Although born in Somerset, John Branfield moved to Cornwall in 1961, where he wrote much of his fiction; including titles such as Nancekuke and The Sugar Mouse, Cornish-set novels aimed primarily at adolescent girls. He was a well-regarded author of fiction in the 1970’s and 1980’s, who, like D.M. Thomas, seems to have given up that part of his career sometime c.1990. Where Thomas returned his hand to poetry, his first love, however, Branfield re-emerged in the early twenty-first century as a biographer of the Newlyn School. This book then, could be said to straddle the two phases in his career both literally and figuratively. Written in the 1980’s but not published until 2001, the novel is structured around Newlyn School paintings.
Each chapter begins with a reference to a painting – its title, date, artist and a description – as in a catalogue. Words only go so far however and I feel that the book could be improved considerably if the publishers had gone to the expense of printing full colour reproductions of each painting, or a related work, on the facing page at the beginning of the chapter. Perhaps this was one reason for the book’s not being published when it was first written – the expense of both the printing and the acquiring of rights to do so may have been prohibitive and it’s conceivable that either or all of the writer, his agent and publisher may have felt as I do. Today though, the reader may partially circumvent this problem through use of a computer, or any other device connected to the internet: a quick search on the web retrieves images of many of the paintings without any difficulty (although some are fictitious).
These paintings are used to illustrate a simple tale of obsession slowly destroying a marriage. The protagonist, Roger Trevail , is a writer experiencing a creative slump that, we are led to believe, may be a permanent decline, (no doubt the pun is intended anyway but poor copy-editing occasionally renders his name as ‘Travail’). On one hand, Trevail could be seen as a fictionalised agglomeration of the Tangye brothers, Derek and Nigel; writing short stories, Cornish non-fiction and memoirs of leaving London & setting up in Cornwall complete with children & animals. On another though, there are elements which suggest something of a roman-à-clef – most notably, of course, in both Trevail and Branfield’s interest in the Newlyn School.
Rather than shrinking rom any such accusations though, Branfield plays with them – Trevail experiences a touch of envy that contrasts the honesty of painterly self-portraits with the subterfuge of writerly roman-a-clefs, suggesting that critics allow painters a greater freedom than they do authors. Later, indeed, Trevail asks ‘who the hell is J.B.?’ in response to one critical review. We do not know either, in the context of the fictional world, but it would be difficult to imagine that Branfield had used his own initials here subconsciously. There is also a curious foreshadowing in chapter 3 when a novel about the Newlyn school is laid aside by Trevail. It’s difficult to know just how much that is a coincidence and how much it is a black joke at the author’s own expense.
The title of the book itself is a reference to a Stanhope Forbes lecture delivered to the Royal Cornwall Polytechnic Society in 1900 in which he described the plein-air philosophy of the post-impressionist Newlyn school as ‘a breath of fresh air’. Although the style is varied in the book here, it would be more than generous to bestow such an accolade upon Branfield. In addition to the catalogue-like entries which begin each chapter, some chapters are comprised entirely of them; others include a brief history of the school, a short story by Trevail, mock newspaper articles, and his wife’s memoir. Just over fifty per cent of the chapters though, are written in the first person of Trevail with a sort of navel-gazing intensity that matches his character’s obsession.
Trevail cannot understand artists producing work that is average, thinking they should give up, somehow unaware that this is himself. Given the possibility raised above of some degree of autobiography being contained in the story we might wonder if Branfield is himself trying to work out whether or not to persevere with his calling. He invents the Newlyn school artist Denzil Hooper, who burns all of his work in a pique of despondency. Later, Trevail tries the same trick with one of his own manuscripts but he believes fervently that painting is a more delicate record of creation and knows that he has drafts of this manuscript elsewhere. His wife sees the stunt as childish attention-seeking.
It’s difficult, then, to see what this book has to say, if anything, about the Cornish experience. Difficult, indeed, to see it as any more than an artist trying to work out his problems through his art and comparison with other artists. For some writers that might have been the Bloomsbury Set, but Bramfield has a clear passion for the Newlyn School. Very few of the artists in that group were Cornish and their work largely foisted an English bucolic idyll of simple, honest, peasants onto Cornwall. Here, like in those paintings, ‘the trees are in full leaf and block the view of the valleys and hillsides’. (less)
Set in a thinly veiled Zaire/DRC, this is a superb dissection of post-colonial Africa. V.S. Naipaul is an author who seems to divide opinion at presen...moreSet in a thinly veiled Zaire/DRC, this is a superb dissection of post-colonial Africa. V.S. Naipaul is an author who seems to divide opinion at present, much in the way that William Golding does, and if it weren't for the theme then I may not have picked this up. I'm glad I did though: like Golding, Naipaul is a superb writer.
The author writes through the eyes of Salim and his narrator is a perfect mirror for the state he is observing. Initially optimistic of bettering himself, becoming successful and important, it takes him a long while to notice that he's going nowhere. Africa is constantly changing and yet, like Salim's life, it's largely mired in a state of rot and stasis (it always irritates me to hear people speak of 'Africa' as if it's all the same but here it's pertinent).(less)
“Golding and Thomas won critical acclaim for their fiction in the twentieth century, but their lack of direct engagement with Cornwall in their work means that few even realise that they are Cornish.”1
So I wrote in March last year. In the 1980’s, for probably the only time, Cornish writers were the recipients of critical acclaim and sales recognition as never before or since. It was during this time that Rosamunde Pilcher made the break from Mills & Boon writer to international bestseller, with the widely praised The Shell Seekers, a book later adapted for television in several different countries. The Cornish setting of that book was overt but the Cornishness of D.M. Thomas and William Golding, despite each writer’s very real pride in their roots, could easily escape the attention of any reader. Both writers were as commercially successful (give or take a million or so books!) as Pilcher and yet they met with even more critical acclaim than she did. Golding, still most famous for his debut – Lord of the Flies, won both the Booker (for Rites of Passage) and the Nobel prizes in that decade while Thomas was also shortlisted for the former with his novel The White Hotel.
Thomas stopped writing novels at the end of that decade and returned to his first love, poetry. Recently perusing his website I was interested to see that he had embarked on a project in 2010 to read all of his own novels: something which he had famously never done for any of them since publication. Imagine my surprise then, on reading this sentence in his overview of the project: “Pleasant surprises: The authentic working-class Cornishness in 'Birthstone' --far from the imported 'Cornishness' of a Du Maurier”2. Birthstone was only Thomas’s second published novel and certainly not his most famous, perhaps that is why I had missed it? Thomas goes on to say of his his reading:
“My first attempt at a novel, after 20 years of poetry only. Fearing I wouldn't be able to fill up 200-odd pages, I threw in all my obsessions, like a mad cook. They included: Cornwall, ancient stones, sex, psychoanalysis, Cornish dialect, stockings, suspenders, my mother, my father, my sister. (Well, the last three aren't obsessions, only memorable figures in my life.) The resultant dish I still like. Perhaps strangely, it's my only novel where I've 'explored' Cornwall and Cornish characters and speech. I revised it for the Penguin paperback edition. My editor had said there were too many 'bodily fluids'! There are still quite a few.”
So, what to make of it? In light of Thomas’s revisions, I should first make plain that the copy I read is the revised edition, although oddly published by Gollancz and not Penguin.
There are, indeed, still quite a few bodily fluids - blood, piss, sperm - you name it, it's here. It has to be said that there's also a hell of a lot of rather kinky sex, although not written to titillate. Both these aspects feed into the Freudian aspect of the novel, which is strong. The protagonist is schizophrenic, often losing several days at a time to one of her many other personalities. These consume her consciousness, leaving her with no memory of her actions (or, rather, of her alter-egos' actions) and an inordinate amount of Irish-Catholic guilt. Yes, the novel may be Cornish but the protagonist is not. I've noted in past reviews that the outsider is a familiar and useful character through which to explore notions of identity and here we have several. Given Thomas's comments, above, perhaps it's fairer to read this novel in those terms than the last time I did so. Here, there are several outsiders and each contributes to the novel in a different way.
The protagonist I have mentioned - she is our window into this world and the vessel through which we explore ideas of psychological problems and Cornishness. A second, minor, character is an Oxford academic who is presented as starchy and aloof - a clear contrast to the other characters that helps to underline 'the otherness of Cornwall', to borrow a phrase from Bernard Deacon and Philip Payton. Superficially, this character and the next two I'll mention could be taken to be lazy stereotypes but they're saved from this fate by superb writing: even the smallest dramatis personae come to life on the page, made substantial by Thomas's prose. The final two outsiders are arguably the two largest and most important members of the cast beyond the protagonist: an American tourist couple with whom she stays. From Grass Valley, the Bolithos are here to visit 'the old country':
'We've been pronouncing our name wrong all these years! According to the registrar - who's a real dish - it's Bol-eýe-tho! Would you believe it? Don't you think it sounds nicer, honey? From now on we're Mr and Mrs Bol-eýe-tho. Okay?'
The Bolithos, of course, represent a distinct aspect of Cornishness - the diaspora. Although earnest they are not so much seeking their roots as embracing them - they sing the same hymns after all. From their point of view, they are Cornish and see no impediment to their fitting in locally and having a good time. The diasporic theme is further explored through the character of Frank Wearne, who has travelled the world, working down the mines of almost every white settler state and Mexico - a country recently keen (long after this book was written) to promote its Cornish heritage (museums, diplomatic visits and heritage ties) - whose impacts are explored briefly but touchingly. The visitors are staying in Pendeen and, at this time, there was of course an active mine still offering employment in the village. Geevor, though, remains a shadowy presence in the novel - glimpsed but not explored - and most miners present in the text are either dead or retired as if, in the 1970's, Thomas is acutely aware of the shift that is taking place in the Duchy from heavy industry to tourism as a principle source of income.
Nowhere is this better represented than in the Polglaze family: Arthur Polglaze also travelled the diaspora in his youth but is now a successful local builder looking towards retirement in a bungalow of his own making. His wife, Elsie, is that prototypical Cornish mother: a blur of activity as she chatters and bakes; cooking, washing and cleaning for half the village and tourists alike, twenty or even ten years later she'd most probably be running a café or a B&B. When we first meet them it's for Sunday dinner, followed by a service at the Methodist chapel where their son, Tom, is a steward. Tom is a product of this changing Cornwall (indeed, at one point the protagonist describes him as a 'changeling' - a word she uses to describe her own condition) - at once the perfect Cornish son, a lighthouse officer and rugby forward as well as a Methodist steward, he is also a popular figure in the pub, where he drinks and smokes with the best of them, and with the ladies - he's not afraid to take advantage of the tourists.
His old man, he played in the band. Music is perhaps the most overt manifestation of Cornish culture in the book: songs and hymns are sung not just by the choir and by the Bolithos but at every gathering and the brass band is never far away. Perhaps that is a side of Cornish culture, perhaps on the wane, visible only to insiders: I remember seeing an interview with Jack Shepherd once in which he discussed his direction of a Wycliffe TV episode ('Standing Stone'), he noted that brass bands were a theme in W.J. Burley's novels but he felt that a folk band was more authentic and appropriate. Music is a powerful symbol. It's probably fair to say that if music is associated with Cornwall at all these days it's not the communal activity that it once was. Music is though, something to which the poet can relate. Birthstone is clearly written by a poet: Thomas's prose is bewitching; conjuring images and playing with words and references effortlessly. It's also an occasionally difficult but richly rewarding read, dealing adroitly with many of the themes identified in the 'New Cornish Studies' before ever that term came to be used (as well as Freud) in a way that is both insightful and light-handed whilst remaining relevant.