Reviews of The Autobiography of Arthur Ransome (1976)


Guardian, 9th September, 1976 (William Golding)

Father to the Man

Arthur Ransome always wanted to be a writer, and his parents inflicted on him the misery which is said to be the prerequisite for that profession. His father, who died while his son was still a young boy, nevertheless had time to treat him with the inadvertent cruelty which is so often the left hand of the theoretical educationist. His mother seems to have been a very conventional woman who was not much interested in him. No one knew he was so short-sighted as to be nearly blind.

Even so, the boy Ransome had one great stroke of luck. He visited Lake Coniston and found by those shores a whole surrogate family of parents and cousins. From that time onward, whether he realised it or not, and whether he disguised it as the Baltic or the Saltings of the Ocean, Lake Coniston lay in him like a jewel, a talisman, a secret recipe for happiness.

He left school early and came to London in pursuit of a writer's career. His account of this time reads like a roll call of the minor Georgians – Gordon Bottomley, Edward Thomas, Lascelles Abercombie, Clifford Bax, Clive Bell, Robert Lynd, Sturge Moore. His success was modest and he had the humility of one who knows he is a writer but assumes his talent is small. He was grateful for even the absurdest appearance in print. He visited Paris, lived a Bohemian life, then still taking what came to hand, got caught up in a most uncharacteristic adventure, the bloody making of the Soviet Union. Yet he really wanted to write fairy tales.

What a quaint and even farcical picture it is, this tough man stumping through life, fat, bespectacled, energetic, writing what came to hand but hoping one day to emulate Hans Andersen in that most difficult and aery genre! His best attempt, Old Peter's Russian Tales, had considerable success, but nothing to what came later. For Ransome was very much a solid scene man, devoid of conscious skill with allegory or unconscious luck with levels . What he was to achieve in the end was to be wholly down-to-earth.

Ransome was 46 when he returned to Lake Coniston and came to be acquainted with some children who lived or holidayed by it. He was not fond of children but he could identify with them, turning himself into a child for the time being. This was surely the pleasure and security he had never known himself as a child.

It is for this reason that his books are free from that deadliest of literary vices in writing for children, the hideous sidelong twinkle in the direction of other adults. He writes with the honest simplicity and absorption of a child at play. In 12 long books he never faltered because in them he was a child and could enjoy the things that really were his interests - bird watching, sailing, fishing. His parents after the flesh faded out of sight, and the surrogate ones, whether he was being John or Dick or Roger or Nancy or Susan, came and stood behind him.

The books are seductive. They are easy to praise and easy to overestimate. They are not works of genius but of limited and sometimes philistine horizon. Since all the children are middle class, their parents, they, and their adventures exhibit the necessary confines of such a slice of life. Daddy is on the China Station. Mummy and daddy are digging up remains in Egypt. There are always nannies and fat, comfortable farmers' wives who were nursemaids when mummy was a child.

Schools are boarding schools and families unbroken. The children themselves are cleaned up, presentable enough even at their most grubby for an old fashioned tea party. Dark corners are ignored, and some bright ones too. All the children have highly polished social consciences.

Nevertheless, within these limits the children are presented solidly as characters. John has lieutenant commander written all over him. Dick will be responsible for laser technology. Susan will marry young and have as large a family as possible, while self-styled Nancy, the Terror of the Seas, will be the toughest Ms in the business.

These children seldom function in spontaneity and delight but they act out of a freedom and pleasure that we can share with them. In narrations that are second only to the masterpieces of children's literature Ransome evokes item after item of kinaesthesia that grab the reader.

Ransome said of himself, "Mine is a stiff and woodenish mind, unable to vault from groove to groove." These essays towards an autobiography in which his editor has served him so well, exhibit more than stiffness and application. They are full of wit and energy. They have no touch of self-pity. They are a most agreeable and illuminating entertainment.

But although he allows us to guess much about him, Ransome remains a private person still. As in his children, his dark or bright corners are cleaned up or concealed. What right have we to ask more about him than he chooses to tell us?

Meanwhile, anyone who wanders into the old "children's bedroom" and looks nostalgically at the row of green and faded volumes should certainly purchase this book to round off the oeuvre.

On the same day that Golding's review of the Autobiography appeared, the Guardian printed the following article by Tim Radford based on his research in the Public Record Office:

Ransome Demands

Arthur Ransome, one of Britain's best-loved children's authors, once provoked officialdom into considering censorship. TIM RADFORD recounts an incident in the life of a reporter during the Russian Revolution.

ARTHUR RANSOME, the Swallows and Amazons man, spent some years of his life branded as a dangerous Bolshevik. It was chance – an unhappy marriage and interest in Russian folk-tales – that took him to Russia just before the first world war. It was his tastes – Left Bank rather than Left – that led him into friendship with raffish revolutionaries. It was financial need that led him into journalism during the war, and it was his luck that, shortly after the revolution, he should meet and fall for Trotsky's secretary.

The consequence was that his despatches to the Daily News were probably more informed than any to reach London from the infant Soviet state. They were also highly distressing to officialdom. A sequence of mouldering telegrams in the Public Record Office tells the story of a flurry in the Foreign Office a few days after Ransome ran the blockade from Petrograd to Stockholm during the civil war of August 1918. Ransome, in his posthumously edited autobiography which is published today, doesn't mention that he had thought of staying in the Soviet Legation. But he obviously mentioned it to the British Ambassador of the time.

"Mr. Ransome seemed to wish to live in the Bolshevik legation here in order, as he said, to keep more closely in touch with them. I told him I could not agree to an Englishman doing this as it would create a scandal among the (white) Russians here and would probably lead to accusations against this legation ..."

Ransome must have mentioned a few other things as well, because the Ambassador's first telegram is followed that same day by a startled squawk: "Mr. Ransome is so notoriously working entirely on the side of the Bolsheviks that while he may be of great use in giving us information, his prejudice may also become compromising in the long run ... He should be allowed to continue here for some time and his sincerity tested. ... If he continues to be Daily News correspondent his telegrams should be carefully censored and it might be better if he gave up his position."

The Government had taken upon itself powers of censorship under the notorious and unlamented Defence of the Realm Act. Back in London, the FO sucked its teeth. Ransome, says a note appended to the Ambassador's cables, might be a useful go between, and as far as the Daily News was concerned, it was unlikely that there would be any success in trying to sever the connection. "But it is almost certain his telegrams will be infected with Bolshevism: they will need careful screening, and it is probable that much in them will have to be cut out from the point of view of home politics. If this view is taken I will write to the Press Bureau ... asking them to keep a very sharp watch on anything Mr. Ransome may send."

The cables from Stockholm continued. Private and secret: "He has a Russian mistress who was Trotsky's private secretary ... she is to join Ransome here later." Steady on, old boy. The FO note says that "Mr. Lockhart makes an attempt to save the lady's character and is also more favourable to Ransome." Lockhart would be Bruce Lockhart [who] was British consul in Moscow, a friend of Ransome's, a romantic and also in love with a Russian lady. The note continues "He is certainly too good a source of information to lose and his telegrams can be carefully censored before they are allowed to appear."

Censorship, then. But upon which arm of what Dickens called the Circumlocution Office should the burden fall? The Foreign Office wrote to the Press Bureau suggesting that they might look closely at Ransome's despatches (although this was in no way an attempt to reimpose Foreign Office censorship), keeping Ransome in Petrograd as Daily News man and as a valuable source of information, cutting out what was actually harmful but leaving enough "to make him go on sending messages and his paper to continue to keep him where he is."

All too Machiavellian for the Press Bureau. "If the only object of your letter was to put us on our guard against Mr Ransome we do not know that you need have taken any trouble in the matter. We have been familiar with Mr Ransome and his proclivities for many months and even years past, and towards the end of his stay in Russia it was quite evident that consciously or unconsciously he was used as an agent of the Bolsheviks." But no actual decision to censor, yet.

By September, another powerful lobby had joined against the man now best known for John, Susan, Titty, Roger, Nancy and Peggy. The American censor is much annoyed with "a person called Arthur Ransome who is writing articles whitewashing the Bolsheviks, in fact friend Ransome appears to be a Bolshevik himself." Cautiously, the FO fielded that letter to the Ministry of Information. The MoI noted that "Ransome is practically a Bolshevik himself. From a sure source of information he is acting as envoy ... but while these facts explain matters they hardly help us and were we to approach the editor of the Daily News he would warn us off. Ransome is a thoroughly mischievous person."

The Press Bureau referred Ransome's articles to the War Office, who could find nothing militarily objectionable in them "though they might be open to objection politically. Unless, however, the FO wished to re-establish a political censorship of foreign news, which we understand is not the case, there would appear to be no grounds on which they could be censored here, for I do not think that the Home Office can say they are too objectionable for internal consumption."

"It rather looks as though the Americans were anxious to avoid themselves setting up a political censorship of foreign news and therefore want us to do it for them."

At which, as if butter wouldn't melt in its mouth, the Foreign Office appended the following note: "Quite right. Ever since the US entered the war they have tried to get our censors to do their dirty work for them."

Ransome didn't get back to England until 1919. As he stepped off the train at King's Cross he was apprehended and taken to Scotland Yard and taken before its head, Sir Basil Thomson. Thomson looked extremely grim, reports Ransome. "Now," he said, "I want to know what your politics are?"

"Fishing," said Ransome.

He went back to Russia for C.P. Scott of the Manchester Guardian, smuggled Evgenia, Trotsky's secretary, though the no-man's land between the white and red armies, brought her back to England, and married her. He reported for the Guardian until ill-health forced him into writing children's books, beginning with "Swallows and Amazons" in 1930, and ending with "Great Northern" in 1947. He wrote his autobiography between the ages of 65 and 77. He died at 83 in 1967. Evgenia survived him until March of last year.

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Daily Telegraph, 9th September, 1976 (David Holloway)

The Road to Swallowdale

The most surprising thing disclosed in"The Autobiography of Arthur Ransome" is this author's method of writing. Rupert Hart-Davis in his prologue tells us that Ransome prepared a full synopsis of each book, chapter by chapter, and then wrote the chapters in any order, according to his mood, often leaving the difficult bits to last.

He adopted the same method for his autobiography which he started in the 1950s, worked on for a decade and never finished. He had, however, drafted it all, though some of the chapters appear in rather vestigial form. Sir Rupert's task has largely been an editorial one, cutting and shaping and merely adding an epilogue completing the story where Ransome left it at the time of the publication of "Peter Duck" with his decision to concentrate on the writing of children's books to the exclusion of everything else. Even so, it is a very uneven book, which I fear it would still have been if Ransome had lived to complete it. As Sir Rupert explains, there were several people inside that bluff, red-faced, billiard-playing member of the Garrick Club. There was the man of letters, the political journalist, the sailor, the fisherman, and, most important of all, the eternal schoolboy who shared happily in his mind the adventures of the Walkers and the Blacketts.

I have a feeling that he yearned to be Roger but the nearest to him by nature among his characters was Dick, who tended to know it all and grew in importance in the later volumes of the "Swallows and Amazons" saga. As an example of the schoolboyishness I would cite the fact that Ransome and a friend in the Lake District had coded signals which they displayed on their respective houses (à la "Winter Holiday") to give notice when they were going fishing and where.

Most people will, I think, enjoy the first section of the book, describing Ransome's boyhood holidays in the Lake District and his lifelong love of the region, his failure at Rugby and his early adventures in a publishing house and as an author, best. His relationship with his father, professor of history at Leeds, was very odd. Prof. Ransome was convinced, or his son was convinced, that the young Arthur would come to no good as his grandfather, a feckless inventor, had done.

It is sad to report that Ransome senior died when his son was still at prep. school (not doing terribly well) and was not to know of his son's success. His mother also subscribed to the "Arthur will come to no good" theory and wished him to become a scientist and not a writer – publishing was all right, freelance authoring very much not. She lived to see him become an influential journalist, though, on gathers, never wildly to approve of his activities.

Ransome's first efforts at authorship were as a ghost writer of sporting manuals, but soon with friends such as Lascelles Abercombie, Edward Thomas and Gordon Bottomley he moved into literary journalism and writing. He had published half a dozen books (most of them regarded by him as bad) by the outbreak of the first world war, when he was 30.

In his younger days he spent much of his time with the family of W.G. Collingwood, Ruskin's amanuensis and biographer, who more or less adopted him as an extra son. Ransome dearly wanted to marry one of the daughters of the house, Barbara, but she would not have him. Fortunately this did not spoil his relationship with the family. Unfortunately the break with Barbara led to a disastrous first marriage, regretted more or less at the altar.

The Great War – his extreme short sight prevented him being a combatant – brought a change of direction. Ransome went to Russia as the correspondent of the Daily News. There he made contact early with Bolsheviks, particularly Radek and Trotsky. I must confess I am not at all clear about Ransome's role: clearly he was more than an ordinary newspaper correspondent. I have a feeling that he was something perilously close to a double agent.

He claims never to have been a socialist but clearly he was high in the favour of the Bolsheviks when they took over and was strongly against any intervention by foreign powers in support of the Tsarist forces. He reported to Bruce-Lockhart and the British Mission in Russia and several times seems to have acted as a courier and negotiator for the Bolsheviks. In particular, he says that he prevented a break between Britain, as represented by Curzon, and the new Russian government.

His thinking may have been coloured by the fact that his second wife, Evgenia, was one of Trotsky's assistants, though he suggests she had no political role, merely being his helpmeet and cook on his sailing trips. There is surprisingly little in the book about fishing or sailing (he says that he has written enough about them elsewhere) and he does not bother with his celebrated, and successful, defence of a libel action brought by Lord Alfred Douglas.

The overall impression one gets is of a prolix man but one with great charm, who brought a new dimension to the writing of children's books. Who else would have used his personal knowledge of Mme Sun Yat Sen to create the character of "Missy Lee?"

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Spectator, 11th September, 1976 (Margaret Drabble)

Very heaven

The name of Arthur Ransome summons up an image of a certain kind of Englishness, a certain style of English life: a life of buttered eggs and marmalade, of small boats and fishing, of fair play and gentle erudition. Those of us who were reared on Swallows and Amazons did not need to know what buttered eggs were, and most of us had never been near a small boat. It was the world and its ethos that were important, a world with its own rules of honour, its own games and realities. One re-enters the world each time one opens one of those well read books. But it is not the real world. It is eternal holiday, eternal make-belief. An autobiography by Ransome ought to give some clue to the secret whereby the author, a fully grown, much travelled and experienced man, twice married, managed to create so lasting a fantasy, a fantasy which continues to delight both children and adults, of social backgrounds very different from his own. How did he manage to enter so fully into the child's spirit? Rupert Hart-Davis, who edited this volume, provides an explanation in his prologue: Ransome was, he says. two very different characters – Half of him was a dedicated man of letters, the other half a perpetual schoolboy, with all the zest, fun, enjoyment and enthusiasm of youth . . .' Sharing his two great delights, fishing and sailing, was 'like sharing them with a most articulate, knowledgeable and amusing boy.' The autobiography tempts one to go further. He remained, in everything, a boy: he treated the adventures of war and the reversals of politics as a kind of lark, a sport. It was his honourable naïveté that trapped him, against his will, in his disastrous first marriage: he tells us that he married Ivy Walker because of the 'horrible scenes' she made when he tried to break off the relationship.

He remained an innocent, through the violence of the First World War and the Russian Revolution, which he covered, as reporter, from Russia, for the Daily News and the Observer. This is not to suggest that his attitude was either partial or ignorant: on the contrary, he was one of the first reporters to foresee the Revolution, watched its progress more closely than any, had many close friends among the Bolsheviks, and was most eager to persuade the British to abandon their dangerous policy of intervention. His is a first hand account of a major historical event. Yet, throughout, he seems to have been protected by his own boyish high spirits. At one dramatic moment, after the murder of the German Ambassador by the anti-Bolshevik anti-Peace Treaty Social Revolutionaries, he found himself engaged by Radek in a piece of diplomacy: he set off to Volgoda in a hurry to meet the American Ambassador, but before going 'I stuck Plato and Sir Thomas Browne (counter-irritants to politics) in my bag, and commandeered a very fine plum cake that was rashly exposed on the table in the Mission . . .'

Similarly, his escape with his Russian fiancée, Evgenia, through Estonia and the White Russian troops in 1919, takes on, in the telling, something of the air of an escapade. It cannot have been very amusing, travelling through occupied country, not knowing where the front was, not knowing what troops one might meet next – Russian Whites, Letts, or Estonians. They burned their White papers lest they be found by the Reds, and their Red papers lest they should be found by the Whites, and bluffed their way through. Ransome would have us believe that their successful escape was due to his loud voice and his long coat, which enabled him to act the part of a man of authority, and also to a chance encounter with an officer whom he had once beaten at chess. The journey, he says, 'was comic opera.' So it may have been, to him, and to his loyal Evgenia, but one can be sure that others would have told the story in different terms. One feels, in the end, that Ransome must have had some protective spirit with him: maybe those who see no evil and fear no evil travel through life under a true safeguard. He does not shut his eyes to the terrors that overtook others, reporting laconically on assassinations and deaths of old comrades – his friends Vorovsky and Bukharin were shot, Radek disappeared, Rykov, Krestinsky, Zinoviev, Kamenev, all were shot. But the worst pain Ransome suffered was from his intestines, and even they, like gentlemen, did not play up on a crisis.

It would be easy, but incorrect, to ascribe this spirit to Ransome's public school upbringing. He hated school, did badly at Rugby, his second, which he left from the Lower Fifth. He was the kind of boy who lives for the holidays, and his holidays, in the Lakes, were more important to him than lessons or school sports (which he was too blind to play with any success). His interests, in fish and beetles and ammonites and Andrew Lang's fairy stories, were home grown, and the atmosphere of his home was one of high-minded Northern progressive thought, of scholarship and the Manchester Guardian (his father was Professor of History at Leeds University). He describes himself as a man without politics, but such as he had can be judged from the quality of the company he kept, and the papers he wrote for. His early career reminds one, oddly, of Arnold Bennett's first hero in A Man from the North: he started work as a boy for Grant Richards, the publisher, at a salary of eight shillings a week, and started, like Bennett and his hero, to try to write essays and poems for literary magazines. His aspirations were lofty, but he was industrious, and he learned to write as a 'ghost', writing up the advice of well-known sportsmen. He was advised to write sensational serials, such as those by which Bennett and Eden Philpotts made their living when young, but preferred ghosting and highbrow essays and a small salary as a working combination. His first 'real book', Bohemia in London, was written when he was twenty-three, and published in 1907, and in it he said 'Bohemia . . . is a tint in the spectacles through which one sees the world in youth. It is not a place but an attitude of mind.' He catches that tint well enough, in his descriptions of celebratory dinners of sardines and cheap wine, of bicycle rides from Balham to the Gray's Inn Road, of games of chess and visits to Clive Bell in Paris. But his spectacles were to remain tinted: he never became a man of the world. Perhaps that is the mark of the boy from the North. Ransome, well-connected though he was (compared, for instance, with Bennett) and much as he enjoyed his visits to the Garrick in later years, seems never to have acquired the tastes and weariness of the worldly. His code of honour is not that of Rugby, but of some land of the mind where boys remain boys and do not grow up into men who drown (as his friend Ted Scott drowned in Windermere), where Madame Sun Yat Sen and Chinese politics can be transformed into Missee Lee. It is not an entirely golden land, for Ransome writes of snow and ice even better than he writes of the summer, but it is a land of myth, not of reality. We enter it willingly, for like the Ancient Mariner he was, he tells a good tale.

With thanks to Margaret Drabble for permission to reprint this review

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Observer, 12th September, 1976 (Christopher Wordsworth)

Road to Swallowdale

THOSE other activities of famous men are always fascinating, but how odd it would be to know of Churchill primarily as a painter, President Ford as a footballer, Rimbaud as a gun-runner, Plato as a middleweight wrestler.

These thoughts are prompted by discovering from his autobiography the extent of my misconceptions about Arthur Ransome (and dispute who dares his right to 'famous' with generations of children). Too old for 'Swallows and Amazons', too young to be more than vaguely aware of the Russian background, I cherished him as the writer who could best convey the thrill and mystery of fishing and garnish it with some titbit of his own like the myopic clergyman he once observed casting devotedly for an hour with his fly firmly embedded between his shoulder blades. Here obviously was a man with the leisure to savour things.

Now one learns that those fishing pieces were his hard-won bread and butter. There was also an apprenticeship to letters like Jacob's in the tents of Laban, an eight-bob-a-week debut in the book world, a growing impasse between the discursive essayist and the story-teller he always intended to become, and a quaint aversion to politics and commotion which revenged itself by involving him in litigation with Wilde's regrettable Bosie, then sent him to Russia to report on the Revolution and Civil War – which he did with an insight and sympathy that embroiled him with the Interventionist establishment here – thence to China where his heterodox dispatches persuaded C.P. Scott to revise the Manchester Guardian's policy.

He walked blindfold into a catastrophic first marriage to a psychopathic liar and contrived to put most of his early literary eggs in the wrong basket, but somehow, on treadmill and in the maelstrom, kept his boy's heart intact, drank the wind, sailed and caught fish and, married now to Trotsky's secretary, found a version of fulfillment among his beloved Lakes until his death in 1967.

Inevitably the Russian chapters overshadow the rest, a quarry of experience that would have kept most writers in work for a lifetime. Ransome was friend of Radek and Chicherin, and on debating terms with Lenin. He was an emissary between the hapless Estonians and Litvinov, arguing for his life with a Red firing squad and finding that, even upside down, a London Library demand was a useful document to brandish in emergencies. Once, when Curzon's ultimatum was designed to leave the Bolsheviks no alternative but complete diplomatic rupture, he procured an 'accidental' meeting between Litvinov and the head of the British Mission which produced a compromise.

There is a wonderful account of Lenin's funeral, the Siberian Police Chief refusing to grease against frostbite like the soldiers and losing the flesh off his face in consequence, the mourners motionless in the shadow of their own deaths, Zinoviev, Kamenev, Rykow, Bukharin and the rest. In lieu of royalties for his 'Six Weeks in Russia in 1919' he received the complete works of Lenin, less edible, he notes, than a similar payment to Chaliapin of a sack of flour.

As autobiography it has its voids and reticences as well as its delights, but the absence of rancour or histrionics and the troubadour confidence that journeys and dilemmas end in lovers' meetings gives it the flavour of a banquet. He was R.H. Tawney's fag at Rugby, a conjunction of two of the nicest quiet men imaginable. The fact that I only now discover that Ransome may have inhabited the same study as myself only lends depths to my remarkable ignorance of a remarkable man.

In the Observer's Books of the Year feature on 12th December 1976, the historian A.J.P. Taylor wrote:

The most enchanting book of the year, or indeed of any year, was The Autobiography of Arthur Ransome (Cape), a fitting conclusion to his long run of masterpieces.

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The Economist, 18th September, 1976 (Anonymous)

This second half of this review covered Joyce Grenfell Requests the Pleasure

Two looks at life

The pleasure which the authors of these two autobiographies have given over the years is immeasurable. Arthur Ransome's children's books are considered classics; Joyce Grenfell's unique form of mimicry has made thousands laugh. The creations of both are striking, above all, for their Englishness, now somewhat dated, yet Joyce Grenfell is three-quarters American (her mother was the sister of Nancy Astor), and Arthur Ransome (who died nine years ago) lived for a good part of his life in Russia and, indeed, married Trotsky's secretary.

Ransome found himself in St Petersburg (soon Petrograd) during the first world war and the revolution. Genuinely apolitical, he became close to many of the early Soviet leaders, and thus a valued foreign correspondent. Clearly as he conveys the confused and troubled atmosphere in the city then, and fascinating as that picture is, a failure to bring any of the revolutionaries into focus makes it ultimately unsatisfying. Similarly London, where he lived as a young man, is vivid, and the flavour of the period is strongly felt, but the literati, who peopled his world there, are indistinct and, as most are now obscure, uninteresting. Perhaps it was also a handicap in his relations with people, or maybe he was simply a typically reserved Victorian, but certainly his autobiography, although elegant, is guarded. Sentiment is restricted to the rocks and waters of the Lake District.

From that passion came his children's books. "Swallows and Amazons", the first and best known, was not written until he was 45, and although he had by then 20 books and countless articles under his belt, he was nervous as never before about it, for it was his first real attempt at story-telling.

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The Listener, 23rd September, 1976 (D.A.N. Jones)


With his children's stories and his books about fishing, Arthur Ransome earned great affection during the latter years of his long life (1886-1967). Photographs of him in this book suggest that he might have done well on television. instructing children about the damp and lonely sports of the countryside. He had all the necessary props – pipe, shooting-jacket, moustache and twinkling spectacles. Rupert Hart-Davis prints, at the end, an instruction from the old man: 'No, not that photograph, not the CID man, bootlegger or political tough and hijacker, but a benevolent, bald-headed one, something like this' – and Ransome appended a caricature of himself, making clear that he liked to be thought of as old Badger from The Wind in the Willows.

Ransome's activities during the Russian revolution of 1917 would not, by his own account, earn him a reputation as a 'political tough'. Nevertheless, several of his compatriots were suspicious of him and eager to blow his cover, if he had one. A secret service agent called Reilly quizzed him in Petrograd, beginning: 'I think I had better tell you that I am a socialist myself.' Ransome replied: 'I'm not.' He says he would be amused to see what Reilly put in his report – but 'I was not always able to play such tricks so easily, and sometimes it seemed better to leave the secret service to nurse its false impressions.' Back in London, he was summoned to the Foreign Office, where he offered some information which he thought likely to be useful to the United Kingdom. In return, he was presented with a threat: 'Perhaps you do not realise that we could damn you with the Left if we could damn you with the Left if we let it be known that you have been working with us.'

With huge scorn, Ransome records: 'I suppose he imagined I was some sort of politician, to whom such a threat would be serious. I did not care in the least about Lefts or Rights, but was solely interested in doing what I could to counteract the misinformation ... I left the Foreign Office and sought out George Lansbury ... I then saw Stanley Unwin and arranged with him to publish ...'

Ransome presents himself as some vague, country-sporting Englishman who happened to be in Russia, reporting for the Manchester Guardian, and happened to have a personal authority. This I find quite credible; but it is easy to see why a recent Daily Telegraph review has suggested that Ransome came near to playing the role of a double agent. He offered his advice, in peremptory manner, to both the British government (whom he thought too respectful to 'entirely unscrupulous persons who needed no credentials other than hostility to the Bolsheviks') and to his many Bolshevik friends:

When I went round to the Metro pole, Ramekin had interrupted his packing to have a word with Lenin on the telephone ... I was shocked to hear him say: 'If they won't come to Moscow of their own accord, I'll put them into cattle-trucks! ...' I said at once: 'If you do anything of the sort, you will have only yourselves to blame if everybody supposes you must be acting under German orders ... If you mean to talk to the ambassadors in that tone, you will be making hostilities inevitable' ... Radek rang through again to Lenin and told him what I had said, and then turned to me and said: 'Well, you Jingo Imperialist ... Come as my interpreter ...'
This characteristic extract illustrates Ransome's close relationship with the Bolsheviks. He married Trotsky's secretary, a fine-looking woman, and they are both buried in the valley of Rusland, in the Lake District.

Besides the pictures of Ransome as 'old Badger' and as a political tough, there is one of him as a little squinting boy. Anyone can now see that he was extremely short-sighted; but his parents and terrible teachers did not notice, until it was too late for him to have a tolerable childhood. He was sent to upper-class boarding-schools, designed for over-privileged children and their under-privileged children; at the first of these, the headmaster 'made me stand while he threw a cricket ball at me again and again, other boys laughing at my frantic efforts, jeering when the ball hit me, fielding it themselves and throwing it back to my tormentor to try me with it again. He meant well, I have no doubt ...'

At Rugby Ransome acquired spectacles. When he wore them for the first time, 'my tormentors gathered round and one of them said: "You think that we'll stop ragging you because you're wearing those things. You're jolly well mistaken."' Fortunately, Ransome got out of these hell-holes by the time he was 17, and became a freelance writer in London. He had acquired avery stiff upper lip and willingness to accept revolutions – since he had no faith in the status quo and no worries about upsetting the apple-cart. At school, he had taken a great interest in the French Revolution, and he went into the writing profession from a desire to emulate Hazlitt (to whom he very frequently refers), indicating that he was an anti-anti-Bolshevik rather as Hazlitt was an anti-anti-Jacobin.

'I have been like a shuttlecock bandied to and fro by lunatics,' wrote Ransome, in his eighth decade. 'I seem to have lived not one life but snatches from a dozen different lives.' He suggested that young men ought to write their autobiographies in their twenties – although he had been used to laugh at this conceit – rather than leave it to their last years. I dare say he was right about this. His book ought to be in four volumes: an account of Edwardian childhood; of literary London when Abercrombie, Bottomley and Walpole seemed important, and Ransome was sued by Lord Alfred Douglas for his book about Wilde; of the Russian Revolution period; and of the world of country sports and children's books. As it is, we have an old man's conspectus, looking back on his several decades with an enviable detachment but, occasionally, an excess of coolness and tolerance – and, certainly, some difficulty in packing the record into a mere 300-odd pages.
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Sunday Telegraph, 26th September, 1976 (David Wright)


Assessing the 20-year-old Arthur Ransome in 1904, a friend wrote:

"A remarkable boy ... he seems to be working, as hard as if he liked it, at pure journalism, tho' it is quite clear that he has in him things that can never be expressed and may even be suppressed by it."

The friend was the poet Edward Thomas, an unexpected mentor for the creator of "Swallows and Amazons," those cheerfully philistine children whose virtues and open-air attributes embody the more irritating middle-class values that helped to build, if not to preserve, the sometime Empire.

As the posthumous and unfinished The Autobiography of Arthur Ransome reveals, Ransome's extraordinarily varied life was totally different from the kind which his children's fiction appears to postulate. Far from consisting of outdoor types and aesthetic barbarians, Ransome's circle included Ruskin's biographer W.G. Collingwood; Laurence Binyon, Clive Bell, Lascelles Abercrombie; even Yeats and Ford Madox Ford. Later Ransome knew Lenin and Madame Sun-Yat-Sen – the latter became the model for the formidable Chinese heroine of "Missee Lee."

The early death of his father cast Ransome in the rôle of family breadwinner while he was still at school at Windermere (where, incidentally, he was taught to skate by Prince Kropotkin during the Great Frost of 1895; the autobiography is full of such bizarreries). Ransome managed to dodge a scientific career, and apprenticed himself to the publisher Grant Richards as an office-boy. Thus, at 17, he plunged into the middle of the Edwardian literary world, and became a successful and efficient hack, reviewing, ghosting sportsmen's memoirs, and writing biographies to order.

One, a life of Oscar Wilde, led to his release from hack-work, and also from his unhappy marriage with the neurotic Ivy Walker. The Wilde biography pushed him into the litigious crossfire of the running feud between Lord Alfred Douglas and Robert Ross– a traumatic experience from which he fled to St Petersburg.

In Russia he forecast, and reported, the Revolution for the Daily Mail with apolitical aplomb. Ransome's magnificent Edwardian insularity comes out in his story of a Cossack galloping up to him with brandished pistol to demand: "For the people or against the people?" – only to be defeated by the superb non sequitur "I am English."

Nevertheless he was actively against Churchill's interventionist policies, and once carried messages across the front lines to Lenin, thereby securing the armistice between Russia and Esthonia.

But his real Russian harvest was his devoted second wife, Evgenia, his book "Old Peter's Russian Tales," and a boat he built for sailing on the Baltic. The book pointed him to his true métier, story, storytelling; the boat fed his talent for projecting physical enjoyment and practical detail. These compounded the recipe for "Swallows and Amazons" and its sequels, not omitting a basic ingredient, the fact that (as Rupert Hart-Davis says in his Prologue) Ransome was "always partly a child."

This perhaps is why Ransome's portrait of Grub Street in Edwardian days, and his insider's view of the Russian Revolution, have less impact than the opening chapters of his autobiography, which describe boyhood and youth in the Lakes: the scenes, incidents and people that became the material for his children's fiction.

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New Statesman, 15th October, 1976 (Naomi Lewis)

Secret Waters

'Ransome,' said this legal friend: 'Wasn't he foreign correspondent in Russia in 1917? And didn't he marry Trotsky's secretary?' Memory moves in other directions. Didn't Edward Thomas camp in his lodgings when both were young literary hacks? Wasn't Ransome brought to court by that obsessional litigant Alfred Douglas for his study of Oscar Wilde? Yes, to all of these: we learn too that Ross (on the last) had lent him the complete De Profundis. No wonder the tindery Douglas raged. Devoted readers of Ransome's children's books have been known to lift an astonished eyebrow that this most English of writers should also be the author of Old Peter's Russian Tales. They would not be the only ones to find much that is wildly unexpected in Ransome's Autobiography. Set down between 1949 and 1961, it remained unpublished until the recent death of his widow Evgenia ('the tall jolly girl' whom he first met in 1917, 'to whom I owe the happiest years of my life'). No printed biography so far exists.

The childhood of Arthur Ransome (1884-1967) was not deprived, as the word is used, but it was burdened. Son of a history professor at Leeds, a brilliant academic who had made his way by scholarships, he was the awkward oldest of four, and the unlucky subject of his father's experiments – being thrown into deep water, for instance, to make him swim. An irresponsible grandfather, a butterfly of schemes and inventions, who had ended by marrying his children's nurse and starting a new young family, had left his son with a load of debts and cares. That son was Arthur's father, who dreaded to see any signs of the flibbertigibbet in his oldest boy. On the other hand, the sharing of his own leisure passions – for fishing, for sailing and for the Lake District – was obligatory. The screams of a wounded hare discouraged Arthur from the further sport of shooting. But fish do not scream, and so their pursuit, which began as a filial appeasement, became a life's addiction. The peripherals of education are never to be despised. Sailing and fishing, the chess that he learnt in infancy from his grandmother ('argument without words'), the skating learnt from a kindly foreigner, Prince Kropotkin, who chanced to be staying near Leeds, his own devotion to Hazlitt and to fairy tales – all would in time be keys to vital doors.

There was reason for Arthur's feeble performance at school work and at games. He had scraped into Rugby (where he fagged for R.H. Tawney, 'an admirable employer of labour') before anyone realised that he was almost blind from shortsightedness. Only, by now his father was dead, through his own form of spartan obstinacy. A disregarded broken ankle (acquired when night fishing) resulted in amputations, at foot, at knee, at thigh. We watch the admonitory role being taken over by Arthur's mother; young Arthur dutifully enters Leeds s a science student. But the stunning discovery of Mckail's Life of Morris wiped out all the years of parental theory. He writes to a London publisher (Grant Richards), secures a job at eight shillings a week and is soon, in a modest way, supporting himself by literary journalism. Clive Bell, whose mother is a friend of Arthur's aunt in Wiltshire, shows him over Paris. He gets a room in Chelsea. He is in, and of Bohemia.

Bohemia brings him trouble. A chapter called 'Disasters' includes a hurried view of his mad first marriage, to a dramatic vamp named Ivy; she lives in a vivid fantasy world of adultery, murder and scandal in which she and Arthur, their family and friends, have leading parts. When even that prince of lawyers George Lewis cannot procure a divorce, Arthur sets off on a roundabout route to Russia, no easy place to enter even in 1913. At Stockholm he calls to deliver a letter to Strindberg's daughter from her mother in London. Though a total stranger, the young woman pulls him inside to help her pack and run away. 'I was running away myself and could sympathise.' He's the naïf, the true folk-hero, with the innocent's gift for surviving against all odds.

His chance metamorphosis into foreign correspondent irresistibly suggests at the start the pages of Evelyn Waugh. He has come out to Russia in search of fairy tales (as well as in flight from Ivy). He has been using as laissez-passer a letter from the London Library sternly requesting the return of overdue books. But before long he is thoroughly seasoned, leaping forbidden trains, mastering languages (by his own quaint method), attending every meeting to which he is given a pass. He amiably argues for hours with Lenin, Trotsky and other giants. He's at Lenin's funeral, too, when the day is so bitterly cold that the faces of the soldiers on guard are greased. The chief of police, a Siberian, scorns such weakness. He loses the flesh of his cheeks and chin from frostbite.

Ransome was to work in Russia from 1914 to 1924. For all its confusion and patchiness, this part of the book, an on-the-spot piece of history, is not to be overlooked. He sent despatches both to the radical Dily News and to Garvin's far from radical Observer, he seems to have held as well an unofficial brief from the Foreign Office, though the F.O. seems not to have liked his news. A maverick or independent, whose reports run counter to those of his fellows, can be a vexation to colleagues at one end and employers at the other, and this was Ransome's story. It never does to be right at the wrong time. 'Intervention,' he notes, years later,

< p class=intro>had fanned into flames the embers of a civil war that, but for us, would have ended almost the moment it began. The evils of that disastrous policy are with us yet.

'Mine has not been a life of consistent effort towards a single end,' writes Ransome in his Potscript. 'It seems to me that I have been like a shuttlecock bandied to and fro by lunatics. I seem to have lived not one life but many.' But was he whilly right? The zigzag leaps may seem bizarre, nut they have their logic. The Swallowdale sories are not a matter of chance. Unlike many authors of classic classic books for the young, he nevr regarded them as merely a variant on his main adult work. Far from it. His quest had always been for the secret of writing narrative. Though a hundred stories could be plucked from his Russian period, for him nothing there – other than fairy tales – held the fictionasl spark. But however winding the path, Swallows and Amzons and the rest stand firmly at the end. Not tht he cared very much for children. The famous six themselves, he admits, were based on a daydream groupp, long wandering in his mind.

To write these tales he turned his back on income and prestige. Even the offer of 1,000 to translate into English And Quiet Flows the Don was not to stand in the way.Nor did his publishers perceive what the stories meant to Ransome. All right, they were willing to take on Swallows and Amazons ; what they really wanted, though, were his collected essays. But a voice that rings in the opening pages of Swallows and Amazons goes further back than any of Ransome's travels: BETTER DROWNED THAN DUFFERS IF NOT DUFFERS WON'T DROWN<./font>. That other distant father's voice is unmistakeable.. Well, Arthur had not drowned, in spite of stormier waters than his father could have foreseen, and the books are his evidence. A flag of defiance? A tribute? A triumph? Something no doubt of all.

I am grateful to Wayne G. Hammond for help in identifying these reviews