Today's Reading

Mousehole looks exactly how you would paint the idealised fishing village. And yet, in the smoothing brush strokes the artist has applied to it, it seems all the messiness of life has been wiped from it. There is none of the clamouring unruliness that I am immediately confronted with in Newlyn: no rough edges, no tangled nets or thumping machinery, and rarely do you actually see the fishermen walk by in their fish and blood-smeared oilskins. When boats do leave Mousehole's harbour they can be seen dolling--a Cornish word used to describe boats moving idly up and down the sea. One of the Newlyn fishermen, 'Cod', lived in Mousehole for a while (I ask about his nickname, expecting some dramatic fishing tale, but he simply replies that as a youngster he wore a jumper emblazoned with 'Cape Cod' and the name stuck). He tells me that nowadays Mousehole has become so flat, so without life, that once an American couple in matching shorts, flip-flops and baseball caps came up to him and said 'Do they pay you guys to be here, or what?' The cottages are perfectly quaint but when you look closely, most have signs in the windows indicating which Cornish cottage website they can be booked from.

The tidal harbour has been drunk dry this bright Good Friday morning, leaving the boats naked, barnacles exposed, their tapering rudders driven into the mud; it feels almost rude to stare at them in this state, without the sea protecting their modesty. Up until the sixteenth century, Mousehole, not Newlyn, was the principal fishing port in the Southwest. In 1595 a Spanish naval squadron landed at Mousehole and sacked it, burning down almost every building, before continuing their violence upon the coast in Newlyn and Penzance. Mousehole never quite recovered from its destruction and Newlyn's port, from where boats could come and go at any hour uninhibited by the passage of the tide, soon assumed dominance.

I leave the village and cut up towards Lamorna. The single-decker Mousehole bus, bright pink with a cartoon mouse painted along its side, careers past me on its way back to Penzance. The landscape becomes harsher the further you travel towards Land's End, the cliff path climbing up and up until the glimpsed sandy coves look little more than fingernail clippings; lavender-coloured spring squill, heather in blue and green bushes of every shade, and pink tufts of thrift, erupt from the cliff side. And, opening out in the distance, Lamorna Cove itself—a recess cut back so deep into the coast that the precipitous granite cliffs surrounding its crescent of sea look out of scale. On clouded days the cove can feel like one of the most foreboding places on earth, as the land and sea turn black and the many boulders left high up on the cliff face from previous rockfalls look ready to descend to the Atlantic, taking the few seaward cottages with them. But today, with the sun gleaming, the whole cove is lit up, rendering the sea a deep, vivid blue and the carpeted cliffs a verdant green. The cafe is filled with visitors enjoying chips and ice creams and watching for the occasional scuba-diver breaking the surface of the deeper water out beyond the rocks.

At the beginning of the Second World War a London-born constructivist artist, and one of the founding members of the Abstraction-Création association in Paris, fled France on a tanker and found herself in Lamorna Cove. This was not the first time that Marlow Moss had run away to Cornwall. While studying at the Slade School of Art in London she had suffered an emotional breakdown and escaped westwards for her recovery. It was after this retreat that she replaced her given name Marjorie with that of Marlow and moved to Paris to start a Bohemian life there, living amongst a group of avant-garde artists that included Piet Mondrian. That second occasion Marlow Moss came to Cornwall, this time as a result of global rather than personal turmoil, she did not leave again. She found a cottage and a studio in Lamorna and remained there for the rest of her life, the village gradually becoming accustomed to the androgynous figure she cut—with cropped hair, riding breeches, silk cravats. After she died, her ashes were sprinkled into the waves at the edge of the cove.

Moss chose Lamorna for herself. My connection to the cove was established before I was even born. It is strange finding yourself in the place you were named after, experiencing some inexpressible affinity with such a wildly unpredictable stretch of coastline. In her decision to name me Lamorna, my mother unwittingly bound me to Cornwall. I think it was her way of retaining a link to the place of her birth once she had dug her seventeen-year-old roots from the sands of Lelant and replanted them in the cracked pavements of London. My name has defined the way I conceive of myself. Every time I meet a new person and they say: 'Wow, sounds exotic! Is that Italian/French/Spanish...'? I am asked to acknowledge and, in doing so, reaffirm the ties between myself and this part of Cornwall, explaining to blank nods of encouragement: Actually, it's a small cove in far south-west Cornwall—near where my mum's family is from. This is how a land enters your psyche.

It was my mum who first taught me Cornwall. She showed me how to let it become an antidote to unhappiness and an opening leading back to one's childhood. When I used to look out across Lelant beach—a few minutes' walk from the cottage that had once been my great-grandmother's, next to the bungalow where my mother grew up and my grandmother lived out the last years of her life—my mind would plunge below the sea to find imagined monsters and mermaids. I would put my ear to the cliff cracks, split open by time, and listen to the dull hammering of the Cornish Knockers—malevolent, cave-dwelling spirits, 'three-feet high with squinting eyes and mouths from ear to ear', who would fold back into darkness any time a tin miner tried to catch one of them in the act of bringing the walls down around them. And each time I returned to London, I would feel the absence of that ancestral land sitting deep in my body for weeks, a sense that nothing looked quite right, that the light was wrong somehow.

The day before I left London for Newlyn, I had sat down with my family to examine our Cornish ancestry via various old documents and letters that Mum had kept stuffed in a cabinet in our living room. It is a genealogy that grows uncertain in its backwaters: great-grandmother Ginna, who played bridge at Lelant golf club and dressed in long slacks in the style of Marlene Dietrich while the other elderly ladies of the village were still in long dresses and shawls; generations before her, brewers who made beer in Redruth and sold the company to St Austell Ales; prior to that, hazily drawn figures wandering along Mousehole's tightly wound harbour, who we both like to imagine may themselves have been fishwives and fishermen. They are all there, sprinkled across the west of the county, waiting for the next member of the family to find her place along the Cornish archipelago.


This excerpt is from the hardcover edition.

Monday we begin the book A Fatal Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum Murder in Ancient Rome by Emma Southon.
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