Tag Archives: Cornwall

Book Review: The Swordfish and The Star, by Gavin Knight

I bought this book because I was completely engrossed by an article in The Sunday Times that was written by Knight, based on his book. The focus of this article ‘Cornwall Uncovered’, timed for the annual invasion of tourists to our county, considers what life is like for the remnants of the fishing communities that exist on the fringes of the westernmost coastline of the UK. Knight spent time with several people within these communities, and the book narrates their tales.

The Swordfish and The Star is a narrative non-fiction, with a feel like you’re eavesdropping on yarns being spun in a pub. It fits then that the book is named after two pubs in Newlyn. The book is rambling, and at times feels like there is a lack of focus, unlike the pithy, well-argued article in The Sunday Times. The narratives come from the men (mostly) that Knight interviewed, and their stories are written in layers around each other, with the feel that the voices are clamouring to be heard. I am not convinced, having read the book, that I have any one story straight in my mind. There is a vast call of characters, and at times it is confusing.

What I loved about The Swordfish and The Star was the fascinating insight into the lives of the fishing communities, and the harshness of the existence. It is a social history of today, drawing on parallels of the Cornish of the past. Knight explores the essence of the Cornish – a lawless, maverick and isolated people. Those wanting independence, and perhaps a resentment of the ‘emmets’. That argument is lost in the closing scene, where the tourists are seen to be part of the weekly shanty-singing evening in the Cadgwith pub.

Where I thought the book fell short was that Knight, keen to explore the myths and legends of the past, seemed to be taken in by those told to him during his research. This is as much a part of the Cornish of today. Yarns are spun, tales are exaggerated, and I wondered where the lines of truths were. Everyone loves a good story, and the Cornish are happy to embellish when someone has their ear.

Overall, Knight’s book is compelling, and illuminates the harshness of the Cornish winters and the rural poor. A world away from the cream teas, the Padsteins and the affluent second homers and holiday makers that drift down from upcountry. Cornwall is one of the poorest regions in the UK, with one of the poorest towns in the EU, and Knight does well to explore that. However, his article does it with more clarity.

Book Review: Rising Ground by Philip Marsden

“Why do we react so strongly to certain places? Why do layers of mythology build up around particular features in the landscape? When Philip Marsden moved to a remote creekside farmhouse in Cornwall, the intensity of his response took him aback. It led him to begin exploring these questions, prompting a journey westwards to Land’s End through one of the most fascinating regions of Europe… Marsden reveals that the shape of the land lies not just at the heart of our history but of man’s perennial struggle to belong on this earth.”

I will state boldly, that Rising Ground is another book that I wish I had written. Philip Marsden is a gifted writer, with an ability to conjure up place from the page. He also manages to go beyond the sense of place, and in seeking the ‘spirit’ of it, he connects people to the landscape.

Cornwall is rich in history, and Marsden’s journey west towards Lands End, not taking the well-trodden paths, is fascinating and absorbing. It is a woven narrative with the renovation of the crumbled building his family have moved into, tucked away in old mine country, in the upper reaches of The Fal.

Rather like Robert MacFarlane, each place is a chapter, giving space for Marsden’s descriptions, research and pondering to breathe.  Even before the reader turns the first page of a chapter, Marsden tempts you in with an exploration of the origins of the name of the place – invoking its spirit. It is a journey the reader takes with him, as Marsden is generous with his own process and reflection.

As someone who has been curious about the world, inspired by a wonderful geography teacher in school, and then the subject of my first degree. I have been lucky enough to travel widely, but in coming to Cornwall, I too have found a gravity to place that I have not experienced anywhere else I’ve lived (and I’ve lived in a number of rural and city locations, with four years in the immediate post-Communist Poland). Perhaps his book speaks to me because of my wanderlust, my own curiosity and my joy at feeling home.

Marsden’s writing is sublime, better even than The Levelling Sea, with spine-tingling lines such as:

“There have been times writing this book, trying to reach the meaning of a place across the ages, when I have felt a shadow pass over my desk”

Rising Ground is a wonderful book, and Marsden makes me want to pull on my walking boots and wander the paths less travelled across Cornwall.

My Writing Retreat

16 – 21 March 2015: Rosemerryn, Lamorna

The keeper of the Fogou
The keeper of the Fogou

The Writing Retreat, is run by Kath Morgan and Jane Moss, writers and creative writing tutors based in Cornwall.  This was their second retreat, and they had one returning client – testament to their initial success.  Kath and Jane are both very accomplished, with different interests and emphases, giving a rich mix for the benefit of their clients. The focus of the week at Rosemerryn was The Craft of Writing.  There were workshops/classes each day, which you didn’t have to attend and space in the afternoons to write, or walk, or sit and hug the aga!

Like most writers heading for a retreat, I was hoping for space, inspiration and TLC for my writerly self.  I was not disappointed. I attended each of the workshops, others didn’t.  It didn’t matter.  The workshops were delivered at a marching pace – and therefore I think not for the beginner.  At times it felt there was an overwhelming amount of handouts, but examples enriched the learning.  All of the workshops were well thought out and well-structured, with a clearly signed path through each, and throughout the week.  My stand out session was on the short story structure – so much so that I went back to my room and blew the dust off an old story and tightened it in line with the model examined in class.  I think, to much better effect.  In addition to Kath and Jane, there was a guest presenter for the session on dialogue, with Jenny Alexander.  Jenny was very generous with herself, and gave a fascinating presentation on her own work the previous evening.  I learned a lot from simply being around her.  She encouraged me to write more and think less.

The table ready for dinner
The table ready for dinner

It was important to our hosts, Kath and Jane, to ensure that we were well-nourished.   Breakfast was a help yourself, with just about everything you could wish for.  The warm kitchen at Rosemerryn was a lovely place to start the day, and had the feeling of being around a friend’s table.  Lunch also took place around the table, always a hearty soup and plenty of fresh salads and breads – and Kath’s epic Quiches.  Supper was a three-course affair, and the ‘rule’ of the week was that each client had to help out with kitchen duties one evening.  I enjoyed this immensely – there is something wonderful about preparing and sharing food.  The evening meals were outstanding, well navigated between various dietary requirements.  You could never go hungry on Writing Retreat.

Sennan Cove
Sennan Cove

We were blessed with a sunny week, not exactly warm, but generous for March in Cornwall.  There are a couple of lovely walks from Rosemerryn, including down to Lamorna Cove.  With a car, I was able to get across to Sennan Cove for a blast of sea air one afternoon.

The partial eclipse at The Merry Maidens
The partial eclipse at The Merry Maidens

My highlights:

  • the one-to-one sessions offered by both Kath and Jane.  They were able to gather up the fragmented aspects of my writerly-self, poke around in the draft ideas of my WIP and give concrete suggestions and strategies to get writing.
  • Finding the Fogou at Rosemerryn, and in that, a mental place to banish my inner critic to.
  • Watching the partial eclipse at The Merry Maidens.  I don’t think I’ll ever forget it.
  • The last evening together hearing each other read (and sing sea shanties).
The wisteria-climbing cat (on my uke!)
The wisteria-climbing cat (on my uke!)

My lowlights:

  • Creaking backache from the workshop table – way too low to work at.
  • the wisteria climbing cat who wailed at my bedroom window to be let in, night and day.

The Writing Retreat delivered everything that I wanted from a writing week away, and my take away feeling is that I am walking taller as a writer.