Swallowing the Party Line

The Last Englishman: The Double Life of Arthur Ransome by Roland Chambers

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”.

Ivy is bitterly condemned in his autobiography for her financial and emotional extravagance, and her unbalanced passion for melodrama. Her taste for the lurid limelight was gratified when Ransome wrote a biography of Oscar Wilde and was sued by Lord Alfred Douglas. The strains of the case speeded the collapse of the marriage.

In 1913, Ransome deserted his wife and small daughter, and fled to Russia, hoping to write a guide-book and translate fairy-tales. When Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated in 1914, Ransome reacted by taking a holiday — boating, fishing, sunbathing and playing tennis at a summer dacha: a lack of prescience that set a pattern for the future.

He became a reporter for the Daily News in 1915. The February Revolution of 1917 found him passionately on the side of the revolutionaries. In recognition of his support, Ransome was awarded a pass to the meetings of the Soviet: “It was the first proletariat parliament in the world,” he boasted. “And by Jove it was tremendous. They said very nice things when they asked me to come. It was because of the stuff I got through on their behalf before the revolution.”

It may be that he was so easily flattered because his self-esteem was low. Again, however, it set a pattern. Ransome continually preened himself on his unique access to inner circles, sure that he was the only Westerner who knew the “truth”. 

It is not that there were no clues about the nature of the regime he adulated. When Felix Dzerzhinsky founded the Cheka, the Bolshevik secret police, he declared, “We represent terror — this must be stated openly — a terror that is absolutely essential in the revolutionary period we are passing through.” Ransome swallowed this “tyrant’s plea” wholesale, arguing for the necessity of state censorship, the suppression of democracy, and the ruthless annihilation of counter-insurgents, without trial.

Typically, Ransome missed the October Revolution of 1917 — he spent the Ten Days That Shook the World on holiday, fishing. He was back for the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly, but managed not to witness the slaughter of peaceful pro-Assembly demonstrators, mown down by Bolshevik snipers. He had gone to lunch — in Trotsky’s office.

As the murders proliferated, Ransome responded by comparing Lenin to Oliver Cromwell, and announced that he was walking “these abominable, unswept, mountainously dirt-clogged, snow-clogged streets in exultation”. He even managed to deny the existence of the Red Terror of 1918 — the mass executions in the wake of an assassination attempt upon Lenin.

From 1917, Ransome had been in love with a girl, as well as a regime. After a privileged interview with Trotsky, he was searching for a censor to stamp his telegram, when he found a “tall, jolly girl” to help him — Evgenia Shelepina, Trotsky’s private secretary. Together, they found the censor, asleep, with a boiled-out pot of potatoes blackening on the stove — a view behind the scenes, he boasted, “such as no other foreigner enjoyed”. The British authorities were naturally alarmed. Chambers has assembled an impressively thorough and amusing dossier of the memos that flew between agents, diplomats and Secret Service officials. Most passed scathing judgment: “a dangerous fool”; a “coward”; “dishonest”; “a man chiefly interested in himself…without convictions or morality”. Yet the conclusion was that, treated with due caution (his facts were often correct, even if his judgment was unsound), this “out-and-out-Bolshevik” could be of use; and he was signed up with the code-number S76.

But there is evidence that he may have been an equally useful idiot for the Russians. He had dubious meetings with senior officials in the Cheka, and did not warn the British Mission of an impending raid, though prudently leaving Moscow himself; he smuggled roubles into Sweden using a Russian passport; and when he arranged to bring Evgenia out of Russia, she was carrying 35 diamonds and three strings of pearls, authorised by the Ministry of the Interior for Soviet agents abroad. 

As a father, Ransome displayed his least likeable traits. It is easier to forgive his desertion of his first wife (and divorce rarely brings out the best in anyone) than it is to explain his treatment of their daughter. His role in her existence was in his view no excuse for alimony. There is an appalling letter written to Tabitha to celebrate her 21st birthday, telling her that she was “no better than…a bug or a flea that sucks blood and gives nothing”, and launching into a vilely self-pitying account of his marriage to her mother.

Ransome and Evgenia had no children: the four heroes of Swallows and Amazons were based on the half-Armenian children of friends — Taqui, Susan, Titty and Roger Altounyan. Ransome soon disliked them too: he managed to convince himself that the “Armenian brats” were somehow stealing credit for his stories.

The Last Englishman is an oddly unengaging read. This perhaps is not the biographer’s fault. Although there are passages of awkward writing, the flatness is chiefly due to the fact that Chambers can find little in Ransome’s character to inspire sympathy. Ransome may have “struggled to believe in himself”, but, as Chambers remarks, there is little “romantic conviction” in his self-
invention. Instead, Chambers finds only “the absence of conviction; a querulous, judgmental void, planted in childhood”.

Underrated: Abroad

The ravenous longing for the infinite possibilities of “otherwhere”

The king of cakes

"Yuletide revels were designed to see you through the dark days — and how dark they seem today"