Arthur Ransome - Swallows & Amazons

At the age of forty-five, Arthur Ransome re-invented himself. And it's the later Ransome that most of us know - the jolly, keep-a-straight-bat avuncular figure who spun ripping yarns that comprise the twelve Swallows and Amazons books. Not that he planned it that way... 

In fact his success as a children's author was accidental. As he put it: "You write not for children but for yourself. And if by good fortune children enjoy what you enjoy, why then you are a writer of children's books." A simple statement - but quite a deceptive one. Because Ransome was a highly complex character.

He was - as the mood took him - a journalist, literary biographer, folklorist, bohemian, Bolshevik-sympathiser, sailor, spy, double-agent (possibly a triple-agent) with a penchant for walrus moustaches and a passion for fishing. In other words, what you saw was a lot less than what you got.

Born in 1884, the son of a university professor, Arthur Mitchell Ransome spent a less than happy time at Rugby School. He didn't do well academically and was fairly useless at sports owing to poor eyesight. Nevertheless he managed to win a place at Yorkshire College (the future Leeds University) where he spent a year discovering that he didn't want to study chemistry. Instead he decided to become a writer, worked in a publisher's office and wrote articles for a variety of magazines before winning his first book contract.

In 1913 he was sued for libel by Lord Alfred Douglas who took exception to Ransome's biography of Oscar Wilde. Ransome won the case but hated the ensuing publicity.  So he went to Russia, ostensibly to write a guidebook to St. Petersburg and research Russian fairytales. Interestingly, the boy considered 'not terribly bright' at school taught himself Russian - to a reasonable standard - in a matter of months. Which was especially useful the following year when the First World War started. Ransome became the St. Petersburg correspondent for the Daily News - a paper on the radical left - and was one of the first British journalists to interview Trotsky. 

What the arch-revolutionary thought of the eccentric Englishman remains a mystery, but Ransome found Trotsky truly inspirational and appeared to swallow the Bolshevik ideology hook, line and sinker.

He became very close friends with Karl Radek - the revolutionary movement's head of propaganda - and even closer friends with Evgenia Shelepina. She was Trotsky's secretary and would become Ransome's second wife.

The trouble was - while Ransome was writing glowing reports of the 'new Russia' and lionising its leaders (he was now on chummy terms with Lenin as well) - the rest of the British media was printing blood-curdling warnings about the 'Red Menace'. So it wasn't too surprising that in 1919, as he got off a train at King's Cross, Ransome was arrested by British Intelligence. He was cross-examined by Sir Basil Thomson, the head of Special Branch who enquired (reasonably enough) what were his politics. Apparently Ransome replied that politics didn't really interest him, whereas fishing - now that was a source of endless fascination. From that point he and Sir Basil got on like the proverbial house on fire and Ransome was recruited into MI6 as Agent S76.

Because he also worked for the Cheka - the forerunner of the KGB - Ransome was already a spy. Now he had become a double agent. However he certainly wasn't privy to any state secrets, Russian or British. He merely kept the Politburo up-to-date with British attitudes and informed MI6 as to what the Bolsheviks thought. Basically he was acting as a foreign correspondent - albeit with two paymasters. Which probably explains how he was able to commission a new yacht in Latvia and together with Evgenia, spend a holiday cruising the Baltic.

By the early twenties the Russian revolution was no longer headline news and Ransome slipped back into relative obscurity, writing fishing and boating articles for the Manchester Guardian. And that was how things remained until 1929. With the publication of Swallows and Amazons, Ransome found himself back in the spotlight. But this time as a thoroughly respectable children's author. Gone were the Communist sympathies - in later life the suggestion that he might have even left-of-centre views was met with high indignation. Gone too was the Bohemian appearance – a new visual image took its place.

So he started signing his name with a little self-portrait cartoon. The key features were a bald head, owlish glasses, pipe and that 'peering-over-a-hedge' moustache. The re-invention was complete. 'Uncle Arthur' had arrived.