The books remain as good as ever

Posted by Tory Historian Friday, January 29, 2010 , , ,

Tory Historian is back from Mitteleuropa and has finished reading the recent biography of Arthur Ransome by Roland Chambers, entitled for a rather inadequate reason, The Last Englishman. The reference is to the period immediately after the Bolshevik coup when Ransome was writing somewhat misleading letters to his mother describing himself as the last Englishman left in Petrograd or Moscow. Actually, there were quite a few still and new ones, such as Robert Bruce-Lockhart arrived. The title is as misleading as the letters were.

The sub-title is The Double Life of Arthur Ransome. That is of greater interest. Ransome is known to most people as a superlative writer of children's adventure stories and books about sailing and fishing. A harmless old chap is the way somebody described him to TH.

He was not actually completely harmless. Far from it. In fact, the sub-heading ought to be The Triple Life of Arthur Ransome. Before Russia there was Ransome the Bohemian man of letters whose marriage was beginning to fray at the edges and who had become embroiled in an unfortunate court case with Lord Alfred Douglas. Then there was Russia whence he reported during the First World War and the 1917 Revolution, where he became very friendly with various Bolshevik leaders, particularly Karl Radek and where he, apparently, aided and abetted the Cheka in various ways. Finally, there was Ransome the writer of the Swallows and Amazons books, the countryman, the sailor and fisherman.

Which one was the real Ransome? As usual, the answer has to be all of them. Tory Historian had known about the triple strand before, in particular, about the friendship with the Bolsheviks and had often wondered how Ransome felt as his friends fell victim to Stalin. For he did not talk about it even if he did write a few obituaries of Old Bolsheviks who had died as "traitors".

This book, however, goes further and shows that Ransome had clearly helped the Cheka by trying to extract information, spreading propaganda and bringing out diamonds and money for various organizations in the West. There is some talk of him being recruited by MI5 as well but the evidence for him doing anything for them is scant to non-existent.

Questions remain. How did Ransome manage to miss or ignore the terrible cost that Lenin's great adventure as it appeared to him was imposing on the people of Russia en masse and individually? While many ignored what was happening in the cities and out in the countryside but paid attention to their friends' tribulations, Ransome did not even do that. When his great friends, the journalist Harold Williams and his Cadet politician wife Ariadne Tyrkova, were in danger Ransome seemed unaware of the fact or did not consider it important. Did he react the same way when, later on, his great friend Karl Radek abased himself at one of the show trials?

How did Ransome feel when he described the unfortunate shortages, blaming them on everything and everyone except the Bolsheviks, when he knew that the leaders had plenty of food and lived in luxury? Did he not think there might be something wrong about large sums of money (smuggled out first by him, later by his second wife) being sent abroad to set up Communist organizations when large parts of the country were starving?

Roland Chambers raises many of these questions but provides no answers because he can find none. For these reasons as much as Ransome's cantankerousness, he seems to end up disliking the subject of his biography with some intensity.

Well, that is all very well and possibly that is what happens to all biographers. But Tory Historian cannot help thinking about those wonderful children's books that have inspired and entertained generations. No matter what one knows about the author, they remain as good as ever.


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