Jim Riordan: Russianist and children's author - Obituaries - News - The Independent

Jim Riordan: Russianist and children's author


James Riordan, a self-proclaimed "working class oik from Portsmouth" and known to everyone as Jim, rose to become a respected Russianist, translator and author of over 20 books, including the standard studies of sport in the Soviet Union. He also claimed to be the first Briton to play for a Russian professional football team.

Riordan's childhood was not easy – his father left when Riordan was two and he shared a bed with three aunts – though he claimed to have enjoyed scrambling around Portsmouth's bombsites. However, when Riordan was nine he was in an air-raid shelter that was bombed, killing several people nearby and leaving him suffering from such severe shock that for over 50 years it was a repressed memory before he worked elements of it into his first novel.

Riordan signed up for national service and learned Russian, before graduating from the University of Birmingham, and qualifying as a teacher. A spell in Berlin, dismay at social injustice and resentment of officers' sense of entitlement hardened his left-wing sympathies and he joined the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1959.

In 1961 he went to Moscow to study politics at the Higher Party School, alongside Alexander Dubcek. There he was "treated" to meetings with luminaries including Yuri Gagarin and Ho Chi Minh.

As a translator, Riordan had to wade through Lenin's complete works, a task he found incredibly boring. However, he was also able to work on the Soviet Union's vast tradition of children's writing and this later inspired his own books.

In 1963 Riordan was a pall-bearer at Guy Burgess's funeral, and he helped Donald Maclean arrange cricket matches, but his true love was football, which "has given me many of the happiest memories of my life". He was devoted to Portsmouth FC, whose fortunes he followed throughout his Moscow sojourn.

In his autobiography, Comrade Jim: the Spy Who Played for Spartak (2008), he tells how, after playing for the British Embassy and having a few kick-abouts with Spartak, the Muscovites drafted him in as a ringer for a couple of games to replace the vodka-soaked centre-half. He was announced as "Yakov Iordanov" to conceal his identity, but at 6'5" he would have been a notable presence on the pitch. He particularly enjoyed playing for Spartak, widely seen as the "people's" team; it had been set up by trades unionists and some of its members had suffered Stalinist repression.

In 1965 a mistranslation of his article "The Growing Pains of Soviet Youth" led to the incredulous question, "how can pain increase as socialism develops?", after which he was expelled. Back home, the CPGB followed the Party line, labelled him a "bourgeois bohemian" and tried to expel him. Riordan fought back and stayed a Party member until its dissolution in 1991, though he frequently disagreed with it.

Riordan held academic positions at institutions including the universities of Bradford and Surrey. His major work was on sport under communism. He traced its beginnings in Sport in Soviet Society (1977), while Sport under Communism (1981) related it to the country's health and fitness regimen. His post-perestroika works show sportsmanship and "Olympic ideals" swept aside by the country's ruthless determination to win at all costs.

In 1980 he was the attaché to the British Olympic team in Moscow and when Alexei Smertin joined Portsmouth FC in 2003, Riordan helped to smooth the way.

Meanwhile, Riordan translated and reworked over 100 children's and folk stories, some told to him by local people, in anthologies including Tales from Central Russia (1976) and Tales from Tartar (1979). He branched out into other cultures, including Ghana and Japan, before his own first novel, Sweet Clarinet (1998), told the story of a young boy injured in the blitz who gains confidence through playing music. It won the NASEN Award and was shortlisted for the Whitbread Children's Book Award. Nine more novels followed, all infused with his intense feeling for social justice: children in war is the theme of The Prisoner (1999), while Africa is the setting for the slavery story Rebel Cargo (2007). The Sniper (2008) is based on the real story of a teenaged sniper in the Siege of Stalingrad.

Retired, Riordan had a regular, and regularly provocative, column in the Portsmouth News and lived with his third wife and two cats – one, unsurprisingly, named Pompey.

James William Riordan, Russianist: born Portsmouth 10 October 1936; married first Annick (marriage dissolved, two daughters); second Rashida (one son, two daughters); third Elena; died Portsmouth 11 February 2012.

John Travolta is a qualified airline captain and employed the pilot with his company, Alto
people'That was the lowest I’d ever felt'
Life and Style
healthIt isn’t greasy. It doesn’t smell. And moreover, it costs nothing
peopleThe report and photo dedicated to the actress’s decolletage has, unsurprisingly, provoked anger
Home body: Badger stays safe indoors
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
The programme sees four specialists creating what they believe are three perfect couples, based on scientific matchmaking. The couples will not meet until they walk down the aisle together
tvUK wedding show jilted
Arts and Entertainment
US pop diva Jennifer Lopez sang “Happy Birthday” to Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, president of Turkmenistan
musicCorporate gigs become key source of musicians' income
Arts and Entertainment
You've been framed: Henri Matisse's colourful cut-outs at Tate Modern
artWhat makes a smash-hit art show
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
filmsDaniel Craig believed to be donning skis as 007 for first time
Mikel Arteta pictured during Borussia Dortmund vs Arsenal
champions league
Yes supporters gather outside the Usher Hall, which is hosting a Night for Scotland in Edinburgh
voicesBen Judah: Is there a third option for England and Scotland that keeps everyone happy?
Arts and Entertainment
Pulp-fiction lover: Jarvis Cocker
booksJarvis Cocker on Richard Brautigan
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke and Pharell Williams in the video of the song, which has been accused of justifying rape
music...and he had 'almost no part' in writing it
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Senior QA Engineer - Agile, SCRUM

£35000 - £50000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior QA Engineer (Agil...

Marketing Executive - West Midlands - £28,000

£26000 - £28000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Digital Marketing Executive (SEO, PP...

Retail Business Analyst

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our retail client ...

Senior C++ Developer

£400 - £450 Per Annum possibly more for the right candidate: Clearwater People...

Day In a Page

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week