Book review: A Delicate Wildness

A Delicate Wildness: The Life and Loves of David Thomson 1914-1988
Julian Vignoles
Lilliput, €16.99

DAVID THOMSON is famous as the author of Woodbrook, a memoir of ‘big house’ life in the 1930s near Carrick-on-Shannon, Co Leitrim, first published in 1974. Author Julian Vignoles, picked up a copy of Woodbrook by chance in 1985.

He writes: ‘The jacket photo was an atmospheric shot of water and reeds. Something struck me about it and I bought it. It changed my life. And so devastated was I with the ending, that I immediately read the whole book again.’

In 1986, Vignoles, an RTÉ producer, made a radio documentary, The Story of Woodbrook, which is still available as a podcast. Later he met the author, and was eventually chosen by Thomson’s widow, Martina, as his biographer.

Vignoles had an extreme case of post-Woodbrook fever, but it is a state that others will recognise. It is a tantalising read, and has captivated many, from professional historians and folklorists to romantics.

Bill Webb, literary editor of the Guardian, recognised the syndrome when he wrote: ‘Half way through I knew that this was one of those books which would leave marks in the memory like the scars of personal experience.’

Early enthusiasts included Seamus Heaney, Paul Durcan, Angela Bourke and reviewers Aidan Higgins and Maeve Binchy. Today Woodbrook is ranked alongside Elizabeth Bowen’s memoir, Bowen’s Court, as a fine example of the ‘big house’ memoir. Like all good memoirs, Woodbrook is thoroughly idiosyncratic.

The 60-old Thomson was looking back to 1932, when as a naive 18-year-old he travelled to Roscommon to spend the summer as a tutor to the youngest member of the Kirkwood family, 11-year-old Phoebe. Unlikely though it may seem, he falls deeply in love with the child, and remains devoted to her as she grows up.

Thomson was studying history at Oxford at the time, but the people he meets at Woodbrook, firmly rooted in place, with long, often bitter memories, brought history alive more vividly than any book.

Woodbrook switches between love story, nature writing, folklore, and complex historical exposition in a way that some readers find frustrating, while others rhapsodise over its unique blend of history and personal experience. Many people assume Woodbrook is a novel, so vivid are the characters and so sad the ending.

Some have questioned Thomson’s veracity: did Phoebe really reciprocate his love shortly before her tragic early death, or was that wishful thinking? We shall never know, but this biography sheds light on other aspects of Thomson’s life.

Thomson published 10 other books, but none had the impact of Woodbrook. The best known are Nairn in Darkness and Light, about his childhood and In Camden Town, about the streets and characters of his home territory in later life.

Thomson’s frail childhood health was followed by a lifelong struggle with mental ill health — an extreme form of bipolar disease it would seem.

This exempted him from military service in World War II, and he stayed on at Woodbrook as a farmhand, giving him an unusual experience of rural Ireland.

In 1943 he reverted to type, and became a producer with the BBC, staying there until early retirement in 1969. He worked through a legendary period of radio, alongside such talents as Louis MacNiece, Dylan Thomas and WH Auden.

In 1948 he produced a major documentary on the Irish famine, The Great Hunger, based partly on first-hand accounts he had heard at Woodbrook. In 1952 Thomson met a beautiful Berlin-born actress, Martina Schulhof.

In spite of his shabby appearance and unpredictable behaviour, Thomson had a series of relationships with beautiful women — including the wife of a colleague, and a fiancée who broke it off — but in Martina he recognised a kind of soul mate, and they went on to marry, and buy a house in Camden Town where they raised their sons.

Martina, who died in 2013, was an extraordinary woman, endlessly patient with Thomson’s manias and depressions. He died quite suddenly in 1988. Theirs was a turbulent, relationship, with Thomson regularly falling for other women.

David Thomson is a difficult subject for a debut author, complex and elusive. The golden rule of journalism, that a person or place must be fully introduced on first mention, is often disregarded, so that things only make sense in retrospect.

These, and major proof reading errors are faults that an attentive editor could have fixed. It is an awkward book to read.


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