Oh dear!)
on 25 January 2011
In the final chapter of this book, Roland Chambers says that he set out to "know if Ransome had been a double agent... And there is a great deal of circumstantial evidence to support this view"; and that "Ransome...had so narrowly avoided prosecution under the Defence of the Realm Act". The circumstantial evidence contained in the book is in fact flimsy and the assertion about avoiding prosecution is purely the author's alone.
The author cannot have been aware of the publication in 2010 of the official History of the Secret Intelligence Service by Professor Keith Jeffery which throws a different light on Ransome's activities (pp 173-175). He was indeed an agent of the SIS (known as "S.76") and despite reservations as to his socialist political sympathies Admiral Cumming, the head of SIS, described the information Ransome provided as satisfactory. He is also described by others as "absolutely honest" and as operating in Russia openly under his own name.
Ransome was undoubtedly a whole hearted supporter of the Bolshevik revolution and was regarded as an important channel of information to the British public by the revolutionary leaders. It was this that Cumming realised made his information to the SIS accurate and valuable. It is also this support that has made him a target of Roland Chambers' prejudices. But it has to be remembered that in 1917 many influential people in England (on the left wing of the political spectrum) agreed with him.
Unfortunately these prejudices mean that Chambers treats his subject in a patronising and dismissive way. which gives a thoroughly distorted picture of most interesting man.
on 9 August 2010
I was disappointed by the book. I knew little of Arthur Ransome, beyond the bare fact of his having written the famous Swallows and Amazons, which (like his autobiography and other works) I have not read. I was unaware, until I read other reviews here, that there have been other biographies of the man.
The author is, it seems, a man of many parts, including having been a private investigator dealing in Russian matters. The book is well-written and not exactly dull, but it left me cold, overall.
Ransome was a journalist and author and we read about his sometimes indulgent but more often distant relationship with his first wife and their daughter. The impression is of a man wholly bound up with himself and his own interior mental workings. He cuts (off) his wife and then daughter (when she, short of cash, sells his library) which seems harsh, though having had to store my own library oof about 2,000 volumes, I know what an irritation it must have been to Ransome to lose entirely his own much larger collection of 10,000 books. Still, his attitude to his poor daughter seems remarkably unfeeling and his later snubbing of his 18-y-o grand-daughter (in 1962) monstrous.
We are told of some of his dealings with the Bolshevik pre-Soviet government in the former Russian Empire (the Soviet Union not having been established officially until 1923/1924) and we are told that he was enrolled in the then far less bureaucratic MI6/SIS and that hhis loyalties seemed divided or uncertain, but what we are not told (perhaps because it is unknown? I do not know) is what WAS his ideology or belief-system.
In the end, I just felt that the elusive Ransome had slipped out of one's grasp. I feel that, having read this whole book, I still know nothing of him at all in respect of his ideology, beliefs, real activities beyond mere journalism and writing (if there was anything more...). Worse, I feel that I really do not wish to know anything much of him.