The Last Englishman

Issue section: 
(341)

Roland Chambers, Faber & Faber; £20

I was interested in this new biography of Arthur Ransome because of revelations about him that first surfaced in 2005. Ransome is, of course, best known for his Swallows and Amazons children's books that made him as famous in the 1930s as J K Rowling is today. Yet Ransome was also in Russia in 1917, where he wrote one of the best defences of the revolution I have ever read. Indeed, many in the British establishment denounced him as a Bolshevik and enemy of the state. So far so good, except that four years ago MI6 released files purporting to show that Ransome had been on their payroll. So who was the real Arthur Ransome, and what motivated him?

Chambers's initial intention was apparently to produce a colourful exposé; that his account is altogether more complex is because its subject is not so easy to pigeonhole.

There is no doubt Ransome was passionate about the Russian Revolution and equally angry about the role of the British state and other capitalist powers in trying to strangle it at birth. He was a great friend of Karl Radek, one of the revolution's great propagandists, and on close terms with other Bolshevik leaders. He also married Trotsky's secretary, Evgenia Shelepina.

Yet Ransome remained a thoroughly English gentleman, who loved nothing better than fishing and messing about in boats - passions that would come to the fore in his children's books. Perhaps it was his attachment to his country that made him seek some role as a "loyal" British subject. Or he may simply have been playing our "spooks" for fools. Even as he was supposedly assisting MI6, Ransome still continued to write in praise of the Bolshevik struggle, as well as helping materially; most memorably, he and Evgenia smuggled millions of roubles worth of diamonds out of Russia to aid the international Communist effort.

Is there anything that connects Ransome's experiences in Russia with the imaginary world he created in his Swallows and Amazons series? For me it is his combination of practicality and vision. Somehow ordinary activities take on a magical aspect in Ransome's books in a way that has ensured their appeal to successive generations of children.

And yet it was the same practical but also highly imaginative approach to running society, with workers playing the leading role for the first time in history, that seems to have most fired Ransome's enthusiasm for the Russian Revolution, despite his class. This point, however, Chambers only partially grasps.