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Wednesday, 01 May 2013 22:31

Harold Walsby

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One of the most remarkable men I ever knew was Harold Walsby. We crossed paths only very briefly between my 17th and 21st years, and then he dropped out of my life completely. At the time of our meeting I was a young trainee architectural assistant, studying at Blackburn Technical College and completing my Testimonies of Study for the RIBA. He was 46 but seemed through the inexperienced eye of youth, to be much older – perhaps in his late 50s. He had just moved with a wife and two adolescent children into a small stone terraced cottage up on the moorland not 300 metres from my house.

I had met him at the local Arts Show – a display of the works of local artists in the Mechanics Institute that housed the town library downstairs and an exhibition space above. The whole building straddled the River Irwell which disappeared underground 20 metres upstream. (and which made me always want to pee every time I went to the library).

I had entered a couple of my pen and ink drawings and watercolours in the show - the very first time that I had dared to air my works in public, and was standing, pretending to admire a work that hung next to mine, so that I could see what people had to say about them. Along limped an elderly man with soft eyes and jowls displaying a three-day beard. There was a boy of about thirteen with him. They stopped in front of my works and looked at them for a moment. Then Harold (for that is who it was) gestured towards one of the works and said to his son David, “That drawing there has been done by a young man who is training to be an architect.”

My amazement got the better of my shyness, and I blurted out. “How did you know that?”

Harold turned to me with a gentle smile and asked, “Are they yours, then?”  “Yes! But how did you know?”

“I used to be an architectural draughtsman,” he said, and there began a brief but wonderful encounter that was to change my life. Harold, it turned out, had a sculpture in the show – a grotesque life-size plaster human form labelled The Unknown Bureaucrat, an early indication of his lack of respect or tolerance for anything institutional. He mentioned that he met, once a week, with a couple of old friends who shared their ideas on painting, politics and philosophy. He invited me along to their next Thursday night meeting. His friends, it turned out, were retired academics one (Slatterly by name) had been at Manchester University teaching textile technology and had left, I suspect under pressure for having been an avowed communist. The three of them briefly shared this small once-a-week world with my young self and opened up to me a whole universe of literature and critical thought that has shaped everything since.

After the first session, Harold invited me up the hill to his cottage to meet his wife. We strolled up onto the moorland track as he probed my understandings and beliefs with his incredible analytical skills. On arrival I stepped under the low door-head into a tiny space, modest living/kitchen area which was crammed with his paintings. There were two rooms opening off this, two very tiny bedrooms. I was incredulous that someone of his obvious age, maturity and experience could be living with his family in such a modest way. Over a cup of tea, he told me that he had moved there from St. Ives in Cornwall, where he had made a simple living as an artist. It seemed incredulous that he should have chosen Bacup over St. Ives, and never did discover why. What I did find out (in the numerous walks that came later) was that he had studied Hegelian dialectics and Marx (who was to me at that time still akin to Count Dracula), and that he was a man of profound knowledge.

Over tea he began to pull canvases out from the stacks around the walls – landscapes mostly, in oils, with a rough texture to them in varying muted shades of grey, blue, and green. I saw nothing in his artwork to arrest my attention, although I am sure that this was more a result of the lack of attention and perception of an arrogant teenager that of the artworks themselves. But whatever he thought, he was always respectful, always intent on preserving my dignity, always kind and generous in his comments. It was the beginning of an improbable yet for me significant friendship. Harold’s opened up for me a whole world of metaphysics and his recommended reading of the Mentor edition of The Age of Ideology still graces my bookshelf to this day.
The downloadable PDF that follows reads as something of an homage to an old and departed friend. But it is more than that. It is a tgstament to one of the most significant but least recognised Hegelian theorists to come out of Britain in the last century. 

To download the PDF click here


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