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Books: The Way Things Were

3 minute read

A MINGLED YARN (172 pp.)—H. M. Tomlinson—Bobbs-Merrill ($3.50).

H. M. (for Henry Major) Tomlinson is a gentle ironist of 80 with the face of a benign gnome surprised at his own meditations. In his day, this mild Londoner has been bracketed with Conrad as a great writer of the sea, with Thoreau as a stubborn searcher for truth. Beginning with his first book (The Sea and the Jungle) in 1912, a whole generation of critics gushed over his prose style, and not without reason. It was a vehicle that could take a reader anywhere and leave plain tracks in the memory for a long time to come.

Tomlinson is one of those men who were born too late. In A Mingled Yarn, a collection of 18 essays written over the last 40 years, it becomes plain that he would have been happy to run his course during the 19th century. That is only natural for a man who “was a little Londoner when Carlyle was living higher up the river, and . . . was reading Stevenson when his early tales were appearing serially.” But Tomlinson’s hankering for the past is not merely an exercise of simple sentiment. To be sure, there is the oldster’s yearning for ocean voyages when ships were without radio (On Being Out of Date), for the days when “old whisky aboard was half a crown a bottle, and the best tobacco I have ever smoked—you cannot get it now, even in Piccadilly—was three shillings a pound. Somehow we managed. We pulled through. No BBC helped us.” But what really stirs his querulous ire is the evidence he sees around him that modern man has let the machine muffle the “daring” of his soul, has sheepishly turned much of his liberty over to government bureaucrats.

Author Tomlinson rails at high taxes, showers his contempt on movies and movie palaces. Old globetrotter that he is, he is intolerably pained by the whole wearisome modern business of passports and visas: “In 1910 I arrived, for the first time, at a shore of the United States. I had no papers and hardly any money. So what happened when I met Authority? I did not meet the august thing. I went down the gangway with my bag, quite openly, and took a tram into the city. That was all. Nor did it strike me as odd. From there I went to New York. Not a question was asked. In America, quite simply, I was, and every American was friendly. Try it now!”

But all the beads strung on A Mingled Yarn are not an oldster’s complaints. There are fine descriptive sketches of far places, in which exact description and smoldering imagination are firmly wedded. There are moving tributes to the British character, a splendid essay on a family pet (A Brown Owl) which once stared down Thomas Hardy. This is a book to remind readers of any age of the rich resources of written English. If nothing else, Author Tomlinson proves that the informal essay, that sad casualty of modern literature, can be as effective as a heart-to-heart talk.

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