an Appraisal of the Man and his Writing
by Nona Stead
Aged about fourteen years, I read my very first Walmsley book. I selected Three Fevers from the library shelf, purely by chance. I became engrossed as soon as I started reading it, and was soon caught up in the lives of the Lunns and the Fosdycks. I remember thinking at the time that I was surprised that I, a young teenager, should be so fascinated by what was only a story about fishermen.
But fascinated I was and over the following years I read other Walmsley books as they came on to the library shelves. (I was not into buying books with my limited pocket money!)
So what is it about the writings of Leo Walmsley that capture the reader's attention, drawing him into the story? Frequent reference is made to his books being simple stories about simple folk told in a simple style. Generally the themes are, indeed, simple and the characters are ordinary people leading ordinary lives. But his style, which may appear simple, could only have been achieved by meticulous dedication to detail in order to produce such precise, beautiful prose, seemingly with little effort. Mastery of language has to be worked for. It is not something which comes without concentrated thought.
Walmsley's writings make compelling reading and it is this mastery of language which grips the reader, who is seduced by the fluent clarity of the prose. The characters spring to life and we associate ourselves with, for example, the young boy searching the rock pools with eager anticipation, or the fishermen facing life-threatening storms at sea with a calm bearing, relying on years of experience to combat the vagaries of sea and weather. His descriptions of characters provide one with an almost photographic image.
The autobiographical aspect of the books is frequently referred to and it is this which gives us clues as to how Walmsley's personality influenced his writing. There are times when he comes to a halt and cannot see how to resolve a situation. He becomes depressed and feels that he will have to leave the book unfinished. On other occasions a thought strikes him, and he becomes excited with the idea for a new book or how to continue one which had been put to one side. These reveal an important aspect of his character: he approached life with energy and vigour, and was referred to by an acquaintance as someone who entered a room 'like an imminent thunderstorm'. His interests were wide and varied and he focussed on everything with an intensity which conveyed his enthusiasm to his reader. At the beginning of Invisible Cargo, he referred to having been born with 'a strong bump of curiosity', which encompassed every aspect of life, however ordinary it may appear to others. As we read Walmsley's descriptions, we too realise that there is an excitement and fascination in the simple things of life, and they are no longer ordinary.
Leo Walmsley started writing at the instigation of his great friend, Sam Wilson. The interest which they shared – the marine life of the north Yorkshire coast – was so important to them that they were sure that it would be of interest to the wider public. Walmsley, excited by the idea, immediately put pen to paper to produce an article which he sent to the Whitby Gazette. It proved to be popular with the paper's readership. More articles on the same theme were written and accepted, culminating in his first book – a thirty-six page handbook entitled: A Guide to the Geology of the Whitby District. This was printed by the owners of the Whitby Gazette, Horne and Sons, in 1914. The fact that this is accepted as an important record of the subject underlines Walmsley's ability to study a topic and then convey his observations in print. Over the years further studies have produced additional insight into geological knowledge, but Walmsley's book is still being sold in the district.
In the years following World War 1, Walmsley wrote a prodigious number of short stories on diverse topics. War service enabled him to expand his understanding of the wider world, particularly Africa, which formed the basis of many of his stories. He acquired a deep love of Africa, and with his all-embracing quest for knowledge, assimilated every aspect, compartmentalising it at the back of his mind for future use. After the War, when he and his first wife, Suzanne, travelled on the continent and further afield, their adventures added to his fund of subjects for short stories. He was able to make a somewhat precarious living but he was never satisfied with what he wrote, confident that he had the ability to write to a far higher standard. However, his stories and articles served as an apprenticeship and were an indication of the path he would take in future years. The short stories revealed the quality of Walmsley's narrative ability. He was a born raconteur with remarkable descriptive powers, which greatly enhanced the subject matter of the lectures which he gave at the end of and after the War. He was noted as being gifted with fluency of speech and having a 'power of graphic description'. His lectures were well-attended and he proved to be a popular lecturer. This gift as a storyteller was to form the basis for his novels which were to bring him to literary prominence in the 1930s and later.
In Three Fevers, the first of these novels, the opening sentence immediately captures the reader's attention: 'It was treacherous weather even for a Bramblewick December'.
The scene is set and the reader is intrigued. He is compelled to read the next sentence, the next paragraph, until he is completely under the spell of this story-teller. As a writer, Walmsley has a magical way with words. His descriptions are such that it is akin to having a photo-image before the eyes: the characters are real people and the sea, the cliffs and moors are waiting for us to explore. In the first few pages we are introduced to the main characters:
Of these three men with whom I had joined company, Marney (slender of build, yet lithe as a monkey) was quick, high-spirited, devil-may-care, reckless. John, two years his senior, (yet still unmarried) more sturdily built, almost thick-set, was slow, ponderous, moody, seemingly over-cautious. And Henry, the father, still in his physical prime, seemed to combine what was sound in the characters of both his sons with a mature strength, a quiet audacity, a profound experience of life which made their partnership ideal.
Three Fevers, Walmsley Society, page 19
We now have an insight into their personalities and appearance, but Walmsley considered that more was required to complete the picture:
All of them were fair-haired, blue-eyed with full mouths and even white teeth, denoting their remote Scandinavian origin. They spoke the long-vowelled dialect of the coast with its rich Scandinavian vocabulary and idiom.
Three Fevers, Walmsley Society, page 19
In modern literature, many authors consider it necessary to give detailed accounts of sexual prowess, but Walmsley conveys in a few words the passionate attraction which Marney and his wife had for each other. Amy was: '...vital and primitive, as Marney was. Their mating had been quick and the child had sealed the bond between them... (Three Fevers, Walmsley Society, page 49).
If further words were needed, they came after an exchange of good-natured banter between Amy and Marney:
She was fiercely proud of Marney; jealous for his reputation, and more subtly, for their marriage partnership. She would never boast about his courage, his contempt for danger... The last thing she would admit to anyone, least of all to Marney himself, was that she considered him without equal as a man, and that their partnership was perfect.
Three Fevers, Walmsley Society, page 105
Walmsley uses his descriptive powers to effect when writing about the local environment. He uses words as an artist wields brush and paint. The picture grows before the reader's eyes: the moors stretching into the far distance, colours changing with the seasons; the cliffs, sometimes appearing protective, at other times a glowering presence. The magnificent headland of Ravenscar was regarded with awe by Walmsley from boyhood and is referred to in his books, stories and articles.
That headland, whose foundations of rugged iron-stone reached out seawards like the fore-paws of an immense sculptured lion, seemed to offer a sentient defiance to the raging wind and sea. It gave one a disquieting sense of the frailty and insignificance of man. For thousands of centuries, since the great Arctic Ice Drift pressing relentlessly down the valley of the North Sea had sculptured its lionesque contours, it had looked out across the sea, bearing upon its treacherous surface the fragile crafts of venturing man.
Three Fevers, Walmsley Society, page 96
His perception of seemingly commonplace aspects of the environment is of such sensitivity that Walmsley surprises the reader into looking at things in a completely different light. A Guide to Lancashire and
Yorkshire, written for the Festival of Britain in 1951, is unlike any guide which I have read. It is the story of the two counties, their rich background, the scenery, towns and villages. He takes us on two journeys from the east coast to the west coast: the northern journey through glorious landscapes; the southern, a complete contrast, travelling from one industrial town to another. It is obvious that Walmsley's love of Nature draws him to the northern route, but he can still see the richness and vitality of the southern regions of the counties. They are essential to the life of the people who live there and the nation as a whole. Walmsley's understanding and concern for the working man is revealed in another non-fiction book, Ports and Harbours. Writing about the northeast, with its shipbuilding tradition, he referred to a tour he made of the area in 1935 when it was classed as a distressed area due to severe unemployment.
It was pitiful to see these men standing outside the employment exchanges. They were not starved. The dole at least gave them food. They were not ill-clad or dirty. In fact, their cleanliness and the whiteness of their hands were as tragically significant as the expression of boredom and hopelessness in their eyes.
Ports and Harbours, Collins, pages 25-6
How poignant a remark that is and how perceptive that the white hands of men used to manual labour should be 'tragically significant.' Walmsley had a gift for seeing the importance of something which many people would ignore. A further point he made was that industrial depression affects the local trade: 'Only the pawnshop prospers.' (Ports and Harbours, Collins, page 26.)
Remarks such as these can make the reader look with new insight at something which might have slipped by unnoticed. They also reveal Walmsley's social conscience which is in evidence in Phantom Lobster when he visits a factory in the Midlands when searching for a firm to make the folding lobster pot which he had invented. The description of this episode is so brilliantly portrayed that the writing can be compared with Dickens. To my mind it is literature of the highest standard and deserves to be quoted in detail. As Walmsley enters the workshop, his ears are assaulted by the sound of 'clanging, thumping, roaring machines.' The women attending them seem like 'deaf mutes'.
Their faces, in the glare of the electric lamps which hung above them, eclipsing the feeble windowed glimmer of the day, were pale and expressionless. A pile of circular metal blanks lay on a tray by the side of each machine. A hand jerked out to the pile like a mechanical claw. A blank was seized and slipped between the machine's gaping jaws, the upper jaw thumped savagely down. The metal yelped like a hurt animal. The jaw rose up, and the shaped utensil, a metal cup, was ejected on to a travelling belt, while another blank was slipped between the jaws.
Dazed by the noise, bewildered by the intricate movements of innumerable levers, of spinning pulleys and belts and flashing wheels, I felt that I had been transported into a nightmare world. I felt that the only living things in the room were the machines. They were alive. They breathed and moved, and their noises were coherent. They had strength and knowledge and purpose and fertility. There was rhythm and beauty in their lean moving pistons, which glistened with oily sweat like the limbs of a straining athlete. But the women who served them were like corpses partly revived by some drug which kept their tissues fresh and gave them the power to stand erect and move their hands; yet left them without the power of conscious thought, or speech, or hearing; insensible to pain, incapable of emotion. It was at once horrifying and fascinating.
Phantom Lobster, Walmsley Society, pp 170-171
On leaving the factory he saw nothing which could dispel the horror of the images he carried in his mind. The dilapidation of the neighbourhood and the misery and despondency of the people only served to accentuate the feeling of despair which overcame him.
There was something infernal in all this: in the stenching sulphurous smoke, in these grimy walls behind which the machines were alive and the people were dead.
Phantom Lobster, Walmsley Society, page 175
He felt a longing for the life he knew with sight of the sea; to feel the wind and hear the sea which would reassure him that there was a different life: '…where men lived, and were masters of their boats, of their gear, of their destinies'. (Phantom Lobster, Walmsley Society, page 195.)
I consider this chapter of Phantom Lobster to be a remarkable piece of social observation expressed in words which reveal Walmsley's skill, not only as a fine writer but also as an astute observer of life in different strata of society.
The curiosity which was evident in his childhood led him, as an adult, to take up the challenge of seeking to resolve any deficiency in his knowledge about a subject which he considered he should fully comprehend. While on holiday in Scotland with his two sons, they visited the Clyde shipyards, and Walmsley was mortified when he could not answer their questions about an oil-tanker which they saw. He realised, to his disgust that his knowledge about oil was so limited that he had far more questions to ask himself than those which his sons had asked.
As a child one of his passions had been fossil collecting.
The Liassic shales of our coast teemed with fossils. Jet was found there too, in the soft greasy shale called jet-rock which smelled strongly of paraffin. Jet itself was a form of bitumen. Sometimes, in trying to extract an ammonite from this shale with hammer and chisel, the ammonite would break, and I would find that what had once been the 'air' chambers of the shell (originally that of a squid-like marine animal) were filled with a greenish-yellow liquid, smelling of paraffin, and which, if I put a match to it, burnt fiercely. This I had taken to be petroleum, and I recalled how excited I had been the first time I had found this, thinking indeed I had 'struck oil!'
Invisible Cargo, Michael Joseph, page 16
Most people would have been reasonably content with this knowledge, but not Leo Walmsley. He questioned a nearby shipyard worker about the tanker, but what he considered to be his ignorance on the subject continued to irritate him after the holiday. By a remarkable coincidence, a few weeks later on the train to London, he met an official of Shell which resulted in the visit to Venezuela and the book Invisible Cargo.
Several of his books reveal traits of his character. Although most are written in the first person, the narrator remains a figure in the background, little of his personality being disclosed. At least that appears to be Walmsley's intention but readers can build up a picture of the writer from clues which are dropped, no doubt unwittingly, and also from what he chooses to hide. When writing about his child hood in Foreigners and Sound of the Sea, the central figure, Walmsley himself, is an only child with few friends. One would expect reference to his siblings in his autobiography, So Many Loves, but he continues the image of an only child. The only time he refers to his brothers is in a brief passage in Phantom Lobster:
…mother, with the instincts of a jungle animal, imposed upon herself the immense task of saving at least her family of three sons from Bramblewick.
Phantom Lobster, Walmsley Society, page 20
It is understandable that Walmsley considered that Foreigners and Sound of the Sea would make more appealing reading when the main character was an only child with no true friends. As a result he had to use his ingenuity to fill his life by interesting himself in the wonders of nature which surrounded him. Again we are reminded of that 'bump of curiosity' which served him from childhood to old-age.
Surprisingly it is in the only book which he was prepared to call a novel that he divulges characteristics which we realise are part of his own make-up. More importantly, the character of Edwin Knaggs in Master Mariner fulfils several ambitions which Walmsley regretted had been unobtainable in his own life. Edwin won a scholarship to university, where he studied for a science degree: 'The work that interested him most was zoology with geology a close second'. (Master Mariner, Collins 1st ed, page 134.)
He had also entered for a travelling scholarship and hoped for a career as a government naturalist. So Edwin was to achieve what Walmsley admitted in So Many Loves was the career he would have wished for had he not wasted his opportunities at school.
It is not widely known that Leo Walmsley was also a competent artist but knew that his father's ability was much greater than his, so he made no attempt to compete. In Master Mariner, Edwin Knaggs painted an underwater scene. The description of how he executed this is another passage which it is a delight to read:
It was a passionate urge to make a picture to express in line and paint, not what he had seen, but what he had felt.
He found a clean page and, without stopping to think, drew pencil lines upon it. They were single lines, free and boldly curving, each made with a single unhesitating stroke. Some were in the vertical plane, some were in the horizontal, some oblique. Vaguely they suggested the outlines of the underwater walls of the creek, the tangles and the level bottom of the sand.
Master Mariner, Walmsley Society, page 191
Then Walmsley's familiarity with watercolour becomes obvious as he describes the development of Edwin's painting in detail. After applying a thin grey wash he:
…charged a smaller brush with pure ultramarine. He applied this between two of the curving vertical lines on the right-hand side, and helped the colour to spread on the still damp paper with a brush charged with water only. Then here and there he added dabs of light red and a little sepia, helping these to spread too and blend with the blue to form a tint that varied from purple to the paler and warmer grey of a dove's breast.
Master Mariner, Walmsley Society, page 192
As Walmsley continues with the description of Edwin's painting and his feelings about what he is doing, we realise that this could only have been written by someone who had personally experienced those feelings and who had knowledge of colour and what can be achieved with paint and brush.
Another aspect of Walmsley's personality is revealed from time to time when he writes of his attitude to the development of the story-line in his current book. He must have solitude and silence – no children to disturb his concentration. This meant that Margaret, his second wife, had to accept the responsibility of the children whatever time of day (or night) Leo might be writing. In The Golden Waterwheel it becomes apparent that the building of Adder Howe (Leith Rigg) is primarily Leo's concern as he built a hut in the grounds which would ensure his privacy and when he was not writing he was on site to watch the men at work. Margaret, on the other hand, was only able to see the progress on the occasions when she had someone to care for the children. When it was technically completed they inspected it together and this gives rise to another of Walmsley's perceptive observation:
Of the many stages in the evolution of a house none is more dramatic than when the actual building is finished and the workmen have packed up, and the place stands completely empty and silent. There are no curtains, no floor coverings, no furniture, and the walls are bare. This can happen only once in its history for whoever lives in it will make marks on its structure which nothing will ever completely erase and those marks will as inevitably be evidence of the character and behaviour of the occupants.
The Golden Waterwheel, Collins 1st ed, pages 178-9
The basis of the novels covering the years of his second marriage is the love and understanding which the couple had for each other. Their life in Love in the Sun was idyllic as, on the whole, it was in The Golden Waterwheel. However, although the reader is unaware of the gradual change in their relationship, the idyll was about to come to an abrupt end. The title, The Happy Ending, is ironic as it was far from happy. Walmsley was determined to continue the appearance of a united family and he brought the book to a conclusion which was far from the truth. In a surprising contrast to the previous novels, the opening chapters of Paradise Creek reveal the correct version of what really happened to end the Walmsley family's unconventional life together, although typically the author does not divulge personal feelings. Indeed, there is merely a basic statement – no reference to his reaction to the shattering news he received. Margaret, and a friend who had been living with them, took the children away for a holiday. Shortly before they were due back, Leo received a letter:
It said that she was sorry that she had been such a long time writing, and that she had to give me unpleasant news. She only hoped that I wouldn't take it too badly. It was just that she felt that she could not go on living our unconventional and precarious life any longer. She had to think about the future of the children.
Paradise Creek, Walmsley Society, page 24
She and her friend were going to run a school together and she was going to have the children baptised. Arrangements would have to be made for him to see the children.
No, I didn't stick to the facts in that Welsh book of mine. I used what any writer is entitled to do, my imagination, and wrote it as it might have been…
Paradise Creek, Walmsley Society, page 26
We should not be surprised by this when we consider that, apart from Master Mariner, Walmsley himself is the narrator and he would be unable to continue the family saga when he was separated from his family. He could no longer hide his own personality behind that of the story-teller. Without the family, he becomes the main subject. He would be writing about his thoughts, his actions, his plans. In these circumstances, he had to admit that his life had been turned upside down, that he was on his own and had to make a new life for himself. The few words he used to acquaint the reader of his isolation were typical of the man. No indication was given of his reaction to the devastating blow he had been dealt nor was there reference to his emotions. So even in circumstances which, in fact, left him desolate, deeply wounded and, at times, suicidal, he retained an aloofness from the narrator.
However, the love he had for his children was so great that this was one aspect about which he could not remain reticent. We learn from Paradise Creek that he did everything he could to persuade his wife to change her mind, consulting doctors, psychiatrists and lawyers, but to no avail. Yet he never gave up hope that something would happen and he would be reunited with his family. Returning to the Cornish hut was an inspired attempt to achieve his aim. Margaret would not change her mind, but allowed the children to spend a holiday with him. He waited on the station platform, then:
I swallowed the lump that had come into my throat. The children had spotted me, were waving their hands, racing up the platform…
And I ran towards them, to catch the winner of the race in my arms; to hear again that lovely word, 'Daddy!', 'Daddy!', 'Daddy!
Paradise Creek, Walmsley Society, page 157
So here at last we have Leo Walmsley allowing himself to reveal his true feelings, his emotion, to a greater extent than anywhere else in his writing and we can continue our search for the true character of Walmsley. It is not easy and away from the writings, when we hear reports from people who had known him, we find conflicting opinions. Comparing attitudes of Robin Hood's Bay residents with those of Fowey, they could be referring to two completely different people. However, from his books, we are able to build our own picture of him.
One of the delights of reading Walmsley's books is that they can be read over and over again and we still find something new. How often does the reader stop in order to read again a phrase or paragraph which stands out because of the beauty of the prose or a starkly graphic description? Analysing Walmsley's writing is no easy matter and each individual reader would put his own interpretation on the style. However, there was one person who had the scholastic discernment which enabled him to express to perfection, in a few sentences, Leo Walmsley's art as a storyteller and as a master of his craft. This was Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch to whom Walmsley had sent the manuscript of Three Fevers.
Three Fevers gave me a surprise and a shock of delight. The story, in itself simple, is so simply and classically told that maybe only those acquainted with inshore fishermen will recognise its accuracy of detail and only those who understand the reticence in Art will admire the anatomy of this piece of work as it should be admired.
Talk about 'masterpieces' comes easily to the pen these days. I can only say that I laid down this book with a respectful wonder, as a bright thing sired by Art out of Knowledge.
No further words are required in appraisal of Leo Walmsley's writings. As for the man himself, that is for each individual reader to reach his own conclusion. And that is a pleasant task.
Horsforth, September 2006
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