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Arthur Ransome: A Double Agent

John Simkin

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Roland Chambers has just published a biography of Arthur Ransome entitled The Last Englishman. In the book he reveals he was a double agent. He explained the discovery in an article he write for the Guardian in 2005.

There are some stories that go against the cultural grain so deeply that we refuse to believe them. Arthur Ransome's "secret life" is apparently one of them. Last week the National Archives released papers proving that England's best-behaved children's author was a spy and possibly a double agent during the Russian revolution; that he wrote pro-Bolshevik articles for liberal newspapers and married Trotsky's private secretary. But why does this come as a surprise? Ransome's work for the Daily News and Manchester Guardian provoked whispered speculation in his own lifetime, and occasionally open controversy. Since 1991 a trickle of documents have leaked into the public realm confirming his work for MI6 and Lenin's high opinion of him as a source of intelligence. Yet each time this story is told it provokes as much astonishment and disbelief as the last.

It is not, perhaps, the fact that Ransome was a spy that we find so incredible. It is simply that the man who wrote Swallows and Amazons, who epitomised the plain talking and simple moral values that once made the empire great, could have been so complicated. In short it seems that we are doomed to think of Ransome according to the rigid stereotypes that informed his own novels. He is either a fat, rosy-cheeked Captain Flint: your best friend by the campfire, the firmest hand at the tiller; or he is "Black Jake", a pantomime pirate, creeping stealthily up the anchor chain or tossing his best friends to the sharks. It never appears to enter anybody's head to look further, to see a man whose life defied all such cliches, whether he was prepared to admit it to himself or not.

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