With Margery Sharp Day in mind I ordered a copy of ‘The Lost Chapel Picnic and Other Stories’ from the Cornish Library Service’s fiction reserve. I knew that I want a copy to keep, but I try to be virtuous and I like the library to know that there are people out there who want to read old books.
The copy that arrived was in lovely condition, and I was delighted to see that it collected short stories written for a wonderfully diverse range of publications – at home and abroad – over a period of thirty years.
That was when I placed an order for a copy of my own to keep. A set of stories publishes together could be read in a library loan period, but a wide ranging collection like this needs to be read, and savoured, one story at a time.
The story that caught my eye was the earliest story in the collection, first published in Harper’s Magazine in 1939. But that wasn’t what caught my eye. It was the name – Seal Tregarthen’s Cousin – Tregarthen is such a Cornish name, and so I had to wonder if Margery had a Cornish connection.
It seemed that she did:
“The island was off the cost of Cornwall, the smallest and most outlying of a small group three hours from the mainland …. on every first of August Mr and Mrs Cattlett set out from their home in Chelsea to make the tedious journey by train, steamer and row boat …. “
That describes the Scilly Isles and the journey to them exactly.
The smallest island is Bryher – after which my dog was named!
That steamer would have sailed from the harbour in my home town; I drive past it every day on my way to work every day.
I wonder if Margery sailed on it, if she broke her long journey in one of the local hotels, if she walked along our promenade …..
I don’t know, but it’s a nice idea. There’s nothing in the story to say that she did or she didn’t, because its a very human story. The setting is significant, but its not a story about the place, its a story about people.
The Cattletts are a particular kind of visitor, a kind that anyone who lives in a tourist town will recognise. They come every year, they love the place, they know everything there is to know about it, and they are always out and about, doing things and seeing things. They can’t understand why the locals, who live in such a wonderful part of the world, aren’t quite as bright and enthusiastic as they are.
They forget that we’re living with all the things that they left at home, and they don’t quite understand that living in a place all year round is rather different from visiting it, however regularly.
Margery reveals all of this beautifully, and pokes fun gently at the visitors who go out hiking and set up their easels to paint, wondering why the locals who don’t do the same, and at the locals who carry on their daily lives, scuttling into their homes when necessary to avoid the visitors. They weren’t rude, they were just a little bit busy.
Seal Tregarthen, the boatman who brought visitors to the island and took them out on fishing trips was the link between locals and visitors, and he was amiable but not overly chatty.
“‘I sometimes wonder,’ said Mrs Cattlett suddenly, whether they really like us.’
‘Of course they do, said George. “They simply aren’t demonstrative. They’re too close to the soil.’
‘I know, George. That’s why I’m so fond of them. but it does seem hard to win their confidence. You go fishing with Seal, for instance, but you never bring back any …. gossip.'”
One year though, quite out of the blue, there was a surprise. Seal Tregarthen’s cousin arrived to help him. The Cattletts couldn’t find out much about him, even when Mrs Cattlett took the initiative and went to ask Mrs Tregarthen for help turning a heel,
When the weekly delivery of newspapers arrived from the mainland the Cattletts saw a story about a fisherman who had fled after a fight, and they put two and two together.
But when they returned to the island there was a lovely twist in the tail.
I still don’t know if Margery came to Cornwall, but I do know that she understood the Cornish, she understood holiday visitors, and she understood the dynamic between them.
She spun that into a lovely little story, with a wonderful sense of fun.
A perfect magazine story!
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Don’t forget Margery Sharp Day – it’s coming very soon!