Two great writers meet in Southwold as the Red Skies of war loom
- Credit: Mike Kwasniak
Was Southwold the location for a meeting between two literary heavyweights just as the Second World War was about to erupt?
Did Swallows and Amazons author Arthur Ransome meet up with fellow wordsmith George Orwell as the storm clouds of war began to gather?
According to writer and Eastern Angles founder Ivan Cutting, it’s not only possible it’s also more than likely. Both men were in Suffolk at the time. Arthur Ransome loved sailing and had his boat moored at Pin Mill and George Orwell (aka Eric Blair) was in Southwold taking care of his elderly father.
As war looked increasingly imminent Ransome was advised to put his boat, Selina King, into dry dock in Lowestoft for the duration of the hostilities. In early September 1939 he sailed up the coast and Ivan believes, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that he broke his journey at Southwold and the famous writers met up for a drink at Southwold Harbour.
Red Skies, Eastern Angles’ summer tour, is an imagining of how that fateful encounter would have gone.
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The play opens just as war looks inevitable. In Southwold Orwell’s father is dying just as Arthur Ransome, along with his wife Evgenia, is sailing up the coast from Pin Mill.
When Orwell, who is about to write Animal Farm, learns that Evgenia was the former secretary of Russia’s revolutionary leader, Trotsky, and that Ransome used to play chess with Lenin, he hurries down to the harbour – these are people he has to meet.
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Ivan Cutting said that his inspiration for the play came from a new biography of Orwell and the realisation that he took his name from the Ipswich river. Ivan said: “‘It was one of those lightening-strike moments. After directing We Didn't Mean to Go to Sea, our play based on Ransome’s book, I was reading a new biography on Orwell and realised the two authors were so close by in 1939 - it was a way of engineering an imaginary meeting and everything flowed from there.”
He added that 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.
Ivan’s play shows that with their shared interest in fishing, fables and the east coast, Orwell and Ransome begin a tentative friendship, until a mutual suspicion of spies causes sparks to fly. There are also hints of a bruised ego when it becomes clear that Blair is more interested in meeting Trotsky’s secretary than a fellow writer.
The comic, clever and at times deeply personal new play, probes behind the façade of two famous authors to find the secrets that both inspired and haunted them. Resolution comes in 1950 with a new decade, and Orwell’s final days.
Ivan admits that the pair weren’t close but a meeting could easily have happened during the run-up to the outbreak of war.
“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.
“But, the fact that Evgenia, Ransome’s wife, was once Leon Trotsky's secretary would have been a tremendous incentive for Orwell to meet them.
“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 Ransome 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.
“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.”
The intrigue wrapped up in Ransome’s flight from Russia has been increased further by recent discoveries in the archives that reveal that Evgenia smuggled out diamonds and pearls in her underwear.
“Why she did this we don’t know. Was it 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.”
After more than a year’s delay, Ivan is delighted that Red Skies is finally going before an audience. The play, directed by Nicola Pollard, was ready to go out on tour in March 2020 just as lockdown was introduced. Now 16 months later, with cast intact, the play has been re-rehearsed and is ready to explore the possibility of an extraordinary meeting of minds in September 1939.
Ivan said: “When you start doing research, you find more links. The more you look, the more you find.
“I have always wanted to write a play about Eric Blair in Southwold but when I discovered that Arthur Ransome was sailing up the coast at the same time and the pair could have met, that was the moment Red Skies was born.”
Red Skies, by Ivan Cutting, Eastern Angles summer tour, runs from July 1-31.
For full details of dates, locations and to book tickets go the Eastern Angles website.