Monday, December 12, 2022

That Black-Edged Light: A Note on H M Tomlinson

There are some authors who are feted and acclaimed in their lifetime but whose work falls dramatically from favour soon afterwards. As their books were issued in large numbers, they often turn up in second-hand bookshops and the reader in search of rarer fare learns to skim over them. But occasionally, the thought occurs: is there something there? What did all those readers see all those years ago?

H M Tomlinson’s titles are, or at least have been, ubiquitous upon the shelves. His books can be picked up cheaply enough today. But he’s not often discussed, and I wonder whether many people read his books now. There may be a few quiet enthusiasts.

His prose is precise and observant, sometimes luminous. He requires a slow pace, a contemplative reading: it takes time to adjust to his unrolling thoughts. A literary acquaintance, Frank Swinnerton, noted, however, that it was incorrect to suppose his prose was ‘studied’, worked-over: anyone who knew Tomlinson and heard him in conversation would see that this was just how words flowed naturally from him.    

There can be a sort of odd orotundity in some of his phrases, true, which will make his writing seem ‘old-fashioned’, though it can also seem graceful and strange. However, he also peppers it with punchier lines (derived from his journalism, no doubt) so its stately pace never quite overwhelms. He is particularly observant of the effects of light, from a struck match to the sun on the waves, and his style sometimes suggests De Quincey:

"I turned up the dull and stinking oil lamp, and tried to read; but that fuliginous glim haunted the pages. That black-edged light too much resembled my own thoughts made manifest . . ."

This is from his first book, The Sea and The Jungle, with its descriptive sub-title Being the narrative of the voyage of the tramp steamer Capella from Swansea to Santa Maria de Belem do Grao Para in the Brazils (1912). It is the account of a two-year voyage in 1910-11 on a steam-ship from South Wales across the Atlantic and up the Amazon, deep into the South American interior. He was in his late thirties, a busy Fleet Street journalist, when his friend, ‘the Skipper’, invited him to come along, nominally as the purser. He is not sure about it at first, but there is a neat scene where whimsically he allows chance to decide for him, and his friend twists matters to make sure he goes.

None of his people, he says, have ever had, or taken, such a chance before, and he means not only the family of his clerkly parents in Poplar, East London (a similar background to Charles Williams), but also more broadly his class. Tomlinson knows that he is writing for those left behind on the dim drizzly grey island, who wish they were coming with him, and he doesn’t stint the contrast. So we are with him from the beginning.

The book is not written as an adventure yarn or a nautical saga. It’s a vision of the sea and the stars, of sunset and clouds, of the loneliness of the boat in mid-ocean, far from any news, intent on its own mission and routines, a vessel in the infinite. The contrast between this sort of existence and the drudgery of the city is stark, and it transforms his way of thinking. With no landmarks, with nothing familiar, it is as if his mind is also set free. He wonders what it would be like if our minds were able to go travelling on their own, or with just our eyes, untrammelled by the body: it is like that, he says, on the sea. 

It could not be said this is a fantastical book, but it has qualities in common with that kind of literature, in the refulgent prose, metaphysical speculation, sense of otherness and separation from everyday life. Above all, his books often have a curious atmosphere, hard to define, which separates them from works of social realism. The author was, I sense, a studious, dreaming sort of fellow and his books reflect that.

Tomlinson’s books did well in their time. His novel Gallions Reach (1927), about a man who commits what will look like a capital crime and escapes by joining a ship bound for the East Indies, was well-respected, and might be summed up as a Hope Hodgson seafaring yarn rewritten by Walter de la Mare. His World War One novel, All Our Yesterdays (1930), was seen as one of the major works on the conflict.

Nevertheless, he was always conscious that he was never quite “one of us” in the literary mainstream, partly because of his background. In an essay on reading in bed, he recommended avoiding the stately accepted classics: "Midnight is the time when one can recall, with ribald delight, the names of all the Great Works which every gentleman ought to have read but which some of us have not. For there is almost as much clotted nonsense written about literature as there is about theology."

He was a working writer and journalist, dedicated to his craft and without any other sort of private or professional income. Inevitably, perhaps, some of his publications may seem written to order, including variations on earlier successes. The same is true of other fine writers who needed the money, including Arthur Machen and Algernon Blackwood. But, as with those, his work never lacks character and conviction.

Kenneth Hopkins, a fervent admirer, edited a useful selection from his writings in 1953. But Tomlinson’s work seemed largely to fade from view in the second half of the 20th century. There were, even in his own time, readers who could not take his rather conscious craftsmanship and his slow, contemplative narrative. But others thought him one of the best there was: and I can see why, and think his work is worth getting to know. That black-edged light is always there. 

(Mark Valentine)


  1. Thanks as always Mark for your inspired review. Tomlinson sounds like a must read for me.

  2. Thanks, as always, Mark for the splendid essay. But with odd synchronicity,I read "The Sea and the Jungle" earlier this year and made lots of notes and comments about it. I even bought a copy of the limited edition, which included h a letter from Tomlinson. It didn't cost much. I did find many parts of the book quite extraordinary and should have written up my notes at the time, but will doubtless go back to them at some point. My friend Bob Eldridge--who used to catalogue for Lloyd Currey--is a great admirer of Gallions Reach.
    Around the same time, I read W.H. Hudson's "Far Away and Long Ago," which was also beautifully done. (I've wrttten about "A Crysal Age" and "Green Mansions.") At this point I guess it's on to R. B. Cunninghame-Graham!

  3. Makes me want to go reread that one. In "London's River" I think it was, there was a passage about the docks that just took my breath away. Thanks.

  4. Thank you, Mark, for this lovely essay. I’ve enjoyed most of what I’ve read by Tomlinson but must admit the quality is uneven. At his best, the work seems effortless and you find yourself pausing again and again over beautiful passages. Other times it can feel labored and uncertain. The essays he originally wrote for periodicals are among my favorites, like those collected in “Gifts of Fortune.” Some short pieces that were published on their own in slim volumes, like “Between the Lines” and “Cote d’Or” and “War Books,” are not as successful, in my opinion. I think it’s because he was self-conscious when "performing" to satisfy the book-collectors of the 1920s and 1930s with limited editions. “All Our Yesterdays” was highly regarded in its day, but I think the short story “Illusion: 1915” is much superior. It is hauntingly beautiful. The book that stays with me most, though, is “The Foreshore of England, or Under the Red Ensign.” At a glance it seems like a survey of British shipping but it is so much more. It’s a profound examination of the economic hardships faced by some people in Britain in the 1920s. It’s surprising as an American to learn that the 1920s were not “Roaring” for everyone. William Woodruff’s excellent memoir “Billy Boy” (aka “The Road to Nab End”), about his impoverished childhood in Britain in the 1920s, reinforces what Tomlinson had to say about those times (for certain classes of people). I hope your essay brings new readers to Tomlinson. They should learn for themselves why some of his contemporaries thought he was one of the finest prose writers of his day.

  5. Thank you, Sean, for your helpful suggestions here. It's good to find there are indeed other Tomlinsonians!