The Last Englishman

Roland Chambers

First things first: was AR a spy? Well don't hold your breath...

The book doesn't really answer the question; was he a spy in the sense of a useful conduit, a source of useful, nice-to-have general information, or a source of hard info?

The book doesn't say. It’s much better than that- it relies on hard sources, memos, letters. And there simply isn't enough to give a definite answer, so Chambers doesn't give one.

What a relief.

AR was certainly providing information to MI6, in general terms, and providing the Soviet secret service with general info back from the Western side. He did it to preserve his position, which preserved his job and probably his life, and being a journalist was what made him what he was, a superb writer with a pared down style that felt like no style at all, lean and sinewy, and producing superb English that suited direct story telling like nothing else did. Chambers attributes this to having to compose cables from Moscow to his English newspapers at crippling cable rates.

It also made it possible, eventually, for him to get Evgenia out to the West, quite probably saving her life, and carrying with her precious stones to finance the Comintern, the international arm of the Communist administration.

The book gives a fascinating and detailed outline of the Communist revolution, in all its optimism and genuine horror, as AR saw it. And it confirms AR's character as a romantic dreamer. As the Soviet secret police, the Cheka, arrested and executed, on occasion, hundreds of people in a single day, AR's despatches were justifying these excesses. He had fallen completely in ideological love with Lenin, and his concept of the necessity of Terror in buttressing the revolution. In fact some of the best passages in the book are about AR's worship of Lenin the man, and the revolutionary.

Because, however fascinating the historical background, this book is wonderfully revealing about AR the man. It fills in the early years, his hatred of his boarding schools and the dreadful blow of the loss of his father from an infection caused by a walking accident in the Lake District. Ransome was never free of tensions and anxieties, never sufficiently sure of himself; maybe this was what turned his interests to Faery, what nowadays would count as fey stuff, but which did offer a career path as a writer. Chambers handles this part of the story well, although nothing completely, other than naivety, explains his shipwreck of a marriage to Ivy. This catastrophe, and the failure of the relationship with his daughter Tabitha, recur throughout the book, well placed to keep the story moving and AR’s character illuminated.

The first world war exemplified Marx's saying that "Wars are the express trains of history". AR went to Russia in part to escape Ivy, and also to collect and publish Russian fairy tales, but was completely derailed by the war, which was clearly, in this story, worse for Tsarist Russia than for any of the other participants. AR took on a correspondent's role, as a way to stay in Russia and to earn a living, and there met the love of his life, Evgenia. As Trotsky's private secretary, she became a vital link to Karl Radek, Trotsky's propaganda chief and AR's chess partner, who provided early and deeply unreliable story material. Evgenia was the "tall jolly girl" he described to his mother in letters home, and provides one of the pleasures of the book as the subject of the well chosen photographs. Not many, but gems, with Evgenia in the early days standing a good head over a Bolshevik officer, which shows how pretty and amusing she must have been; frankly sexy, which with her contacts must have made her totally irresistible to AR, and a much later picture from 1972, where as AR's widow she poses with her two sisters, survivors from deep in the Soviet system, both looking absolutely as you'd expect of deep dyed Russian Communist women, while Evgenia looks for all the world like a refined bourgeois Englishwoman. It speaks worlds... AR returned to England with Evgenia – not a smooth path, involving divorce from Ivy and a devastating final break with Tabitha, again well told and put into context.

AR the S&A author has been well explained. Reading "The Last Englishman" along with the interview with Philippa Ryan, by Roger Wardale, posted on "All Things Ransome", explains AR as well as it's possible to do so; how AR was driven by guilt and the certain knowledge that he must have had that his reports on the Bolshevik revolution must have been naive, but it also explains that it sprang from idealism. As the *real* spy George Blake, one of the most successful in history, has said "There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with Communism, it’s just that it happened in Russia". AR had plenty to reproach himself with, both personally and professionally, and as Philippa Ryan said, writing the stories was cathartic for him. Even despite the agony of Evgenya's coruscating criticism of the books as each was completed they brought him back to the world he had had to abandon so very long before, and which was where he preferred to exist.

And this book explains the how and the why – remarkably, and extremely entertainingly. It's really good, and fully deserves its plaudits and awards.

Reviewed by Peter Ceresole, May 2015.

This article is ©2015 by Peter Ceresole, and posted on All Things Ransome with permission.

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