Comp corner

Now and then I like to dip my big toe into the murky waters of a competition. Earlier in the year I sent off an entry to a comp - the remit was to write a review of a biography. After tossing a coin - it was between Earl Hamner (The Waltons) and Sandy Wollaston. Sandy's biography won - which was nice as my comp entry didn't. But here it is - the book was an interesting read. Sandy's grandson is Sam Wollaston - who works for the Guardian.

My father, Sandy by Nicholas Wollaston

It was inevitable that author Nicholas Wollaston would write his father’s biography. But that work, My Father, Sandy is more than an affectionate telling of a life.

Sandy Wollaston was a free spirit. A talented man, he reluctantly studied to become a doctor – but only as a back-up plan.

His heart was one of an explorer and he used his medical expertise to participate in some of the great explorations of the early 20th century.

Through diaries and letters, his son takes the reader on those journeys – through the jungles New Guinea and even to Everest. It was at Everest that the keen botanist discovered a new Primula, eventually named after him as Primula wollastonii.

Without the benefit of sophisticated radio or GPS, exploration at this time was the stuff of heroes and it’s clear that’s how his son views Sandy.

As we learn of Sandy’s travels, it’s apparent his biographer is searching for knowledge too. But it goes deeper – he is desperate to understand a man he barely knew.

After his marriage to Mary in 1923, Wollaston accepted his travels would have to be curtailed. His new wife was also an explorer but a young family meant responsibility and he accepted the position of tutor at King’s College, Cambridge - a decision that would cost him his life.

Having battled disease and natural foes, it seems incredible that Sandy should lose his life at the hands of a deranged student – murdered in his rooms. His son was only a young child and his memories would have to be created, not recalled.

Nicholas Wollaston concedes the nature of a cynic. He carried the loss of his father as a heavy burden. But this book, perhaps his greatest, seems to allow him to see beyond that loss – to catch a glimpse of a great man, his father.