PETER FROST tells the fascinating story of the man who wrote Swallows and Amazons.
It was exactly one hundred years ago in the spring of 1913 that a man who was to become one of Britain’s best known children’s authors set off for St Petersburg. That man was Arthur Ransome.
The young Ransome had already made something of a reputation both as a children’s author and also writing about London’s Bohemian set. He had written books about Edgar Allan Poe and Oscar Wilde
Ransome saw himself trapped in an unhappy marriage and in an effort to escape he arranged a commission to write an English language guide on St.Petersburg.
It proved an exciting time to be in Russia. With the outbreak of the First World War the London Daily News asked Ransome send reports from Eastern Front
St Peterburg became a focus for world news with first the 1905 revolution and in 1917 the Russian Revolution.
Ransome sent back reports and made friends with both Lenin, Trotsky and other Bolshevikleaders.
He played chess with Lenin and fell in love with Trotsky’s secretary Evgenia Shelepina.
The couple shared a love of sailing. Evgenia knew well the waters of the Baltic and in later life some of their sailing adventures would inspire parts of his famous Swallows and Amazons series of boating books.
In the square below his St Petersburg office window Ransome watched a group of young female Bolsheviks patrolling and drilling. He discovered they had a nickname. They called themselves the Amazons. Arthur made a note of the name in his notebook – it might come in handy in later life.
His reports printed in English newspapers showed his sympathy with the Bolsheviks and the aims of their revolution.
In 1919, back in England, he wrote Six Weeks in Russia, an account of the revolution and an explanation for the signing of the Brest-Litovsk.
The book’s outspoken opinions caused the Foreign Office to try and stop him returning to Russia but a campaign by the editor of the Manchester Guardian regained him his passport and his right to travel.
He hurried back to St Petersburg, to Lenin, Trotsky and his beloved Evgenia.
For the next five years Ransome’s reports from Russia appeared in both the Manchester Guardian and the Observer. A further book The Crisis in Russia was published in 1921.
In 1924 Ransom, now divorced from his first wife, married, Evgenia Shelepina they would live and sail happily together for the rest of their lives.
Lenin had a job for the couple. When they left the Soviet Union they had over two million roubles worth of Soviet diamonds and other jewels hidden in their luggage.
This smuggled treasure was to fund the founding and developing of the young Communist Parties in Europe and Britain. It would also pay for propaganda work by the Communist International.
In 1929, living happily in England with Evgenia, Ransome began writing novels for children. The first was Swallows and Amazons – the rest is literary history.
Each time Ransome came back to England he was interviewed by Military Intelligence officers. They questioned him about his political sympathies.
“Just what exactly are your politics Mr Ransome” one inquisitor demanded.
Ransome calmly and slowly lit his pipe before giving the single word answer. “Fishing”.
Over the years, since his death in 1967, various secret files on Ransome have been released.
Countless newspaper articles and books have speculated that Ransome was variously a communist; a Soviet agent; a British spy working for MI6; or even a double or triple agent.
What was he? I don’t know.
I’m not sure I even care. I do know I still read his books. My favourite is We didn’t mean to go to sea. It’s still a ripping yarn.
Almost as good a story, in fact, as the truth about the life of the man who wrote it.
This article first appeared in the Morning Star