After 27 years teaching English at Mullion School, Linda has turned her attention to producing a Great Work of Agonising Slowness about the history of Penzance. Meanwhile, she is half of theatrical duo ‘Camidge and Stringer,’ trustee and member of the organising team for Penzance Litfest, plays concertina in the streets on high days and holidays, and enjoys cakes and ale.
Cornwall Secret and Hidden book review by Linda Camidge
This collection of stories – from voices that will, to most readers, be largely new – offers strong and satisfying narratives; assured and original observations; visions and realities of striking originality. Secret and hidden? Now, maybe – but surely not for long. Many of the stories are illustrated, the graphic styles presenting an interesting and varied range of high-quality designs; as regards the words, each story has its particular strengths.
The collection opens strongly with Catherine Leyshon’s The Triumph of Goliathia Tremayne – a glorious mix of wit and grotesquerie, with some startlingly apt and precise observations – ‘The sea’s a mirror for the sky, but bright white at the edges,’ explains one character to another who – born and bred in Camborne – has never seen the nearby ocean. ‘It climbs over itself. Sometimes it comes, then it goes.’ He hopes they might go one day, on the bus. There are nasty and memorable details: chickenpox scabs, and a candlewick bedspread ‘the colour of bile.’ Benny Hill is on the telly, and Golithia’s name attaches and scratches ‘like a barnacle; like a manacle.’ For this is a tale in which everything carries both weight and power of adhesion; a tale which, in its disturbing originality, in its utter and touching strangeness, sets the bar high for the 27 that are to follow.
An opening paragraph devoted to dogshit is a rarity in the literary canon. ‘I know some people will object to my tone’ suggests the narrator of another story characterised by acute observation: Abigail Elizabeth Ottley’s Of Red Riding Hood, Grandmas and Wolves. Object? Au contraire… This story – another of my personal ‘top picks’ from the collection – speaks truth to power; gives us Cornish farms either seized by developers or left to ‘scar this rugged landscape like old bones.’ And not only the farmscape is ageing – the central character, seen through the dispassionate and canny eye of the health professional, is going the same way. Once the disarming style of this story has gathered us up, we are shown that dog-shit is nothing compared to the moral maze of care-giving in which the story – quite rightly – rubs our noses.
Also benefitting from a strong sense of place, and another of my favourites, is the last story in the collection: Ross James’ Up Frogs. This time, we are brought to abandoned mine workings of the sort that would not interest the National Trust. In a womb of old concrete the main character basks in the sun, and once imagined rocket launchers: ‘but I was a pretty stupid kid.’ Now, slightly older and better versed in the ways of the world, they simply wish for ‘a job where you could spend all day watching frogs.’ This is a witty and moving story – a difficult combination, but surely handled to provide Secret and Hidden with a strong finish. Its theme, the loss of Cornish mining in the 20th century, is one that deserves more literary attention.
Emily Charlotte Ould establishes another gritty and well-visualised setting in the opening sentences of The Girl He Found in the Dark – but the disused bus shelter, ‘probably dangerous to sit inside’ on account of its semi-derelict state, turns out to be disputed territory – which leads to a surprising outcome. And if you have not-so-fond memories of the school bus – as is likely if you grew up in Cornwall or any other rural area – the first page of Anita D Hunt’s The Cabin will draw you into what soon turns out to be a dark narrative – just as the main character is led, by fireflies, into a forest where lurks danger, and perhaps salvation.
As we might expect, most of the authors have taken as their theme a particular kind of emotional interaction – often between parent and child, but other relationships are available. Anne Rainbow’s The Shell Necklace, for example, offers an engaging and convincing dialogue and promises a happy ending and the comforts of romance amongst the beachgoers. Promises, yes… but delivers? Read, and think, on. ‘Look Up’ is rather less straightforward: extra dimensions and extraordinary perceptions edge into its witty family interaction, well-observed by Kate Barden. The same theme is explored by Claudia Loveland in A Letter from the Other Side, which opens with a funeral that brings a few surprises to a bereaved daughter. More are to follow. Under the Waterfall – a Memoir by Rachel Fitch is an interesting and ambitious channelling of Thomas Hardy, who tells how ‘one fugitive day… slipped through the unforgivable hands of time’. This will make a very interesting read for Hardy fans, particularly those of us who hold his poetry in greater esteem than his prose – as, indeed, he himself did. I would have liked to see more, if not all, of Hardy’s poem reproduced with the story but copyright issues may have stymied this.
Two of the stories are centred on – or should that be ‘rooted in’? – trees. In Kissing the Stars, Ulrike Duran offers a narrator which has to put up with would-be climbers amongst other annoyances, has been trafficked from a distant continent and hints that if we are attentive, we will learn its ‘secret and sacred name’ – this is an unusual piece from which there is a great deal of interesting factual detail to be learned. For the plantswoman at the heart of Claudia Loveland’s The Trees Grew Tall, nurturing deep roots is more than a hobby, or even a calling: her garden grows, as gardens will, and after 20 years has ‘unfolded across’ the surrounding fields, obliterating the path where the postman used to walk. One day, a visitor calls – and her life undergoes an unexpected change with ramifications for both her past and her future. This will be a good read for those who like plenty of factual detail mixed into their fiction – a feature it shares with Hidden in Time: a Legend of Saint Wenappa – in which Jo Grande has used her research to the full, and also offers us King Arthur, the monks of Glastonbury, and the perils of an ancient harbour. Christianity supplants ‘the fear of demons, dark arts and unnecessary sacrifice,’ and Wenappa is everything one might wish to find in a saint.
Virtual reality has been slower than we might have expected to gain our attention – in both the literary and the physical worlds. Unblinded by Ella Walsworth-Bell is a rare exception: a tale of innocence and experience; of the soft seductions of old memories and new-born life, and of how tomorrow may transform them. This is a Huxleyesque and far too plausible future; a meditation on the nature of freedom and reality, and a cautionary tale for us all. In A Stumble in the Dark, Greg Richards generously gifts the fantastic element to a well-intentioned bloke who enjoys a beer and a random conversation, and faces the world with an appealing optimism. The engaging character and the situation in which he finds himself constitute an enjoyable fable, a meditation on misguided resilience.
The narrator of Felicity Tattersall’s Botanical Microscope finds that a chance gift offers a wondrous and life-changing revelation to its sickly, isolated 19th-century recipient. Another story offering fantastical nature is Slagoon’s Breath. T J Dockree presents what at first seems to be a classic sea-farer’s yarn: a one-eyed giant with a leather eye-patch vividly describes tentacles that squeeze and break a boat and idly sportively the crew. But the story-telling is distanced by an abrupt cutaway, and the story morphs into something wholly other – and rather more original.
Less menacing than the Slagoon is the being discovered by the narrator – and the reader – of Whispers: ‘small yet human-like… a muddy, child-like face, oversized eyes, wearing a tangle of sackcloth and leaves,’ it demands protection – but life will prove unpredictable amongst the Little Folk. Alex in The Plastic Fairies has grown up with stories that ‘mixed up traditional fairy tales with science fiction and anything that had been passing’ – which is exactly what his creator David Allkins has accomplished, with an original and sinister ‘fairy magic’ for the 21st century. In Stephen Baird’s Moonshard a strange encounter on the beach ushers in a ‘miraculous day’ which unites past and present; although there are more characters here than is usual in short fiction, the consequent inter-relationships and backstories are worth the concentration they require.
It was amusing to note how often seagulls cropped up as incidental characters, often serving as cultural shorthand, indicators of mood or tone – or, in the case of The Giant of Gull Rocks, major players. It is difficult to put aside a story that begins ‘The herring gulls are nesting under his eyebrow again.’ This is a strongly-written piece, and I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it given that I have no particular interest in either folklore or birdlife. It was perhaps Samuel Crosby’s bleak and distanced view of humanity – of human toil and the illusion of progress – that appealed. The story that follows it in the collection, T J Dockree’s Pure of Heart, also unites the fantastic – in this case, a dragon – with real-life history.
Other stories will intrigue other readers in other ways: the mysterious telephone call that sets Angela Linney’s The Pact rolling, for example. This is another powerful story which offers the reality of moving to Cornwall – resentment of ‘emmets,’ a chilly breeze off the sea and, indeed, coming to terms with seagulls. It also introduces several themes that could be developed into a longer work: one of them, unusually for fiction at least in Western culture, religious faith. The quest, in more general terms, is often an underlying theme – sometimes in a literal sense, as in The Well Keeps its Secret where Caroline Palmer’s lone adventurer explores strata of the past. The well-realised main character of Morwenna is also on a quest: one in which Jennie Rawling explores the very concept of ‘home’. This story also offers muscular and realistic dialogue, and a situation alien enough to fascinate, yet credible and readily grasped.
Stories set in the 1960s or 1970s – with details such as duffel bags and Triumph Bonnevilles – I always find pleasing, but this kind of ‘local colour’ might be less resonant with readers under 50, and youngsters born into the 1980s will probably prefer Ben French’s playscript Time at the Bar. Although it is set in the present day, but most of the dialogue is about – and typical of – the late 20th century, with as many references to the media, cars, and folkways of the past as the heart could desire. It can be difficult for a lone, silent reader to appreciate a script, and I found it a challenge to visualise the lighting instructions and stage directions, and keep track of seven characters, without conventional narrative and description. But the play offers a powerful representation of cultural change and some of the tensions it has brought; perhaps somebody at Cornwall Writers will film it, and upload onto Youtube or a similar channel.
Some of the stories present the reader with challenge before yielding their rewards. One such is The Apocalypse Chess Club – where piecing together the situation as it unfolds is like working out the rules of an unknown game while watching experts play it out with relish, and a taste and talent for mystique. Who, or what is alive; who or what dead? Does a pawn, does a knight even, move of its own volition, or by the power of an unseen hand? And what has befallen not only one family, but the world? We strain to discern the particular nature of the ruination at play in this stripped down, snowbound world created by Philip S Rollason. Another story that only gradually – and then only partly – reveals what is actually happening, is The Network of Mine. Here, Alice Thomas has taken the interesting approach of using second person – ‘you’ – for most of the action, with a first person ‘I’ in control of the narrative, introducing and commenting.
The central character of Lamorna Ireland’s vividly-written These Little Moments in Time goes down to the estuary for his solace, and for ‘the sludgy silt on a slow reveal beneath the surface.’ In some ways, his quest will serve as an allegory for reading this collection: as the reader is tempted out from the shore into a story the waiting pages promise – and repeatedly yield up – treasure in the form of a well-paced and assured ‘reveal’ often notable for its physicality and visual strength. Everyone will have their preferences amongst the 28 pieces – and my own are as subjective as anyone else’s. At times I grew tired of new-found or re-discovered Cornish idylls: secluded coves, 1950s style villages and deserted beaches. I could definitely have done with fewer fairies, piskies and assorted well-meaning ‘little people’ bursting into what had seemed at first to be quite rational narratives. Experienced readers of short fiction will know better than I do how a collection of this kind should be read. My hunch is that dipping in and out over an extended period of time, picking a story here and a story there, will give each one the chance to come forth on its best day, and appear in its best light.