Holiday Reading, Fowey, Cornwall, 2012.

Sunday, July 29th, 2012.

As we crossed on the ferry K. pointed out a ruined abbey. ‘Walks are good for thinking,’ a white-bearded man was telling a female passenger. ‘Allows you to get things straight. Dickens when he got in the grip of melancholy walked 14 miles.’

In Fowey, I bought a copy of Rebecca from the Daphne de Maurier Literary Centre and a collection of Quiller-Couch’s lectures from a second-hand bookshop, which devoted one bookcase to writers associated with the region.

We walked to Readymoney Cove on a narrow road beside cliffs which led down to smugglers’ coves. (‘Good for suicides,’ a man said, stopping to look down.) As we approached the Cove itself the water looked green with black bushes on the bed. On the little beach, I started reading Q. ‘The function of all true art,’ Professor Q told his Cambridge students during a lecture on the 17th century poets, ‘is to harmonize the soul of man with the immense universe surrounding him, in which he divines a procession which is orderly … a Will infinitely above him, infinitesimally careful of him.’ This statement, I suppose, would hold for many Medieval poems, but what, though, about, for example, Hamlet?


Monday, July 30th, 2012.

In Looe an aproned man exited a pastry shop and rang a bell crying out that ‘All pastries’ were now £1. News boards spoke of a couple trapped in a landslide for ten days. Driving back, K. pointed out angels’ wings in the sky – white lines fanning through banked clouds to the west. As we sat at the dining table in the cottage’s kitchen, mist hid the sea.

Q discusses Thomas Traherne, a poor Welsh parson, born about 1636. ‘For 250 years his writings were lost.’ Two volumes in manuscript came into Grosart’s hands, who attributed them to Henry Vaughan. After Grosart’s death, the volumes again became mobile and reached Bertram Dobell, bookseller, who identified Traherne as their author.

Reading Traherne’s poems about his childhood makes me think of growing up on the estate near Arnold, Nottingham. We had moved to it when I was five years old from a block of flats. Here was a region to explore. I never tired of it. The ‘wasteland’ led eventually to an older estate with uglier (I thought) houses and so I felt sorry for the people who lived there.

All four mystic poets (Donne, Herbert, Vaughan, Traherne), Q notes, came by ancestry from the Welsh Marches. He is not one for cultural stereotypes, he says, but there does seem to be something here of the ‘Celtic spirit’. He also talks about Sir John Davies (also Welsh), Phineas Fletcher, Henry King, William Habington (since we feel that something has been lost to us on being born it follows that God ‘himself passionately seeks to recover that which was lost’), Francis Quarles (‘I will rise now and go about the city in the streets … I will seek him whom my soul loveth – I sought him but I found him not’) and Richard Crashaw. But Q concludes his lecture by saying that he cannot read this sort of thing for very long. It is foreign to his nature. He feels a need to get back to real life and real things. His favourite reading is adventure novels.

Tuesday, July 31st, 2012.

Marching down the hill, I turned off at a corner by a large stone. A green plastic lizardman had been left on the stone. Scraps of mist drifted past St. Saviour’s Point. Bees swarmed in a saddle-shape on a bench in the playground. The people K. had spoken to said they had flying foxes in their trees. A man was cutting hedges with a machine. The ‘abbey’ was not an abbey but the Blockhouse. A man was fishing there.

Q is not taken seriously as a ‘scholar’, nowadays. On the theory module I taught on while doing my ph.d the introductory lecture dated the proper start of the discipline (the study of English Literature) from F. R. Leavis, who made criticism a profession. You no longer had to enjoy the object of study. Love was no longer a qualification. A modern critic somewhere attacks Q for cheering his English students off to their deaths in the war against the Germans. That is not how it comes across reading this book. It would be unfashionable now to entitle two lectures Patriotism in English Literature, certainly, but Q maintains that the patriotism of the greatest nations in history avoids self-assertion. As a counter-example he sets Germany, which, he argues, since 1870, had ‘set itself to philosophize its primitive instincts, maintaining that the be-all and end-all of a State is Power.’ This viewpoint is not new, Q observes. Thrasymachus got laid on his back for rehearsing it at Athens. In any case, Q denounces such ‘neo-Darwinism’, pointing out that ‘Christ taught that he who would save his soul must first lose it’. That doctrine, he adds, ‘informs good literature’. (He cites a 15th century poem – The Nut Browne Mayde.)

Wednesday, August 1st, 2012.

A grass snake had been dropped in the road. Today it was gone. ‘Where?’ asked D. ‘A bird,’ suggested K. While I was browsing in the second-hand bookshop in Fowey, a tall white-haired man told the shopkeeper that he had found a letter inside a book on her shelves. He had written the letter. Could he have it? She hesitated. The man’s daughter was with him. ‘He did write the letter,’ she said.

I bought the second volume of Q’s Cambridge lectures and talked with the shop-owner about Daphne du Maurier. She said that she had been unique in terms of bridging the gap between literary and popular (except perhaps Agatha Christie but ‘she wrote formulaically’). I asked about Rowse.

‘Pompous,’ she averred. ‘Self-made. Labour councillor. Britten’s memoir of Q is better.’

‘How did Q rate Daphne’s novels?’

‘He liked the first one (Loving Spirit). Loved Jamaica Inn. Saw that there was no going back after Rebecca.’

The barmaid in the pub we stopped at was the daughter of the landlord. She asked her father what symbol to press on the till screen for pork scratchings.

‘Pork scratchings,’ her dad says deploringly.

‘Yeah but there’s more than one.’

She shakes her head and pulls a face. The couple trapped in the landslide, it had now been reported, had been killed instantly.

A van turned into one of the narrow streets. It was too wide and it struck the front of a building. We went up to St. Catharine’s Castle (built by order of Henry VIII).

Thurday, August 2nd, 2012.

We walked to Menabilly Beach from a field which was used as a car park, after leaving 50p in a milk churn. I tried to locate a house I’d read about which had a Du Maurier association. There were ranks of tall trees with leafy haunches then darkness then visible after the darkness a brown suggestion of a turnip field or a wall.

Friday, August 3rd, 2012.

Hedges of woven willow stakes framed the view of the merged sea and sky from a hidden patio in the Headland Garden. A white cross stood on a tiny island. The steep shelved garden rose to the house where sat a man in a pink shirt, an old lady with blue-white legs and a middle-aged lady with a blonde bob. At the marina it was Summer Gala day. Competitions were held for children on the beach. Another news report concerned a land-slide or cliff-fall at a Dorset beach. Witnesses saw an enormous yellow cloud of dust. A young woman was trapped. In the evening there was a disco and a barbecue.


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