The Last Englishman: The Double Life of Arthur Ransome, by Roland Chambers

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The Independent Culture

The Arthur Ransome of popular imagination is as buoyant as one of his lake-lashed dinghies. He created, in the Swallows and Amazons series, a 1920s halcyon dream-world anchored to a permanently playful summer holiday. The Lakes of Ransome lore remain a landscape where nature is a cipher for innocence, toil and decency. It is, as biographer Roland Chambers states, an idyll of "cotton tents and grog and tea at four, and children who say 'jolly' and play by the rules; well-behaved children who rise early and know how to do things, tie knots and sail a boat." That legacy still fills the coffers of the thriving tourist industry of Windermere and Coniston Water.

However, Chambers highlights Ransome's shifty, hypocritical character. He was, in turn, an author who idealised childhood yet used his own daughter as a go-between; a champion of the healthy outdoors life who was riddled with physical woes; and a fervent supporter of the Bolsheviks during the Russian revolution who secretly reported back to the British government. It is the last revelation that has made this volume so important, as it undermines much of the image that Ransome painted of his own psychology: that of a man who lived by a code of conduct. Initially dismissive of MI6's advances, it took him just two weeks to relent and begin a double life, spying on the very people he lauded.

Just as he passed off his first wife as a flighty liability and abandoned his family for Russia – where he fell in love with Trotsky's personal secretary – he then betrayed his new cause when public opinion started to turn against "Red Ransome". Chambers is an enthusiastic guide to the U-turns of such an unlikeable chancer. This fascinating book shows Ransome as a man without principles who more than anything wished to be seen to possess them.