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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Extraordinary
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...
Published on 28 Sep 2009 by T. Bently

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16 of 18 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Partial biography from disapproving author
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...
Published on 26 Oct 2009 by Henk Beentje


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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Extraordinary, 28 Sep 2009
By 
T. Bently "tbently" (Berkshire, England) - See all my reviews
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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.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating account of an unexpected character, 4 Nov 2009
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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.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Messing About With Bolsheviks, 24 Sep 2009
By 
Mr. Gtj Charmley "gerardtjcharmley" (Cardiff, Wales) - See all my reviews
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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.
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24 of 26 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A man who didn't know himself?, 4 Oct 2009
By 
AlanMusicMan (North Cornwall) - See all my reviews
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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.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Strings of the Puppet, 23 Aug 2010
By 
S. Thomas - See all my reviews
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The `Swallows and Amazons' books were such a magical part of my childhood that I had misgivings as to whether it was a good idea to read about their creator. Part of me still wants to believe in those adventures, which in my mind's eye were representative of a long summer's day when all was new, all was exciting and there were few consequences to life apart from a grazed knee and running out of ginger beer.

Even the fact that the stories about the Walkers, the Blacketts and Captain Flint were not a life's work but an alternative to writing for the Guardian somehow spoilt my image of the books. Those stories happened to attain commercial success from an author with higher literary pretentions; his fame as a result of the series is the `hook' for Chambers to conduct a `man behind the mask' exposé.

Ransome grew up at a time when a lot was happening in the world and where those with connections could navigate a haphazard path through emerging history without worrying too much about where their next square meal was coming from. If `Down and Out in Paris and London' is the reality of life where there are no safety nets, Ransome's experiences are those of someone with the arrogant belief that intellectuals will never have to worry about starving.

Chambers seems to try to make a point which seems self-evident of much of humanity in that he demonstrates a conflict between Ransome's outward persona and his behaviour. On the one hand, Ransome appears to exude all the virtues of what it is to be an Englishman but his neglect of his daughter and double dealing with the Russians and the British government suggest an amoral hypocrite. That such contrasts can exist is unlikely to surprise anyone who has been keeping an eye on our politicians over the last few years.

I found the story of Ransome's early life absorbing and the heart of the book, which concentrates on his experiences with Russia not unlike an adult version of Swallows and Amazons. Chambers is good at illuminating character but the fact that he seems to have a point to make detracts slightly from the tale because I like to make my own mind up.

This was a worthwhile read and I felt sympathy for Ransome in some ways (Chambers depicts the long shadow that a stern father can cast over a life). At the same time I harboured a degree of disdain for Ransome's own conviction in his ability and the worth of his own ideas. Perhaps the fact that I felt anything at all made this a worthwhile book for me.

However, on reflection I would rather enjoy the memory of childhood books without being reminded that there was a puppet master. The Famous Five may have been a stereotype, Aslan an allegory for God and Swallows and Amazons created by a flawed character but I want to retain my memory of the stories of childhood without someone pointing out the flaws in the person who was pulling the strings.
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16 of 18 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Partial biography from disapproving author, 26 Oct 2009
By 
Henk Beentje "Henk Beentje" (Kew, England) - See all my reviews
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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.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Lakeland pirate or Russian double-agent?, 3 Oct 2009
By 
Mark Shackelford "mark shackelford" (Worthing, UK) - See all my reviews
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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.
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38 of 44 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Nothing to commend it, 10 Sep 2009
By 
CJ (Cheshire) - See all my reviews
The opening chapters of this book are no more than a re-hash of the first chapters of Hugh Brogan's Ransome biography and Ransome's autobiography, large chunks of which are quoted in the text, (Chambers' habit of quoting original material without noting its source or attribution is among the many faults with this book).

It is not the numerous minor errors of fact which spoil `The Last Englishman' (although they do not help it) but the author's selective interpretation of information. Unusually for a biography, the author appears out of sympathy with his subject and relishes every opportunity to infuse the text with unpleasant insinuations - suggesting for example that Ransome dodged conscription in WWI, rather than explaining that Ransome, a married man in his thirties with defective eyesight and in poor general health was neither eligible for conscription or likely to be accepted as a volunteer. Similarly misleading, prejudicial statements litter the book.

Chambers' book has been hyped as revealing Ransome as a spy and the author does his best to convince readers of the claim, right from the suggestive `double life' of the title. Books written from a single biased viewpoint do not make good reading and what Chambers fails to do is offer his readers an accurate perspective on the unique situation in which Ransome found himself in revolutionary Russia, or suggest sensible explanations for his conduct, preferring to interpret everything Ransome said, did or wrote as supporting the author's own flawed ideas about Ransome's political allegiances and general character, (in fact Chambers sometimes contradicts himself by including direct quotes from contemporary documents which disprove his own theories). The new revelations promised in the book's publicity are virtually non-existent. There are no new revelations in this book - all the information about Ransome's dealing with MI6 etc have been in the public domain for years.

A considerable number of books about Arthur Ransome already exist, including at least one specifically devoted to his time in Russia. Readers who genuinely want to know more about Arthur Ransome would do far better to seek them out. This is probably the most disappointing book I have encountered in a very long time.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Into Air, Into Thin Air..., 9 Aug 2010
By 
Ian Millard - See all my reviews
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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.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Very highly recommended, 3 Oct 2009
By 
Jeff "roadrunner" (uk) - See all my reviews
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This is an excellent biography, deserving of the highest praise. It's erudite, well-researched, yet engagingly written in an easy unpretentious style. One of the main things I liked about it was the manner in which the author leaves the reader to make up their own minds about Ransome - a character it's easy to have strong views about! I must admit to never having been attracted to his books when younger and to approaching this biography with a certain dislike of Ransome which I can't explain. The book has changed my mind considerably but not in the way I'd expected!
He was, in many ways, a strange man; one who had "all the trappings of genius without the genius". A 'nearly man' in effect. He knew some great names of his times in his youth, was in a sort of awe of Edward Thomas who, it seems, never really rated him. He had difficulty with women and his treatment of his wife and small daughter [however justified] doesn't reflect well on him. Basically, all he seemed to want in life was the tranquility, the fishing for pike in the Lake District, the writing of fairy stories, the desire to have "everything as it used to be.....jolly as jolly". And yet, as the cover has it, he had a 'double life' and this is where the really interesting part comes in, which changed my attitude, and, I suspect, will lead to some agonising among his devotees. Ransome, whatever his character defects, found himself in Russia from around 1915. This was a man who interviewed Lenin a number of times, who knew Trotsky well, who was good friends with Karl Radek and who eventually married Trotsky's secretary. A man who had more than one hairy escape from Russia, who came very close to being shot, who approached armed frontier guards by puffing mightily on his pipe to try to assure them he wasn't a threat! Chambers is particularly good on the history of the Russian revolution, which, although largely told through the involvement of Ransome, is detailed, knowledgable and fascinating, bringing across some of the appaling brutality than Ransome himself lived through.
As I've said, I'm still not too sure that I like Arthur Ransome, but I do have some grudging respect for him. I can wholeheartedly recommend this biography. I enjoyed reading it very much, though perhaps those who have fond romantic memories of golden years where good, well-behaved children have innocent jaunts on Windermere, might not like some aspects of that author's private life.
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The Last Englishman: The Double Life of Arthur Ransome
The Last Englishman: The Double Life of Arthur Ransome by Roland Chambers (Paperback - 6 May 2010)
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