“It was a cold, windy, rainy November night in the second autumn of the war when our train arrived at the little country station in Pembrokeshire with a polysyllabic and, to us, unpronounceable name, which, we had been told in a letter by the man who sold it to us, was the nearest passenger railway station to our new house.”
Those words pulled me once more into the fictional world that Leo Walmsley based so very, very closely on his real world.
The events portrayed in ‘The Happy Ending’ follow those of ‘Love in the Sun,’ which told the story of the author and his wife running away from troubles at home to build a life in an old army hut by a Cornish creek, and ‘The Golden Waterwheel,’ which followed the couple as the returned to their native Yorkshire with plans to build the perfect rural home for their young family.
They built that home, but then war came, mineral deposits were found on their land, and it was requisitioned. They could have stayed, but an extraordinary opportunity came their way. A manor house with land and buildings for sale in a beautiful Welsh valley. The price was low, so it was clear that it would need a lot of work, but they had built a home before and they could do it again. The bought it, sight unseen!
Castle Druid was just as wonderful as the name suggested, but there was much to be done to make it habitable as a family home. Walmsley was just as engaging as I had hoped he would be as he wrote about the dreaming, the planning, the scheming, the working, and of Clow, the local mason, who had family ties with Castle Druid.
Clow was a wonderful character. Proud, skillful, passionate about what he did, and a true individual. His relationship with the author - each seeing themself as the leader, each careful not to push the other too far – was quite brilliantly drawn.
Once the house was habitable the family was obliged to take in evacuees. They took those the government sent, they took private, paying evacuees to make up for the inadequate subsidy for the others and to make a little money too, and they found extra help so that they could run a school as well.
There was a book – potentially a very good book – in this material alone, but it was only a background story. The author was focused on his building works and on farming his land.
The story is strongest when it tells of the setting up of a waterwheel and the struggle to finish haymaking before the autumn rains arrived. That was clearly where the author’s heart lay, and that was where he could forget that he was struggling to write. The money from writing would help to keep the fledgling farm going, but the farm needed all his attention and left him no time to write …
But he does write a little of the last book he had written – ‘Fishermen at War’ – and of ‘Phantom Lobster’ when a particular situation reminds him of the time he was inspired to create a collapsible lobster pot.
‘The Happy Ending’ was completely involving, perfectly written, and utterly real. But towards the end it went a little wrong.
A few weeks ago I had a conversation with a book dealer who had two Walmsley first editions on his shelves (I bought ‘The Sound of the Sea’, but I couldn’t justify ‘Fishermen at War’ as well.) He said that he rated Walmsley very highly, but it was a shame that he couldn’t quite make the jump to creating fiction.
The end of ‘The Happy Ending’ was true fiction, not based on real facts. I know that because I have already read ‘Paradise Creek’ and so I know the story that follows this one.
I can understand why the author felt the need to create a different ending – and of course this is a novel, he could base his story on as much or as little fact as he wanted – but what he did here didn’t work. Events were a little too contrived, and thoughts, words and actions didn’t quite ring true.
It probably didn’t help that I’d seen signs that pointed to the real ending along the way.
This is still a very good book with much to recommend it, but not quite as good as the other three that tell of family life.
(The chronology is ‘Love in the Sun,’ ‘The Golden Waterwheel,’ ‘The Happy Ending’ and Paradise Creek.’ The Walmsley Society has the other three books back in print and I believe that this one is on the way.)
I’m pleased I’ve filled in those missing years, and now I am looking forward to reading more books that tell stories from the years before ‘Love in the Sun.’
I have ‘Foreigners’, ‘Phantom Lobster’, and ‘Sounds of the Sea’ and the Cornish library service has a few more tucked away in reserve stock…