True-life adventures to put ripping yarns in the shade
BIOGRAPHY: The Last Englishman: The Double Life of Arthur RansomeBy Roland Chambers Faber Faber, 390pp. £20
FOR SOME OF us, memories of childhood are inextricably linked to the books that we read. Aged four, I was sure my head would swell to an extraordinary size if, like my hero Noddy, I became a little too big for my shiny red boots. A few years later, I wanted to join the Secret Seven, then to find the entrance to Narnia, then to set sail with Jim Hawkins.
And being a well-behaved, polite little boy, I longed to become friends with the Walker children of Swallows and Amazons, picturing myself sailing off to Wild Cat Island with “children who say ‘ripping’ and play by the rules; well-behaved children who rise early and know how to do things, tie knots and sail a boat, who respect the enemy if he fights fair and happily share their chocolate when the battle is over”.
I knew very little about their creator, Arthur Ransome, and might have taken him for a retired cleric in the Lake District, an affable CS Lewis type, or a member of the Liberal party. As it turns out, he was none of these things, but was in fact a prominent supporter of the Bolshevik regime, a man who witnessed the 1917 revolution first hand and – heavens above – became the adulterous lover of Trotsky’s private secretary. And I have Roland Chambers to thank for my surprise as he brings the most extraordinary information to light in a biography which is as unexpected as it is gripping.
Ransome’s own childhood was not quite as idyllic as that of his characters. His father was a bully, a man who “tried to teach his son to swim by throwing him over the side of a boat . . . and watching him sink like a stone”. Later, he is portrayed as a rather staid young man, working for a publishing house in London, “filling in labels, checking invoices and saving on postage by delivering parcels on foot”. He engages in a series of doomed romances, each of which leads to a proposal, a refusal, and a great deal of Hugh Grant-style embarrassment, but he marries finally and almost immediately runs away from his new responsibilities.
IT IS HEREthat The Last Englishmancomes to life. Ransome reads Ralston’s collection of Russian folk tales and is so entranced by them that he determines to learn the language in order to re-translate them into “the simple language they seemed to need”. His decision to relocate to the east becomes the catalyst for the extraordinary adventures upon which he is about to embark.
Chambers captures both the absurdity and fascination of Ransome’s youth as he presents his subject flitting back and forth across Europe, a man with a double life, fishing peacefully with his wife in Edinburgh one week, then spending long hours in the libraries, cafes and theatres of St Petersburg the next.
There’s a terrific sense of tension in these pages as the timeline brings us closer to 1917. By now, Ransome is Russian correspondent for the Daily Newsand, like the hero of a novel, is present on Nevsky Prospekt, the greatest boulevard in St Petersburg, when 200,000 demonstrators take to the streets. These are highly charged scenes and Chambers writes with vitality of a distracted Tsar disastrously ordering his troops to fire on his own people, of an army who feels immediate revulsion and turns to mutiny, and of a centuries-long line of Romanovs almost immediately overturned.
As the struggle for power between Lenin, Kerensky and Trotsky takes place, the book risks becoming another history of the Russian Revolution. Ransome is curiously absent from these pages and he becomes almost secondary to the fascinating details of Russian politics, for when “Lenin opened the most significant chapter in the history of twentieth-century politics, the Russian correspondent for the Daily Newswas at Fonthill, fishing for perch”. Fortunately, he doesn’t stay away from the action for too long. Having established his credentials as a journalist of note, he returns to Russia, where he secures a notorious interview with Leon Trotsky – “I do not think that he is a man to do anything except from a conviction that it is the best thing to be done for the revolutionary cause that is in his heart” – which, upon publication, makes such an impression on the foreign office that his services as an unofficial agent are immediately requested.
Can this all be true? one wonders, considering how ludicrous this would seem in a work of fiction. Yes, replies Chambers. Yes, every word.
The period that follows is the most interesting of Ransome’s life. Throwing himself headlong into Russian affairs, he becomes an important conduit between the Bolsheviks and the British, defending their actions, praising their techniques, befriending their chief of propaganda as if he was an old schoolfriend. His relationship with Trotsky’s secretary lasts for years. Did I mention that he almost gets prosecuted for treason? Well, that happens too.
AFTER THESE EXTRAORDINARYevents, it’s no surprise that Ransome’s transformation into a writer of sedate and classical children’s literature is less involving. Unfortunately, it seems that way to Chambers too, and it’s disappointing that Ransome’s literary career is dealt with in such a perfunctory manner. Indeed, Swallows and Amazonsappears in bookshops for the first time less than 20 pages before the end of this biography, although it is comforting to note that Ransome was so nervous of its anticipation that he had to visit a doctor the next day.
I would have loved to read more about the effect that success had on Ransome’s life, particularly since it is made clear that he preferred novel-writing to journalism, but this is all rather skirted over and the sequence of books that followed is barely given a mention, leaving one feeling a little short-changed.
But if one approaches this as the life of Ransome pre- Swallows,then it’s a biography that succeeds on every level. Chambers approaches his subject with enthusiasm and seriousness, telling a great story along the way. Afterwards, I felt an urge to go back to the Walker children and find out whether they were really as good as they seemed all those years ago. After all, their creator was an absolute wild man.
John Boyne’s most recent novel is The House of Special Purpose(Doubleday)