Walters: gwallter’s top 10

May 14, 2021 3 Comments

Walter was already an old-fashioned forename in 1952, when my parents donated it to me.  To be fair, they were anxious about the commonness of my surname, and eager to load me with as many other names as they could, to avoid misidentification (later, my brother suffered the same fate).  By the time they reached the third name their ideas were running out.  They resorted to giving me my paternal grandfather’s name.  (I don’t remember him: old Walter died when I was very young.)

It’s not a name I used to be very fond of, and not one I advertised.  But I’ve mellowed towards it.  Like growing into a set of clothes that used not to fit, I’ve found it more comfortable over recent years.  I’ve also realised that I’m in good historical company.  Almost no one under the age of 60 is a Walter now, but there’ve been many Walters (and Walts and other variations) in the past you wouldn’t mind sharing a coffee with.  So here are a few I’d invite.  I’ve excluded Little Walter, mentioned elsewhere, and some obvious but unattractive Walters (Scott, Disney, Ulbrecht).

Wally Hammond

When I was a cricket-mad boy in the 1960s only Yorkshire players were allowed into my personal pantheon.  Among those from the past were Wilfred Rhodes, Herbert Sutcliffe and Len Hutton.  Probably I’d have allowed Lord Hawke in, just to see him come to the wicket, as I imagined, wearing a top hat.  Later on, I became less sectarian and an old player I developed a liking for was Wally Hammond of Gloucestershire – mainly because on the radio John Arlott used to mention him so often and so reverently.

A self-taught player, Hammond was generally thought to be the best English batsman of the 1930s, and the best slip fielder of all time – even better than Phil Sharpe, who was a favourite in the Yorkshire team I followed.  In the slips he would effortlessly ‘pluck the ball from the air like an apple from the tree’.  He scored 22 Test centuries, in an age when there were far fewer Test matches than now.  Against New Zealand in Auckland in 1933 he scored 336 not out, beating Don Bradman’s record.  (He developed an obsessive rivalry with Bradman, the only batsman to surpass him.)  Off the cricket pitch he could be moody and difficult.  His womanising often attracted comment: a nameless fellow-cricketer once said that he had two ruling passions, ‘his cricket bat and his genitals’.  I’d probably avoid this subject over our cup of coffee, and stick to the perfection of Wally’s cover drives.

Gwallter Mechain

Walter Davies (1761–1849) was born in Llanfechain in Montgomeryshire and took the bardic name Gwallter Mechain.  He was a cleric, antiquary, editor and poet, but he’s best known today for his reports commissioned by the Board of Agriculture on the economic condition of Wales: one published in 1813, and two more on south Wales in 1815, compiled with the help of Iolo Morganwg (Iolo found him far too politically reactionary for his own taste).  These works have a good claim to be the first detailed studies of the economy of Wales.  Any historian today trying to build a picture of agriculture and industry in Wales in the early nineteenth century can’t but quote extensively from them.  Gwallter’s detailed field notes are in the National Library of Wales, and probably await more research.

He was prominent in London Welsh circles, especially the Gwyneddigion, and was a keen eisteddfodwr.  He was active in establishing the provincial eisteddfodau that were so important in that period.  Not content with organising them and judging competitions at them, he insisted, into old age, on competing in them himself, and having himself awarded prizes.  At Carmarthen in 1819 he won a chair and a silver medal for an ode to Sir Thomas Picton, the hero of Waterloo. The poem fails to mention Picton’s prosecution for torture after his period as governor of Trinidad.

Walter Shandy

I suspect Walter Shandy would prove to be my most genial company in the coffee shop.  He’s the father of the ‘hero’ of Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy – one of the earliest English novels, and still the most adventurous and radical.

Walter first appears in the opening paragraph of volume 1.  It’s Sunday night, and he and his wife are doing their matrimonial duty.  But in mid-action his wife stops to ask him whether he’s remembered to wind up the clock.  This interruption is the first of many misadventures that frustrate Walter, a thoroughgoing rationalist, in his ambition to beget and raise his son in exactly the way he intends – ‘planned parenthood’ in its purest sense.  Poor Tristram is mis-named, by accident – ‘Trismegistus’ was Walter’s settled choice – and suffers damage to two of his most crucial body parts.  He’s left to try to narrate the story of his life and opinions – another frustration, since time runs too fast for his pen to keep pace with his life (the clock’s appearance in paragraph 1 is no accident).

Perhaps Walter would bring along his brother, ‘My Uncle Toby’, the embodiment of human kindness and empathy.  He has also lost a critical body part, while fighting in the French wars.  I could happily listen to the two of them talking for hours, always at cross-purposes.

Walt Whitman

I’ve always loved the steel engraving Walt Whitman included as the frontispiece to the first edition of Leaves of grass in 1855.  It’s a portrait of the poet: head and hat at an angle, bearded face gazing straight out at us, one hand on hip, one in pocket, legs apart.  It would be easy enough to find him on the streets of Shoreditch today.

Whitman belongs to the other United States: not the disastrous tradition embodied by Donald Trump, with its tendency to materialism, bigotry and hatred, but a different America, hopeful, universalist and visionary.  Maybe a little of the poetry, long-lined and free-form, goes a long away, but read ‘When lilacs last in the door-yard bloom’d’ aloud and it’s hard to resist being carried along by the strength of Whitman’s lyricism, and his feeling.

In Washington, DC I was once shown the place where Whitman chose to work as a nurse during the Civil War.  It was a reminder, if any were needed, of the warmth and compassion of the man.

Walter Benjamin

The trouble with Walter Benjamin is that for most people he’s a formidable monument.  I’ve never ventured much beyond his famous essay ‘The work of art in the era of mechanical reproduction’.  Even that short piece isn’t without its puzzle.  You can grasp his main point, that multiple reproduction alters the way we see art ‘originals’.  But what exactly does he mean by the ‘aura’ of a work of art?  How does it retain its power?

If there were enough minutes in the day I’d dive into the heap of his notes for the unfinished ‘Arcades Project’, a typically original, large-scale investigation of the shopping malls and streets of Paris.  As it is, I think I’ll need to ask him for a brief summary over the cup of coffee (though I’m not sure he does ‘brief’).

Walter Benjamin met a sad end.  Fleeing the Nazis, he reached the Spanish border in September 1940, and, in the probably mistaken belief that he would not be able to cross, he took his own life.

Walter Gropius

Yes, that’s him, Mr Bauhaus.  Walter Gropius was an architect by trade, which put him both at the centre of the Bauhaus movement, since it was he who designed their famous home in Dessau in 1925-6, and also at its periphery, since it was what went on inside the Bauhaus houses in Weimar, Dessau and Berlin that really counted: the art (Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky and many others) and the design (Anni Albers, Marcel Breuer and many others).

Gropius, it seems, was an ideal leader of the Bauhaus school.  He led by example and precept, but not by decree, and only made harsh decisions when he had to (like easing out the eccentric painter Johannes Itten).  He was also determined, finding ways of keeping ahead of the politically-inspired opposition to modernism, until the Nazis finally made it impossible to carry on.  Gropius fled to Britain and then to the United States.

Between them, Gropius and Mies van der Rohe, another Bauhaus teacher, set the tone for architectural modernism after the Second Word War.  It’s interesting that what came next, post-modernism, defined itself in relation to modernism, and has failed to replace it.  Gropius lives.

Walter Hill

Walter Hill specialised in action movies.  The one that stands out for me is Southern comfort, which he released in 1981, with a fine score by Ry Cooder.  Hill always angrily denied that he intended it as an allegory of the US conduct of the Vietnam War:  ‘People are going to say this is about Vietnam. They can say whatever they want, but I don’t want to hear another word about it.’  But that’s exactly how it seemed to me when I first saw it.

The film, which was shot in very challenging conditions, is set in 1973 and concerns a weekend training exercise of a small group from the Louisiana Army National Guard in the bayous of Cajun country.  The group soon gets lost in the swampland.  They steal some boats owned by local Cajuns and exchange shots with them: one of the group is killed.  This leads to panic and overreaction, as the guardsmen are tracked and harassed by the Cajuns.  They turn against one another, and more men lose their lives on both sides.  Finally, a helicopter arrives and the surviving soldiers are rescued by a US army truck.

So, over the coffees I think I’d need to press Mr Hill a bit more about those Vietnam War parallels.  I expect he’ll turn out to be a touch prickly.

Walter Sisulu

Walter Sisulu was one of the leaders of the African National Congress during the struggle to end apartheid and minority white rule in South Africa.  Nelson Mandela was the best man at his wedding to Albertina Thethiwe in 1944.  He joined the ANC in 1941 and became its secretary-general in 1949, the year after apartheid was officially adopted.  He travelled across the world to build support for the ANC, and was repeatedly jailed and put under house arrest in South Africa.  After the Rivonia trial of 1964, he shared 26 years of imprisonment with Mandela, mainly on Robben Island.  While they were there, Walter devised a course called ‘Syllabus A’, as a rigorous political grounding for the jailed activists, many of whom had had little education.  In 1989, when he was 77 years old, he was released, and in 1991 was elected as the deputy president of the ANC.

I’d invite Albertina to the coffee shop too.  She was just as staunch a fighter against apartheid as Walter.  After liberation the two of them still lived in the small Soweto house Walter’s mother had lived in.

Bruno Walter

I’m cheating here, since he should properly feature in a list of best Brunos.  But Bruno Walter was a giant of conductors, and it would be good to meet him. 

He was born in Berlin, and was already conducting by the age of 18.  Gustav Mahler realised his potential and helped him get further positions, and in turn Walter did much to champion and popularise Mahler’s symphonies.  He conducted the premiere of Das lied von der Erde in Munich six months after Mahler’s death, and made the first recording of it.  By now he was in demand all over the world.  He was the conductor of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, and at the height of his powers, when Hitler became Chancellor in 1933.  In March 1933, when he was due to conduct the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Joseph Goebbels made it known that a Jew conducting would be likely to lead to ‘unpleasant demonstrations’ and violence in the concert hall.  Walter withdrew, and Richard Strauss took over the baton (Walter never forgave him).

He was banned from further conducting and he left Germany for Austria, and, after the Anschluss in 1938, for France.  Forced to flee again, he spent the rest of his life in the US, where he found a new conducting life.  Always he treated his players with respect and courtesy, unlike many contemporary maestros.

Walter Mosley

Easy Rawlins lives in the Watts area of Los Angeles and he’s a private investigator.  Another detective, Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, operated in the same city fifty years before, but the two of them didn’t tread the same streets.  That’s because Easy, Walter Mosley’s greatest creation, is black.  On top of the usual challenges facing a crime investigator he has to cope with daily racism and discrimination.

Easy first appeared, newly unemployed and skint, in Devil in a blue dress, published in 1990 and filmed, with Denzil Washington as Easy, in 1995.  The story is set in 1953.  Easy is helped in his search for a missing white politician’s daughter by a less than scrupulous sidekick, ‘Mouse’.  Further books follow Easy as he slowly ages, into the era of Civil Rights and the Watts Riots.

I imagine Walter Mosley (b. 1952) would sit at the end of our coffee table, Panama hat over face, quietly listening to the conversation and jotting the occasional phrase in his notebook.

Comments (3)

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  1. Jean Williams says:

    Diddorol a doniol! What a selection,

  2. Jeremy Atkinson says:

    A great selection Andrew. As you and I might (unfairly) be accused of being grumpy old men, I suggest a coffee with Walter Matthau could be enjoyable. In its obituary the Los Angeles Times accurately described him as ‘the lovably grumpy comic actor with the hangdog face and the gruff voice’.

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