New play brings 1984 and Swallows and Amazons authors together
PUBLISHED: 18:31 13 March 2020 | UPDATED: 09:02 14 March 2020
@ Mike Kwasniak Photography
As World War II loomed, authors George Orwell and Arthur Ransome were both in the vacinity of Southwold. Did the two political activists meet up? Eastern Angles writer Ivan Cutting believes it was highly likely and has penned a play about the fateful encounter
East Anglia has always been a great meeting place for artists and writers. Everyone from Charles Rennie Mackintosh to Philip Wilson Steer; Benjamin Britten to Richard Curtis have made their homes here and more importantly found inspiration for their work under Suffolk's big skies and wind-blown beaches and its tranquil, green countryside.
Now Eastern Angles are telling the story of how two literary giants may have crossed paths in Southwold on the eve of war in August 1939. George Orwell aka Eric Blair was living in the town while Swallows and Amazons author Arthur Ransome was sailing his yacht Selina King up the coast to a dry dock in Lowestoft. She was normally moored at Pin Mill on the River Orwell, close to where she was launched in 1938, but the onset of the Second World War persuaded him he needed to keep his precious boat safe, hence the trip up the coast.
As Eastern Angles writer and artistic director Ivan Cutting points out: 'It's not beyond the bounds of possibility that when Arthur Ransome put in at Southwold that Eric Blair would come down to the harbour looking for him, particularly as Ransome's wife Evgenia was once Leon Trotsky's secretary.
'Our spring tour Red Skies is all about what happened if or when George Orwell met Arthur Ransome and the effect the meeting had on them both.
'They weren't close. You can't even say that they were in each others orbit. But, there was a time when Arthur Ransome mixed with the literary crowd in the London clubs and Orwell was there doing his radio work so they could have met but I suspect that the time was not right because Orwell was becoming more political and Ransome less so.'
Although Arthur Ransome is best known for writing the children's adventure novels Swallows and Amazons and We Didn't Mean To Go Sea, in his younger days he visited Russia prior to the revolution to study Russian folklore and at the start of the First World War, he became a foreign correspondent and covered the war on the Eastern Front for a radical newspaper, the Daily News. He also covered the Russian Revolutions of 1917 and came to sympathise with the Bolshevik cause, becoming personally close to such leading figures as Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky. He also met the woman who would become his second wife, Evgenia Petrovna Shelepina, who worked as Trotsky's personal secretary.
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It was this connection which Ivan believes would have spurred George Orwell down to Southwold harbour to search out Ransome and his wife as they broke their journey up the coast.
'We know that George Orwell was in Southwold at the time for the funeral of his father and it's not beyond the bounds of possibility that news got out that the famous author Arthur Ransome was in town and George would have wanted to meet him, not because he was an admirer of his novels but because his wife was Trotsky's secretary.'
The play explores the relationship between the two men and between their wives. It appears that Evgenia got on very well with Sonia Brownell, the artistic powerhouse who became Orwell's second wife. Sonia knew almost everyone in the literary and artistic circles of the time and probably was the cement that allowed this unlikely meeting to take place.
'Orwell goes hurrying down to the harbour and our play Red Skies, revolves around the question why has Orwell made this special journey to meet someone he doesn't know. Evgenia says: 'You say you've come down to meet a famous author but no you haven't. You've come down to meet me. You are now saying one thing and doing something different which means you're a spy.' Orwell is outraged he was completely opposed to spying which is what drove him back to Britain during the Spanish Civil War.
'But, Ransome is sympathetic to Orwell because of his past covering the Russian Revolution for the Manchester Guardian. For a while he was very friendly with Lenin playing chess with him but eventually he and Evgenia had to flee because of the troubles between the new government and the White Russians.
'Ransome's marriage is fascinating because at one point we he asks his wife: 'Did I get you out of Russia or did you get me out of Russia?' And recent discoveries in the archives reveal that Evgenia smuggled out diamonds and pearls in her underwear in order to, perhaps, further the revolution or maybe set them up with a comfortable lifestyle back in the west. Maybe they used the money to buy a boat? Nobody knows except we do know they did smuggle out those gems.'
Ivan said that he had long wanted to write a play about Eric Blair in Southwold but when he discovered that Arthur Ransome was sailing up the coast at the same time and the pair could have met, then the play Red Skies was born.
'And then you start doing research and you find more links. The more you look, the more you find.'
Red Skies, by Ivan Cutting, Eastern Angles spring tour opens on March 18 at the John Peel Centre in Stowmarket and tours until May 30. Dates, locations and tickets can be booked online at easternangles.co.uk