Obituary: Tom Wollaston

By: Shukburgh Ashby

Near-unknown writer, and an undiscovered giant of twentieth century literature

A friend told me that Tom Wollaston died last week. He must’ve been in his nineties. I’d like to humbly propose (I haven’t read this theory elsewhere) that I have discovered his real genius. Wollaston was hardly known, but those who have heard of him know him for his mass-market pulp novels. Though, they failed at that, hardly selling any copies at all. You can’t find them online: try googling his biggest seller, The Granite Knife and the Gull of Roscommon. Among people like me, with too much time and too little discernment, Wollaston paperbacks are a small but intense rare book market. I have about sixty, most unread (in a few the pages are still uncut – no one has read these books). They have neon covers in greens and yellows, the colour of tennis balls. I suppose this was to give them at least one distinguishing characteristic on a bookshop’s shelves. One novella of Wollaston’s that I own glows in the dark, a printer’s gimmick of questionable financial sense, since who browses bookshops at night? And which bookshops don’t have lights?

I suspect, like Moby-Dick, Wollaston’s books each only sold a few hundred copies. Probably by people picking them up by mistake, like me. They have the usual 1940s and 50s cover designs, featuring semi-naked Marilyn-Monroe-style women, Tommy guns, stonefaced men in trench-coats, and a post-Gérôme but pre-Said attitude to Orientalism, neither Romantic nor radical but definitely falsely mystifying.

But it is forty years or so after buying my first Wollaston in the late 70s that I’ve actually started to read the books with more focus than just scanning a paragraph here and there after buying one. I confess, like the six or seven other aficionados (if it is even possible to be one) of Wollaston I’ve come across, I started to collect them for purely nostalgic and decorative reasons, in the way  friends of mine have started to accumulate toy trains in their retirement. My first cover to cover Wollaston was The Ghost at the Family Get-Together (you can tell by the titles alone why no one’s heard of him). It has only 190 pages, and there can’t be more than 150 words on a page. That explains why Wollaston was so prolific. It took me about an hour to read, and was gripping to a degree – more gripping than Ian McEwan, less gripping than Agatha Christie. The Ghost at the Family Get-Together is your typical last-act twist type deal. You think it’s a party, and a ghost shows up, accusing the family members of various faults and betrayals, before we realise it’s not a normal party, but in fact the wake for the now-ghost. Quite weak, but they’re an Irish Catholic family and there’s some interesting stuff about pre-marital sex, if you’re approaching it with an overeducated view like I was, inclined to the socio-political dynamics of everything you come across.

The writing, as you can imagine, is almost all dreary and repetitive and clichéd. Lines like:

            “A gaze of horror overtook Frank’s face as he came face to face with the phantom for the first time.”

I am particularly fond of this sentence, which manages to use face three times in the space of seven words, and repeats that f-sound (the voiceless labiodental fricative for the frustrated linguists) seven times. A terrible line, suggesting perhaps Wollaston was a fan of Swinburne’s poetry, or that, like many undergraduates, was convinced that the repeated f represents Frank shivering audibly with fear. It’s more likely that Tom Wollaston had no editor, wrote quickly, being paid for the number of books published rather than total books sold, and despite making his living by it, was not a man enamoured with literature. He also didn’t seem to have a proofreader, as two sentences I’ve found will demonstrate. The easy mistake:

            ““Yes, certainly, but there’s the the sherry left over from Christmas,” said June.”

and the real howler:

            ““She is not a women to take these things likely,” said Frank of Michael, looking to Hilda with scorn.”

Cheap books with cut-corners in production: nothing new there. But reading The Ghost at the Family Get-Together I discovered several strange, fragmentary lines which I would have thought were typesetters’ errors had I read the book forty years ago, but now seem to me to have a faint poetry about them. After the ghost arrives, we read this:

            “And though been selfless, to its self foregone.”

A line that sticks out, or rather is squeezed and suppressed by the mediocrity that bounds it on either side. With the lines preceding and following, the passage reads:

            “He – for it seemed male – gave a ghoulish nod of his headless neck. And though been selfless, to its self foregone. Seizing a glass tumbler, the apparition threw it against the wall and it shattered.”

To ensure this wasn’t a dud copy, where the typesetter mixed some post-war Modernist poetry in with Wollaston’s prose, I checked my edition of The Ghost at the Family Get-Together against a copy owned by a barrister I had become friends with when trying to find other Tom Wollaston collectors. Sure enough, hers, too, had the poetic anomaly, appearing in the antepenultimate line of the seventh (the antepenultimate) chapter, just as it had in mine.

This was only one of these bizarre errors (or inserts), the one which seemed to me the most likely to be a misplaced line of poetry. But the second line of the second chapter (which I confess I had skipped, wanting to get to the action), seemed to be one as well:

            “Needs its ecstasy in its love, reasoning by it, embrace art, – the and of, peoples it.”

Again, for context’s sake, the prose that hugged it:

            “Frank was not going to let this be another fiasco. Needs its ecstasy in its love, reasoning by it, embrace art, – the and of, peoples it. But of course, Mary wasn’t to know that.”

The barrister’s copy read the same. Seemingly the fragments replaced lines of the actual narrative, though it wasn’t possible to be certain. They could run on, or there could be an absence:

            “He – for it seemed male – gave a ghoulish nod of his headless neck. Seizing a glass tumbler, the apparition threw it against the wall and it shattered.”

This appears to be coherent, if prosaic. The second chapter too:

            “Frank was not going to let this be another fiasco. But of course, Mary wasn’t to know that.”

Frank is Mary’s husband, and they have a rocky marriage, so this is possibly the ‘true’ arrangement as well. Yet I can’t help but feel there is a deleted thought that our poetic fragment takes the place of.

There were other anomalies, of varying length, but all with a poetic ring. I liked some of these lines. I was moved by random fragments, and felt that they had to be lines of actual poetry. But I spent a few weeks searching libraries, bibliographies – of major poets, then minor poets: people who might have written these vague, nebulous metaphysical things – modern Donnes, like Wallace Stevens. They have to be active at the same time, or before, Wollaston was publishing – no later than say 1960. But it was fruitless. None of the English professors I knew at any of the universities could help. The internet churned up nothing.

So I decided (as people decide with Shakespeare) to read the whole Wollaston oeuvre. There were no biographies, not even a note about the author on any of the books’ covers. Nobody I asked had met him, not even the collectors. Nobody really seemed to know who Tom Wollaston was. The publisher – Centigrade Books – didn’t seem to have any presence either. As far as I knew, they published only Wollaston. I looked up the address given on the title pages on Google Street View, but it’s now a petrol station.

Roughly two-thirds of the Wollaston books I owned had the poetic anomalies – forty or so. What I found – and what started a nascent belief that there was something about Tom Wollaston, some ember of genius – was that they can be paired together. The Ghost at the Family Get-Together has a pair that slots into it like a jigsaw, a pendant piece called Murder in the Rocky Mountains. Again, it’s your usual pulp tripe for the most part. Yet it has its poetry, too. And in the antepenultimate line of the antepenultimate chapter, we find a fragment just as we found one at the same point in The Ghost. It reads:

            “Which having made, fled: rest absent of time.”

So clearly no typesetter’s error. In fact, this must have been planned, and done in conjunction with the printing. Wollaston, or whoever composed the books, had a schema behind the anomalies. They couldn’t be errors. Murder in the Rocky Mountains, in the second line of the second chapter, had its fragment to mirror The Ghost at the Family Get-Together:

            “This thoroughgoing light, (formless its approach) which might each sun, all, forlorn, – that – meets –”

Forlorn here had to be a verb. The light, so absolute in its formlessness, made each sun, all suns, forlorn – any it met. What light was being described? I confess I am no critic; nonetheless I was moved yet again. I felt as though I was panning for gold, and reading these pulp novellas became addictive. The fragments were made more beautiful, enhanced almost, by the dreariness of the surrounding pages. It was like sacredness thrown in relief, like sun breaking through cloud.

So there were paired books. Why had Wollaston paired them? In my ignorance it took me some time to realise. But when that realisation came it was a complete aesthetic fulfilment. It was superlative and, though this is somewhat embarrassing to admit, gave me so much joy. I felt I owed something to Tom Wollaston. He had made me feel like few poets or novelists ever had. His work was mixing satisfaction with beauty. It made the literature active – I could no longer be content with just reading, the act had to become research, and actual hard work in itself. Because I realised that the reason the lines of different books were paired was because they could be merged.

The antepenultimate line of the antepenultimate chapter of The Ghost, and that of Murder in the Rocky Mountains, were not distinct poetry. Or rather, they were distinct poetry, but you could bring them together into harmony. This was Wollaston’s fugue. He gave you a beautiful fragmentary line, and then another, but they could be greater still, could play off each other, be commingled. It was as though you dissolved some substance in another, bringing them together more concentrate. These were the lines as I had found them:

            “And though been selfless, to its self foregone.”

            “Which having made, fled: rest absent of time.”

But bring them together, by taking every other word. They harmonise in a chord:

            “And which – though having been made selfless, fled

            To rest its absent self of foregone time –”

It was so obvious now. These were new lines, of blank verse, chords made up of the other melodies. Tom Wollaston’s literary genius was laid bare – he had written only two lines, and yet here were three permutations thereof. It made the hunt all the more imperative. And so I enjoyed the pulp novels even more. I admit to being a snob, and an elitist – but Wollaston had made me love the cheapest and shallowest fiction. This amazed me – literature that could alter our preconceptions, our opinions and prejudices. He made me want to change, for the better: made me more free, more liberal and free and open. Why should I have only given the Wollaston novels a fleeting paragraph’s worth of my attention, in all those forty years? I was a fool to have not made my acquaintance with Wollaston’s genius four decades ago. It never felt like a trick, but like an expansive helping hand. Wollaston, patriarchlike, seemed to reach to me and improve me. People talk of improving books – this was an improving spirit.

But in my ecstasy I had forgotten the second lines of the second chapters. Not only did they fit together, I found they fit with those antepenultimate lines of those antepenultimate chapters. All four of the fragments could be joined. Wollaston had floored me: a whole stanza of blank verse:

            “And which – though having been made selfless, fled

            To rest its absent self of foregone time – 

            Needs this: its thoroughgoing ecstasy

            In light, its formless love, its reasoning

            Approach by which it might embrace each art,

            The sun, and all of forlorn peoples that it meets.”

Wasn’t this a four-voiced fugue? Four separate lines of floating poetry, fragments, beauty in their own right, and joined like converging streams into a cascade. He wanted them read together, and read apart. They had different meanings each way – the poetry asked us, taught us, how to re-evaluate it. It was criticism contained within the object of the criticism. I thought that Tom Wollaston was the poet-critic nonpareil.

I had questioned whether he was a literary man. Believed that he could hardly write – scoffed at aural weaknesses in his work. I’ve come to realise they were all deliberate. I am beginning now to pair other books together – different lines, and new stanzas. It is a task to be done in the sun, in summer, and is the delight of my later life. But I wonder if the four-voiced fugue is the limit. Because why should the books be limited to pairs, when a third might be added to a group. Did Wollaston write in triptychs? Or quartets too, perhaps? There is so much work to be done on it. My gentle and quiet hope is that all of the books fit together, and that I will be able to piece together a poem of about a thousand lines – a lyric epic – taking a word from each book. But I only have sixty-two (I finally bothered to count them). What is maddening is that I can’t find any others. What if he wrote hundreds? A fugue of a thousand voices? Whenever I am in a bookshop now, I ask to a chorus of countless clueless replies, if they stock anything by Tom Wollaston. It’s set in motion an obsession, heralded by tennis-ball-coloured covers.

Categories: Essay, Literary criticism

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