I just finished reading Simon Armitage’s new book Walking Away, which is an account of his troubadour-esque progress around the South-West Coast path from Minehead to Land’s End, and then on to the Isles of Scilly. Hiking by day, reading poetry by night, hosted by a random assortment of locals (of whom my parents are not numbered, because my mother didn’t pick up on my enthusiasm for them getting involved in his epic trip when I told her about it). I really enjoyed his previous book, Walking Home, about his time on the Penine Way, and so I was excited to read him writing about my homeland. Reading it, however, I found Away lacking something that Home had had. It wasn’t that Away isn’t good and that I wasn’t enjoying it: it is, and I was. It just wasn’t quite as rich, and I was wondering why. And then I realised: it’s that it is very different reading someone writing about their home (which Armitage is doing in Home) to reading someone writing about your home (which he is doing in Away). And I really really like people writing about their home (see, for example, my totally beloved Shotgun Lovesongs).
So, after reading Walking Away, and given that both Philip Marsden’s Rising Ground and Susan Cooper’s Dark is Rising series are in my To Be Read Pile, I thought I’d make a short list of the books that feature Cornwall that I really love and would recommend you read.
The Magic Ointment (and Other Stories), by Eric Quayle with illustrations by Michael Foreman. This is a collection of Cornish myths and fairytales, with some beautiful illustrations. My personal favourite is the story of the giants of St Michael’s Mount and Trencrom Hill (which I used to climb as a kid, as the best place to fly a kite near my home), but it also has the Mermaid of Zennor and some other great tales.
The Fate of Jeremy Visick, by David Wiseman. I had this as a child - it’s probably aimed at the 8–12 age range, I guess, I had it at the younger end of that scale. It’s about a schoolboy who has to do a local history project, and ends up finding himself haunted by the story of one of the people in his project - a boy of the same age, working down the mines.
“And to Jeremy Visick, His Son, Age 12, Whose Body Still Lies in Wheal Maid.”
It’s really evocative and haunting, and a really nicely told story about the mining history of Cornwall.
Why the Whales Came, by Michael Morpurgo. Another children’s book - one of Morpurgo’s earliest - and another one that mixes history and myth in a story about a small community: in this case, Bryher in the Isles of Scilly. I love the way it very gently introduces its readers to the way that communities include and exclude people in the best and worst possible ways. It’s also notable, I think, that Gracie is as important and rounded a character as Daniel, and one of a couple of great (i.e. totally normal human ) young female characters that Morpurgo gave me as a child without any hullabaloo.
The Poldark series, by Winston Graham. Well, yes, of course, but also… This pretty much follows on from child-Hannah’s fascination with Cornwall’s local history courtesy of Jeremy Visick. Yes, I like the big romantic sweep of Ross and Demelza… well, mostly (grown-up Hannah is a whole lot uncomfortable with what happens at the end of Warleggan whereas teenaged Hannah basically missed what actually happens), but the reason it survives repeat reading is its grounding in the history and society of that period. I love the way it shows the interconnections between all the levels of society, as well as science (Industrial Revolution!) and religion (Methodism!) through the story.
Smiley’s People, by John Le Carre. OK, so, it’s not actually set in Cornwall, but it features Cornwall in one key scene - when Smiley goes to visit his wife Ann for one final moment. I can’t remember if this has stuck in my head more from the book or from the TV series, but somethig about the scene captures the bleak, damp, windy cold of Cornwall in winter.
The Camomile Lawn, by Mary Wesley, and Coming Home, by Rosamunde Pilcher. I’ve paired these together, because I read them both at the end of my teenage years, and have never returned to them. But, hey both evoke a particular kind of atmosphere about Cornwall. They’re warm and summery, full of big groups of interconnected families and friends, and you can kind of smell the sea breeze in the air. At the same time, neither author lets that get saccharine or nauseating - I remember very little about the stories of either beyond that Stuff That is Not Happy happens, and that Cornwall remains a safe haven.
The House on the Strand and The Loving Spirit, by Daphne DuMaurier. I am a big fan of Minor Works DuMaurier. I am not a big fan of either Rebecca or My Cousin Rachel, and although I do have a lot of affection for Jamaica Inn, I prefer these two - both of which are set on the coast (one south, one north). The House on the Strand is a drugged-up historical mystery (no, really) that is about the fascination historical characters and stories have for us. The Loving Spirit is about the power of the sea, and about two ‘wild’ women of Cornwall, Jenny and Jennifer and what it’s like to be in relationships with them.