– a review by Storm Jameson

from Now &Then published by Jonathan Cape, 1933

Storm Jameson
Storm Jameson

In the years before the War the early morning train from Whitby to Scarborough had three compartments reserved for children – among them the writer of this article – travelling to the Scarborough Secondary School. The train moved, very slowly, along the coast, stopping at every village to pick up farmers, market-women with their baskets, and children. The children were a noisy destructive set, the bane of porters and stationmasters. One boy who used to join the train at Robin Hood's Bay was more mischievous than any. He was short, sturdy, brown, with very bright eyes. His innate wickedness impressed itself even on our hardened spirits. One morning when the train was drawn up at a station there was a terrific crash - someone in the road had overturned a load of milk churns - the noise was frightful, like the end of the world. Without troubling to look out of the window the girl next to me exclaimed: "That will be that Leo Walmsley." No one disagreed with her.

What happened to that Leo Walmsley between that day and this cannot have been either dull or usual. I have only small fragments in my possession. But the whole pattern of any man's life is little more clear to his own mind than to the eyes of the onlooker. This is true of the simplest life - and Leo Walmsley's life until this moment cannot have been simple or lacking in violent contrasts. This book offers one corner of the pattern - and it is enough the display the toughness of the threads and the variety and richness of the colours.

Phantom Lobster is the story of one year, during which, though all but the last weeks of it were spent in the fishing village he calls Bramblewick (it is the village at which he used to join the train), poor and in debt, he lived through all the fears and hopes, the intense excitement, of the creator. What he created was not, as you would suppose, a book (though that, too, was waiting its turn), but a new kind of lobster pot. The story of this invention, and of what became of it, is more exciting than any romance. And if it had lain in his mind for some time before he wrote it, other things have grown into the story - there are tantalising glimpses of his childhood in Bramblewick, of an artist father and a mother 'handicapped by a terrifying pride ... by a powerful strain of puritanism, by an Irish imagination, tempered only a little by the solid Lancashire strain that was in her.' I hate to think what the mother must have endured in her fierce struggle to save her own spirit and her children alive from the natural hostility of Bramblewick. I know Bramblewick people. One side of my own family is Bramblewick. Whitby itself is no better or softer. Here not long since I passed a woman as she was exclaiming: "You may have lived here for twenty years but you're still a stranger, and if they don't take to you you might as well be dead." The author of Phantom Lobster understands this enduring savagery which lies under the 'kindness itself' of Bramblewick people. Casual visitors meet the kindness; 'foreigners' who come to stay wake the mistrust and enmity. No doubt it goes back to the Scandinavian root of the stock. These people have all the virtues of a northern race, bred in isolation and hardships. 'Bramblewick' men made good seamen.... They were Is this Leo with some lobster pots? sober, diligent, courageous, close-lipped, and close-fisted. They saved. They bought shares in the brigs, and barques, and schooners in which they sailed.' When a Bramblewick man makes money he moves Up-Bank to a villa. The fishermen live in the close-packed houses and cottages of the old village, built on the sides of a steep cliff. Of the two families which appear in this book (under the names they bore in that remarkable novel Three Fevers) one, the Lunns, are 'foreigners', having come to Bramblewick years earlier from a place only twenty miles down the coast. In them you would not meet the mocking, inquisitive Bramblewick smile, that sharp ironic twinkle in the eyes, that air of despising you even when the words are friendly. My goodness, I should not like to be a foreigner, either in Whitby or Bramblewick. Now that I know what 'that Leo Walmsley' was having to put up with I feel an intense admiration for the air of jaunty devilry with which he boarded the train. It must have been needed in those Down-Bank fights.

In this particular year, the year of Phantom Lobster, he lived in Bramblewick alone. He was preparing to write a book which would convey the real Bramblewick, the people themselves, their hardness, their courage, their magnificent undying pride, born of their centuries-old feud with the sea. The idea of the new lobster pot came to him in talk with his friend Marney Lunn. Lobster fishing is the only
Phantom Lobster, 2009 edition Walmsley Society 2009.
Available from the
online book shop.

branch of inshore fishing which has not been ruined by close-in trawling. But the pots are easily broken. If you had a pot which shut up, so that a greater number could be stored in the coble, you could go off into deep water. And if the hoops were of iron instead of hazel wood, to withstand the force of the sea, you could go on fishing two months longer, into November. He abandoned the current pot boiler, let the book on Bramblewick wait, and set himself to invent such a lobster pot.

He did invent it. The stages of the invention are related with an eagerness which does not account for the intense interest in the reader's mind. Such intensity must spring from the fact that a spiritual adventure accompanies the material one. Something is happening in Leo Walmsley's mind while he feels his way through the difficulties of his idea. The first improvised pot works, the second and better model doesn't. Too concentrated to eat or light his fire he puzzles over it until he sees what is wrong and puts it right. The chance sight of an iron gate suggests a radical improvement. We live with him through the almost unbearable excitement of testing and finding it, after an initial disappointment, perfect.

The new pot is everything it ought to be. The Lunns are enthusiastic, the creator sees himself the owner of a model factory, the Lunns owners of a fleet of cobles, the whole fishing industry revived and enriched by his efforts. He forgets to reckon with economic obstacles. The first shows itself when a manufacturer tells him that no invention, however marvellous, is any 'use' unless its cost of production is 'at least 400 per cent less than its selling price'. Still he hopes. He secures an introduction to a well-known financier. He has twenty pots made and they are tested by the District Inspector of Fisheries and thoroughly approved. In his mind the model factory now expands to become a great co-operative organisation - all sprung from his original impulse to help a breed of men which has been hard hit by economic developments, so hard that in spite of these men's indomitable courage the breed may even die out - a deep and irremediable loss to this country.

What happened to Leo Walmsley when he went to London, to find a man willing to provide the comparatively tiny sum to start the enterprise, has a wider significance than in its effects on his own life and hopes, and on the Lunns. Through all this very important closing section we are conscious of the subtle insistent contrast - conflict would be a better word - between the spirit which moves London and the Bramblewick spirit. It was the height of the great speculative boom. He saw a number of people, the managing director of a great store, a shipping magnate, a banker, two or three financiers, a Labour politician. In the end he went back to Bramblewick. What he took with him was neither promises nor money - but something rarer, the stirring of another creative impulse. From which came that splendid and memorable book, Three Fevers.

Phantom Lobster has the qualities of the true saga - it relates and praises acts of courage, it deals with men's actions in hard circumstances, and it expresses the spirit of a race. The final stroke of irony, which comes when the inventor sees what in his absence the Lunns have done to his lobster pot, is magnificently in keeping. This is an unusual, a striking, a deeply valuable book.

Back to book reviews

Copyright © 2013 The Walmsley Society | All Rights Reserved