Swallows and Bolsheviks

‘Mine has not been a life of consistent effort towards a single end. It seems to me that I have been like a shuttlecock bandied to and fro by lunatics. I seem to have led not one life, but snatches from a dozen lives.’

Arthur Ransome

I’ve never read Swallows and Amazons; I keep on meaning to get around to it but I starting to suspect that the gulf between me and a group of early 20th century children messing around with boats in the lake district is too wide to bridge.

However, there was so much more to the author than sailing idioms and high japes on the low seas. For some reason I keep on bumping into him in books and it’s obvious he led an incredibly interesting life. Did you know he was one of the first members of the British Secret Service? That he ran away from the Bolshevik revolution and then managed to successfully argue his way back in over a game of chess? That the kids in Swallows and Amazons were actually based on a Syrian family from Allepo on holiday in the lake district?

For a while it felt like every time I read a book about interwar politics and history Arthur appears somewhere off to stage left, with a small but vital role in world changing events. I’m in awe of his quietly extraordinary life and I wonder whether the children who met him sailing in the lake district had any idea that they were playing with  Trotsky’s confidante. I’m lucky to have had had a ringside seat to some of the political upheavals  Britain has faced over the last few years and believe me politics is an addictive spectator sport. I’d love to have been able to have swapped anecdotes with him and understand just how much what I’ve been witness to is a pale shadow of his experiences.

Anyway, I’m posting this to urge people to take a closer look at him. This book is the one that sparked my interest:

Blood Red, Snow White, by Marcus Sedgewickblood red snow whiteAnd Griff Rhys Jones did a documentary on his life for the BBC. You can watch it on Iplayer here.   

I’d love to read the new biography too,  The Last Englishman, by Roland Chambers.

the last englishman

Finally here’s the article I came across this morning  on the children who inspired Swallows and Amazons that got me thinking about Arthur Ransome and his adventures:




2 thoughts on “Swallows and Bolsheviks

  1. Hi, I was intrigued by your Arthur Ransome blog. I know nothing about his life, and never read his stories as a child. I discovered them as a librarianship student and loved them. I would have loved them as a child, too, as I loved adventure stories where the parents were conveniently absent, such as the Famoust ~Five and the Kathleen Fidler Brydens series.

    I havent had time to follow up your references but will certainly do that. Thank you.


    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Veronica! Yes – he was a very interesting man. I love kids adventure stories too, and am thinking about doing a post on them at some point. It’s really interesting that the ‘golden age’ of that sort of novel (with a couple of outliers) was the late 19th and early 20th century. Return of the Antelope, Five Children and It, Peter Pan, The Chalet School series, and even Little Women, are about children whose parents are missing, out of shot, or lost. Why do you think that is? I have my suspicions – but I want to think about it a bit more before sharing. You’ve really got me thinking about this now! There’s a documentary series on IPlayer called the Secret Life of Books which recently did an episode on E Nesbit. You should check it out. I hope you like the books I suggested – Blood Red and Snow White was fantastic, and the one that really piqued my interest.


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