Daddy had a number of guns. Barbara Comyns, Sisters by a River

Barbara Comyns, Sisters By a River First published 1947

Daddy had a number of guns, he kept them in the billiard-room, there was a revolver too, he was always threatening to shoot himself, his creditors or both with it, the big guns, some of them had double barrels to make it easy for bad shots and cross-eyed men, they were intended for shooting game, although quite often they were used on cats and people, towards the end of his life he got obsessed with the idea of shooting my red setter.

Barbara Comyns, Sisters by a River: cover Recently I came upon a blog by ‘Heloise Merlin’, who writes enthusiastically about the weird mix of jauntiness in the narrative voice and the contrasting bleakness of the disturbing events this novel contains.

She rightly (in my view) sees the darkness beneath the ‘quirky humour’ and ‘affirmative attitude’ of that voice’s owner – just look at that opening quotation. I also like her identification of the idiosyncratic orthography [spelling mistakes, dodgy syntax] as that of a psychologically damaged adult, not the child it’s sometimes taken to represent. [The narrator gives several clear indications that she’s an adult, as we shall see – e.g. she reveals she’s married to one of the characters who appears fleetingly in the story].

So that makes sense: some of the lexical slips hint at underlying significances – though ‘Heloise’ doesn’t elaborate on this.

So here are some fairly random examples to illustrate/substantiate these points.

Mary was the eldist of the family, Mammy was only eighteen when she had her, and was awfully frit of her, but Daddy thought she was lovely and called her his little Microbe, I don’t know why, maybe microbes were just coming into fashion then like we have germs now. (p.6)

See what Heloise hinted at? The matter-of-fact ingenuousness of ‘had her’ for ‘gave birth’, the naive speculation about germs and microbes, non-standard spellings and colloquial ‘frit’ all indicate the quirkiness that’s Comyns’ signature tone. But that throwaway ‘Microbe’ reference, this early in the novel, foreshadows the parental viciousness, neglect and abuse that’s to come.

After she had had six babies at eighteen monthly intervals Mammy suddenly went deaf, perhaps her subconscious mind couldn’t bear the noise of babies crying any more…Mammy had always looked and been rather vague, she had a kind of gypsoflia mind, all little bits and pieces held together by whisps, now she grew vaguer still and talked with a high floating voice, leaving her sentences half finished or with a wave of her hand she would add an ‘and so forth’ which was a favourite expression. Sometimes when she was showing visitors round the garden she would suddenly come upon us playing some wierd game, she would look quite startled as if she had never seen us before and say something like this ‘The children, grubby, playing dont you know, such a number of them, I married very young, quite a nice governess’ and hurry her guests away, which was just as well because we had rather abomonable manners…(13-14)

Now the ‘vague’ mother is shown as equally culpable in her neglectful, scornful, hands-off attitude to her children. Her possibly psychosomatic deafness shows that she too isn’t unscathed by her husband’s cruelty and volatility (maybe he hit her and caused her deafness – the narrator is too detached to dwell on this. Her bland aloofness masks the turmoil beneath the narrative surface – but by including these details she hopes we’ll join the dots in a way she can’t endure to).

The following passages I think speak for themselves:

When Beatrix and I were about four, we did a frightful thing, we tried to ride the tame rabbits with the most drastic results, we had seen pictures of children riding rabbits and thought we could do the same, bur we couldn’t and for years people said ‘these are the children who squashed the rabbits.

One evening we elder ones returned rather late after a visit to the cinema, we were all kind of in a coma, degesting the film we had just seen, but we were soon rudely awakened, there was an awful uproar, Mammy was screaming and crying in the morning-room, and Daddy bellowing away like a bull, as we came into the room he hurried out without speaking to us, he locked himself in the billiard-room, always his stronghold during rows. Mammy was in the most frightful state, it was difficult to make out what had happened, she seemed almost crazy, and I felt all sick. (87-88)


I hated dancing class so much and had a kind of sick feeling in the pit of my stomach before I went, I called it dancing class feeling, and still have it sometimes, when I’m applying for a job, or getting married and similar occasions. (92)

There’s the evidence of an adult narrator. The juxtaposition of job application with marrying and the dismissive ‘similar occasions’ is chilling. Beneath the jaunty humour there’s a traumatised voice suppressing its pain. The loose syntax – all those dangling commas – dramatically heightens the sense of the narrator’s incapacity or unwillingness to differentiate between experiences that were terrifying or unnatural from those that were perceived as ‘normal’.

[From a chapter called ‘Dampness and Illness’] When we had not got colds there were plenty of things like measles and chickenpox to have, there always seemed to be someone in the family with measles, the Grownups didn’t get ill very often, Daddy did once get a stroke and go stiff all down one side, but he came loose again quite soon, the parrot missed him so much while he was ill it died, and we had a funeral, the next parrot wasn’t very nice, it smelt, Kathleen was supposed to clean it but she didn’t (133-34)

Illness is dismissed with the same airiness as other visitations on the children’s vulnerable young lives. That all are treated with equal (apparent) insouciance suggests a narrator flinching from confrontation with a more ‘grownup’ gaze at these damaging events. By describing the father’s stroke with the same lightness as having common childhood ailments, Comyns shows the emotional numbness that this chaotic upbringing inflicted.

It’s a powerful, dark, bizarre novel. Don’t be taken in by that intrusive, superficial ‘quirkiness’; this is as disturbed and disturbing as any fictional autobiography you’re likely to read.

My piece on Comyns’ Woolworths is HERE

Link to Heloise Merlin’s post HERE

Tilling and sowing: the Très Riches Heures in October

It’s the first day of the month, and I intended writing about the last book I read: another Barbara Comyns novel – Sisters by a River. I wrote about Our Spoons Came from Woolworths in a post in January. But I find I don’t have much to say about it right now. Might come back to it shortly, if I feel inspiration.

So as I did for April and May, I’m turning to the beautifully illuminated pages of the calendar in the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, painted mostly by the Limbourg brothers in the early 1400s, although this page might be by a later artist who completed the work after the Limbourgs and their patron died (probably of the plague) in 1416.

A book of hours was a book of private prayers and devotions based on the church liturgical pattern. The kalendarium in medieval texts was originally a checklist of saints’ festivals for each month. Over time the tradition evolved so that illustrated versions included, by the 15C, scenes of the occupations associated with each month.

The Limbourgs painted landscapes from different scenes for most months – places owned by their noble patron, or which he’d visited, as here.

October in the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry

via Wikimedia Commons

In the background of the October sowing and tilling scene is the Louvre Palace, owned at that time by the Duc’s elder brother the king of France. Originally built in the 12C as a fortress, the Louvre was converted into the main royal residence late in the 16C. When Louis XIV made Versailles his main palace in 1782, the Louvre became largely a repository for the royal collection of artworks. This in turn was taken over as a public museum after the Revolution.

Its name perhaps derives from its origins as a wolf-hunting den (Latin ‘lupus’, wolf), according to Wikipedia, but this seems unlikely to me. OED cites a dance named in English from the French palace, but says the origin is obscure, and possibly derived from Latin and Icelandic terms for chimney.

Between the three towers on the palace’s outer wall are two bretèches (anglicised as ‘brattice’). These are small machicolated balconies. Machicolated? This means an opening between the projecting supports or corbels of a fortification’s wall through which missiles, boiling water or cooking oil, etc., could be dropped on to attackers beneath the walls. The word probably derives from OF ‘mâcher’, ‘crush’ + ‘col’, ‘neck’ (OED online).

On the terrace outside the palace walls can be seen people walking and chatting (presumably not peasants, and therefore they don’t have to labour in the fields). Several dogs prance and pose. At the bottom of riparian steps women appear to be doing their laundry in the water of the Seine, which flows in front of the palace. A boatman is embarking or arriving at a mooring.

It’s in the foreground that the main ‘labour of the month’ scene is depicted. A red-clad peasant whips on a horse pulling a harrow, weighted down with a rock to make the prongs dig deeper into the soil and thus bury the sown seeds. Nearer to us another lugubrious looking peasant sows seed by hand from a pouch. Behind him greedy crows and magpies gobble up what he’s sown.

The artist shows a nice eye for detail: we can see the footprints left in the freshly-turned earth by the sower.

The field behind has already been sown. It’s guarded by a scarecrow in the guise of a bowman, and a network of strings threaded with white feathers or rags.

Overhead there’s the usual solar chariot crossing the gorgeous blue of the arch of the starry heavens. There are the usual astrological and lunar cycle symbols around the outer arches.

Asides: words, spiders, etc.

It’s the day after the autumn equinox, and the weather is performing on cue – strong winds and grey skies. So here’s an eclectic post about words, mostly. Warning: spider image looming.

My subscription to OED’s ‘word of the day’ service turned up this beauty recently:

latebricole, adj.

[‘ Of an animal, esp. a spider: living concealed in a hole.’] OED online (source of all the lexical data here)

Etymology: <  French latébricole, adjective (1870 or earlier designating insects; also as noun denoting a group of spiders…<  classical Latin latebricola person who skulks in concealment <  latebra (see latebra n.)


[< classical Latin latebra hiding place, hidden place, recess < latēre to be hidden (see latent adj.) + -bra, feminine form corresponding to -brum, suffix forming instrumental nouns + -cola < classical Latin -cola inhabitant, < colere to inhabit (see cult n.)

A hiding place; a place of refuge or concealment. In natural history: a winter refuge, a hibernaculum, a pupal cell, etc. Now rare.

There follows this rather verbose citation for its use:

1652   J. Jones Lawyers Unmask’d 35:  The second Statute..granted a Capias to ferret out such Latitants out of such Latebras.

Now that’s just showing off your recondite vocabulary. Let’s look at some of it:

latitant, adj. (and n.)

That lies concealed or hid; lurking; latent; (of an animal) hibernating.

Citations include:

1646   Sir T. Browne Pseudodoxia Epidemica iii. xxi. 163   Lizards, Snails, and divers other insects latitant many moneths in the yeare. [Sir Thomas Browne was a great coiner of new words; he’s no. 71 in the league table of sources for citations in the OED, with 4155 in total, of which 776 represented the first evidence of the word. I wrote a piece about his Religio Medici and Urne-buriall a couple of years ago. He also popped up in my ‘Disiecta Membra’ post (also about words) the year before as the source for that useful term sarcophagy.]

Back to ‘latitant’:

One who is in hiding. (Cf. latitat n.)

Next from that Jones 1652 citation: capias

Latin capias ‘thou mayest take’.


A writ or process commanding the officer to take the body of the person named in it, that is, to arrest him; also called writ of capias.

The term Capias includes writs of various kinds; capias ad respondendum, to enforce attendance at court; capias ad satisfaciendum, after judgement, to imprison the defendant, until the plaintiff’s claim is satisfied; capias utlagatum, to arrest an outlawed person; capias in Withernam, to seize the cattle or goods of any one who has made an unlawful distraint

That last item, Withernam takes us to this entry in OED online:

  1. In an action of replevin, the reprisal of other goods in lieu of those taken by a first distress and eloigned; also, the writ (called capias in withernam) commanding the sheriff to take the reprisal.

Etymology: Law French (in Britton wythernam ), presumably < Old Norse viðrnám recorded only in the sense ‘resistance’ (but compare early Danish vedernam pledge)…The etymological meaning is ‘reprisal’.

  1. A process of distress (or arrest) for debt, formerly current in the Cinque Ports (and other towns).

This is like Russian dolls: each entry generates another search –


The restoration to or recovery by a person of goods or chattels distrained or confiscated, upon giving a surety to have the matter tried in a court of justice and to return the goods if the case is lost. Now U.S. (chiefly hist.). Derived from Anglo-Norman legalese.

Back again to that show-offy Jones 1652 citation: there latebra is just a synonym for where we started: LATEBRICOLE – definition above. Citations include:

1912 N.E.D. at Theraphose, Of or pertaining to the Theraphosæ, a division of latebricole spiders, as the mygalids and trap-door spiders.

Note: mygalids include the bird-eating spider (American tarantula). Wouldn’t want one of those in the bathtub…Back to citations; I liked this one:

2009  W. Penn Love in Time of Flowers viii. 497 He was at no other place than the very one I deducted he’d be.., a lair within a hole though not as latebricole as a mole.

See the Phrontistery website, a repository of obscure words and meanings, for a list of more rarities beginning with L.

Phrontistery, btw, means ‘a thinking place’, from the Greek phrontisterion, from phrontistes, a thinker, from phroneein, to think.

California trapdoor spider

California trapdoor spider

This trapdoor spider image is a still from a 1-minute YouTube video by cinead 84; if you’re not arachnophobic it’s worth a look – a man and a woman try to coax the little critter out of his hole with endearments. Spider remains unimpressed.


PS this image of Sir Thomas Browne and his wife Dorothy (via Wikipedia) was painted by

Sir Thomas Browne and wifeJoan Carlile (around 1641-50). She was one of the first women to make a professional living as an artist. She and her husband, one of Charles I’s courtiers, lived at Petersham, on the edge of Richmond Park, SW of London.

Coincidentally I lodged for some months with the then vicar of Petersham when I was training to teach in Roehampton – didn’t know at the time that this illustrious painter (and husband) are buried in the churchyard beside the vicarage where I was living. Occasionally Desmond Tutu’s son Trevor, who was studying at Imperial College, London at the time, visited the vicar, a friend of his father’s. We had a beer together several times, and a rather strange party at which he cooked mussels. The vicar was away at the time.

A Google search turned up stories that suggest he’s had a troubled life since those heady student days in London in the 70s.


The demonic villain again in Galdós, Miau: post 3

That demonic villain Victor is an insidious operator. He seduces the two Villaamil sisters, Luisa and Abelarda, driving both to madness.

I’ll take just one passage in Ch. 20 where his cruel amorality is shown in technically interesting ways. Victor has managed to displace from Abelarda’s heart her insipid fiancé, Ponce, through a mixture of his dashing good looks and manners (he knows exactly how to attract an inexperienced, lonely, plain young woman), flattery and subtle alternations between fake passion and jealousy of the fiancé – all with honeyed clichés he’s picked up from trashy romantic fiction. Poor Abelarda is too innocent to recognise his falsehoods and duplicitous cunning.

She never much cared for Ponce anyway; she’s acquiescing to family pressure to marry him for the wealth he’ll inherit. She lacks the agency to resist either party.

After days, weeks of this callous campaign, in which Victor claims she’s breaking his heart by refusing him, he tells her he’s leaving the Villaamil house, so desperate is his love for her, and so hopeless his chances of winning her. He knows exactly how simultaneously to torture and lure the infatuated girl. It’s touch and go which gives him greater pleasure. The torture, in my view. He’s an emotional sadist (distant relative of Heathcliff, perhaps, who liked to see the worms writhe), an egotist, and emotionally void.

Abelarda is too smitten and naïve to ‘hide her distress’. This is Victor’s MO: he knows she’s incapable of hiding her true feelings. Her natural modesty has no chance against the passion he knows he has kindled in her love-starved soul. She has no ‘arms’ with which to ‘fight this monster of infinite resources and inexhaustible invention, who was used to trifling with deep and serious feelings.’

He’s like Milton’s Satan in his mastery of language to deceive and influence others, or at least, sufficiently so to impress ingenuous Abelarda. Readers are invited to see straight through his florid, clichéd declarations. He delights in evil for its own sake, hating innocence and goodness and trashing it simply because he can. Balzac’s Vautrin also comes to mind.

Abelarda is painfully vulnerable to his ‘brutal sarcasm’, which he deploys pitilessly, luring her deeper into his power.

So far we’re being guided by the omniscient narrator’s voice. When Abelarda can take no more and leaves the room, Victor is left alone, and the narrator takes us into his consciousness with chilling clarity. The prose style changes completely as the romantic mask drops, revealing the ‘monster’ beneath the smile (and smile, and be a villain: I’ve referred before to the Shakespearean notes).

And the minute after the disappearance of his victim, who…banged the door as if fleeing from a murderer, the wretch [Abelarda] went to bed. There, with a diabolical little smile on his lips, he indulged in the following bitter and cruel monologue. [my emphasis]

I’ve mentioned in previous posts the theatrical technique in the novel, and here again the passage works dramatically. It continues with Victor musing that his helpless victim will ‘unashamedly’ declare her love for him if he isn’t careful: he hasn’t the least flicker of sexual interest in her, as his contemptuous thoughts reveal, in terms that ironically and deliberately reflect Abelarda’s own words in the tortured and self-lacerating soliloquy that I wrote about last time – this is the verbal and structural patterning that Galdós does so well:

But what an unattractive girl she is! Utterly brainless and ordinary to the last degree. I could forgive her everything if she were pretty. Oh, Ponce, what a windfall you’ve got! A rotten apple, only fit to be thrown on the refuse heap.

Some of these interior (or spoken) monologues go on ‘endlessly’, as we saw with Abelarda’s, but here the brevity is brutal and devastating.

An afterthought:

I notice that later in the novel, when Villaamil is engaged in one of his frantic, increasingly obsessive visits to the Finance Ministry where he once worked, vainly trying to get himself employed again, one of the civil servants observes, in response to the ‘disturbed’ old man’s self-pitying diatribe about nepotism and corruption in the service:

‘You’ve got to be pretty shameless to serve this devil of a state.’ [my emphasis]

Miau shows up the capacity for devilish wickedness in individuals like Victor, as the language in my extracts above shows. He is also a kind of metonym of the state in which he flourishes while ‘honourable’ old Villaamil fails repeatedly and is destroyed in the process. The language and structure of the novel once again is carefully deployed and patterned to point up the thematic, symbolic parallels between Victor and the decadent state of Spain.



The Penguin Classics edition I’m reading was translated by J.M. Cohen. It’s a rescue book from a library that closed and jettisoned most of its books – I saved it from the skip. It seems to be a first edition from 1966, though the date of acquisition by the library is shown as 1972. It’s pretty battered, but intact.





A demonic villain: Pérez Galdós, Miau pt 2

In my previous piece on Pérez Galdós’ 1888 novel Miau I said the narrative consists largely of theatrical-style dialogue, complete with parenthetical ‘stage directions’ and asides by the narrator. I’d now like to look at some of the many interior monologues. OK, as I said before, some of these become excessively long, but at their best, they’re very good.

Villaamil’s daughter Abelarda is the younger sister of Luisa, little Luís’s mother who died when he was tiny. Neither was pretty, vivacious, accomplished or educated, but Luisa caught the eye of Victor Cadalso, a lowly, ambitious ‘aspirant’ clerk in the office of Villaamil when he was chief treasury official ‘in the capital of a third-class province…with a small but not very sparkling population…[a] sleepy little town.’ Cadalso turned up in this backwater ‘without a bean’. Handsome and endowed with ‘an attractive personality’ and ‘a lively and witty conversationalist’, he became a ‘shining star’ in his chief’s drawing-room. He rapidly excelled at ‘amusing the ladies and fascinating the girls.’

Unworldly, unimaginative Luisa fell passionately in love with this dangerous dandy. She was so infatuated she was ‘blind’ to the ‘grave defects in his character’. Despite family opposition – they’ve seen through his attractive veneer – they married. Soon after, Villaamil lost his post (he does so frequently) when there was a change of administration, and Victor was promoted to a post in Madrid. The family followed him there, now dependant on his income, and he had them in his power – where he wanted them.

Luisa was just a stepping-stone for ‘ungrateful’ Victor in his career: he used her, and when he’d got what he wanted, was serially unfaithful. Luisa’s infatuation and Victor’s cruel treatment of her caused her to go mad, and shortly before she died she attacked her baby son, Luís, with a knife. From that point her father dies inside, has ‘an inward collapse’ and becomes ‘like a mummy’. Victor has his revenge.

miau-coverAll of that happened nearly ten years before the main action of the novel. Tom in his Wuthering Expectations blog posts on Galdós’ novel Fortunata and Jacinta has drawn attention to its intricate structures and tightly woven, carefully planned patterns.

There’s some of that pleasing symmetry in Miau.

Victor returns to the Villaamil house after the patriarch has lost his post once again when political power changes hands, just two months short of qualifying for his pension. He rapidly ingratiates himself into the family that loathes him for the vicious, treacherous cad that he is, simply by buying his way into their favour. They’re broke, and need his money, as he knows.

He realises that Abelarda is easy pickings, as her sister was. Inexperienced as she too is, he’s able to use her for his own ends just as he did with Luisa. What ends, though? His civil service post  is under threat while his fraudulent, corrupt ways are investigated. He needs to find something else, and sees his opportunity in the Madrid Finance Ministry that his father-in-law haunts in the vain hope of being reinstated. By vilifying the old man behind his back, he’s able to secure the patronage of the very men whom Villaamil importunes for money and a position, at his host’s expense.

Sorry about the long preamble, but I wanted to provide context for the passages I want to discuss. Here’s Abelarda’s ‘disorderly and endless monologue’, as Galdós calls it, ironically acknowledging his prolixity, in Ch. 18. It’s prompted by her falling for the heartless, fiendish Victor; history is about to repeat itself.

‘How plain I am! Goodness me, I look like nothing at all. But I’m worse than plain. I’m stupid, a nobody. I haven’t a spark of intelligence…How can he possibly love me when there are so many beautiful women in the world, and he a man of special merits, a man with a future, handsome, smart, and with a great deal of intelligence…(Pause)’

The parallel with Luisa is exact. Both girls disparage their own charmlessness, yet secretly, romantically cherish the hope that Victor has seen through their bland exterior and responds to the passionate longing underneath. But the melodramatic, adolescent ambivalence with which Abelarda soliloquises here reveals to us, though not to herself, how fatally she’s deluding herself. Like her pessimistic father, who constantly insists he’ll never be reinstated as a civil servant while secretly hoping for the opposite, she’s reverse wishful thinking.

Her meandering thoughts continue, until she reaches the point of saying she has ‘no pride left:’

‘How stupid and unattractive I am! My sister Luisa was better, although, really and truly, there was nothing very special about her. My eyes have got no expression. The most they do is to show that I’m sad, but not what I’m sad about. No one would ever believe that behind these pupils there is…what there is. No one would ever believe that this narrow forehead and this frown conceal what they do conceal.’

Even as she tries to verbally scourge herself she disloyally denigrates her sister’s sexual allure, then veers into the hope that her mouth, ‘which isn’t too bad, especially when I’m smiling’ would perhaps look better if she painted her lips.

‘No, no! Victor would laugh at me. He might despise me. But he doesn’t find me absurd and repulsive. Heavens, can I be repulsive?…Once I believed I was repulsive, I should kill myself…I would be capable of committing a crime to make him love me. What crime? Any crime. All crimes. But he’ll never love me, and I shall stay with my crime unplanned, unhappy for ever.’

These madly polarised, ingenuous hopes and fears, with the frantic see-sawing rhythms, contradictions and wild antitheses, show that she’s headed the same way as her sister. They share the same fatal flaw: their infatuation with demonic, Byronic Victor leads them into his snare and they are lost, and lose all rational capacity. Like Luisa, when Abelarda is emotionally torn apart by his callous, calculating flirtation, she goes mad and tries to kill her nephew, Luís. The patterning of plot is precise, showing through the symmetry how the action has to move – with inevitable, tragic repetitions.

Victor’s cruel luring of the sisters into his sexual trap once more serves another purpose, apart from advancing his career, for at this point he’s more secure in his employment than Villaamil. When it comes to the crunch he doesn’t even seem to have much genuine sexual drive, and recoils from any sign of passion in either sister. Women are just useful tools to him. He cares nothing for anyone, male or female.

His real intention is to destroy the old man. He takes pleasure in destroying for its own sake. He wants to ruin Villaamil, who scorned him when he was his inferior, and tried to prevent his wooing the first daughter. Now he’s able to use a similar method to bring the father-in-law to his doom, while also ruining the second daughter’s chances of fulfilment, love or happiness.

This isn’t really an anti-bureacracy novel, despite its Kafkaesque depiction of the Spanish civil service. It’s a family (anti-)romance that approaches Shakespearean grandeur in its tragic symmetries and psychological rawness.

He’s one of the great villains of fiction. Like flies to wanton boys are these characters to Victor, who’s not godlike, but Satanic. I’ll explore his character further next time.


Honesty is another word for foolishness: Pérez Galdós, Miau


After a not entirely satisfactory encounter with 19C Spanish fiction as represented by La Regenta (I wrote about it here and here) I turned with some trepidation to an old Penguin Classics edition of Benito Pérez Galdós’s 1888 novel Miau. The experience was mixed once again.

miau-coverIt’s a sobering, depressing plot: Don Ramón Villaamil has become a ‘cesante’ – a functionary in the immense bureaucracy of the Finance Ministry of the Spanish Restoration period who has lost his post with the fall of the political administration which appointed him. After nearly 35 years of service he’s been made redundant, just two months short of the pension which would have sufficed to provide for himself and his family.

And what a family. His waspish wife, the ironically named Doña Pura, is a spendthrift, whose mania for showing off her fading finery in the Madrid opera houses eclipses any inclination to be a housewife. Her sister Milagros (ironic name!) abets her in her tyrannical control of this household. Their unattractive daughter Abelarda (another aptly ironical name) is too timid and retiring to exert any control over anyone or anything.

Only Villaamil’s grandson, ten-year-old Luís, brings him any consolation. But the little boy is a chip of this old block. The grandfather is described early on as ‘an old consumptive tiger’, now with none of its former beauty ‘except its bright skin’ – he’s still capable of grumpy growling and self-pitying sulking, but he’s toothless.

The rest of the novel relates his increasingly humiliating attempts to beg money from former colleagues by writing letters to them, or by going the rounds of his former Treasury offices, seeking to gain favour and a new position by flattering, importuning or just being seen by his former subordinates and superiors – most of whom despise and patronize him. Those who don’t, find him a pitiable, abject figure.

It’s no spoiler to say this all ends badly for him. Too passive and introspective to play the aggressive role needed to persuade the new administration to employ him, he retreats ever further into himself, slowly turning from reluctant but persistent in his efforts to re-establish himself in the bureaucracy, to obsessive and manic – in the end conceding that he has become what these corrupt, self-serving pen-pushers see him as: a figure of fun, a deluded madman.

The narrative is often painfully slow moving, and the scenes in which this plot are enacted are often far too long and drawn-out. Spoken exchanges and Interior monologues tend to ramble on for pages.

This weakness is balanced by some genuine strengths – the qualities which have brought Galdós to be compared to Balzac and Dickens. I’d suggest he foreshadows Kafka in his bleak depiction of a gargantuan, labyrinthine bureaucracy whose main desire is to perpetuate its own lethargy and corruption, and which crushes anyone who fails to serve it in the manner it needs.

I’ll show some extracts, then, maybe more in another post, which represent him at his most compelling – but these moments are not frequent, there are many more longueurs.

In Ch. 3 Pura castigates her husband for not emulating his former subordinates, who by behaving like ‘scoundrels’ have gained promotions in the Ministry, while he has been ignominiously dropped.

She seizes upon the example of Cucúrbitas, a blundering incompetent:

He may be stupid, but he knows better than you how to push himself.

She despises the man, but admires his immorality: he takes bribes for settling accounts of the state’s clients. When the husband tries to quiet her, Pura continues, getting into her melodramatic stride:

‘How innocent you are! That’s why you are where you are, that’s why you’re poor and they pass you over. Because you haven’t a grain of foresight, and because you’ve been so careful about your blessed scruples. That isn’t honesty, let me tell you, it’s just obtuseness and stupidity.

She bitterly compares ‘honourable’ but unemployed Villaamil with this ‘dunderhead’ Cucúrbitas, concluding with the taunt that this fool will end up a director or minister – ‘And you’ll never be anything.’

She’s ‘warming to it’, our wry narrator informs us in a parenthesis like a stage direction (these dialogues are often punctuated like this, with long sequences of speeches given verbatim; Galdós was also a playwright, though more successful as a novelist). Why doesn’t Villaamil blackmail this administration by ‘coughing up’ scandal he knows about them and their ‘dirty work’, she says. She’d do it, and not care who got hurt. ‘Unmask all those scamps’, she exhorts, then he’d be found a post. But she knows he won’t, and castigates him for it.

Then she returns to more scornful abuse: he’s too full of ‘finicking and politeness’, politely deferring to these people. She moves in for the kill:

‘They just reckon you’re a nobody. But’ (raising her voice) ‘as sure as this light shines you ought to be a director by now. And why aren’t you? Because you’ve got no drive and no spirit, because you don’t count for anything, because you don’t know the way to go about things. Sighing and complaining won’t make them give you what you want.’

This tirade is relentless, her wrath like that of the ferocious sisters in King Lear, or Lady Macbeth’s when she tears into her husband when he shows reluctance to take decisive (ie murderous) action to fulfill their ambitions. Her final insults are vicious:

‘You’re harmless, you don’t bite, you don’t even bark, and they all laugh at you…It’s this honesty of yours that’s your undoing. Honesty is sometimes taken as just another word for foolishness….A man can preserve all the integrity in the world and still take care of himself and his family.’

Pura is blithely unaware of the illogical movement of her argument here, and it’s this showing of her pernicious nature that’s so effectively done: the narrator doesn’t have to explain or moralise – the author trusts us to see her as she truly is. Her hypocrisy and amorality are matched only by those of the bureaucrats she expects her husband to emulate – and yet she despises him for his refusal – or inability – to stoop to their kind of self-promotion.

There’s a grim humour in her preposterous, blistering assault on the submissive, ineffective ‘cesante’. He lacks the assertiveness and spirit that she is full of – he’s a worm that can’t turn.

That early description of the ‘old consumptive tiger’ is invoked in Pura’s diatribe. The message is clear: to get on in this corrupt world a man has to be ruthless. She fails to realise that she’s urging him to become the kind of bully who terrorises their little grandson in the opening chapter and elsewhere. Like Luís, Villaamil is too introspective and passive to fight back or stand up for himself against those who wrong him – yet he spends his time complaining about his fate.

This ambiguous dilemma and the way it’s dramatised in the novel are what redeems it somewhat from the tedious narrative sprawl. The modern world is complicated, and to swim with the sharks it’s necessary to become sharklike. Yet Villaamil isn’t portrayed as some Dostoevskian saintly innocent or idiot: he really is too passive for his own or his family’s good. There’s no redemption for the likes of him, and his loathsome, unfeeling son-in-law is his mirror image, a man who knows how to succeed, and has the morality of a snake. His name is, again, highly appropriate. He’s called Victor.




Time is how you spend your love. Zadie Smith, On Beauty

This 2005 novel, On Beauty, Zadie Smith’s third, is mostly very funny and entertaining – but it’s also annoying. I enjoyed the campus comedy aspect: stuffy, over-dogmatic rival Rembrandt scholars flinging invective at each other and anyone else who cares to listen (or doesn’t; they don’t have enough empathy with other human beings to need an attentive audience). They are so entrenched in their antithetical views of art and culture (ie Beauty) that they wouldn’t notice something of real beauty if it came up and hit them in the head.

Zadie S Beauty cover

My Hamish Hamilton hardback edition

This is all great fun, as illustrated by a passage in which Howard Belsey, the white, late-fifties English lecturer at a second-tier university in greater Boston, is dragged to an open-air performance of Mozart’s Requiem. His son Jerome has committed the ultimate betrayal as far as Howard’s liberal-PC family is concerned: he’s become a fervent Christian. It’s Jerome’s intention with this concert trip to restore ‘familial’ harmony, broken down by recent events I won’t go into now.

Howard’s wife of 30 years, Kiki, a large black woman from Florida whose youthful beauty hasn’t entirely gone, struggles to concentrate or interpret (another scene – the Beethoven concert – inspired by EM Forster’s Howard’s End, a novel to which On Beauty is a homage):

The experience of listening to an hour’s music you barely know in a dead language you do not understand is a strange falling and rising experience. For minutes at a time you are walking deep into it, you seem to understand. Then, without knowing how or when exactly, you discover you have wandered away, bored or tired from the effort.

Zadie Smith’s engaging free indirect style and warm empathy with her character are clear here. We feel we are inside this character’s self – but not entirely. I find that second person pronoun intrusive, it strikes a false note. Is this meant to be a universal experience for the uninitiated in classical music, or are we eavesdropping on Kiki’s contending thoughts?

The scene shifts to Kiki’s earnest, fiercely ambitious daughter Zora, about to enrol at her father’s university (she’s a chip off his block: zealously studious but lacking in true conviction or moral sense). She’s listening to audio notes on the music on her Discman (this IS 2005) recorded by a learned professor: ‘she lived through footnotes’ the narrator confides.

This is one of the author’s alternative comic approaches: no attempt here at interior monologue. The narrator tells us what to think, and expects us to share the snide joke. So intent was Zora when younger on a trip in France, the voice continues, on her Paris guidebook to Sacré Coeur ‘that she walked directly into an altar, cutting her forehead open.’ Get it? She didn’t truly perceive Beauty even when it hit her over the head.

This too is funny – at first. Then another awareness kicks in. As a visiting Fellow at Harvard, Smith would have seen many such footnote-addicted, over-earnest students desperate for prestigious internships or careers in fashionable colleges or literary magazines, and prepared to do anything to get them. But this humour is too broad to be ultimately satisfying or taken seriously.

The plot enables Smith to take many more pot-shots at perceived hypocrisy among the liberal Left (the Belseys) and an implausible Trinidadian black neo-con art historian (Monty Kipps). Howard Belsey is anti-aesthetic, insisting Rembrandt was an jobbing artisan turning out low-brow dross for boorish aristocratic patrons, spouting Foucauld to support his half-baked theories; Kipps is just as dogmatically wrong-headed in adopting an antithetical position.

Both generate a lot of funny narrative, but both are cartoons. In this respect Zadie Smith’s characters have more in common with many of Dickens’s than with Forster’s. They verge on being types, mouthpieces for particular theoretical or class or racial groups.

The plotting similarly shows more of a debt to the worst aspects of Dickens: coincidence-laden, over-plotted and programmatic, rather than arising organically out of its characters. The difference is that Dickens more often makes us believe in his characters, or enables us to see depths beyond the obvious surface features.

But there are some brilliant, moving scenes among this less appealing material. I found the section when Howard cravenly ducks out of a funeral service to revisit the locality of his working-class youth in London painfully moving. He calls at his aging father’s grim little house in the ‘ignominy’ of Cricklewood, that part of it which is deprecated as ‘beyond salvation’ by smooth estate agents.

Howard as inverted snob though is able to convince himself that this zone has ‘more charm’ than ‘all the double-fronted Georgian houses in Primrose Hill.’ The narrative veers in and out of Howard’s mind here:

The African women in their colourful kenti cloths, the whippet blonde with three phones tucked into the waistband of her tracksuit, the unmistakeable Poles and Russians introducing the bone structure of Soviet Realism to an island of chinless, browless potato-faces, the Irish men resting on the gates of housing estates like farmers at a pig-fair in Kerry…At this distance, walking past them all, thus itemizing them, not having to talk to any of them, flâneur Howard was able to love them and, more than this, to feel himself, in his own romantic fashion, to be one of them. We scum, we happy scum! [ellipsis and italics in the text]

This is good stuff: the shifting voices and perspectives of Howard and author are deftly handled and make a complex, subtle, unpreachy – and funny – point in ways that I’ve suggested earlier in this post she doesn’t always succeed in doing. Howard believes he belongs among these people:

It was an ancestry he referred to proudly at Marxist conferences and in print…for the most part, however, Howard liked to keep his ‘working-class roots’ where they flourished best: in his imagination.

OK, so here the narrative dips into the slightly sneering critique that I pointed out in the image of Zora at the concert. But then follows a long passage where Howard has a toe-curlingly awful encounter with his father that is one of the most vivid portrayals of the generation gap and father-son friction that I’ve ever read – except perhaps in some Russians like Turgenev, or in Dickens.

It takes just eight minutes for Howard to become incensed by his father’s intellectual crassness – the casual racism, homophobia and sexism of his generation and class.

It’s too long to quote and do it justice here, but this one section alone makes the otherwise uneven, intermittently brilliant novel, worth reading. What raises it above most of the rest of so-so campus comedy in the novel is this chapter’s genuine sense of felt humanity: we can feel with Howard his frustration and annoyance with his bumbling, bigoted father, while simultaneously empathising with the father’s ill-fated attempts to reach out to the son he clearly, deep down, loves. Howard’s petulance and impatience, for once, enable us to warm to him, those of us who’ve had difficult experiences with parents, while recoiling from his snobbery. We don’t condone his anger, but we understand it because we’ve been shown its causes. He wants to be able to love his father, but his intellect prevents him from doing so. His inability to feel is matched by his father’s inability to think.

Perhaps this one passage at the chapter’s end best sums up Smith’s achievement here; the narrator has just pointed out that his father just wants them to share ‘quality time’ watching banal TV shows. This is his way of showing Howard ‘We’re family.’

But Howard couldn’t do this when he was sixteen and he couldn’t do it now. He just did not believe, as his father did, that time is how you spend your love.

Like most of the best comedy in fiction, it’s deepened or enriched by accompanying pathos. This is where Zadie Smith’s literary debt to the great strengths of Dickens becomes glowingly apparent. There’s a good joke about EM Forster near the end of this scene, too. Howard can’t stand him.

Rogue Theatre’s Wild Woodland Summer Ball

‘Take your imagination for a dance’

Wild Wood

Wild Wood poster (from the Rogue website)

We’ve taken two grandchildren, accompanied by two of their Cornish friends and their grandparents, to Rogue Theatre’s ‘summer ball’ productions every summer for some four years now. They’re held in the beautiful Tehidy Woods, part of a 250-acre estate managed as a country park by Cornwall Council, near the cliffs on the north coast above Portreath.

IMG_4678From the carpark you’re greeted at a box office (it’s a real box) by members of the company in costume who send the audience in batches along a magical trail through the woods. Along the way the trees are festooned with strange web-like hangings, decorated mirrors, framed paintings, distressed books, and all kinds of other paraphernalia, from clocks to lampshades. It’s a place where you could encounter anything.

CakesAt intervals among the trees members of the cast sing and dance, or beckon the unwary into their world. Signs with enigmatic messages hint at the twilight zone into which you’re headed.

King of the Wild Wood

King of the Wild Wood

The path ends in a bosky grotto where you’re greeted by the wild, bearded, dreadlocked figure of the King of the Woods, whose long cloak, kohl-ringed eyes and curly horns lend him an other-worldly but regal, piratical air. He’s part ogre, part woodland spirit, but the twinkle in his eye, and his kind repartee with the transfixed children in our group, belie the scary aspect.

Every entrant into his grotto is challenged: Do you believe in the power of story? Do you want to pass through the door into his woodland kingdom? We each have our own story and are part of many more.

The basic premise is that we were leaving behind the everyday world Pathof mundane reality, and entering the Wild Wood. The company’s website sums it up like this:

Hundreds of eager feet, from this world and the other, animal, human and faerie (and half way between), patter along the path in time with the beat of the wings of butterflies and birds.

Even the breeze dances, as it makes its way through trees, carrying stories and shimmering magic to the heart of the woods.

This is musical theatre in a similar mode to that of the Kneehigh company, about whose recent production about the love-life of the artist Chagall I wrote here recently. Rogue have their own special brand of high-energy, open-air entertainment. It’s based on music, dance and acrobatics rather than dialogue – though the story-telling also makes powerful use of prose and verse. The co-founder’s training with Commedia dell’Arte and in the circus is apparent in the company’s visual, physical approach to story-telling that doesn’t just engage the audience: it challenges and enthralls them.

This year there were four separate fairytale-type stories of enchantment. Like all such tales, they’re a challenging blend of magic and carnival and the biggest human issues: love and loss, separation and reconciliation, transformation, and life’s rites of passage, ending in the most comprehensive: death. Our eight-year-old granddaughter was spellbound throughout. Her brother, our ten-year-old grandson, sustained a cool veneer, but he secretly loved it.



As always the King of the Wild Wood greeted us and introduced his co-narrator, the Moon, who was winched high into the trees on a silver trapeze-seat, from where she beamed smilingly down on the proceedings, and joined in with the tale-telling from time to time. The company began each section of the show with their now-familiar dance, and maddeningly catchy ‘Moon Song’ – a homage to her powers.

There was one tale about a pop-up curiosity shop, whose proprietor displayed a mysterious lack of zeal for selling any of her bizarre stock of pickled pets and alarming oddments. An even more enigmatic customer intrigues her.


Can you spot the bearded fairy?

CatsThe stand-out item for me was the story involving a brilliant chorus of cool rapping cats. Second best was the troupe of white-clad, bewinged faeries, all glamorous, elegant girls, except for one with a bald pate and full gingery beard…He was having a whale of a time.

We all were.

There was face-painting and wand-making with the cast in the interval. I spotted several unashamed adults among the eager youngsters waiting their turn for the glitter and paint.

The small company has an astonishing capacity to play multiple roles, and all are multi-talented dancers, singers and actors. Minimal costume changes convincingly transform each player, and at times it’s hard to recall what part they played in the previous tale, so completely do they inhabit each character.

The musicians are equally talented and versatile. The music ranges from contemporary pop genres (I’ve mentioned the rapping felines) to folk and traditional, with occasional rocking anthems for which the Woodland King sits at the drum kit and beats seven bells out of it.

Wild WoodThis year the rain didn’t dampen the spirits of the cast or audience. We were seated on hay-bales under a protective awning; the actors, real troupers, performed fully exposed to the downpour. Their infectious energy and commitment were a credit to them, and we all had a great time.

It was with some reluctance that we retraced our steps through the woodland that was transformed into something magical by this brilliant Cornish-based company’s imagination. They tap into and release the inner child in all of us.



Cornish ramblings: Tremenheere, St Michael’s Mount and Way

Our Cornish ramblings continue, but work resumed this week, so they’ll probably subside now. We went on Monday to Tremenheere Sculpture Gardens, near Penzance.

The name derives from the Cornish tre-menhir, ‘standing (or long-)-stone farm (or place)’.  Another site near St Keverne on the Lizard peninsula on Cornwall’s south coast has an actual surviving menhir; I can find no record of such a stone at the site of the current gardens – though there are many of them across the moors of Penwith in west Cornwall.

Before 1290 the lands were owned by the monks of St Michael’s Mount, in the bay below. My guess is that the Tremenheere family, who owned the estate where the gardens now stand, originated from the Lizard area and moved north, and bought the land from the monks. In the 15C it was the monastery’s vineyard.



















Minotaur by Tim Shaw

Black Mound

Black Mound by David Nash

The beautiful 20-acre site is planted with a wide range of mature trees, shrubs and flowers, with a network of winding paths connecting the sculptures by some noted figures, intended to blend with or comment on the landscape they stand in. The views at various points across the bay to the Mount are amazing – possibly the finest in Cornwall. For more on the origin and purpose of the gardens, see the website, which states that it’s intended as an ‘arcadian space blending the elements of landscape, planting and art to create a place for contemplation and wonder.’


Restless Temple

Restless Temple by Penny Saunders










I hope my pictures convey something of this quality. Information on the sculptures is also to be found at the garden website.

St Michael's Way exhibition

Flyer for the exhibition

Forthcoming events:

Exhibition ‘On St Michael’s Way’

St Michael’s Way is a 12.5-mile trail starting at the church of St Uny in Lelant, nr St Ives, passing through the gardens and ending at St Michael’s Mount, Marazion, next to Penzance. Because of its historical significance as part of the network of pilgrim routes that lead to the cathedral shrine of St James at Santiago de Compostela, Spain, this is the only footpath in Britain designated part of the European Cultural Route.

More information on the official website.

It’s of very ancient, pre-Christian origins, but in the 5C became the preferred route for missionaries and pilgrims arriving by boat on the N. coast of Cornwall from Ireland (I wrote about St Piran, Cornwall’s unofficial patron saint, recently HERE) or Wales and heading for the holy site of the Mount.

A few decades ago the route was reinstated with the aid of Bredereth Sen Jago, the Cornish Pilgrims of St James, and other bodies.

Archangel Michael is popularly known as the ‘saint of high places’, hence the dedication of Christian sites on mounts and hilltops (like Mont-Saint-Michel in Normandy). Miracles were said to have taken place at St Michael’s Mount in the middle ages, reinforcing its reputation as a spiritually significant location, standing as it does at the intersection of various ancient ley lines.

According to a 5C legend St Michael appeared to fishermen (he’s their patron saint) at this Cornish site, warning them of danger. Local Celtic legends state that the mount itself was constructed by the giant Cormoran, who tyrannised and pillaged the locality, and was killed by a local Marazion lad named Jack – source of the Jack the Giant Killer fairytale.

This giant’s cousin was called Trencrom. In local legends they are said to have hurled rocks at each other across huge distances, thus accounting for the many outcrops and boulders across west Cornwall. Trencrom Hill, above the Hayle estuary, is the site of a Neolithic hill fort, and has many such boulders.

St Michael’s Mount (Karrek Loos yn Koos in Cornish, meaning ‘grey rock in woodland’) is connected to the mainland by a man-made causeway of granite setts, making the island accessible on foot at low tide. In prehistoric times it may have operated as a tin-exporting port. More useful information at its official website.

It was probably the site of a monastery from the 8C, and a popular pilgrim site in the medieval period. The original 12C monastic church buildings were rebuilt in the 14C.

In 1659 it came into the possession of the St Aubyn family, who still own it in joint patronage with the National Trust, through whom most of the site is open to the public. The author Edward St Aubyn is a cousin of Lord St Levan, descendant of the Mount’s St Aubyns.

The chapel of St Michael is a 15C construction on the mount, while the castle houses a fascinating array of historical artefacts.




Tewlwolow Kernow by James Turrell

Another forthcoming event at Tremenheere Gardens, 9 September: special Skyspace evening (Tewlwolow Kernow) – James Turrell’s ‘Skyspace’ installation, with its extraordinary egg-like interior, has an elliptical space in the roof which forms a natural frame for some gorgeous skyscapes. Subtle lighting will enhance these unpredictable natural ‘pictures’ as dusk falls.


By way of contrast, here’s an engine house seen on the edge of Camborne on our way home











PS: Local place names and church dedications reflect the activity of Irish and Welsh missionary saints in Cornwall from the 5C. Uny (or Euny) of Lelant, and Herygh or Erc (patron of St Erth village), were Irish brothers of St Ia (Cornish for ‘St Ives’ is Porth Ia) who all landed in the Hayle estuary. I posted recently about St Piran, whose legend relates how he floated miraculously across the sea from Ireland on a millstone (intended to drown him by irate local pagan kings); Ia is said to have crossed on an equally unconventional vessel: a leaf (or, in some versions, a millstone – probably indluenced by Piran’s legend – a typical hagiographical cross-fertilization).

PPS There’s a great spot at Marazion marshes, opposite the Mount, to see a huge range of birds (including the rare Cetti’s warbler), mammals and other fauna and flora: it’s a RSPB site – more HERE on their website.



From Devoran to Portreath: the Bissoe cycle trail and Mineral Tramway.


Devoran quay, looking out towards Point; Feock and the Carrick Roads, then the English Channel beyond

Yesterday we took our bikes to the Bissoe Trail and did the coast-to-coast trip, from Devoran on the south coast (well, up Restronguet Creek a little, but that’s where the trail ends) via Bissoe to Portreath on the north coast – and back. 24 miles in total; not bad for oldies like us…

When the granite massif of nearby Carnmenellis was produced 300m years ago, the cooling rock left vapours and deposits that became rich veins of metals, principally tin (cassiterite) and copper (chalcopyrite), with some gold, arsenic (technically a ‘metalloid’, a by-product of tin and copper smelting in the later mining period) and other minerals. The Carnon Valley cuts at right angles across these veins, which explains how it became the base of some of the oldest mining activity in the western world.



The trail follows the route of the old Redruth and Chasewater (now spelt Chacewater) narrow-gauge mineral railway (or Tramway), which opened in 1825, and included several branches. Other lines later completed the route all the way to Portreath. When mining declined in the latter part of the 19C, so did the railway; it closed in 1915. Devoran ceased functioning as a commercial port at that point, and the tidal estuary had already silted up badly.

Devoran was, during the heyday of Cornwall’s mining industry in the 19C, a busy port. Mined minerals,



mostly tin and copper excavated in the nearby Gwennap area inland, were exported on the ships for smelting in S. Wales. Imports were largely coal to fuel the mines’ steam pumps and other materials to keep the mines operative. Its wooden wharf has largely disappeared, but there survive the remains of ore-storage bins, granite mooring-bollards and various former port buildings.

For a diagram map of the Gwennap mine sites, from ‘Fortune’ to ‘Busy’, ‘Maid’ to ‘Jane’ and ‘Unity’, and many others, with their quaint-sounding but deadly serious Cornish prefixes ‘Wheal,’ see HERE.

Bissoe trail

Bissoe trail passes beneath the viaduct

When tin streaming declined, coinciding with the fall in the price of tin, resourceful mining companies dug under the estuary to extract the remaining subterranean tin gravel. While the laden ships sailed above them, miners toiled 30-40 feet below.

The principal family behind Devoran’s industry was the Agar-Robartes, whose huge estate was at the sumptuous Lanhydrock House near Bodmin – now a National Trust property open to the public.

Carnon viaduct

Original Carnon Viaduct, with wooden supports on granite ‘stumps’ (Wikipedia image)

Halfway between Devoran and Bissoe stands a magnificent viaduct, carrying the line from Truro to Falmouth.  Brunel’s original stumps are still visible below the later, wooden Victorian arches.

It was started in the 1860s. The foundations had to be dug through over nine metres of mine waste material, aka ‘tailings’. These had built up over the

Carnon viaduct today

Carnon viaduct today

decades of expansion from streaming to later deep ‘hard-rock’ mining, and from the construction of the County Adit drainage system.


Bissoe is from the Cornish for birch trees. In the 1600s it was a small port at the head of the estuary. Tin streaming activity, using at that time a complex system of leats and sluices, produced so many ‘tailings’ that the valley silted up with this waste material, cutting the place off from the sea.

Nearby is the Point Mills Arsenic refinery. Some imposing building fragments remain, as my picture shows. It closed after 100 years of production in 1939. Arsenic was used principally as a pigment in dyes for the Lancashire textiles industry, and as an alloy with other metals. It was exported for use in sheep-dip, an insecticide and for glass-making.


Mining has scarred and transformed the area near Bissoe

The land itself in places remains scarred and pitted by mining activity, or piled high with waste heaps – now further scored by the tracks of mountain bikers. This wild, bleak moonscape is weirdly beautiful – a far cry from the ‘Cornish Riviera’ images about which I’ve written in recent posts. Yet this is as authentically ‘Cornwall’ as the more famous and picturesque Charlestown or Portloe.

This part of the trail has since 2000 formed the Bissoe Valley nature reserve, 7.5 acres of wetland, heath and post-industrial land. There’s

Old mine buildings nr Bissoe

Old mine buildings nr Bissoe

Old mine buildings nr Bissoeplenty of information, maps, photos, videos, etc. at this website.

It’s teeming with wildlife and flora: dragonflies, damsel flies, birds. No fish, though. The river Carnon is still so polluted by mineral contamination that its mud shines unnatural orange, and the water is eerily coloured as a consequence.

Our dog Bronte, when we were walking here some years ago, didn’t realise there was a river: it’s so overgrown that it looks like a ditch, fell in and was swept away. She was lucky, my wife and I were able to save her. Other dogs since have drowned.

Portreath beach

Portreath beach: my helmet on the wall as evidence we made it

Portreath derives from the Cornish for sandy cove. Tin streaming was recorded there as early as 1602. The mining port’s construction started in the 18C, and expanded considerably in the second half of the 19th. Its purpose was similar to that of its rival, Devoran.

The first ‘railroad’ in Cornwall was the Portreath Tramroad, originally with horse-drawn wagons (steam engines only arrived in the mid-19C), started in 1809, to link with the copper mines at Scorrier and Poldice, near St Day. By 1812 it stretched to Scorrier House, owned by the Williams family who later occupied Caerhays Castle, about which I wrote last time. This family, along with the Bassets (whose Tehidy estate is vast, and now a popular park), made a fortune as pioneers of the Cornish mining industry.

To the south is the site of the old cable-worked, steam-fuelled incline, which linked the harbour with the main rail line at Carn Brea, near Camborne, another busy mining zone until the 20C.

The link between the grand estates like Lanhydrock, Tehidy and Caerhays, the mines and industrial archaeology is constantly apparent when one travels through Cornwall. All along the cycle trail we saw old engine houses, chimneys and ruined buildings.

IMG_4578When we got home this handsome dragonfly was basking in the sun over our front door lintel. I tweeted it to Cornwall Wildlife Trust, who kindly identified it as a female Southern Hawker.