With What Joy We Write of the New Russian Government

Ferdinand Mount

  • The Last Englishman: The Double Life of Arthur Ransome by Roland Chambers
    Faber, 390 pp, £20.00, August 2009, ISBN 978 0 571 22261 2

‘Ransome, when he turned up, proved to be an amiable and attractive man, with a luxuriant blond soup-strainer moustache, a rubicund complexion, a large mouth from which more often than not a pipe protruded, and a hearty disposition.’ Malcolm Muggeridge immediately took to Arthur Ransome when he first met him in Cairo in 1929. Most people did. The philosopher R.G. Collingwood, a close friend from their shared childhood in the Lake District, gave Ransome his entire life savings to pay his legal costs when he was sued by the incurably litigious Lord Alfred Douglas. Edward Thomas was devoted to him. John Masefield drank claret with him at teatime as they sang sea shanties together in Ransome’s mother’s kitchen.

And Ransome took to most people; he was not choosy. In fact, he was inclined to instant and lasting hero worship from which nothing could shift him, for he also had a stubborn conviction of his own rightness. His innocent egotism was underpinned by the belief that he was an excellent fellow who could do no wrong. These were dangerous qualities which in combination drew him into a career so bizarre that now, as during his long lifetime (1884-1967), it takes your breath away.

For years, Ransome’s place as the pipe-sucking deity of children’s literature seemed unassailable. The latest adventures of John, Susan, Titty and Roger could safely be placed in the hands of the most impressionable child, and placed they were by wholesome parents every Christmas holidays between 1930 and 1943: Swallows and Amazons, Coot Club, We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea, every one a bestseller to be avoided with horror and loathing by any young person with the slightest vestige of humour or subversion. It is not just that the Fearsome Foursome live in a world of nannies and apple-cheeked farmers’ wives filling their milk-cans and calling them Miss Susan and Miss Titty (not an appellation which most farmers’ wives today could manage without corpsing). That, after all, is standard for children’s fiction of the period. It is their unspeakable goodness, their unflagging enthusiasm for outdoor pursuits, their intolerable expertise in handling boats and their never, ever being cross or bored. When Susan has a spare moment, she improves it by scouring the dishes again or by sewing buttons back on her younger brother’s shirt. Her elder brother, John, meanwhile practises tying some of the knots in The Seaman’s Handybook. In Arthur Ransome’s Lake District (and his Norfolk Broads), there are no wasps or midges, it hardly ever rains and no boat capsizes. One longs for them all to be deported to the island in Lord of the Flies, if not actually to share the fate of Simon and Piggy. In fact, of course, they sail home to a scrumptious tea with Mother. It’s hard to imagine that a grown man whose life’s ambition it was to be a great writer could have brought himself to turn out 300 pages of this stuff, let alone 3000.

Yet there was also a very different Arthur Ransome, a ruthless and tireless propagandist for the Bolsheviks and their Revolution, a double agent courted simultaneously by Lenin and Lord Curzon, a man whose total lack of qualm or scruple baffled the spymasters of East and West alike. This other Ransome was, I think, first brought to public attention by David Caute in The Fellow Travellers (1973), then by Hugh Brogan in his 1984 biography, more recently in papers declassified by MI5 in 2005, and now by Roland Chambers in this new biography.

It should be said at once that the bulk of the evidence was never secret, being set out in Ransome’s own articles for the Daily News and the Manchester Guardian (his early stuff was often reprinted in the New York Times as well), and in his pro-Soviet pamphlets, On Behalf of Russia (1918), Six Weeks in Russia (1919) and The Crisis in Russia (1921), and only half covered up in his autobiography, which was in any case published posthumously in 1976. It is Ransome who leads off Caute’s parade of useful idiots on the first page of his first chapter.

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