Making Things Up About Uncles

There are various stories of my family’s history in Cornwall. There are of course also stories about my paternal family’s history: almost none from our centuries in Barbados but thick and fast when we get to London in the 1870s (my great uncle’s alleged fraud and imprisonment and the national campaign for his release – but that’s another story). There are my mother’s relations in Devon who slaughtered each other on a remote farm because one of them fell in love and it was necessary to keep the blood pure. All these stories with the exception of the last, about which the facts, though gruesome, are clear and documented in a book (Earth to Earth), are the subject of endless family debate, but since I have just come back from Cornwall, it’s the stories of my family’s history in Cornwall that I am particularly concerned with now. Here is one.

My great uncle, or probably an uncle more remote in time than a mere great uncle, was a sea-faring man. Ancestors get promoted with every generation, so he was a Captain. His name is forgotten.

He may or may not be the same sea-faring man as the one whose name people have also forgotten and who sailed to Mauritius and came back with a Mauritian bride, to the annoyance of the Royal Navy, who thought it would be only proper to return her to Mauritius toot sweet. He and she were the parents of my much-loved Auntie Rene.

Actually there is some doubt on that story too. At the end of her life my mother insisted that the sea-faring man whose name everyone has forgotten met the mother of my Auntie Rene not in Mauritius but St Helena. I think that this must be wrong. There are no native people in St Helena: only temporary clerks and possibly penguins. Furthermore Auntie Rene had the features of someone from the Indian Ocean, not the South Atlantic.

Anyway, the first – the principal – sea-faring uncle fell overboard. This would have been during the Nineteenth Century and I think that he must have fallen from a sailing ship, because if it had been steam he would have been caught up in the screw and killed, wouldn’t he? He didn’t die. He was involuntarily keel-hauled. He went down below the keel and right up the other side, scraping his skin on barnacles as he went, whereupon he was rescued by his shipmates. He survived but unsurprisingly he lost his nerve: he couldn’t bring himself to go to sea again.

The Royal Navy found him a berth within their purview that didn’t involve his sailing any more. He became a Coast Guard. He had a Coast Guard’s hut on the cliffs above Polruan, from which he would gaze. If he saw a ship in trouble or a bank of fog he would communicate this fact to the authorities by pigeon, or, probably by that stage, telegraph. If not, he would just stare at the great waters on which he would never again journey: never in this life anyway.

He died, full of the honours that the Coast Guard service reserves for its best, but it was never enough: he’d thought that an admiralship was there for the taking, and in his lonely hut he’d had long enough to brood. (I’m making that bit up.)

In due course (the story goes) communications between ship, shore and weatherman improved. (They were weather men in those days; female weather-casters had not come onto the scene.) As a result the coast guard hut above Polruan was no longer needed. It fell into disrepair and many years later was leased by Daphne du Maurier, who would go there to write her books in peace and possibly fulfil her Sapphic assignations. I must be careful what I say here. My family never actually speculated that Ms du Maurier used the hut for her Sapphic assignations, because no one yet knew about them. The ground-breaking biography, the name of which I forget, was still to be written. I made that bit up too.

I added a literary note of my own. In Rose Macaulay’s novel Crew Train the heroine, who is in Cornwall in a town not unlike Polruan, escapes her dreary and over-literary companions and makes a refuge for herself in a hut on the cliffs. Clearly, I thought when I read the book, Ms Macaulay didn’t make that up; she got it from Ms du Maurier, possibly at a novelists’ soirée; it’s my uncle’s hut, doubly celebrated in literature.

Anyway, I said to the better half when we visited Polruan that we should climb up to the cliff top where we might find a ruined hut. And so we did and we found not a ruin but a fully-operational Coast Guard unit, with aerials. This surprised me considerably. There was a ruin, but it was a church from the Sixteenth Century or something, and they are two a penny down there. There was a nice man in uniform, who was not immediately engaged in scrutinising sinking ships or ominous cloud formations and was happy to talk to us. I told him the story, though not getting as far as the Rose Macaulay bit, which depends of course on the reliability of the Daphne du Maurier bit.

Oh no, he said. Not at all. This hut and the huts that came before have always been Coast Guard huts. Our eternal vigilance demands it. Better telecommunications: pfui! It’s never been decommissioned, not since it was first built, centuries ago. Daphne du Maurier used to write her books in a house that she rented down by the Bodinnick Ferry, the ferry across the river below.

So where does that leave us? My uncle and his coast-guarding are probably true, and it’s entirely possible that he did go under a ship. But the connection with famous people is just my family’s fantasy. It’s all too easy to do.



The better half, Bella and I went for a week in Cornwall. We stayed in a cottage near Falmouth. It was on a farm with pigs, some of which we ate; it was all entirely satisfactory. I had not been to Cornwall for some forty-five years and the other two had not at all. Nevertheless the county was a large part of my upbringing. My mother’s maternal family were all Cornish and she herself was born in Millbrook, just in Cornwall on the banks of the Tamar, the river that divides Cornwall from the rest of the World. Her father was from Devon, but he was a mild man and his ancestry tended to be discounted.

We would drive down the A303 (motorways not yet having been invented) at Christmas and for our summer holidays. My parents decided that, traffic being what it was, they should drive through the night. We children slept in the back of the car but when it was the summer holidays we would be woken up at about five o’clock for breakfast at Stonehenge. We would lean with our backs to the great stones at dawn drinking my mother’s Everything Soup and eating cold sausages. The great stones, I am glad to report, survived all this, as presumably now they wouldn’t. We would visit venerable and sometimes terrifying relations in Fowey, Polruan, Falmouth and Mousehole, and, in the down time, rush with the family dog around the beaches in our Aertex shirts and discover caves.

We were never in any doubt that Cornwall was separate, one of the five great Celtic nations: not in England; not in the West Country.

In between being a child and becoming grown up I went back without my family. I discovered the folk clubs of the Sixties. I heard Ralph McTell when he was unknown, Clive Palmer after his first, and authentic, outing with the Incredible String Band, Barbara Wootton – so majestic live and so disappointing now on CD – Henry the Jug and John the Fish. I sat unfocused on St Ives beach, while ethereal girls drifted this way and that, dressed in Laura Ashley.

I found love, after a fashion, though not with a Laura Ashley girl. Then, having fallen out with my inamorata and with my best Cornish friend, who thought that she was his inamorata, I left and didn’t go back: until last week.

Cornwall is still separate. There are deep mysterious lanes, hedgerows with flowers unseen elsewhere in our island since the 1950s, and at the end, sticking out into the Atlantic beyond St Ives, is West Penwith, the ‘headland of slaughter’ as Daphne du Maurier translates it, possibly fancifully. The better half, who has a more practical approach to these things, noted that the sea was never far away and you could swim and kayak in the estuaries. Our local estuary was called Carrick Roads, which sounds like an American poet, and she did indeed kayak on it and then run home.

(By the way: what a waste of space Tate St Ives is. I had naively thought that it would show the work of the great St Ives artists of the 50s, Feiler, Lanyon, Hilton, Frost, Nicholson and so on, who challenged the abstract expressionists of New York gesture for gesture. But no. There is no permanent display. There was a paying show of dazzling vacuousness, the usual café and shop and a lot of unused space.)

When we had crossed the Tamar and left England behind, Bella, smelling the sea, took on her avatar as Swims Like Seals and prepared herself to surf. This turned out not to be straight forward. There were signs at the entrances to the beaches as follows:

No Dogs.
No Aertex.

The ban on Aertex could be coped with, as most cafés on the beaches sold PODLARK®-themed smocks and billowy shirts, which you could slip on over the top, but the ban on dogs was a real problem. Finally we found a bit of industrial waste abutting the sea in Penzance, where, to judge by the detritus as well as the absence of a sign, nothing was forbidden. The better half threw a strand of seaweed with a rock attached as far as she could throw it. Bella plunged in, disappeared for a minute or so, broke surface and swam to shore bearing the seaweed and rock, whose neck she proceeded to break. A small crowd built up on the esplanade, mainly guest-workers of the Cherokee diaspora. Word had spread. They muttered appreciatively, in their own language.

We also had problems with Bella at Rick Stein’s restaurant. The Rick Stein empire has spread out from Padstow and reached Falmouth. There are two entrances, the take-away and the restaurant. Dogs are admitted through neither. We had fish and chips from the take-away. The fish tasted so fresh that it can only have been frozen, and the chips were so-so, but the better half had conceived a desire to cover herself with chilli crab, so we went back the next night to the restaurant, having arranged a dog-sitter.

We both got food-poisoning. I don’t complain about that; any restaurant can serve fish that is off. What upset me was the shandy that they sell. This is branded as ‘Chalky’. Chalky was Rick Stein’s dog. In the early television series before he died, peacefully I hope, he could be seen gambolling on fishing boats, riverboats, in galleys, generally getting under the feet of the celebrity chef. I do not recall the line: ‘In the name of health and safety, Chalky, begone.’ This is rank hypocrisy. If I can’t have my dog by my feet don’t put yours on the soda bottles.

I don’t blame Stein. Like Stalin, he loves us and is unaware of what is done in his name. If the television is anything to go by, he is anyway on a beach in Australia cooking termites on hot rocks.

But I think he should be told.