Monday, July 21, 2008


Reporting from the South China Sea

I hardly know how to begin talking about the books of H. M. Tomlinson. In a very short time, they have come to mean a great deal to me. Travel, essays, autobiography, war journalism, his books are impossible to classify, though most seem to be found under the heading of Nautical Books, because his writing about the sea and ships is so very fine. So I'll just jump in, with the first one I read...

When Ryan and I were in Boston in April for the Boston Marathon, I did a bit of bookshopping - just a bit - and picked up a few things at Commonwealth Books on Milk Street. One of the books was a third printing of H.M. Tomlinson's Old Junk (Knopf 1921). Containing essays such as Bed-Books and Night-Lights, The Art of Writing, The Lascar's Walking Stick, and The Dunes, I found it irresistible and read it quickly. I knew I had a few other Tomlinson books knocking around somewhere, and yes, as I cleaned out the bookshop, I unearthed SIX more, all in different places - a few on the travel shelves, two first editions in with my rare books, a few in the take-home-and-read piles, where they'd been for a few years. (Years, I kid you not.) Anyway, I now find I have quite a good Tomlinson collection, seven books total, which are now all at home with me in the same place, and in the past two weeks I've read the other six, and revisited Old Junk for good measure. They have been the perfect antidote to the pervasive melancholy of closing up the bookshop - the beautiful lushness of summer and the hot weather hasn't been enough.

I started with Tide Marks (Harper 1924), about his steamer journey to the Moluccas, Celebes, and Malaya. His prose style becomes immediately evident on the first page - Hemingway he was not, thank goodness - instead of saying It was a foggy evening in London, he says:

"The bridge was a shadow in murk. It did not cross the Thames. There was no Thames. It was suspended in a void, which it did not span; there was no reason to cross, because the other side had gone. The bridge ended midway in space. It was but a spectral relic, the ghost of something already half forgotten above a dim gulf into which London was dissolving in the twilight and silence at the end of an epoch. For the twilight did not seem merely of a day at the end of another year, but the useless residue, in which no more could be accomplished, of a period of human history, long and remarkable, that had all but closed." (p.1)

He can say that, after seeing World War I up close. Much later, instead of saying The sun set, he says:

"Celebes floated athwart two heavens. Over Borneo, where the sun vanished, the basaltic horizon clouds were the broken ramparts of a world wrecked and lost. The fires of the final calamity were nearly out. Only from the base of that wall did the last day of earth burst in one thin explosion of scarlet. It spread no distance. Night quenched it at once. I stood at the ship's rail, watching the place where the forlorn hope had failed." (p.143)

These two passages make him seem like a writer of purple prose, which he isn't in the least - but as I said, I hardly know where to start, after reading and stopping to take so many notes I easily filled twenty pages in my commonplace book. Tomlinson is endlessly quotable, I find. Or he has that way that great writers do, somehow, of seeming to speak directly across time and space to their particular reader. It's a mystery. Here are a few bits from his book of essays Gifts of Fortune (Heinemann 1926); the first piece within is entitled Some Hints for those about to Travel:

"My journeys have all been the fault of books..." (p.24)

"...the first week (of a voyage) never sees the barometer set fair for reading. Some minds indeed will never hold tight to a book when at sea. Mine will not. What is literature when you have a trade wind behind you?" (p.36)

" I was reading in my bunk the ship was so quiet that you could hear the paint crack on a bulkhead rivet." (p.39)

As I read my way through Gifts of Fortune and another book of essays entitled Out of Soundings (Heinemann 1931), I kept finishing each piece while thinking THAT was the best one yet, hands down. This happened all the way through both books. Some of the essays were so good, and their last few lines so very very good, that my skin prickled when I finished.

As I mentioned in the comments last week, he and another favorite writer of mine, Christopher Morley, have much in common, and reading Tomlinson I can easily understand why Morley was such an admirer of his. Their similarities: both were journalists, pot-boilers of a sort; both in their writing talk about interesting particulars while simultaneously attempting to speak about the infinite and the unknowable; both have a fine grasp of language and its limits and uses. Their differences: Tomlinson's Englishness may account for his reserve and quieter tone; while Tomlinson is deeply romantic, Morley is more like a lion, even more romantic and despairing and hopeful; Tomlinson is more on an even keel, as it were. He also seems to have actually gone and done many of the things that Morley wished he could have done. Or at least he was sent to do these things, by his newspaper editors. Also, being a decade or two older, Tomlinson saw the last of the sailing cargo ships go, as steam took over completely, and growing up in dockland London, he saw it up close. Morley had the romantic hindsight of one born just a little too late, perhaps. Apples and oranges. They are both wonderful, and in life were apparently friends and correspondents. A long passage in Tomlinson's book London River (Cassell 1951, revised edition) describes Morley's visit to Tomlinson, and their trip to stand by the quay where Joseph Conrad's ship, the Torrens, moored. I wish I could quote the whole thing here, it's so lovely and moving. But it's several pages, and one bit is no finer than the whole thing, so go seek it out yourself, on pages 97-100, in the chapter Downstream.

Some of Tomlinson's passages read as perfect lessons on how to be a good writer. Consider the following, from the essay On the Chesil Bank, in Gifts of Fortune:

"The weight comes with a rush just about when you feel it is better to read books than to handle seine nets. There is a heaving and a slapping on the stones. To most of us, of course, fish is fish. There is only fish. Yet one haul of the net is almost sure to bring in forms that are fishes certainly, but which demand to be named. They are so challenging that they stick in the memory, and must be exorcised with names, as we resolve, by putting names to them, all the mysteries that trouble us." (p.94)

I ask you.

More on Tomlinson later this week. I see that I haven't even mentioned two of his books at all yet.


I knew your post would be wonderful and it was. Isn't he good? Even the passages I didn't understand (tiredness on my part? more subtlety than usual on his?) gleamed with magic. I will admit that I wasn't crazy about his novels, on the whole. But his essays! I do hope his WWI book Waiting for Daylight is one of the two you haven't talked about yet.

You'll remember that Morley first read Tomlinson because he saw a copy of "Old Junk" and was taken by the title. [Didn't Morley get his copy in Boston as you did?]

Hey Dan, thanks so much for the kind words... I had a tough time writing this today, couldn't seem to get my thoughts organized, so it helps to know I am making some kind of sense here. No, I haven't read any of his war writings yet, apart from the very fine piece in "Out of Soundings" called "A Footnote to the War Books" - and his various asides about warfare throughout all his writings. The quality of what he has to say about war and the writing of the Great War makes me anxious to read more of his own.

Thank god for blogs. I could never sit and have this kind of a conversation face to face with someone. I'm too much an introvert. I'd just look off to one side, and say the book was wonderful. Quietly. And leave it at that. Here, I find I can be a bit more expansive.

Next I'll have to rifle through my Morley collection and re-read what he says about Tomlinson - it's been so long I have to say I've forgotten...
Later, re-reading bits of "Old Junk" and I realize that several of the essays toward the end of that book are explicitly about the Great War, and very fine they are. I'm off to the library tomorrow to find more Tomlinson, since I can't wait to search bookshops or find stray copies online. What would I read in the meantime?
Sarah, thank you for the thoughts!

I would like to let you know that I heard another blogger mention that he read the title in your bookstore window(!) while he was standing downtown in Bangor blogging. He and his wife travel quite a lot, and esp. to Maine. He does his blogs using his iphone G3 and some of them seem to be mini documentaries. His name is Len Edgerly and I came across his name in another blog somewhere along the way. The name of this piece is "How to say Bangor". I don't have much to say about You Tube, but Len's work on Maine is just great. Thought you would enjoy knowing about the mention. There is another piece which was done recently called "On Penobscot Bay", which actually made me homesick, and that's funny because Penobscot Bay is just a short walk away.

Glad you got your bookstore squared away---well, a little bit glad and a little bit sad for you. It's fun that you have evolved into a new step and we are so happy for you! Ryan, too!

Love, MIL
I'm sad too, MIL - but I need a break from shopkeeping, so... here goes nothing -

I think it was Ruth Moore who said that Maine is the place you are homesick for, even when you're here. Isn't that the truth!


I was wrong- Morley didn't get his copy of "Old Junk" in Boston. Here's a paragraph from Ex Libris Carissimis:

My first acquaintance with Tomlinson's writings was in his book called "Old Junk", which I found lying around the office of the New York Evening Post when I first went to work there. I knew nothing of Tomlinson and nothing of the book except that the title, "Old Junk" appealed to me; I have never forgotten the thrill, almost the shock of delight, with which I read paragraphs at random. The peculiarly enchanting music of his work reminds one of those faint blue curves and loops and twirls marking the elevations on a contour map. That figure always occurred to my mind in reading Tomlinson's prose, because there seems to be a subtle contrapuntal pattern woven through it. An extraordinary clearness and kindness and freshness of feeling.

How lovely. And how generous of Morley - but then that's how he always was, with the writers he loved and championed. Some of my favorite pieces of Morley's are his prefaces to other people's books. I'm glad you took the time to type that out, Dan - my copy of Ex Lib C is packed in a box right now. Arg.
Nice Tomlinson bibliography with online editions of Sea and The Jungle, Old Junk, London River, Waiting for Daylight, A Brown Owl,...Out of Soundings, etc.

I like part of the Intro. from Eldricth Press: "Professional writers should not read Tomlinson. No doubt any who try will throw away their keyboards in disgust when they compare their own frail abilities. ...He is one author who produces quotable paragraphs on each page and can be read with pleasure again and again. It is time today to acknowledge his greatness."

Throw away their keyboards, hah.

I use a fountain pen and journal when I write. Except this blog, of course, which I'm not sure I consider *writing* anyway.
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