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On the Beach 

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I first became aware of Leo Walmsley at the age of 11, when my brother introduced me to his novel Foreigners (1935), which I read with tremendous enjoyment. Surprisingly one of the boys in my brother’s class revealed that he actually knew Walmsley. He was a boarder and his home was in the Cornish town of Fowey. Walmsley, he said, lived a bohemian writer’s existence in a hut on a beach near the town. A cheap second-hand Penguin edition of Foreigners was duly taken home by my brother’s friend and came back after the school holidays signed by the author.

Even then I thought this a kindly act – the autographing of a battered paperback which had probably cost me 6d or less – and so began a long-standing interest in Walmsley’s books. Although he is strongly associated with Robin Hood’s Bay in North Yorkshire – the setting for Foreigners and a number of other works – it is his two Cornish books, Love in the Sun (1939) and Paradise Creek (1963), that I have recently been rereading with pleasure.

Leo Walmsley achieved some success as a writer in his lifetime. His first novel Three Fevers (1932) was widely praised and became the basis for Turn of the Tide which, in 1935, was the first ever Rank film production. Love in the Sun was selected as Book of the Month by the Book Society, sold 20,000 copies within a few months, and was published in the USA. Alexander Korda was keen to buy the film rights for a generous sum.

Love in the Sun provides a detailed account of life in that hut on a beach. In this strongly autobiographical novel we meet Walmsley at a turning-point in his life; he has left his Yorkshire home and is seeking a remote and tranquil sanctuary where he hopes to start a new life and settle down to some serious writing. Short of funds he arrives in Fowey on Christmas Day. By a stroke of good fortune he manages to rent for 3 shillings a week a disused arm

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I first became aware of Leo Walmsley at the age of 11, when my brother introduced me to his novel Foreigners (1935), which I read with tremendous enjoyment. Surprisingly one of the boys in my brother’s class revealed that he actually knew Walmsley. He was a boarder and his home was in the Cornish town of Fowey. Walmsley, he said, lived a bohemian writer’s existence in a hut on a beach near the town. A cheap second-hand Penguin edition of Foreigners was duly taken home by my brother’s friend and came back after the school holidays signed by the author.

Even then I thought this a kindly act – the autographing of a battered paperback which had probably cost me 6d or less – and so began a long-standing interest in Walmsley’s books. Although he is strongly associated with Robin Hood’s Bay in North Yorkshire – the setting for Foreigners and a number of other works – it is his two Cornish books, Love in the Sun (1939) and Paradise Creek (1963), that I have recently been rereading with pleasure. Leo Walmsley achieved some success as a writer in his lifetime. His first novel Three Fevers (1932) was widely praised and became the basis for Turn of the Tide which, in 1935, was the first ever Rank film production. Love in the Sun was selected as Book of the Month by the Book Society, sold 20,000 copies within a few months, and was published in the USA. Alexander Korda was keen to buy the film rights for a generous sum. Love in the Sun provides a detailed account of life in that hut on a beach. In this strongly autobiographical novel we meet Walmsley at a turning-point in his life; he has left his Yorkshire home and is seeking a remote and tranquil sanctuary where he hopes to start a new life and settle down to some serious writing. Short of funds he arrives in Fowey on Christmas Day. By a stroke of good fortune he manages to rent for 3 shillings a week a disused army hut and a piece of land up a creek near Polruan, across the river from Fowey. And so the fabled hut on a beach turns out to have been, after all, more of a hut up a creek. As in Foreigners, Walmsley renames all the places and the people he is writing about, and so Fowey and Polruan become St Jude and Porthkerris. The time is the early 1930s and St Jude and Porthkerris are in the grip of the Great Depression. There has been a decline in the demand for china clay and the local shipbuilding industry has collapsed. Hoskins’s boatyard is bankrupt and idle. It is from Joe Hoskins that the author rents the hut. Behind him in Yorkshire he has left unpaid debts and a scandal over a love affair. He has less than £20 to his name and no immediate prospects. Nonetheless he persuades his lover, Dain, to join him in his new home; when his divorce is finalized they marry. At the start things look bleak. It is the heart of winter. The narrow streets of Porthkerris are cold, wet and virtually deserted, the cottages impoverished and miserable. The shadow of unemployment hangs over the town. The way in which people cope with the slump, and the belief that they must surely now have reached the bottom, make this a timely read. Gradually the bare, dirty and dilapidated hut is transformed into a home. There is no electricity and the only water supply is the stream which flows past the hut. On their first night there is a fierce storm, the felt is ripped off the roof and rainwater floods in. Despite this discouraging start they do not lose heart. An infectious spirit of optimism and determination runs through the novel. A remarkable transformation is wrought over the following weeks and months. Walmsley draws us back to a warm appreciation of the simple pleasures of life, including the satisfactions of hard work. There is much about the physical alterations they make to the hut and the ingenious creation of furniture and fittings using flotsam and jetsam and the bits and pieces they beg or buy from Hoskins’s boatyard – and we relish their achievements. They dig and plant the neglected garden and in time are able to supply all the vegetables they require, and they catch fish in the creek. Times are hard, however, and their savings dwindle away. Visiting the butcher’s in Porthkerris they decide that even the cheapest cuts of meat are beyond their pocket and so they buy a sheep’s head, for stewing with carrots and turnips. Sheep’s heads become a kind of barometer of the family fortunes. Various incidents occur. A boat is laid up for a few months in the creek near their home and the seaman living on board as watchman is recognized as Grab Fosdyck, an old enemy from schooldays in Yorkshire. Leo and Dain have a child, a daughter. Leo has his first novel accepted, and follows it up quickly with a second. Nonetheless finances are often precarious and the sheep’s head makes more than one comeback. On the face of it, Love in the Sun reads as a simple and unsophisticated account of a period in someone’s life. And yet there is much more art and artistry to it than might at first appear. Walmsley writes with a naturalness and a warmth that somehow draw us in and make us care about what each new day might bring. He creates vivid pictures of the changing moods of the sea and weather. He makes us interested in the people he meets and he evidently has a gift for friendship. The details of the reshaping of the couple’s home could, in other hands, have become the tedious outpourings of a DIY bore, but somehow this is not the effect. From time to time in Love in the Sun he also deals with the process of writing itself – always of interest to anyone with a passion for books, particularly if they have themselves tried to write. At this point in his life he was already a published author but he had never written an adult novel, and this is the challenge he sets himself once settled in Cornwall. Having found his subject – the lives of fishermen in Bramblewick (Robin Hood’s Bay) – the themes of Three Fevers come to him in a rush: the weaving together of the twin threads of rivalry between the Lunn and Fosdyck families and the seasons of the fishing year. ‘I did not need a plot,’ he tells us. It was all there for him. The book is rejected by two publishers and self-doubt begins to creep in. Even when it does find a publisher he cannot shake off uncertainty about his ‘naturalistic’ approach and his own abilities. Three Fevers now strikes him as boring. Why hadn’t he given it a plot and a love interest? Why hadn’t he built up the rivalry between the fishermen into something more dramatic and violent? ‘Why hadn’t I written the bloody thing?’ he agonizes. A sequel, Phantom Lobster (1933), was also lifted straight from life, so much so that he describes it in Love in the Sun as ‘the record of an actual experience’ even though, for consistency, he has retained the invented names devised for Three Fevers. Again the creative process is attended by doubts. Late one night he reads through the first draft, concludes that it is rubbish and despairingly tears it up and throws it into the fire. It has no more plot than the first book and, again, no love interest. Later he sees a way of reshaping it and adds some mild sexual content without being false to the facts of the story. Further on in Love in the Sun we read about the writing of Foreigners, the fictionalized account of Walmsley’s childhood in Robin Hood’s Bay. Love in the Sun thus introduces us to three other books by Walmsley. And that is part of his appeal. Once we have been drawn into his world, all these points of reference become known to us. And so it is with Paradise Creek, described as ‘a true story’ rather than a novel. It tells the tale of Walmsley’s return to Polruan, to the creek and to the same hut some twenty years later. This time the cloak of anonymity is cast aside. Walmsley begins by filling us in on events in the intervening years, including the collapse of his marriage and the separation from his children, now numbering five. His marital problems provide the motive for his return. He plans to invite his children to spend a month of the summer with him in Polruan in the hope that this will pave the way for a reconciliation with his wife, Margaret (Dain’s true name). His experience of Polruan is different this time. Whereas previously he was a shabby, eccentric character living mysteriously up a creek, now he is a local literary celebrity who has brought awareness of Fowey and Polruan to a wider public. In his absence the property has again lapsed into dereliction, but now Walmsley is prosperous enough to employ a family of local builders to carry out the heavy work, and the job of restoring and re-equipping it in time for the visit drives the narrative. The holiday goes like a dream. Even the Cornish weather is golden for most of the stay. And yet the dream of luring his wife back comes to nothing. Once the visitors have departed the hut feels empty and his life lonely despite old and new friends in the town: he considers quitting Polruan for a second time. Walmsley never did move away from the area although he did eventually leave the hut to live in an ordinary house. He died in 1966. Most of his books have long been out of print but they retain a freshness and immediacy that engage and move me. It is like revisiting an old friend – clear-eyed and unsentimental but with a great zest for living – who, to use his own words, has ‘more than an ordinary gift for yarning’.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 26 © Roger Gourd 2010


About the contributor

Roger Gourd lives in North London. After years of teaching English and Film he is delighted at last to have the freedom and time to read and write what he likes.

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