Friday, 22 January 2010

New review: The Last Englishman: The Double Life of Arthur Ransome

Paul Dukes reviews Roland Chambers' The Last Englishman: The Double Life of Arthur Ransome.

by Paul Dukes,

When asked at Scotland Yard in 1919 what his politics were, Arthur Ransome answered ‘fishing’. Among his many publications were several on the same subject – competitors no doubt for the much-advertised book by J. R. Hartley. A similar English gentleman of the old school, Ransome is best known for his series on sailing and adventure in the Lake District, beginning with Swallows and Amazons, while his Old Peter’s Russian Tales will also be familiar to many readers. Rather less celebrated are his other Russian writings, in particular on aspects of the Revolution, which are the reason for ‘The Double Life’ subtitle of this most recent study by Roland Chambers who, following in the wake of other biographers, notably Hugh Brogan and Ted Alexander, subjects Ransome to further searching scrutiny. Undoubtedly, this is a most readable account and well-researched (if without notes or references). But there is one serious flaw.

Chambers errs in his assertion that Ransome was an uncritical apologist for the Bolshevik regime, romanticising Lenin and his associates rather than recognising them as ‘a gang of cut-throats’. More tellingly, he was a responsible reporter for the Manchester Guardian, describing what he witnessed, even if he provided a positive account radically different from that of nearly all other British observers. Thus, Ransome caught ‘that strange, incalculable x of revolutionary enthusiasms which… continuously provided miracles for the discomfiture of logicians’ as he himself put it in an article on the Russian Revolution that he wrote for the Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1926. To be sure, he was probably influenced by his love for Trotsky’s secretary. Possibly, too, as Chambers suggests, this nonconformity might well have stemmed from his youthful relationship with his father. For his own part, as Ransome wrote in the epilogue to his autobiography he had been ‘like a shuttlecock bandied to and fro by lunatics’. The events of which he wrote between 1917 and 1924 were indeed crazy as far as the traditional rules of his upbringing were concerned. Later, as Chambers eloquently argues, Ransome tried to reinvigorate those rules in Swallows and Amazons.

Paul Dukes is joint author (with Graeme P. Herd and Jarmo Kotilaine) of Stuarts and Romanovs: The Rise and Fall of a Special Relationship.

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