Gwendra Cove & Other Cornish Sketches by C C Rogers (Lady Vyvyan)

What do you read on a lazy afternoon in Cornwall, when a warm sun is balanced by a light breeze, and when you can’t imagine ever wanting to be anywhere else?

The book I picked up was exactly right. It was a small elderly hardback book that I spotted in the library. A book that had been out of print for years by an author who is still terribly neglected.

I picked up the first volume of her memoirs a couple of years ago, and I was soon smitten. Because I saw straight away that Clara Coltman Rogers, later to become Lady Vyvyan, loved and understood Cornwall.

And I saw it again in these wonderfully diverse little sketches. She gets everything right: the environments, the communities, the characters, the speech patterns …

There are sketches of characters, places, events and incidents, all set down quite beautifully, with love and affection.

Reality gently changed to make wonderful fiction.

It’s more than seventy years since they were published (by Jordans Bookshop of Truro), and it was lovely to see that, while many things have changed, so much has remained the same.

A wonderfully shrewd account of the workings of a certain committee made me smile.

A clear-sighted portrait of an eccentric elderly woman, called a witch by village children, stirred memories.

A tale of a weekend visit, with a London couple and a Cornish couple seeing things quite differently, could have happened yesterday.

The story of an auction, with villagers eager to see what would be sold by the family at the big house, was utterly charming. And I suspect that the naming of Mrs Menabilly was a nod to the author’s friend, Daphne.

But loveliest of all was taking a boat trip along the rocky coast, and a walk across lonely moorland.

Those where the times when I so clearly understood that Lady Vyvyan and I, seventy years apart, looked at the same world in the same way.

Sometimes I look for other things in books, but today that was exactly what I needed.

Oh Susanna !

I must confess that for many years I have had an irrational prejudice against your books.

You see, back when I was living and working in London I developed an eye problem. I had to take quite a bit of time off work and – disaster – I had to stop reading.

The book I had to put down,  and take back to the library unfinished, was ‘The Shadowy Horses’.

And so – even though my doctor and I soon worked out that I had developed a bad intolerance to sunlight and put things right with a course of steroids, eyedrops, and tinted glasses at all times – the unhappy association remained.

Unfair I know, but there it is.

But as the years passed those feelings faded. And I  was visiting a lot of bloggers – DanielleStaci and Eva, to name just a few – who were saying wonderful things about your books.

When I saw that ‘The Rose Garden’ was set in Cornwall I knew that I had to find a copy.

The emotion of the opening chapter captured me.

And when I turned to the second chapter I realised that you understood the Cornish psyche:

“Crossing the Tamar for some reason made me feel different inside. It was only a river, yet every time I crossed it I felt I had stepped through some mystical veil that divided the world that I only existed in from the one that I was meant to be living in.”

The Tamar Bridge

I have crossed the bridge that links Cornwall to Devon and the rest of the country so many times, and those words capture the sensation perfectly.

I’m afraid there’s a slip in the next paragraph. Daphne du Maurier lived on the north coast, not the south. As a native of the south coast I’d love to claim her, but I can’t. Though I can say that she was living just a few miles away when I first fell in love with her books.

But I’m rambling. What I meant to say is that I can easily forgive a few little inaccuracies if the spirit of the story is right. And the spirit is.

So I’ll go back to reading …

Inchworm by Ann Kelley

Last autumn I met Gussie, a 12 year-old girl with a congenital heart defect, whose life is constricted, because she is quickly short of breath, and who can’t go to school for fear of picking up an everyday illness that would compromise her heart.

That might sound depressing, but it isn’t, because Gussie is so curious and so bright, because she finds so much to love in life. Family. Books. Birds. Films. Friends. Cats. Nature. Her head and her heart were full, and the knowledge that her life would be short made it all the more precious.

Through The Burying Beetle and The Bower Bird I followed Gussie as she and her newly divorced mother settled in St Ives, formed new relationships, and lived their lives.

Two books full of lovely details and observations; wonderful celebrations of life, seen through the eyes of a child who understands just how precious those things are.

At the end of The Bower Bird it seemed that a match had been found, that Gussie would have the heart and lung transplant that she and her mother had hoped for.

That makes Inchworm, the third installment of Gussie’s story, a very different proposition.

The story opens after Gussie’s surgery, as she is slowly regaining consciousness. This emergence is beautifully captured. As is the cacophony of thoughts and emotions in her head: from concern that she might acquire new characteristics with her new organs to the joy of looking in the mirror and being pink instead of blue.

It was wonderful to watch Gussie’s progress.

Her friendship with another transplant patient from Zimbabwe was beautifully observed, and his very different life and experiences brought a new dimension to the book.

And I saw Gussie’s  mother’s experiences through her eyes. I saw how much life had thrown at her, and I worried that she was neglecting her own health as she focused on her daughter’s treatment and recovery. I wanted a happy ending for her as much as I did for her daughter.

There was much here, for both head and heart, and yet Inchworm began to lose me when Gussie left hospital.

Because Cornwall is so far from London and because Gussie had to go back to hospital for regular cheques, she and her mother stayed in a London flat. And because of the high risk of infection Gussie’s life was terribly constrained.

Gussie missed Cornwall, and I missed watching her in Cornwall and her reactions to the world around her. The writing was still lovely, Gussie was still engaging, there was still much to enjoy, but, for me, a vital ingredient had been lost.

For the first time I thought that I was reading a book about a 12 year-old that was maybe better suited to readers closer to Gussie’s own age.

At the end of the book, with her health improving, Gussie and her mother were able to return to Cornwall.

I realised then that it was time for me to let Gussie go, to wish her well, to let her simply live her life in St Ives …

But I have loved following her story over the course of three books, and I am so, so glad that I met her.

The Bower Bird by Ann Kelley

Late last year  I read The Burying Beetle, and I fell in love with twelve year-old Gussie. I am so glad that it was the first of the series because I really wasn’t ready to let Gussie go.

Gussie is so alive, but unlike most twelve year-olds, she has had to consider her own mortality.

Death: I know, or I think I know that death will only be nothingness, but I don’t want oblivion yet.  I want to smell honeysuckle in the dark, I want to hear my cat greet me with her special purring.  I want to smell old books.”

Gussie has a serious heart condition and her life expectancy isn’t great. A heart and lung transplant would give her a little more time and maybe  a little more freedom, if only a match could be found.

The Bower Bird picks up the threads of Gussie’s life just a few weeks after The Burying Beetle ended, and moves things gently forward.

She and her mother have moved to a new home in St Ives. Gussie is trying to find out more about her father’s family connections in the town, while observing her mother’s new relationship and still pondering her parent’s failed relationship. She has her own relationship to ponder too, with her closest friend who now has a girlfriend to consider too.

Those are the broad strokes, but the joy of this book is in the detail.  Gussie is  intrigued by the world around her, interested in everything and everyone.

The Bower Book is a wonderful celebration of life, seen through the eyes of a child who understands just how precious those things are.

A child who loves books – from Winnie the Pooh to Katharine Mansfield – and loves the library.

Desert Island Discs is on the radio. I think there should be a Desert Island Books where the guest tells us which books he/she would take.

I have started by list of favourite books for when I am famous and invited on the programme.

Jennie, by Paul Gallico
The House at Pooh Corner by A A Milne
The Collected Short Stories of Katherine Mansfield
White Fang by Jack London
Middlemarch by George Eliot
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Catcher in the Rye by J D Salinger
Fabre’s Book of Insects
Lord of the Flies by William Golding

That’s nine and I’ll only be allowed to take eight, so I’ll have to think about which one I could live without…”

(What a great list – though  I’m not sure that I could have appreciated Middlemarch at twelve  – I’m thinking about my desert island books now.)

A child who loves nature and the world around her. Some people might just see seagulls, but Gussie sees their characters and watches their lives unfold. A mother watching her child as it finds its feet and learns to fly, squawking horribly if her child is threatening. And a child finding its place in the world.

“Our adolescent gull is still wheezing and jumping up and down on the roof flapping his speckled wings. He wanders all over the roof, spends most of the time on his own, though one parent perches on the chimney pot watching over him while the other parent is fishing for his supper, or is out having a good time. I feel like that young gull: songless and ugly, unable to fly; totally dependent on my parent.”

(There are many moments like that. Wonderful observations beautifully expressed mixed with very real emotions.)

A child who is pleased to meet people, eager to ask questions, observant, and thoughtful.

And she catches Cornwall perfectly.

“Mornings in mid September smell fresher than August, and there’s lots of swirling white mist over the water, hiding the dunes and the estuary. But the air is still and somehow you know that it’s going to be sunny later. The heavy band of mist is chrome and silver; the clouds are the colour of lavender leaves and steamed up mirrors. The sea is hammered pewter and the low waves are mercury creeping up the beach. Where the sun breaks through, it explodes on the water in a firework burst of sparkling stars. On the other side of the bay, battleship clouds float above the dunes and hills of Gwithian and Godrevy. September is like a wonderful monochrome photograph or the opening credits of an obscure French movie. Like the ones Daddy used to take me too.”

So many details, all perfectly caught, with every observation, every emotion pitch perfect, to build a picture of a lovely, complex child and her world.

A child so determined to live, but so often not being able to go as quickly as she wanted, having to pause for breath, having to be careful. How I felt for her.

In the end it seemed that the match Gussie and her mother had hoped for had finally been found. I so hope that it has, and I shall be breaking all of my own rules about spreading out great series and bringing the next book home as soon as I possibly can.

Reading Cornwall: Past, Present and Future

Twelve months ago I set off on operation “Read Cornwall”, because there were so many wonderful books from and about my own particular corner of the world that I wanted to read and celebrate.

I set myself a target of twelve books a year, and I am pleased to say that I have done it and that I loved it.

I knew that I would, but I had to set the target so that I wouldn’t be distracted by other things.

Here are the books I read:

Rambles Beyond Railways by Wilkie Collins in a restored Victorian edition was heaven, and a book that I could quite happily read over and over again.

Snapped in Cornwall by Janie Bolitho was a mystery built on classic lines, and it captured West Cornwall perfectly. A very solid start to a series.

Bell Farm by M R Barneby was a family tale, simple but very effective, and it painted wonderful pictures of the countryside and a seaside farming community.

Archelaus Hosken’ Dilemma by F J Warren was a little comic gem, cleverly constructed and a masterful piece of storytelling.

Love in the Sun and Paradise Creek by Leo Walmsley were my books of the year, telling stories and catching the magic of real lives absolutely perfectly.

Roots and Stars by C C Vyvyan was a memoir of fascinating twentieth century life. Lady Vyvyan was a writer, traveller and nature lover, and I was charmed. i’ll definitely be reading more of her work.

Sarah Strick by Randle Hurley was lovely collection of comical tales set in my hometown in the 1940s. I was charmed and I could quite believe that my grandparents had known these people.

Manna From Hades and A Colourful Mystery by Carola Dunn were cosy mysteries set in a rather idealised 1960s. That threw me for a while, I liked the cast and the stories (well the first story, the second was weak) and so I kept reading.

An Unsentimental Journey Through Cornwall by Mrs Craik was another wonderful Victorian travelogue. I loved the author and I loved seeing Cornwall through her observant and perceptive eyes.

The Burying Beetle by Ann Kelley was a gem. The day-to-day life of a twelve-year-old girl who is both seriously ill and wonderfully alive, perfectly observed and beautifully written.

I’m delighted with my dozen for 2010 and there will definitely be another dozen in 2011.

I’m going to tidy up my Cornish Reading page too, and, if anyone else is interesting in joining me, I might just set up a Cornish Reading blog. Let me know …

But back to the books. I already have three lined up:

Framed in Cornwall by Jane Bolitho is lined up for letter B in my crime fiction alphabet.

From East End to Lands End by Susan Soyinka is an account of the wartime evacuation of the pupils of the jews’ Free School in London to a Cornish fishing village. There is a wealth of detail and it is so engaging: a book for both head and heart.

The Bower Bird by Ann Kelley has already found its way home, because I so want to meet Gussie again.

And there are many, many more …

An Unsentimental Journey Through Cornwall by Mrs Craik

It’s wonderful how books can lead you to other books.

Earlier in this year I fell utterly in love with Wilkie Collins’ Rambles Beyond Railways. A beloved author on top form writing of his travels in my homeland. Heaven!

And when I wrote about that book I was recommended another travelogue by a Victorian novelist: Mrs Craik’s An Unsentimental Journey Through Cornwall.

I placed an order at the library. I have to admit thought that at first I was a little disappointed with what arrived. A plain blue book that looked just like a school atlas. But then I opened it up and saw the title page. I had in my hands a rebound copy of the 1884 edition. Hooray for librarians with the wisdom to tuck away copies of special books!

I loved Mrs Craik from the very first paragraph:

“I believe in holidays. Not in a frantic rushing about from place to place, glancing at everything and observing nothing; flying from town to town, from hotel to hotel, eager to “do” and see a country, in order that when they get home they may say that they have done it, and seen it. Only to say;- as for any real vision of eye, heart, and brain, they might as well go through the world blindfold. It is not the things we see, but the mind we see them with, which makes the real interest of travelling.”

Poltesco

From the moment she and her two young companions cross the bridge over the Tamar into Cornwall she clearly sees everything, with eye, heart and brain.

The party travels down the south coast and up the north on a sixteen day tour.

They see so many sights: Mullion, Falmouth, Marazion, Tintagel, Boscastle …..

They run on beaches and swim in the sea. They love the sea and see not only it’s beauty, but also its power and its impact.

Gerran's Bay

But this isn’t just a book about places. It’s a book about people: Mrs Craik is most definitely what my mother would call a people person, and she writes wonderfully about the people she meets on her journey.

Cornish places are illuminated by Cornish lives.

There is much talk of myths and legends. Clearly this is a group of travellers who have read widely and are delighted to see the places they have read about.

St Michael's Mount

Fortunately their reading has left them well prepared. They were ready for the Cornish rain, and a downpour is accepted as a natural part of the Cornish experience. And they had knitting and reading to hand!

All of the details that you might recall of a wonderful holiday are present.

Mrs Craik writes about everything beautifully, reacting with exactly the right mixture of love, delight and good sense.

Imagine being captivated by tales of the trip of a lifetime from a good friend: that is just how An Unsentimental Journey Through Cornwall casts its spell.

It’s a book that I know that I will pick up again before too long.

Illustrations by C Napier Hemy

Paradise Creek by Leo Walmsley

“A book of mine with the rapturous title, Love in the Sun was published in this country in August of the fateful year 1939, three months before the start of Hitler’s war.

It was the story, based closely on fact, of how my wife and I, then very poor, found an empty and derelict army hut on a lonely creek near Fowey in Cornwall, rented it for three shillings a week, and made it into a home, making our own furniture, chiefly from driftwood and ships’ dunnage, growing or catching most of our food …”

I was both confused and entranced by those opening lines. Leo Walmsley’s novel, Love in the Sun, was everything that he says, and quite wonderful, but what was this book. It read like fact, and yet it stood next to Love in the Sun on the Cornish Fiction shelf in the library.

It was fiction, I discovered as I was propelled forward by Leo Walmsley, but clearly fiction that was just a whisper away from fact, and written in a very different world.

Love in the Sun ended with the birth of a child and the publication of a book. Since then, I learned the couple had prospered, moved back closer to their roots in the north, and their family had grown. But there were dark shadows. The war, of course and the couple’s relationship deteriorated. Different attitudes to life, to how to bring up their children took their toll.

It was an utterly real story, one that must have been told so many times, but I was drawn in by the emotional honesty and the simple clarity of the storytelling.

Eventually she took their children and left him.

He retreated to Cornwall, to the army hut by the river where the couple had been so happy. To lick his wounds. To make a holiday home for his children. And maybe, just maybe, to win his wife back when she brought the children down.

The restoration of that home echoes the first book beautifully.

When the children come they love it.

So many lovely small details bring a simple story to life, and real emotional honesty makes it sing.

The children grow up, of course, and so over the years summer holidays in Cornwall and their father’s role, change.

But then maybe a different future calls ….

At the beginning of Paradise Creek I was disappointed that the idyll of Love in the Sun had ended. But I was quickly caught up, emotionally involved, as the story of that end unfolded and I was taken on a very different journey.

The storyteller was flawed, but I saw into his heart and I recognised a real, fallible human being.

Everything rang true. And as I read on I realised how cleverly the structure of this book echoed its predecessor.

It works as a companion piece, and it stands up on its own. Because it is a wonderful piece of storytelling: emotionally involving, simple and utterly believable.

This is a book that will remain in my heart.

Sarah Strick by Randle Hurley

Who is Sarah Strick, you may be wondering.

Well I believe that she’s the lady on the right.

On the left is her husband Jacca and the other lady is their Aunt Emma.

Randle Hurley has put together a lovely little collection of stories about them.

In the late 1940s they lived in Penzance, my hometown, in a small cottage at the top of Causewayhead.

There’s a picture of Causewayhead as they would have known it, painted by Stanhope Forbes, a little further down the page.

But I should tell you a little more about them as these are very much character stories. Sarah and Jacka are in their seventies. She’s a little cautious, a little careful. Not is a bad way, she just wants a nice home and to be thought of well. Jacka though is rather more lackadaisical. Aunt Emma is a gregarious old lady, and still very active. A fine family!

They are all utterly believable, and it was very strange to read about them walking streets, visiting places that I know very well. They let the Western National bus pass by to catch the cheaper blue bus to Newlyn and Mousehole. I did the same thing as a child some years later when I went to visit my cousin who lived between those two villages.

And I can imagine the Strick family passing my mother and father, both small children, one in Penzance and one in Newlyn, back then.

They are lovely stories. Anecdotes really, that they would have talked over and maybe laughed about with friends and neighbours.

  • Aunt Emma feeding the birds, a nest on the roof and high jinks as Jacca tries to get it down.
  • Excitement at the coming of the modern wonder that was the Cwop (or Co-op, if you’re on the other side of the Tamar) and the divi. But comic complications ensue when Sarah makes her claim.
  • Jacca confined to bed and receiving conflicting advice from the doctor and the district nurse, until it is finally worked out that his tonic might be doing more harm than good.
  • Aunt Emma volunteering to look after the new neighbours cats, and being told they must not get out. Of course they do, and then how do you get the right cats back in?

Eight tales altogether, and every one a joy to read.

The story telling is wonderful, and it’s proper Cornish. I can hear the local voices in my head, and I recognise the warm, dry Cornish wit.

There’s a little dialect, but that shouldn’t put you off. It’s terribly readable, and there’s a glossary at the back that explains the exact meaning of such important Cornish terms as “dreckly.” Which literally translates as “directly”, but actually means at some point in the future should the mood happen to strike. Well, Cornwall is that sort of place.

And this lovely book is Cornwall distilled. Highly recommended!

Roots and Stars by C C Vyvyan

“In an attempt to tell the story of any human life there is a balance to be kept, for every one of us, whether that be hero, villain or nonentity, is destined to grow roots and look at stars.”

“Some discover early, and others late, that the purpose of growing roots is not only to confront destiny, it is also to afford balance for looking up toward the sky.”

Isn’t that a lovely way to explain a title, to introduce a volume of biography? And this is a lovely volume of autobiography.

Clara Coltman Rogers, later to become Lady Vyvyan, was born in Cornwall in the later years of Queen Victoria’s reign. She had a happy childhood with her brothers and sisters and the opening chapters are filled with lovely memories, viewed with the wisdom of greater years.

“A child is so near the ground that his horizon is restricted and flowers are his natural associates. I remember once finding the orange pistil in the cup of a deep purple crocus and gazing at it with awe. the double daisies in our own gardens were always greatly admired, they were pink and fat and sturdy, yet they did not, like the purple crocus, make one forget the earth all around and the garden wall and the sky overhead and the governess and lessons and meal times, to become only a little pin-point of awareness registering a tip of gold within a purple flower.”

There are many lovely details. Walks on the moors. Tree climbing. Visits to friends. All of the usual things that Cornish children do.

And a love of books is clear from the start and colours every chapter.

“A love of books came early in that experience of ‘something beautiful’. I was always a reader. By ‘always’ I mean as long as I could remember anything. I do not recall how I discovered that I could find magic between the pages of a book, nor when I realised that, by the help of such magic, I could escape from my own self into somebody else’s mind.”

This book most certainly holds that magic.

Clara clearly loved her roots, in Cornwall and in her family, but she also wanted to reach for her own particular stars. She wanted a purpose in life, and found it first as a social worker in London. Her parents are strongly opposed, but it is easy to understand what drew Clara, and how she found fulfilment in her career.

And she loved travelling, and was always drawn to the open air, the open road and solitary places.

“… a ruling passion that was to lead me far from the ecstasy of sitting alone in some little Cornish field or on some granite boulder that crowned a hill, to wander in distant lands and sometimes even to recapture man’s lost intimacy with dark night and dawn. It led me to sleep out on Irish hills with newspaper for a blanket and the rucksack for a pillow; to camp beside many a brown-peat river among the mountains of Wales; to paddle a canoe down river in the Arctic solitudes of Alaska; to find beauty in the desolate mangrove swamps of Australia; to walk beside the Rhone, day after day, and week after week, from the glacier source to the Mediterranean delta. On all these journeys I was seeking escape from the haunts of men into the sanctuaries of nature.”

The course of Clara’s life was, inevitably changed by the Great War. She was travelling in Germany when war broke out, and had a perilous journey home. And then when a sister and a brother both died she realised that she must leave her work and go home to support her parents. She accepted this with good grace.

She wrote – and soon became a published author.

She travelled. Much of this is passed over briefly – I imagine it is covered in other books – but she writes at length of a stay with her surviving brother on his sheep farm in Australia. Her words convey a love of the country and the people she meets, and paint wonderfully vivid pictures.

And this particular volume closes with her marriage.

I loved so much about this book. Clara writes so beautifully about so many things I love, and the balance of memories and reflection is just perfect.

Indeed, I have fallen in love with Lady Vyvyan. I will be seeking out her Cornish books, her travel writing, her second volume of autobiography …and there’s a novel too … I am happily looking forward to spending more time in her company.

Love in the Sun by Leo Walmsley

I picked up Love in the Sun purely by chance, as I browsed local fiction in the library. I am so, so glad that I did. it is a gem.

The first clue was Daphne Du Maurier’s introduction:

“”‘Love in the Sun’ will make other writers feel ashamed. And, curiously enough, old-fashioned too. It is a revelation in the art of writing and may be one of the pioneers in a new renaissance which shall and must take place in our time if the novel is to survive at all. While we struggle to produce our complicated plots, all sex and psychology, fondly imagining we are drawing modern life while really we are as démodé as jazz and mah jong, Leo Walmsley gives the reader a true story, classic in its simplicity, of a man and a girl who possessed nothing in life but love for each other and faith in the future, and because of these things, were courageous and happy…”

How could I not bring it home after reading that?!

The story is indeed simple.

A man and a woman from Yorkshire are in love, and they run away to Cornwall. Life had become complicated, and they just want to build a life together and be happy.

“We were in love and we knew what we wanted. To have a little house close to the sea, a garden, a boat…”

They lease an old army hut – previously only used as temporary shelter – for their home. They create a garden and grow vegetables; they catch fish too; they collect driftwood to burn for fuel, and so they survive and build that life. So that he can write his novel and she can have their baby.

Yes, it really is that simple. But it works beautifully, because it is honest and true.

There are little incidents, and many ups and downs, along the way. A roof that cannot keep out the Cornish rain. A kitten rescued. A boat lost to strong tides. Desperate attempts to avoid a familiar face from home. An unexpected friendship. A failed attempt to sell surplus produce. All things that you can imagine the couple recalling fondly in later life.

A baby arrives, and so does a book. There are dark shadows: the man struggles to come to terms with the time and attention that the woman must give to the child, and with the pressure to produce a second book after the first is published.

But all of that falls away when the couple’s future is threatened. Their love comes to the fore, and with a little luck they will pull through.

It is impossible not to care: the man and the woman are utterly real, and every detail rings true.

We make life complicated, when it could be so simple.

Love in the Sun is simply lovely.

“”Yes,” she cried. “Yes, I’m certian of it. Everybody will want to read it. Everybody will want to buy it. How could people not help  liking it? It’s so real. There’s nothing dull about it… It’s a grand book.”

“God!” I cried. “You’re right. It ought to go. It ought to sell in thousands.”

Words from Love in the Sun, but they could equally well be said about this sadly out of print novel. I plan to email the Leo Walmsley Society, and I’ll see where that takes me.