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REFLECTIONS ON MY FATHER (2006)

by Sean Walmsley 

It may come as a surprise to many Walmsley Society members to learn that they knew my father better than I did; some of you actually spent more time in his company than I did.  Those of you familiar with the Walmsley history will recall that my parents separated the year I was born.  I was brought up by my mother and her friend Betty Arney, until they parted company and my mother began what was to be a long odyssey through Africa, Canada and the United States.  After my mother left for Africa, I made home with Sonia and Patrick Bird in Liphook, Hampshire, until I too began my own travels from England, first to Ireland and then to the United States.

What I remember of my father comes from summer holidays spent down in Fowey during the 1950’s and early 1960’s.  I am not sure how many there were, when they started and when they stopped, but I have vivid recollections of them and they are permanently embedded in my childhood memories.  Until the 1980s I was completely unaware of much of my family’s history and if you had asked me back in 1985 how many books Leo had written, I couldn’t have told you.

The Walmsley Society, founded by Jack Hazell, changed all that.  From the Society Newsletters, I began to get an inkling of the contribution my father (and grandfather) had made to the literary and artistic world and slowly pieces of my family history started to fit together.  It all came sharply into focus, however, when, out of the blue, Peter Woods turned up at our house with his family to talk to my mother about her recollections of Leo.  My mother had been living with us in upstate New York since 1975, about the same time my eldest sister Anna and her husband Richard retired from Washington D.C. to a vineyard in southern France. Peter brought with him an enormous amount of information about Leo as a man and as a writer.  I was astounded to learn how much I didn’t know and was intrigued by Peter’s research into Leo’s writing and his life.

For me, though, Peter’s visit did something else.  Because I spent so little of my life in Leo’s company and because my mother never really volunteered anything about him, I had slowly separated myself from his life and works, to a point where he became a distant and dying memory.  Over the years, I had made an effort to collect as many of his books as I could, but I was ignorant of their significance, and frankly I had little to relate them to.  As Peter talked about what he had learned about Leo and about his writing, I not only began to fill in some missing pieces about his life, but also started to understand about him as a writer.  This would never have happened spontaneously and I owe the Society an enormous debt for this reawakening.

When I came over to England for the launch of Peter Woods’ monograph about Leo (“The Honey-Gatherers”) another thing happened.  I don’t recall the last time I had seen Stephanie and Selina, but all of a sudden Stephanie, Selina and I found ourselves in the same place surrounded by a group of people whose common bond that afternoon was the celebration of Leo’s life and publications.

After my return from that trip, Jack Hazell wrote to me and asked if I would consider accepting the position of President of the Walmsley Society.  It was a great honour to be asked and although the Atlantic imposed--and still does--some severe restrictions due to my research and teaching obligations (I am currently Chair of the Reading Department at the University at Albany), I readily accepted, not only because it draws the remaining Walmsley family closer to the Walmsley Society but also because of the gratitude I owe to the Society for reconnecting me to my father and his writings.

Jack Hazell would be proud of the accomplishments of the Walmsley Society, and so am I. It has shone a spotlight on Leo and his remarkable life and publications, not only through republishing several of his best-known works, but also by publishing (auto)biographies, monographs, and journals relating to Leo and his family. And each year, there are more discoveries and memorabilia at the Annual gathering in Robin Hood’s Bay! But the Society has also celebrated the life and contributions of my grandfather, James Ulric Walmsley. I never met my grandfather, but as I write this, I am surrounded by several of his paintings, and they are a daily reminder of his enduring artistic legacy. 

My Memories of Leo

I remember the train ride from Hampshire or from London down to St. Austell.  “Do Not Lean Out of the Window” (usually changed to “Do Not Clean Soot off the Window”) was an invitation not an admonition to a young boy travelling on his own, and if the guard would let me, I’d ride the entire journey standing in front of an open window with my head half-out.  I would always arrive covered in soot.  You can’t do that anymore.  (You can’t spend any time sitting in the cockpit of an aircraft, either. But when I flew down to Kenya to visit my mother in the mid 1950s, I spent hours in the cockpit. But I still book a window seat on every flight I can, and peer out of the window when everyone else is watching TV!)

You always knew you were getting close to Fowey when the earth turned red and the train crossed Brunel’s famous bridge.

I remember the “hut”.  It was totally unlike anything I had ever lived in – made of wood, up on stilts (I used to play in the dirt underneath it), creaky and so isolated.  Leo had cats.  They were always called “Choo-i” (I could pronounce it but had no idea how it was spelled) and so I never remembered how many there were.  They ate fish and limpets (which Leo cooked, and which stank).  My memories of Leo himself always include Stephanie.  I don’t remember being with my father except when she was there. Stephanie was a bundle of fun (she still is!) and we had a riotous time together.  We’d laugh so much it would hurt.  Leo was still writing then, so Stephanie and I were thrown together a lot – I always remember her more as a sister than a stepmother, that’s the way she behaved.

Nona Stead gave me her painting of Leo's 'hut' in Fowey, Cornwall. I treasure it.

With Leo, we fished, and it was from him that I learned to love fishing and messing about with boats.  My favourite form of fishing was mackerel, probably because when you got them they’d strike a bare hook and always put up a fight; but I also loved fishing for wrasse off the rocky shore. Leo wrote about my catching mullet with bananas as bait (his inscription of my copy of “Angler’s Moon” reads: “In celebration of a famous mullet.”), but that wasn’t my favourite memory. 

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I preferred open sea or rock fishing, but never could find my sea-legs to endure anything but the calmest of ocean fishing. I don’t recall eating anything but fish all summer, although I’m sure that ice cream was a major item every time we took “Amanda” across to Fowey. 

Leo never revealed to me the agony he must have felt about only having me for the summer and about not participating in raising me, and I’m still grateful for that.  It must have been difficult for him to keep his feelings to himself, but I don’t think I could have handled it.  Those summers were carefree, great fun and peaceful.  Stephanie must take a lot of the credit for Leo’s self-control during those years, but even Scrooge would be hard-pressed to be miserable in the face of her boundless energy and humour.

Today, so many years later, these are such distant memories, but they are steadily being replaced by better images, stories, and accounts of Leo, Ulric and the family that fill in the gaps, and help reconnect me to a father and grandfather I never really knew.

Sean Walmsley, 2006