“In Britain, his name became so identified with patriotic post-war nostalgia that to suggest, even today, that he had ever been a journalist during the Revolution is to provoke murmurs of surprise, while to add that he had worked for MI6, offered information to the Cheka and married Trotsky’s secretary ensures amazed hilarity of outright disbelief.”
When you hear the name Arthur Ransome you think Swallows and Amazons. What you don’t think is of a well known children’s writer having another life aside from the Lake District. A life that involved adventures but also a degree of bitterness that never left the writer.
When you finish the book a couple of words spring to mind, one is “selfish” and perhaps the other is “naive”.
In his relationships with his first wife and daughter and most of those around him Ransome displayed a selfishness that is hard to believe. He managed to run away from his wife and daughter and head to Russia. The timing was fortuitous because it coincided with the war, collapse into revolution and then the ensuing civil war. Ransome managed to make contacts with the major players interviewing Lenin, Trotsky and a host of others in the course of his coverage for newspapers.
As a result of his almost unique position he was courted by MI6 and asked to become a source of information but his information came with a caveat that in many quarters he was seen as a Bolshevik sympathiser.
The extended trips to Russia gave Ransome a chance to escape from his wife Ivy and from his responsibilities. He managed to write a book of Russian fairy tales that sold well but his attempts to summarise a very fluid political situation were not as successful partly because events were changing too rapidly but also crucially because Ransome was not very political.
When asked to describe his politics by a senior spy catcher of his return to Britain Ransome replied “fishing” and in that respect it saved him the fate of others believed to have become treasonable communists but it also undermined his proposed history of the revolution because he simply didn’t seem to have a rounded understanding.
As a result there are inconsistencies in his telling of the historical story with his friendship with many of the leading players in the revolution blinding him perhaps to the true extent of the terror and the 1920s famine.
On the home front he leant heavily on his mother but it seems to have been a one way relationship. Likewise his abandonment and ensuing strained relationships with his own daughter are disturbing when set next to the role of friendly uncle he played with the children that inspired Swallows and Amazons.
But his bitterness even towards them for ’milking it’ shows a man who might have been able to present a wonderful world to the public but behind the written word was a man who had seen much but felt things differently to the majority of us. His bitterness in the face of what should have been joy and his anger with his daughter when a wiser man would have deployed love makes him deeply flawed.