Michael McDowell, review of The Life and Loves of David Thomson by Julian Vignoles
in Irish Independent (19 Jan. 2015)

[Details: Michael McDowell, SC, A Delicate Wildness:The Life and Loves of David Thomson by Julian Vignoles, in Irish Independent (19 Jan. 2015). Source: Available at Irish Independent - available online; accessed 03.10.2015.]

There is something especially magical about David Thomson’s classic autobiographical love story and social history, Woodbrook, published in 1974, a haunting and beguiling tale of a young student, David, who came from England in the 1930s to tutor a young teenage girl, Phoebe, living in an Anglo-Irish petty landlord family, the Kirkwoods, struggling with their declining means at their home, Woodbrook, near Ardcarne just north of Carrick-on-Shannon and on the road to Boyle.

If you haven’t yet read Woodbrook, you have missed one of life’s great pleasures. If and when you have, you will always be haunted by unanswered questions about Thomson and Phoebe and their relationship. Enter one of nature’s true gentlemen, Julian Vignoles. His newly published work, A Delicate Wildness: The Life and Loves of David Thomson is a “must read” in its own right.

I first read and loved Woodbrook before ever I myself became a sometime resident of north Roscommon ten years ago.

You can’t walk or drive the back roads of that end of the county without being constantly reminded and challenged by the physical remains of its complex social and political history. Most of the big houses, like Rockingham, are gone - not burned in the Troubles but ruined and demolished or made semi-derelict or down-at-heel in consequence of the social and economic revolution brought about by the Land Acts. So too the Anglican churches - of which the church at the attractive village of Kilmore is but one striking example.

Only the lesser houses of the yeoman landlords remain for the most part; the few mansions that have survived are mostly hotels and country clubs with the notable exception of Strokestown Park saved for posterity by the tireless and noble efforts of Jim Callery.

And when you have, like me, traversed the physical hinterland of Woodbrook, the love story takes on another dimension of meaning in terms of place and time.

Julian Vignoles, also smitten in his thirties by Thomson’s Woodbrook in 1985, (as Julian says: “It changed my life.”), befriended the Thomson family and the Malone family, Woodbrook’s current owners, and began his own love affair with Thomson’s Irish involvement and legacy.

This led on to his production of an RTE radio documentary The Story of Woodbrook, and ultimately to his recent and, remarkably, his first book, a brilliantly written account of David Thomson’s own highly unusual life story, beginning in Edwardian India, progressing to his grandparents’ home in Nairn in Scotland, branching out to Ireland, and ending as the unconventional author of 13 published works, broadcaster and free-thinker in London’s Camden Town.

Julian luckily met his “hero”, Thomson, shortly before his death in 1988.

He recalls a later memorable occasion in the Arts Club in Dublin in 1989, when Thomson’s circle of admirers, including Seamus Heaney and John McGahern, met after his death to commemorate him in what Heaney described as “a wake of sorts, where we remember the care, delicacy, research and affection that David invested in this country - as a historian, a folklorist and as a person. He had made intimates of his readers”.

On that occasion, John McGahern said of Woodbrook that the book “abolishes time and establishes memory” and further: “It is strange in the English tradition of writing about Ireland. I know of no other voice like it; there is no savage indignation, no exasperated tolerance, no dehumanising farce, and no superior tone. It has a rare sweetness and gentleness”.

Woodbrook, it must be remembered, was a small estate on the plains of Boyle that was but a small part of the struggle for the ownership of land. Thomson was torn by his nostalgic affection for one family of landlords, the Kirkwoods, and their doomed way of life on the one hand, and by his deep moral understanding of the underlying injustice of landlordism on the other hand. By the 1930s, the Kirkwoods and their workers and tenants were really living out to the end a period of benign truce rather than some idyllic peace. That the house should have ended up as the home of some of the people who, descendants of the dispossessed, had worked the estate for others is but an irony of history.

The potent ingredients of the Woodbrook story also inspired the composer Micheal O’Suilleabhain to produce his beautiful adaptation of the hornpipe, “The Plains of Boyle”, as his great orchestral piece “Woodbrook” to be used as theme music in Julian’s original radio documentary.

But Julian’s literary and personal biography, based on access to Thomson’s own collection of notebooks, interviews and an immense amount of research, is not just concerned with his original window of discovery in Woodbrook the book.

The girls and women in Thomson’s love life are well and carefully drawn for us by Vignoles’ spare pen. Thomson’s other works, including Nairn in Darkness and in Light, his In Camden Town and his People of the Sea, are introduced to explain and develop an account of his intriguing life and loves in an extraordinary boyhood and manhood influenced hugely by Thomson’s very poor eyesight, a lifelong affliction which ejected Thomson from conventionalism and the ordinary.

His journey of rebellion from a Scottish Unionist upbringing to his later instinctive sympathy for the underdogs of life and history, is successfully captured and explained by Julian Vignoles without any of the annoying engraver’s drudgery that sometimes characterises and often diminishes well researched literary biography.

Julian’s affectionate portrait of David Thomson, a surprising and complex figure with strengths and weaknesses, and of his relationship with his loves, especially his wife, Martina, is attractive, searching, honest and always intriguing. It is also deeply satisfying insofar as it explains some, but inevitably not all, of the delicate enigma that is the delicate and captivating charm of Woodbrook.

My advice: read, or re-read, Woodbrook, listen again to O’Suilleabhain’s composition; read Julian Vignoles[’] A Delicate Wildness: The Life and Loves of David Thomson and then, like me, resolve to go hunting for the rest of Thomson’s works. No better or more rewarding use of your time.

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