Most readers over a certain age will have been brought up as children on the Swallows and Amazons stories. Many modern children find them flat and old-fashioned — too cosy, too practical and informative, too lacking in fantasy or real danger. Many modern adults adore them, nostalgically, for the same sunny reasons.
It is not surprising that their author, Arthur Ransome, had as a godfather Gladstone's minister of education, that he was made Commander of the British Empire and became a pillar of the Royal Cruising Club. But it is startling that until 1937 he was also on the Home Office blacklist of Bolshevik activists and was arrested by the head of Special Branch after the war. As a journalist in Russia, filing for the radical Daily News, he was hand-in-glove with leading revolutionaries: he was close friends with Karl Radek, Bolshevik chief of propaganda, and gained unparalleled access to Trotsky and Lenin. He even married Trotsky's private secretary.
He was a spy, of sorts. But how professionally and for whom? Roland Chambers's biography, drawing on information released since 2005, sets out to discover whether "Ransome had been a double agent". This is fascinating; but expectations of a dashing hero, or one interestingly riven by divided loyalties, are soon dashed. Ransome emerges from these pages as dimly fretful, self-important, and suffering more from piles than pangs of conscience.
Arthur Ransome was born in Leeds in 1884, the eldest son of a Professor of History at Yorkshire College. To his father's chagrin, he showed no scholarly aptitude. He suffered the humiliating distinction of coming bottom in a scholarship exam for Rugby.
Ransome's autobiography treats his father with "a mixture of humility, nostalgia and bitter reproach." His father had tried to teach him to swim by throwing him off a boat. When the boy subsequently boasted that he had taught himself to swim, his father unjustly called him a liar. With self-justifying pettiness, Arthur ever afterwards "liked to remember the incident whenever any aspersion was cast on his honesty". In 1837, Professor Ransome died, as the result of stubbornly refusing to admit that he had broken his leg. His son was left with the lasting belief that he had disappointed his father.
He spent one year studying chemistry at his father's old college before dropping out and joining the fringes of the London literary scene. As an aspiring bohemian, his protestations of devotion to virtually every woman he met became a standing joke. Inevitably, one of them eventually took him seriously. In 1909, he married Ivy Constance Walker — an event recorded in his autobiography under the chapter-heading "Disasters".