Ian McMillan: Lost but not least

Ian McMillan
Ian McMillan
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I’ve been thinking about Leo Walmsley, and Harold Massingham. And I’ve been thinking about Oliver Onions, and Roger Dataller, and then I started thinking about Phyllis Bentley, and then I tried not to think about all the other names that were crowding into my head, all of them brandishing books, all of them looking at me with their imploring eyes. Maybe you’ve heard of some of those people, or all of them, or none of them.

What links them is that they were all Yorkshire writers who had a brush with success; sometimes, admittedly, the brush was a tiny one and sometimes, as is the case with Phyllis Bentley, they were famous but they’re all mostly forgotten, remaindered or pulped.

I’m obsessed with lost writers, the ones who (metaphorically or literally) fell off the shelf.

As I’ve written here before, I’m obsessed with lost writers, the ones who (metaphorically or literally) fell off the shelf. I like to discover or rediscover them, and read or re-read them because they always have something to say. There are publishers around, like Little Toller and Persephone and Yorkshire’s own Tartarus Press, that do their best to bring these writers back into the light, but there are still ones who slip through the net.

Let’s take the least known first: Roger Dataller, which was the pen name of Arthur Eaglestone who was born in Parkgate, near Rotherham, at the end of the 19th century and whose memoir From A Pitman’s Notebook and novels like Steel Saraband, which was filmed as Hard Steel in 1942, are well worth hunting out, in charity shops and online.

Harold Massingham was a poet from Mexborough who went to the same school as Ted Hughes and was always under his shadow but who wrote some marvellous poems, particularly about the Dearne Valley. Frost Gods, published in 1970, is his best work, I think, combining Yorkshire nous with a knowledge of Anglo-Saxon forms.

Oliver Onions was born in Bradford and wrote some really scary ghost stories including The Beckoning Fair One, a gripping tale of possession and creativity; it’s collected in his book Widdershins.

I first came across the name Leo Walmsley on a blue plaque on the side of a house in Robin Hood’s Bay: he wrote a series of novels about that fascinating place, one of which, Three Fevers, was filmed as The Turn of the Tide in 1935. His prose is vivid and thoughtful.

And Phyllis Bentley? Well, we all know Phyllis Bentley: she wrote Inheritance, one of the great Yorkshire novels, memorably adapted for television with John Thaw saying words like “gradely” and “grand”. But that’s the only book of hers I’ve read, and I’d like to read more. Time to seek out Quorum and Noble in Reason, I reckon… see you on the other side!