Ode to the Gurnard’s Head

Front View GH


Today the house is cold

I wander from kitchen to sofa and back

Seeking reward for tasks undone.

Outside white sky

Low cloud damps spirits,

   Dulls intent

Resolves of early morning spent.

My thoughts turn to West Cornwall,

  We crest the ridge,

Dive deep into a cobalt sky

  See, gorse-bloom yellow, the Gurnard’s Head

Hair and face embrace the breeze,

  Heart lifts, knowing it is free,

Gloom tossed to endless sky and sea.

I fetch paper and paints,

  Pick up my brush and dip it,

Like a summer toe in sparkling water,

  Loading it with my joys,

Yellow, then blue.

I taste the coast path,

 I will follow.




Islands in the mist


“Islanders are never afraid, if they were they wouldn’t be able to live here,” reflects the resourceful Ingrid, one of the only family scratching out a living on a tiny island off the coast of Norway in Roy Jacobsen’s novel The Unseen.

The title has layers of meaning. We begin with a view from the outside; a local pastor who finally visits the island and his charges there after deferring his pastoral duty for years due to his fear of sea travel. He makes a quick assessment of their character, feeling a certain pity for the way Ingrid’s childish hands will soon be scarred by hard work, regretting the feeble-mindedness of another sister, eating his dinner and falling asleep. The islanders help him back into the boat and go about their lives. His usefulness to them is limited.

The rest of the story is told from their point of view. Those expecting romance and blissful solitude will be disappointed. This is a powerful, yet laconic account of back-breaking hard work, wild weather and a great deal left unspoken. Mysteries are mentioned but barely, if ever, explained. It reminds me of the German TV series Heimat, which reproduced the banality as well as the beauty of everyday life in a rural community, getting under our skin until we knew the characters intimately and saw a tumultuous period of history through their eyes. There is minimal dialogue in The Unseen, and the nuts and bolts of daily life seem mundane but leave you marvelling at human resourcefulness and the constant battle for dignity and meaning.

Islands fascinate many people, myself included. The idea of being in charge of your own private kingdom, albeit a tiny one, combined with their natural beauty and air of mystery, can be intoxicating. But we romanticise them at our peril. The important qualifications for island life were until modern times, and often still are, stoicism, courage, resourcefulness and the capacity for unremitting hard work and prudent management of scarce resources.

They are not, however, without their magic. Roy Jacobsen writes lyrically of the flotsam and jetsam blown in by the tide – some useful, some faintly bizarre – an entire wheelhouse, messages in bottles that fail to reach their destination, the slimy casket of a wealthy lady’s personal effects. Sometimes the most unpromising blow-ins turn out to be the most valuable. Family is not simply defined by ties of blood, which in The Unseen can be convoluted and best left unexamined. It can include those who are washed up by circumstances, rejected by mainland society – the odd, the backward, the illegitimate and the dispossessed. Only one character in this story is unequivocally rejected by the island community; an escaped convict whose primary crime is to expect bed and board without making any contribution to the domestic economy.

Here is a book that stands squarely on its own terms and makes few concessions. It is about an elemental place that seems changeless but is in fact as vulnerable as anywhere else on earth to the vicissitudes of history. War, economics and technology all bring their own challenges and opportunities. The islanders choose their battles, battered by long experience. Some things cannot be changed, particularly the extremes of weather. Their projects are sometimes rebuilt two, three or more times because of its ravages. Jacobsen  is a master of linguistic economy. Deeds tell us more than words. A major extension to the family house is changed into a water cistern because it obscures someone’s view of their childhood home on a neighbouring island. And when a telescope is found, the conclusion is drawn that perhaps humans are not designed to see beyond the all-important horizon, because such encounters awaken dreams and raise unanswerable questions.

It sounds like a grim read, this account of exposure, stoicism and mortality. In fact it is nothing of the kind. It is as invigorating as a breath of sea air filling the lungs of a city dweller. Few of us would hanker after such a life. But it has its moments of intense happiness, and they are best savoured when they come, for who knows what tomorrow may bring? And there is a refreshing egalitarianism in its knitting together of unlikely characters in a stubborn and independent domestic commonwealth.

Islands are easy to fall in love with. They are also, both physically and psychologically, very difficult to leave. Most of us only see them from the outside. We will never fully understand them, or what motivates their denizens to cling to their exposed and arduous  lifestyle. It is a mystery that Jacobsen evokes perfectly, and does not fall into the trap of trying to explain. Instead he relies on the gift of any great novelist, the capacity to evoke empathy with people whose lives seen unlike our own.


Ship, oh ship, I seek the West

A Summer Afternoon 039
A Summer Afternoon at Lamorna, by Frank Heath
Oil on Canvas 20″ X 24″
Aileen (left) and Nancy on the cliffs above Lamorna circa 1925.
I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.
Sea Fever, John Masefield

I have been in a state of raging restlessness for days now. I knew I was longing, but I hadn’t been able to put a name to what I craved. Then I saw a picture of Mounts Bay and it all fell into place. That doesn’t make it any easier to deal with. If my life was a movie, this would be the moment when I threw things into a suitcase and boarded a westward train, never to return. The moment when I Found Myself, and began to live authentically, which in many cases seems to mean a total disregard to the wishes and feelings of anyone else.

I didn’t ask to fall in love with West Cornwall. It chose me. Perhaps it goes all the way back to the Treleavans, my ancestors from Tywardreath near Fowey. Probably they couldn’t get out of the place fast enough; they seem to have lost little time relocating to Plymouth as soon as the railways made it feasible. And Emma, my great-great-grandmother, was only sixteen when she eloped with a Scottish bandsman from the Royal Marines, changed her name to the unromantic Harrison and began a new life in the Lancashire textile industry.

My family connections since that time have been overwhelmingly with the North West of England. I was born in Manchester and have lived there for most of my adult life. We have a desirable, if somewhat neglected, house and a wide circle of interesting friends. We can go to movies, talks and theatre performances whenever we want to. We love Manchester, its warm, indomitable people, its rich cultural and musical life and its vainglorious Victorian gothic public buildings. We have a good life here. My husband, though semi-retired, is closely involved with the University and has work that fulfils him. Why would we want to move?

Nobody ever said that love was convenient. Love, as Simon Callow once said, is where it falls. Mine fell many years ago on a windy promentary steeped in history, with wide skies, pounding seas and gorse flowering yellow against the blue. I have never felt more at home anywhere. When I stepped off the train in 1985 and found myself in Penzance, I was intoxicated.

Penzance is, in fact, not an uncomplicated place to like. Much of it is frankly tatty. It has its share of ugly concrete buildings, rough pubs and shuttered shops. If you have travelled overnight and hoped for somewhere glamorous, its mundane shabbiness may depress you despite its inspiring setting. Seen on a drizzly day, with the smell of cheap pasties in the air, it’s not uplifting.

But dig deeper. Seek out the Western Georgian terraces, the graceful Penlee gardens with their lovely gallery, the richly charactered patchwork of architectural treasures on Chapel Street. Here you will find the hotel where news of victory at Trafalgar reached mainland England, the glorious eccentricity of the Egyptian House, a sturdy granite chapel used for dancing classes, a pub called the Admiral Benbow with a plaster pirate boy sharp-shooting from its eaves. Try one of the many independent coffee shops and you’ll find flyers advertising art exhibitions, delicious vegan cakes, and individual takes on furniture and decor. We went into one café on Market Jew Street and found an upside-down washbasin hanging from the ceiling of the loo. Then there is the Edge of the World, surely one of the country’s most enticing independent bookshops. There’s a tiny theatre, a range of galleries, a glorious restored 1930’s lido. And a railway station that, despite its functional barn-like design, retains an aura of romance.

Out in Mount’s Bay, St Michael’s mount sails on the horizon. Over to the left you can make out the Lizard, Britain’s most southerly point, on a fine day. A short drive or bus ride will bring you to the finest coastal scenery you’d see anywhere. The Zawns, virtigiounously plunging clefts through sheer cliffs, beloved of artists and rock climbers. Iron Age villages and old mine workings grace the furzy inland hills. Winding roads reveal new vistas at each turn. Cape Cornwall, its lonely chimney proud against the sky. Zennor, with a mermaid in the church. The glorious Gurnard’s Head pub, yellow as a gorse bloom. Around each corner, a view that could nourish you for a lifetime.

Penzance is just the start of it all. But what a start. Say you want to live there and people will roll their eyes at the thought of being so far away from everywhere else. The hours to get to London! No motorways. A sleeper train to reach a decent airport. Oh, they’ll give you lots of reasons not to go. In fact, there are places in Cornwall that, though closer as the chough flies, are more complicated to reach. Once you’ve done it a few times, even the hardship of the long train journey feels like the frame of a painting you can’t wait to rediscover. Once over the Tamar Bridge, I have never resented the distance. Every station is a well-loved old friend. 

Penzance is too far away to be like everywhere else. It has its own rhythm, its own character, its own alternative and artistic scene. Pirates are a part of the mix, but not the most important one, and mostly there for the tourists. What you will find is a large working harbour, a place where the sea still matters. You smell it in the air. Coming home to Manchester after that air gives you the sensation of filling your lungs with soup, cramming the grey biscuit-lid of low cloud over your spirit.

Every time I leave Penzance I feel more aware that a part of my soul, everything that makes me interesting, unique and creative, has stayed behind there. The stump continues to bleed. For a week or two, there are distractions. There are chores to do, the garden to tidy and harvest from, the girl who knows just how I like my hair done, the health club, all the amenities of a major city suburb long-inhabited. There are the tendrils of memory and obligation. There is happiness, of a sort. But each time, fewer weeks seem to elapse before the longing returns.

If we don’t go soon, I will age and regret that I lost my best years living somewhere I didn’t really want to be. Somewhere that doesn’t fizz my blood and make my heart sing. Already I have osteoarthritis. It will never be sensible to move. With each year that passes, it becomes less so. The excuses multiply. The fear, masked as practicality, persists.

And I remember Steve Jobs, who didn’t live all that long as it turned out, saying “Your time on earth is limited. Don’t waste it living someone else’s life.”

I tell myself not to be silly. I run through all the practicalities, my objections – both moral and ethical – to second homes. But every year, it gets less convincing. I love West Penwith. I never asked to. But love is where it falls.

When the wrong label costs a life – please let’s get serious about allergies

There is a lingering perception that people who mention allergies are narcissistic snowflakes wasting everyone’s time


Natasha Ednan-Laperouse, 15, who died after eating a baguette containing sesame from Pret a Manger (Picture from The Guardian)

This is a heartbreaking, shocking and utterly preventable tragedy. Unfortunately  it is not the first story of its type. A teenage girl, looking forward to a family holiday, grabs a baguette from an airport Pret a Manger before boarding a plane, unaware that it contains sesame. She becomes seriously ill on the plane and dies in hospital in Nice.

My son has already posted a long Twitter thread about this. He has a personal interest; he has a couple of life-threatening allergies of his own and recently had to spend a day in hospital abroad after falling foul of unclear labelling. We have travelled with him on family holidays, frequently having to explain that milk protein allergy is life-threatening, and not the same thing at all as lactose intolerance. The volume of press coverage given to clean eating and allergy/intolerance of certain foods, not all of it scientifically robust, has only added to the confusion. A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. Sometimes avoiding a particular food is a personal preference, and many a restauranteur has told a tale of someone who insisted on almond milk only to pig out on cheesecake from the sweet trolley. But for a small but significant minority, it is literally a matter of life and death.

There are countries – Austria happens to be one – where there is a clear, straightforward legal requirement to list all potentially dangerous allergens on any prepared foods offered for sale. It doesn’t guarantee complete safety but it certainly helps. A great deal depends not only on the system in place but on the training and commitment of staff. Many fast food outlets are manned by a rapid turnover of casual staff who may rarely see a line manager. Requests to see a printed list of all potential allergens may be met with bafflement, delays and rolled eyes from everyone behind the customer in the queue. There is a lingering perception that people who mention allergies are narcissistic snowflakes wasting everyone’s time, and a good cheese sarnie never did anyone any harm. They are treated as a nuisance rather than customers to whom the retailer has a duty of care.

At this time of year thousands of young people will be going through Freshers Week, navigating social life without parental supervision for the first time. They may be anxious and eager to please, or distracted, excited, and rather short on sleep. Keeping safe with a severe allergy requires concentration and planning. I can imagine the feelings of their parents as they read a story like this.

It is not elitist to explain that eating a certain food could kill you. It may be inconvenient, but far more so for the sufferer than for those having to deal with it. Please let us work together to create a climate where no young person should feel embarrassed to ask for the guidance they need to eat safely and stay well. Retailers need to realise that systems need to be robust enough to withstand outsourcing and the gig economy, and make sure their staff, however temporary and lowly, know how to keep their customers safe. It is a tragedy when any young person with their life before them dies needlessly. It can, and should, be prevented whenever humanly possible.


“I Was Hitler’s room-mate”. A haunting new novel examines complicity with evil


Days before his suicide, Hitler examines an architect’s model of his home city of Linz, rebuilt as a Nazi cultural capital

THE TRISTAN CHORD by Glenn Skwerer

“I was Hitler’s room mate.” It sounds like a nasty B-movie, doesn’t it? But for six months in Vienna in 1908, a young man called August Kubizek actually was. In fact, he had known Hitler for a couple of years by then. They had met as teenagers in the opera queue in Linz, their hometown, and become inseprable companions. Kubizek was under no illusions about his friend’s hang-ups – his endless, self-centred monologues about music, architecture and the potential of the arts to purify degenerate mankind, his almost complete inability to sustain normal relationships, his refusal to take part in any social activity that would expose his obsessions to a healthy scrutiny. He had seen Hitler’s devotion to his mother, and terrible grief at her death. As a frustrated musician himself, he could empathise with his friend’s discontents, his longing to transform the world. After Hitler persuaded his parents to allow him to try his luck at the Conservatoire in Vienna,  he was emotionally bound to him in a way he would never quite be able to define or explain.

Almost 40 years later, Kubizek found himself interred by American occupying forces, regularly pumped for information on his troubling past as the Hitlerjungenfreund (friend of the Führer’s youth). Eventually they released him and he wrote a book about it. This is the basis of Glenn Skwerer’s haunting novel.

Skwerer is up-front about his fictionalisation of Kubizek’s narrative. He gives him a different name, Eugen Reczek, and invents a relationship between Reczek and the cultured Jewish mother of one of his music students, which eventually drives Hitler out of his life. But never, quite, out of his dreams. That’s the most disturbing thing about the book. Not the exposure of the horrors of the concentration camps, Adolf’s disgusting obsessions and personal habits, or even that the two young men hooked up in the first place. Most of that is on record. There will be people who find it difficult to cope with the scene where Hitler, the devoted son, tenderly places ice on his dying mother’s tongue, when she is too sick to drink liquids. They won’t like to think of him having any redeeming qualities whatsoever. But as Skwerer points out in an Afterword, to make Hitler into a monster isn’t honest or wise. He was human. Deal with it.

It’s the quietly devastating final section of this book that really lingers in the mind. Reczek becomes a provincial official of the kind Hitler despised, his musical career derailed by the First World War. He hides away the watercolours that Hitler once painted for him and never mentions their friendship to his wife. Yet the allure remains. When Hitler becomes Chancellor, they resume contact. Unprompted, Hitler writes a huge cheque for the musical education of Reczek’s three sons.  He invites Reczek to Bayreauth to hear their adored Wagner as it should be performed, and Reczek is transfixed. His ecstatic love of the operas remains undimmed. And what of his love – if such it can be called – for the Führer himself?

The Americans chip away at his defences. Reczek tells them he was never political by nature. He only became a Nazi when it seemed rude not to. He secretly finds his interrogators a little vulgar, unable to appreciate the transformative power of great Germanic art. He suspects, at least until very late in the day, that reports of the death camps are Allied propaganda. Yes, Hitler was a bit weird. He made him very uncomfortable at times. But, you know,  Austrians greeted the Anschlüss with open arms. Well, except for the Jews of course. It was a pity about the Jews…

The payoff from all this is that by now we have identified with Reczek through his long first-person account. Who hasn’t known someone at uni who got into some weird stuff? Who became downright creepy? When do you raise the alarm? It’s not as if they all go on to murder six million people. Most of them grow out of it. Okay, his friend was a little odd. Well, very odd at times. But, you know, there was a lot of anti-Semitism in Vienna in the old days. It wasn’t a nice place. How was he to know?

By now we’ve come to regard Reczek as a reliable narrator. We want to believe he’s okay, just a bit misguided. But at what point do we no longer trust him? When he lets the Nazi top brass fete him and offer him a job? When he never mentions his Jewish assistant’s disappearance? When he goes to Bayreauth and has the best week of his life? When he finds out that none of the family of his boyhood mistress survived the death camps? And that’s what makes the ending of the story so unsettling. Does he accept the truth, or simply make the necessary accommodation with reality?

And that is the tricky bit. For evil to triumph, good men must do nothing. What makes a good man? We may even be one of them ourselves. Faced with Hitler as a room-mate, when would we raise the alarm? And what if no-one listened?

Stephen Fry explains Wagner’s revolutionary “Tristan Chord” – video

The Tristan Chord is available now from Unbound for £24.00, or from Amazon for £12.50

Through Northern Irish eyes – “a portrait of love’s complexity”

It’s becoming clear that there are some people in English politics who would value a clean Brexit more than maintaining peace in Northern Ireland. Why isn’t this getting more press coverage? We may speculate, but surely one reason is that, to be honest, Northern Ireland doesn’t really register in a lot of people’s minds as an important place. A generation has grown up now without nightly reports of atrocities on the streets of Belfast. And many of us would rather not contemplate the intricacies of the province’s politics, believing vaguely that if they really wanted to “they could sort it out.”

I’m not entirely guiltless here myself, though I do remember the IRA blowing up the centre of Manchester, fortunately without loss of life. I don’t go out of my way to read about the Troubles, but recently Bernard MacLaverty’s latest novel, Midwinter Break sneaked in under my radar. I bought it because I’m middle-aged and long-married, and his story of a couple like that on a short holiday to Amsterdam sounded like something I could relate to. I didn’t realise it was about the Troubles at all. But it is, and I admit with some shame that for the first time, after reading it, I felt some empathy with the people who had to live through them.

Gerry and Stella live in Scotland now, but spent most of their adult lives in Belfast. Stella grew up in poverty, Gerry in relative comfort, but both bear the stigma of being part of a minority. Stella remembers her large family losing a much-needed council house to a less needy Protestant family. Gerry lived and worked for years with bombs going off around him. And it becomes clear that they both continue to be affected by a life-changing incident, one that was very much of its place and time.

Marriages sometimes survive for decades because the people in them have learned to navigate around contentious areas. There are elephants in the room left unmentioned by tacit mutual consent. We see the dynamic clearly here – Gerry’s drinking is out of control, he pretends he’s hiding it from Stella, knows that she knows, but she hides the fact that she knows and is contemplating leaving him because he won’t confront it. And Stella is not simply a cradle Catholic, but an increasingly devout one. Gerry is frightened, and increasingly jealous of his wife’s faith, yet understands the need she has of it. Meanwhile, they rub along like all ageing couples, tolerant of each other’s foibles, resenting yet needing the rough edges of human interaction.

Holidays have a way of bringing such situations to a head. Trapped in a bland hotel room by icy weather and a tiredness that speaks of advancing age, determined to enjoy themselves yet somewhat adrift and always aware of the way a partner will respond or react, feeling one ought to make an effort even though excellent English is universally spoken, Gerry and Stella find the gulf widening between them impossible to overlook. Drastic action needs to be taken. But they are what their lives have made them, and ultimately they understand one another better than anyone else could. When illusions crumble, they are there to break one another’s fall.

It’s a quiet masterpiece. Very little happens outwardly but MacLaverty is a master of small but vital detail. He reveals his character’s secrets slowly and creates increasing tension as we circle around what we’d rather not know, and what they wish had not happened. By the last page, without any didactic special pleading, I was far more aware than I had been of how precious the Good Friday Agreement is, and the trauma that continues to haunt the lives of those who experienced life without it.

Midwinter Break reviewed in The Irish Times

All’s Well?


Image: Ellora Torchia (Helena) and Will Merrick (Bertram) in All’s Well That Ends Well, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, London, 2018

All’s Well That Ends Well, one of Shakespeare’s tricky mid-career plays, is performed less frequently than the crowd-pleasing As You Like It and Much Ado About Nothing. Despite its upbeat title and just-about-happy ending, it’s one of the Bard’s most cynical takes on romantic relationships.

I saw it last week in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, the Globe’s recreated Jacobean indoor theatre. It’s tiny, you feel you’re almost sitting on the stage, and completely candlelit. Here, language is forced to do the heavy lifting. It’s hard to be naturalistic when you’re carrying around a candelabra to light your own face. Elaborate 17th Century costumes add a further layer of formality. Watching a performance in these surrounding is making a journey into the past – if done well, it unlocks some remarkable new insights into Shakespeare’s craft.

The play takes place, nominally at least, at the court of France, which is at war with Florence and filled with young bloods eager to prove themselves on the battlefield. Shakespeare does not hold back in his lampooning of male bravado, particularly through the ridiculous braggart Parolles, who is a comic creation almost the equal of Falstaff.

There are certainly strong women in All’s Well. But for feminists, there’s a problem. What on earth does Helena see in Bertram, surely one of Shakespeare’s least likeable leads? Unlike Hero in Much Ado, who’s basically set up by the patriarchy to wed the nasty Claudio, Helena has as much agency, wit and cunning as Rosalind. Is she just interested in upward social mobility? There’s clear evidence in the text that she’s besotted by Bertram, who treats her appallingly. And she goes to extreme lengths to get him back. This is no Mariana moping in her moated grange. This woman goes on a dangerous pilgrimage into a war zone and schemes with the locals to claim her conjugal rights.

A candlelit space is by its very nature intimate. It’s very likely that these very constraints, plus the opportunity to create sophisticated special effects, led to the spectacular other-worldly quality of the late romances. I’ve seen two of these, The Tempest and The Winter’s Tale, at the Wanamaker, and in both cases the indoor world was powerfully evoked. Imagining the contrasting outdoor one was more of a stretch. Probably the Jacobean audience were more accepting of the limitations of the venue. Naturalistic acting wasn’t a familiar concept – they went to the theatre to be wowed by poety pyrotechnics. In those days, hearing a good sermon was a day out.

This production seemed to approach the challenge of All’s Well by classing it as an early draft of these late plays, and staging it accordingly. There is much use of ritual and incantation, and a twist at the end that pushes the envelope of familiar Shakespearian improbability into something resembling magical realism. The shadowy theatre becomes a womb-like space, not simply because Helena ultimately gives birth but through repeated use of bathing, candlelight and deeply feminine ritual. It is no coincidence that the dominant colour of the women’s costumes changes to a bright red as the play draws to its close.


Michelle Terry as Helena and Oliver Ford Davies as the King in the 2009 National Theatre production

Michelle Terry’s Helena at the National a few years ago was more clearly a traditional fairy-tale heroine, with her basket and red cloak. And the Tobacco Factory production I saw last year at the Lowry really revelled in the broad comedy of the Parolles plot, providing another manifestation of toxic masculinity that enriched the main story line. In the Wanamaker production, Imogen Doel makes a fine job of playing Parolles, bringing out the pathos of his humiliation, but I wasn’t sure that making him effeminate was the right approach, at least all the way through. Parolles isn’t a drag queen relishing his gender fluidity. He desperately wants to be one of the boys. A bit more swagger in the early acts would have made his exposure later on more interesting.

In the final scene, Bertram apparently is moved to accept Helena as his mate by the sight of their child. Is this a happy ending? Shakespeare leaves that to the audience, or perhaps the director. Is it enough that Helena decides what she wants, and grabs it, and succeeds against all the odds? Would the fact that she makes a marriage into the nobility be considered as a happy ending by a Jacobean audience? If there was any clear takeaway from this production, it was that we’ve left ordinary life behind by now and we’re operating on an archetypal level, with Helena as the Goddess in control, empowered through childbearing. We, and Bertram, can only look and marvel. As Paulina says at the end of The Winter’s Tale, “It is required you do awake your faith.”

Review of this production, The Stage