Gray Lightfoot is a performance poet and bus driver from Penzance. His poems such as Merry Maidens, The Town Centre Lizard of Helston, Murmurations: Marazion Marsh, I’m in Love with the B3306, Ode to Porthcurno, The West Cornish Bus Driver’s Prayer and On Becoming A Penzance Pirate have all been inspired by the view from his cab. Discover out more about Gray Lightfoot at graylightfoot.co.uk
Cornwall Secret and Hidden book review by Gray Lightfoot
It is always difficult when you get asked to review other writers’ work. There is the possibility that you will not ‘get’ what that particular writer is trying to put across or even be on the same wavelength as them (this is one of the reasons I’m not one for entering competitions). Cornwall Secret and Hidden, A Collection of Short Stories and Other Scribbles certainly delivers in both variety and literary talent. With this in mind, I decided to present an overview of the whole book followed by reviews of some of the stories I particularly enjoyed.
As would be expected from an anthology of ‘secret and hidden’ in the Celtic land of Cornwall, folklore features in a few of these stories and as someone who has embraced writing about such things, albeit in my own particular way, I was reassured to find the presence of giants in The Triumph of Goliathia Tremayne, which lived up to its name as a brilliant modern fairy tale and The Giant of Gull Rock in which one of the many geological features named after the giants of Cornwall, anthropomorphises into a living being and relives the destruction of the land that humans have brought about throughout his existence.
In Cornwall, there will always be ‘the hidden people’ whether piskies, pixies, knockers, buccas or fairies; all getting up to all sorts of mischief. The Plastic Fairies tells of a very different kind of fairy, ones equipped for the 21st century, capable of handling hi-tech and dabbling in the cryptocurrency markets. I loved that this idea sprung (sorry!) from the Good Friday tradition of “the well of the little folk” (Fenton Bebibell) where children brought their dolls to baptise them at the source of the River Lyn that empties out into Newlyn harbour. In Whispers, it is ‘the hidden people’ who need the help, after our storyteller inadvertently runs one of them over on the road and ends up getting a little more involved than they ever thought possible. The Cabin finds the piskies coming to the aid of young girl weighed down by the abuse she receives from her father…and Botanical Microscope tells in a clever way the delight gained from a sickly young boy’s interest in botany and his subsequent discovery of fairies within that science.
Mythical monsters, as expected, are also represented here, such as in Pure of Heart, where a young Jewish girl, fearful of being dragged back to Germany during the Second World War, takes comfort from her friendship with a dragon. In Slagoon’s Breath, a young boy’s recall of an old man’s scary tales of his encounter with the Kraken come back to haunt him.
Of course, short fiction doesn’t need to have magical elements; the real world can hold its own when it comes to short stories. The Girl He Found in the Dark is a delightful representation of young love newly-found in a bus shelter just before the dawn. A last letter from a recently-passed mother is grudgingly (and teasingly) dissected by her daughter in A Letter from the Other Side complete with its satisfying twist at the end. The Pact also draws on the choices we make in our pasts and how we deal with their repercussions and in Look Up, written in a filmic style, there is an unveiling of a past tragedy brought about by a paddleboarding expedition around St Michaels Mount. We witness a woman’s slow descent into madness in The Trees Grew Tall as she waits for the return of her husband, reported ‘missing in action’ from the war. Years pass and a bizarre accident leaves her believing she is responsible for a horrifying crime; she resorts to self-immurement…until a revelation brings the story to a chilling denouement. Time at the Bar, finds the reader as a fly-on-the-wall in a typical Cornish pub making the most of the local characters that inhabit that world.
The collection boasts its share of uncanny stories, in The Well Keeps its Secrets, a family having recently moved in to the familiar castle-come-hunting lodge overlooking Camborne and Redruth, discover there is a well beneath the floor and the son of the family, a keen climber, decides to explore it unbeknown to the rest of his family. Moonshard tells of the return of a young man, forced by tragic circumstances, to the village of his childhood. On the beach, the first person he meets is a mysterious visitor who displays messianic abilities. In direct contrast, is The Shell Necklace, where the ability to travel through time is used for evil in this disturbing tale. A Stumble in the Dark tells the tale of an everyman who is presented with the life-changing discovery of an actual chest full of treasure.
The Cornish countryside is well represented in this collection and, being a sucker for Cornish history, I enjoyed this beautifully worked imagining of St Wenappa’s life in Hidden in Time: A legend of St Wenappa with all the familiar characters of the early Christian church in and around the verdant valleys around Gwennap before they would be carved up by men in search of copper. There was something elysian also about Under the Waterfall – A Memoir, inspired by a Thomas Hardy poem recalling walks he made with his wife in the Valency valley, which invoke a rendezvous with a mythical creature. The fascinating adventure of a Cornish seed-collector is told from the point of view of an Araucaria Araucana or Monkey Puzzle tree in Kissing the Stars. The amazing historical journey from Patagonia is told by the tree, as seed, sapling and in its final home in a majestic Cornish garden…and fifty years on from the deliberate flooding of her childhood valley home, a woman decides to return to the depths and visit it once again in Morwenna. Cornish nature isn’t all sylvan dells and awe-inspiring gardens as The Network of Mine illustrates in the harsh reality of subterranean exploration. This almost abstract telling is of a treasure hunter’s journey through the depths of an abandoned mine with all its ghosts and mysteries.
The future was represented by a pair of dystopian portrayals, one being, Unblinded, where a brand-new mother rebels against the controlling authority in a world where everything is viewed virtually. In the other dystopian view, The Apocalypse Chess Club, we are in a post-pandemic world and the story reveals bit-by-tantalising-bit the relationship between a woman and her grandfather. Her childhood memories of time spent with him unearth a detail that will bring about a neat closure to the story. These Little Moments in Time at least offers us a brighter future where we can annually commune with those who have passed on and perhaps benefit from their wisdom.
With the title Of Red Riding Hood, Grandmas and Wolves, I was expecting more folklore but I was thrown by very modern folk tale about caring for others. This was particularly ‘pleasing’ for me in that the ‘reality’ of modern Cornwall was not totally avoided in this collection. Despite the many TV programmes that insist otherwise, Cornwall is a land of hardship and poverty for a great many people away from the periphery of sun, surf and sand. One problem is the lack of real jobs and this featured certainly in Up Frogs, in which the effect of unemployment, particularly on a family unit, and how it changes everything is masterfully recalled. As someone who has recently embraced writing on this subject, it has reflected in my choice of favourite stories from the anthology.
These are the stories that I particularly engaged with, but this is down to my taste alone and doesn’t detract from the ones I haven’t reviewed all of which were impressive in their own way.
The Triumph of Goliathia Tremayne by Catherine Leyshon
Absolutely loved this perfectly-packaged piece of magic realism with its juxtaposition of faerie with modern. Set in the ‘real Cornwall’ of its interior, far away from the sand and surf of the periphery, I was fully engaged with Trevithick Day in Camborne in 1977 where the air was redolent with “the fragrance of carbolic soap and Vosene”. The legends of Giants such as Bolster, Trecobben and Cormoran abound in Cornwall and Carn Brea, the setting for this story, has its fair share of giant’s paraphernalia dotted about its mass.
The tale is basically about unrequited love – Jason for Gloria (or the eponymous Goliathia) and Gloria’s unrequited love for her father. It’s just the idea of stealing and storing classic motorbikes down an abandoned mineshaft that makes this story for me. Conversely, I also recognised within it the sad and well-documented fact that there are actually children having been brought up in Camborne, which is a matter of a few miles from the sea, that have never been to the beach.
It was joyfully funny and even more so when Gloria and Jason ‘head off into the sunset’, an ending revealed the galumphing great pun of the title. It even reminded me of Hilts (Steve McQueen) in The Great Escape riding his bike over the fence…and like this story, that was Triumph too.
A Stumble in the Dark by Greg Richards
For much the same reason as The Triumph of Goliathia Tremayne, I enjoyed the down to earth telling of a discovery made on a slow drunken stagger home from the pub. I loved the low-impact feel of this tale…even Ian’s stumble was “low impact” and its description delights in drawing out the possibilities. All the deliberate mundanity of Ian’s life makes his fall over a treasure chest full of actual treasure so astonishing.
The workings of Ian’s addled brain puzzling over the definition of a bushel all the while as he stands over a treasure chest shows he is a man guided by the practicalities of life and as such shouldn’t be the hero of a quest for treasure, but Ian really is. How many times have you watched a film questioning the reasoning of someone heading into obvious trouble and knowing full well that you wouldn’t have done that? Well, Ian is that person, he is everyman but the person in the film.
Even his state of inebriation, Ian solves one problem by creating an even bigger one, a decision he will come to regret as he becomes a modern-day Sysyphus punished for his own procrastination.
Of Red Riding Hood, Grandmas and Wolves by A.E. Ottley
While I was expecting something in the line of Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber here, I was soon well into the story of a typical carer’s life in Cornwall and had forgotten the piece’s title. As my wife is a carer, I recognised the difficulties presented to the protagonist…the thankless task of the modern carer and their overall feeling of helplessness due to the lack of time afforded by business decisions. Most telling was the casual remark from manager to carer that “Mrs Pascoe is off your list.” That simple business-like fact illustrates that person was merely a commodity…the fact that relationships are built up between carer and patient is never considered here. There is no “I’m sorry to tell you Mrs Pascoe died yesterday”.
We never meet the glamorous ‘red riding hood’ (her red coat hangs behind the door) who marries Mrs Pascoe’s plodding son, Peran. This is a modern fairy tale of our times, especially in Cornwall, where grandma’s home is about to become prey to property wolves.
Unblinded by Ella Walsworth-Bell
This Cornwall in the 2050s (I’m guessing) where everyone’s life is viewed through a virtual reality headset; a young woman has just given birth and she is determined to escape the controlling arm of The Corporation, who cull people when they get to a certain age. Outside the world we know is a dangerous place due to UV radiation but there has to be a better life than this.
The author picks up on life today lived through our mobile phones and ramps up where it is likely to be going with an almost disturbing prescience. Memories of spending time with her now-removed mother on Rinsey Beach (a particular favourite hidey-hole of my own) make it her rendezvous point with the rebels and the father of her child. I really liked the description of her coming out of her virtual world into one of reality and hope for the future.
Up Frogs by Ross James
The line “the brambles swipe at my arms, unzipping my skin, and I see the red below the surface” (which is reprised at the story’s end) really resounds with me in this wonderful retelling of the effects of unemployment on a Cornish family after the closure of South Crofty mine near Camborne. The ripped skin caused by uncaring corporate decisions reveals that beneath it lies the life blood of community, of real people’s lives. The neat metaphor of the loss of the young boy’s ‘lucky’ brass toad resounds with the loss of his working father’s pride and the consequent devastation of a seemingly happy life.
Before this loss, the boy’s life seems almost idyllic as he basks in the sunshine at Up Frogs and in the pride he has for his father. We are viewing the dismantling of a community through the eyes of one child mindful of the fact that there would be hundreds of others suffering in the same way.