Arthur Ransome is a beloved if minor figure in 20th-century letters. Generations of British readers have grown up with his “Swallows and Amazons” series of young adult novels, the first of which was published in 1930. In these 12 books, children on holiday in the Lake District of England and elsewhere occupy themselves sailing, camping, fishing and playing at pirates. Contemporary readers raised on blood sport in Panem may find the series tame, but the novels are charming and well told. In the few weeks that I’ve contemplated the story of Ransome’s life, every mention of his name to a British acquaintance has elicited a fond smile; from every American it has drawn a blank.
Ransome began “Swallows and Amazons” at the age of 45 after concluding a career as a foreign correspondent. Writing for several British papers, he spent 11 years in and out of Russia during World War I, the revolution and the civil war that followed. Among the ranks of journalists who covered these events, including overt partisans like John Reed, he again cut a minor figure, one who found revolutionary ferment less exhilarating than taxing. “Russia is all very well,” he told his mother, “but too much Russia makes men mad, besides wearing them out.” Even when chasing the big story, he longed for the lush green English landscape and a place to cast his line.
The enduring affection for “Swallows and Amazons” has ensured a readership for several biographies of Ransome, his own memoir and a 2003 study, “Ransome in Russia,” by Ted Alexander and Tatiana Verizhnikova, that covers very much the same ground as “The Last Englishman.” In this new volume, Roland Chambers, a British author of children’s books, wonders whether Ransome served as a double agent, working on behalf of the Bolsheviks as well as for British intelligence. Although Chambers doesn’t find new evidence of treachery, the old evidence of a confused and compromised journalist is damning enough.
David R. Godine, Publisher is proud to be the US publisher for the entire "Swallows and Amazons" series.