My history hero: Arthur Ransome

Broadcaster John Sergeant explains why he admires the author of a classic series of children's novels

John Sergeant

This article was first published in the April 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine 

Arthur Ransome is best known for writing the classic Swallows and Amazons series of young people’s novels, set in the Lake District and the Norfolk Broads. Earlier in his career, he worked as a literary writer and as a foreign correspondent, reporting on the First World War and the Russian Revolution. Ransome was also acquainted with Lenin and Trotsky and in 1924 the latter’s former secretary, Evgenia Petrovna Shelepina, become his second wife.

This article was first published in the April 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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Arthur Ransome is best known for writing the classic Swallows and Amazons series of young people’s novels, set in the Lake District and the Norfolk Broads. Earlier in his career, he worked as a literary writer and as a foreign correspondent, reporting on the First World War and the Russian Revolution. Ransome was also acquainted with Lenin and Trotsky and in 1924 the latter’s former secretary, Evgenia Petrovna Shelepina, become his second wife.

When did you first hear about Arthur Ransome?

As a child, when I read Swallows and Amazons, and then more importantly when I had a family of my own – and we regarded it not so much as a work of fiction, but as a guide book. We’d visit the Lake District or the Norfolk Broads most years and go sailing or camping, and do all the things that Ransome wrote about.

What kind of person was he?

First and foremost, a very good children’s writer – and there was an innocence about him that shone through in his books. He wasn’t at all the sort of person that you’d expect to cover the Russian Revolution. He’d originally gone to Russia to write about its folklore but when war and revolution broke out found himself in the middle of this wild struggle; I think he found himself out of his depth. He was accused of sucking up to the Bolsheviks and on his return to Britain was interviewed by Special Branch and asked if he was a communist sympathiser. When asked what his politics were, he replied “fishing”, and I think he said so without irony.

What made him a hero?

He taught us to take childhood seriously. The Victorians thought youngsters should be seen but not heard – that’s a big mistake. Childhood is something that you should put in a bottle, and every now and then take a swig from: there’s a difference between being childish and childlike and I think Ransome subscribed to that. His stories are terrific escapism and bring alive the romance of the Lakes, while never patronising or talking down to young people. I am also fascinated by the fact that he was there at these amazing moments in history, like the Russian Revolution.

What was Ransome’s finest hour?

Settling down in the Lake District, which he’d known as a child, with Trotsky’s former secretary – and creating the world of Swallows and Amazons. He put away his journalist’s pen and conjured up what it was like to have this idyllic childhood. He knew children wanted adventure and to widen their experiences, and do all the things he has them doing: be it sailing or fishing.

He explained how to do these things in an engaging way, giving his stories a guidebook quality. I think his children’s books were in part a reaction to the horrors he’d witnessed in Russia.

Is there anything you don’t particularly admire about him?

He was a bad father to his only daughter and he wasn’t very nice to the real-life children who inspired his fictional characters when they grew up. I also find it rather reprehensible the extent to which he glorified the Russian revolutionaries; he clearly got a bit carried away by them.

Are there any parallels between his life and your own?

Well, I too covered wars as a young reporter – and while I don’t want to exaggerate my role, like him I went to a lot of dangerous places. I also have a Russian connection: my maternal grand-mother was Russian, and my mother was born in Odessa and always felt Russian in some ways. Moreover, my father spoke Russian – my parents would speak Russian if they didn’t want us to hear what they were saying. Lastly, there’s our shared love of sailing. Unlike Ransome though, I’ve never fancied trying my luck as a children’s writer. It’s a tremendous skill and I just think it’s beyond me!

If you could meet Ransome, what would you ask him?

I’d ask a series of boating-related questions: the best place in the country to moor a boat, the best boat for young people, the best boat for older people? That sort of thing.

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John Sergeant was talking to York Membery. John Sergeant is a former political editor of ITV and chief political correspondent of the BBC. His ITV series, Barging Round Britain, concludes in April. His accompanying book is published by Michael Joseph