– a review by Keith Handley
from the Walmsley Society Journal
Vol. XXXIII, Spring 2001
Although a Robin Hood's Bay regular for years I came relatively late to the Society, not joining until 1989.
For some time previous I had observed the plaque which referred to Leo Walmsley outside the house in King Street but had not correlated the various Bramblewick references within the village to the same author.
I first noticed a small selection of Walmsley books in Valeriana in Chapel Street and having engaged Val and Robin Lidster in conversation was recommended by them to read Three Fevers. This suited me as it was the cheapest available and I returned to my holiday cottage with my find!
I was immediately spellbound. Here, at last, was somebody writing in an easily 'understood' autobiographical prose about a place which I already knew and loved so well. I could close my eyes and imagine I was there in the Bay with Leo, the Lunns and the Fosdykes. Particularly at nightime when everything was quiet, I could sit in my cottage next to the Laurel Inn, overlooking Chapel Street and the main road, listen to the occasional lone footstep in the flickering streetlights and imagine I was back in the 1920s/30s when Three Fevers, Sally Lunn> and Phantom Lobster were set. It seemed like yesterday and sometimes I could close my eyes again and imagine it was the day before yesterday when Foreigners and Sound of the Sea were set at the turn of the century.
Since that time I started buying a Leo book to coincide with every Bay visit. I gradually moved through the price range so have dibbled here and dabbled there until eventually I now own a copy of all his middle and later period books and most of his earlier ones.
Joining the Walmsley Society was, therefore, a natural extension of my interest, as I became interested not only in Leo Walmsley but in his painter father, Ulric, Leo's various homes in the Bay and the surrounding area, his period in Wales and, of course, his pre and post war spells at Fowey.
As I've already said I didn't buy Leo's books in any specific chronological order and although Phantom Lobster is one of his earlier books I actually bought it quite later in my run. It's a scarce first edition published by Johnathan Cape and in 1936 it belonged to somebody called M A Sissons (I wonder if any Society member knows what became of this person)
I've often tried to analyse why this particular book is my all time favourite read and following the fascinating presentation by Trevor Rogers at one of the Walmsley Society meetings I decided it was time for me to set out my reasons, so here goes!
My first reason is Leo Walmsley's ability to write about the most basic subject and somehow to wring every last drop of interest from it.
I think I share Leo's love of trivia and I became absorbed about his obsession with inventing a collapsible lobster pot (I am sorry but in spite of Trevor Rogers' determined attempts to explain and Leo's wonderful diagrams I still don't understand how a collapsible lobster pot works!. Or for that matter, a normal one!! For instance, why is it only lobsters that get trapped in it?
It is quite amazing really that somebody can write three hundred plus pages on potentially such a mundane subject but yet still keep me rivetted to every page. Possibly it is because you never quite know what is coming next as Leo suddenly slips in a reference to a raging love affair he once had with somebody called Eve and then just as quickly leaves it with a remark that she is now married to a 'manager of a multiple stores shop in Salford.' (I wonder what happened to her!)
My second reason (and I know that this part of the book is one of Neville Buckley's favourite sections) is Leo's wonderful description of his trip to the industrial grime of Birmingham in the early 1930s when he goes in search of a manufacturer to make a collapsible lobster pot. Leo gives us an absorbing "sea-lovers view" of an industrial city at the time. He describes an industrial city and his abject horror yet fascination of mass production as follows:
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 tissue 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.
Here was mass production!
You can almost hear the noise and taste the oil and I am sure my finger nails became ingrained with dirt as I read the passage!
It took me back to my own early days of work study. Of clanking machinery, dirt, noise and oily smells and once again, I was there!
This is the washhouse where Leo made his collapsible lobster pot (taken in 2007).
My third reason is Leo's description of his visit to Leeds immediately following his Birmingham excursion, Leo arrives in Leeds station en route to a return to Scarborough and then Robin Hoods Bay (those rail journeys being somewhat easier to contemplate in 1930 than in 2001 of course!) He arrives in the main hall of Leeds City station, the same one which has now been restored to all its pre war splendour, and needs to make arrangements for the night before continuing his journey in the morning.
Our hero then stumbles across a female actress friend (as one does of course!) watches her performing in a play and then accompanies her to her aunt's house at Headingley. This was a different Headingley to the one we know today and we presume that the aunt's house has long been sold to a students flats landlord! Predictably he is not allowed in (we have all been there Leo!), he misses the last tram to Leeds, its midnight and its snowing. He has no alternative but to walk back to Leeds.
We now come, for me, to the funniest moment not only of this book but of any of Leo's books. Leo starts to walk back (he thinks) to Leeds and still obsessed with his lobster pot he spots a house with a tennis court under construction (remember once again this is pre-war Headingley!) and stops to examine the type of angle iron being utilised for the iron gates.
At this precise moment he is accosted by a policeman.
'Well, what's the game young feller?'
I turned to see a burly policeman with his helmet and cape plastered in snow, standing in the garden entrance, looking at me intently; and I was immediately dazzled by the light of an electric torch which he flashed into my face.
A burglar with a bag of booty on his back might have found it easier to answer that question than I. To explain to the waiting policeman that I was the inventor of a collapsible lobster pot, and that I was examining the gates out of professional curiosity, because they and my pot were in an important respect similar, and this at midnight, and in a snow storm, was to give him ample reason for locking me up as an escaped lunatic. Obviously however, some explanation was necessary, for I was trespassing; and there was every reason for him to suspect from my actions that I was at least loitering with felonious intent. He motioned me with his lamp to move out on to the pavement, into the full light of the street lamp. He stood very near to me, while I told him that having been spending the evening with a friend I had missed the last tram and was walking back to Leeds. I happened to be interested in the organisation of a tennis club. I had noticed the doors and other material and I had stepped in to examine them; and I was just trying to find out where they had been made when he had spoken to me. I would willingly give him my name and address if he felt suspicious.
It was a weak invention. It struck me as soon as I had given it that it might lead to an awkward cross-examination. But the policeman, having taken a long look at me, had evidently formed his own conclusions, for he said, drily, with a thick Yorkshire accent:
'I should think tha's been having a jolly night of it with that friend of thine, eh? Plenty of beer?'
... I thanked him again, and with a wild elation set off smartly in the direction of what I still believed was Leeds. But before I had taken half a dozen strides, he bawled after me:
'Hey! Did tha' say tha' was making for Leeds City?'
I stopped and turned. The policeman was grinning.
'Is that the way tha' was going before tha' stopped to look at yon gates?'
More than a suspicion of what had happened flashed across my mind. I answered 'Yes'. He laughed.
'Eh! It will tak thee getting on eight years, to get round ta Leeds City that way, and tha'll need a ship when tha' comes to Atlantic Ocean. That's road to Otley. Tha's going opposite way to Leeds!"
So there we have it! Those are my reasons – Leo's love of trivia, the way he wrings the last vestiges of interest out of his subjects, the description of his visit to Birmingham and his horror of the world of mass production, references to past love affairs, and finally, his description of Headingley at midnight in a snow storm being accosted by the constabulary!
What a book – what a writer!
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