William Holt's literary legacy

MRS Catherine Emberson gave a very interesting talk about the local author and artist William Holt to members of Todmorden Antiquarian Society.

She said her main aim was to look beyond his image as a "colourful character" and to give a personal exploration of the man, his life and achievements through the focus of his writings. She led her audience in some detail through William Holt's varied personal life.

He was born in 1897 on Joshua Street and received his main education at Roomfield School. His Aunt Maggie taught him the art of weaving and this gave him inspiration for his paintings and writings, particularly his novels, as well as providing him with intermittent employment throughout his life.

Billy served in the Lancashire Fusiliers during the first world war and saw action as Passchendale. His only injury however occurred in Oxford on Armistice Night when he fell from an upper storey window and broke his ankle.

Following his return to Todmorden he set up the Howden Hall Holiday Camp and Tea Gardens at Hardcastle Crags. This was a commercial success during its short existence but Billy soon tired of the enterprise and sold it at a tidy profit.

During his life Billy worked in a number of spheres and countries including as a timber logger in Canada, a deck hand on a round the world trip, a language teacher in Lisbon and Berlin, a continental salesman for Crossley's Shuttles, a war correspondent in the Spanish Civil War and a freelance broadcaster with the BBC during the second world war.

For a time he was a member of the Communist Party and he was actually elected a member of Todmorden Council in what was normally a safe Conservative seat. Prior to this he had served nine months in jail having been found guilty of "unlawful assembly, incitement and assaulting the police" on a march he had organised against the Means Test.

In 1933, Billy's first book, Under A Japanese Parasol was published. This was a series of memoirs.

His first novel, Backwaters, appeared in 1934. He sold it door to door (nicely wrapped in orange tissue paper). He sold 79 copies in Industrial Street alone and the book received good reviews in the press.

Mrs Emberson said that the novels of William Holt are a valuable resource for local historians about the Calder Valley environment in general and Todmorden in particular in the 1920s and 1930s.

Her comments about each of his works were punctuated by readings from some of them delivered by her husband Ian.

While discussing Billy's life annd character Mrs Emberson has said that a recurring theme was that after an initial burst of enthusiasm for an idea or project, he soon became disillusioned with it.

This was reflected in Backwaters, whose plot she described as almost circular - the fear of being stuck in a backwater, struggle and escape, disappointment when, having done so, the grass is not as green as expected, return to the backwater, disillusionment and the cycle starts again. Thus Billy tells us about his own character in his fiction.

Mrs Emberson felt that from a literary point of view I Haven't Unpacked, Billy's first autobiography, published in 1939, was the finest of his writings.

She said the themes which occurred in all of Billy's novels and probably in the whole of his life included his deep concern for the individual, the importance of work and the means of making a living, and his fear of the worker being swamped by outside forces.

Mrs Emberson touched on Billy's well-known tour of Europe with his horse Trigger which she described as the pinnacle of his career.

Billy died on April 26, 1977, aged 79. His ashes were scattered on Whirlaw Stones. He had been married and divorced twice.

The talk, which also included slides, some of which were provided by Roger Birch, concluded with an extract from a short appreciation by a friend shortly after Billy's death.

This spoke of his life as being full of real achievements, great disappointments and an ever-present sense of some great experience being just around the corner.

The writer felt that in his death Todmorden had lost its greatest interpreter and one of its most talented sons.

- The next public meeting of Todmorden Antiquarian Society will be at Todmorden Town Hall at 7.30 pm on Tuesday, january 6, when Robert Priestley will talk about "The Sewers and Drains of Todmorden". As usual, all are welcome to attend.