Arthur Ransome was, from 1930 to the early 1960s, what J. K. Rowling is today: the much-loved author of a series of children’s books which shaped the imagination of a generation. Swallows and Amazons and its sequels described a cozy, nostalgic Utopia, in which Ransome’s heroes had blameless fun in the Lake District, sailing boats, pitching camp and playing at pirates. Collectively, they established his reputation as a champion of old-world values in the final days of the British empire.
Long before Swallows and Amazons was published, however, there had been another Arthur Ransome, famous for different reasons. Between 1917 and 1924, as Russian correspondent for the Daily News and Manchester Guardian , he was an uncritical apologist for the Bolshevik regime, with unique access to the revolutionary leaders. As the Red Army engaged with an Allied invasion of Russia, Ransome was conducting a love affair with Evgenia Shelepina, private secretary to Leon Trotsky, then Soviet Commissar for War. As the intimate friend of Karl Radek, the Bolshevik Chief of Propaganda, he denied the Red Terror and compared Lenin to Oliver Cromwell. No English journalist was considered more controversial, or more damaging to British security.
At Whitehall, he was accused of being the paid agent of a hostile power and only narrowly escaped prosecution for treason.
Yet as Ransome’s passion for Evgenia deepened, he was offering his services to the British government, both as unofficial diplomat and spy. Recruited to MI6 in 1918, he submitted reports to the British head of station in eastern Europe, while simultaneously advising the Bolshevik secret police on British foreign policy. Revealing a dizzying ability to adapt himself to the nearest power, he insisted, nevertheless, that he had retained absolute objectivity. When Sir Basil Thomson, head of Special Branch, asked him what his politics were, Ransome answered, ‘Fishing’.
How did this bluff, in many ways conservative Englishman, associated by millions with nothing more threatening than messing about in boats, become such an ardent defender of the Bolshevik experiment? Was Ransome a double agent or, as he liked to insist, an innocent go-between? Roland Chambers, in a masterly narrative, explores Ransome’s career as a struggling writer in Edwardian London, his disastrous first marriage and flight to Russia, and his remarkable high-wire act as British agent and 'mouthpiece of the Bolsheviki'. Later, as author of Swallows and Amazons , Ransome’s triumph was to erase the entire episode from the public consciousness, just as he erased all uncomfortable episodes, including his relationship with his only daughter. Amongst his many devoted readers, he is still best remembered as 'Captain Flint', a batchelor pirate retired to a houseboat in the north country. Few of his former friends within the Soviet Union showed a greater flair for historical revision.
This is an absorbing and often chilling examination of an English icon and his world.
- Publishers description