Tuesday, 9 August 2005

Signalling from Mars

Listening to:

Shostakovich, Six romances on words by Japanese poets, Op. 21. Sung by Vladimir Kasatschuk, with the Koln Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jurowski.

Just read:

Signalling from Mars: the letters of Arthur Ransome, selected and introduced by Hugh Brogan.

Being such a Ransome fan, I was very happy to take this opportunity to get to know him a bit better. I read a biography a while ago (it might have been Brogan’s), but not much of it stuck. (Now that I have this ’log, I can record my thoughts for all posterity, and need never be in that horrible position ever again!) Reading writers’ letters is a classic literary activity. All the best authors get their correspondence collected: as I said about Jane Austen last month, it’s a great opportunity to eavesdrop on a person as they talk to friends, family and others. These days people don’t put so much into their letters, but they do write web-logs instead, so perhaps there’s some law of conservation of written evidence at work here.

Anyway. Ransome had a fascinating career. Well before his career as a children’s author, he was a well-regarded foreign correspondent for first the Daily News and then the Manchester Guardian (now just The Guardian). He got to provide coverage of the Russian Revolution, and was able to interview significant players. He met his second wife in Russia; she was Trotsky’s secretary.

Meeting a second wife while still married unfortunately meant that his relationship with his first wife, already bad, became completely awful. This also affected his relationship with his daughter, who later claimed that her mother had ceaselessly tried to turn her against him. This worked all too well, and the most depressing and sad letters in the collection are some of those between Ransome and his daughter Tabitha.

Ransome never wanted to make a career of journalism: he’d known from a young age that he wanted to be a proper writer. In 1930 he finally chucked in the Guardian (and the requirement to go to places like China and Egypt), and began his career as a full-time writer. When Swallows and Amazons and its immediate sequels came out, and were so successful, he was set for life.

There’s lots else that is interesting in Ransome’s correspondence: he exchanged a couple of letters with Tolkien; he’s constantly plotting sea voyages in the various yachts he owned and renovated; or he’s writing to his publisher in fits of anxiety about whether or not his latest is up to it, or (during the war) whether or not they had paper to print it on. All in all, a very worthwhile read.