History Society and Slavonic Society Mr Roland Chambers on the double life of Arthur Ransome

The first meeting of the History Society of the Half took place as both a joint meeting with the Slavonic Society and as an event in the Windsor Festival, so there was a large audience in Upper School to hear Roland Chambers (OE). A man with a fairly picaresque life-story himself – graduate of Polish film school, former private investigator in Moscow – he was talking about the ‘double life’ of Arthur Ransome, best known as author of the much loved Swallows and Amazons, but in his earlier days involved in the tumultuous affairs of the Russian Revolution and Civil War. He had already then been sued for his biography of Oscar Wilde and was on the run from an unhappy marriage. He ended up as a special correspondent in Moscow and Petrograd, interviewing Lenin and, ultimately, marrying Trotsky’s secretary. His best friend of that time was the head of Bolshevik propaganda, Radek. British intelligence regarded him with deep suspicion, but, after the failure of efforts to overthrow the Reds, he was the only British figure close to the Russian leadership – so he was promptly recruited into MI6. All the same, on his return to Britain he was arrested and interrogated by the Head of Special Branch. Asked his politics, however, he said ‘fishing’. They ended up in a restaurant for lunch. Ransome was always a strange kind of possible revolutionary – his godfather had been in Gladstone’s last Cabinet. Instead, Chambers argued, he was a particular kind of late Imperial Englishman – like Clive, or Younghusband, or Churchill, who went abroad for their adventures in the epoch of Empire and then returned – in Ransome’s case to his beloved Lake District and his children’s books, hopefully with Evgenia out of the reach of the NKVD. The sailors of Swallow went on many voyages to different parts of the globe, but they never set sail to Russia.

Andrew Robinson