Jane Gardam, Old Filth – and Feock again

Jane Gardam, Old Filth. Abacus, 2018. First published 2004

Mrs TD and I discovered a new walk yesterday. It starts at Feock church, on a headland divided by branches of the River Fal by Carrick Roads. I’ve written before about this village, the sturdy little church, its obscure patron saint, and its fine lych-gate and venerable yew trees.

Jane Gardam Old Filth coverMrs TD passed on to me a book she’d just read, and what a good recommendation it was. Jane Gardam was born in a district of Redcar, N. Yorkshire – where I attended grammar school. Old Filth deals with the long life of a retired advocate and judge, Sir Edward Feathers, said to have invented the uncomplimentary acronym of the novel’s title: Failed in London, Try Hong Kong. After an undistinguished career as a jobbing lawyer in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, he’s given the opportunity to ‘try Hong Kong’ and the ‘Far Eastern Bar’, where he flourishes.

The novel deals mainly, however, with the ways Feathers’ childhood and youth scarred him emotionally and made him into the cipher he appeared as an adult to his contemporaries. The novel is bookended by dismissive, pejorative comments about his outwardly uneventful, unexciting and unimaginative life by some of his surviving legal community:

Being a modest man, they said, he had called himself a parvenu, a fraud, a carefree spirit…He was loved, however, admired, laughed at kindly and still much discussed many years after his retirement.

Gardam’s narrative demonstrates brilliantly and movingly how little we can know about a person’s depths – the truth of them – from the exterior they construct and present to the world.

His widower father showed him no affection, and had him shipped at the age of four back to England – like so many other ‘Raj orphans’. His foster mother in Wales treated him and the other children in her care with cruelty bordering on sadism. Other events in his early life show his capacity for hiding his emotional scars while searching desperately for the love and affection so long denied to him by those who should have cared for him.

The narrative is complex in structure, with frequent flashbacks to different stages of his development, each one subtly indicating what shaped him into the outwardly competent but aloof figure he became. We gain a gradually focusing picture of his loving but not entirely satisfactory relationship with his wife, Betty. At the novel’s start Eddie is in his eighties and Betty has recently died. As the narrative proceeds we hear about the secrets that haunt him, the relationships, heartbreaks and experiences that moulded him.

It’s a deeply felt portrayal of a conflicted, damaged life, and an indictment of the heartlessness of the powerful elite British who ran ‘the colonies’ of their former empire, ensuring they exploited every natural resource, while tainting the lives of all who came into contact with them.

Back to our walk yesterday. We followed a path down to the foreshore of a creek at Penpol and Point. A group of ten swans cruised majestically up the ebbing tide, then spoiled the elegant look by breaking up into aggressively lunging squabbles.

Penpol creekWe followed another, unknown path back across fields high above the creek. The views were lovely – on a rare day this summer in Cornwall of clear blue sky and sunshine we could see Carn Brea monument high above Camborne, some fifteen miles away.

Back at Feock we walked a little way across a field to gaze at Carrick Roads below. There were handsome but very large cows gazing at us inquisitively; Mrs TD isn’t keen on cows, so I went ahead alone to take the picture below. Earlier the footpath passed beside a field with glamorous-eyelashed alpacas, and again Mrs TD insisted on hurrying past, avoiding eye contact with them as they sauntered over to look at us. They looked affronted but amused.

Carrick cows

 

 

St Feock: the saint, the church, the parish

St Feock

St Feock: window inserted in 1930

Church seen from beside tower

Church seen from beside tower

On Sunday the rain finally stopped and the sun shone. Mrs TD and I went for a walk starting at Feock church. I knew nothing about this obscure saint and this, I think the only church dedicated in his name in England (correct me if I’m wrong). There are some parishes in Britanny with similar names, like Lanveoc, whose patron is St Maeoc. The earliest written lives of saints venerated in Cornwall were written in Britanny, the oldest being that of St Sampson.

The nave

The nave

The oldest saint’s Life written in Cornwall is St Petroc’s. Some scholars have suggested that the –oc(k) element in these names is from the Celtic for ‘oak’, and that ‘Lanfeoc’ may be a composite word signifying ‘holy man living on top of an oak-covered hill’, but this is disputed.

There is no surviving ‘Vita’ or Life of this saint. The first reliable written record of St ‘Fioc’ is from c. 1160,

Sts Kea, Feock and Piran

Local saints Kea, Feock and Piran (from L to R)

where he is cited as a male saint living at Lanfioc – but there is some speculation that Feock might have been female. Later historians settle on ‘he’. Where he came from is therefore unknown, although there is a legend that (like Piran, Cornwall’s patron saint) he arrived by sea, floating on a millstone. The origins of this common hagiographical motif may possibly be that early missionary saints from Ireland, Wales and elsewhere often brought with them a large stone to be used as the altar or foundation for the church they intended establishing in these pagan regions.

The tower seen from the church porch

The tower seen from the church porch

Another suggestion is that he emigrated, as others did, from Cornwall as a missionary to Celtic Britanny – St Sampson, for example, became Bishop of Dol; his disciples, saints Austell and Mewan (now place names in mid-Cornwall), migrated there with Kea – now the name of a part of modern Feock parish; there’s a tasty local variety of plum named after it.

Celtic cross

The Celtic cross

The earliest record of a church at Feock is 12C, although it’s probable there was some sort of important religious site there before then. The font is dated 1130, the oldest artefact in the church. A Celtic cross stands in the churchyard near the south porch. This has been dated 13C, but again this is uncertain.

At the south entrance to the churchyard is a traditional lych-gate. It has a room above it, locally known as the Smuggler’s Vestry or the Schoolroom. The original raised slab on which coffins would have been rested before entering the church grounds has gone, but a part of it, or its foundation, was discovered during maintenance work.

Lychgate

Lychgate

An unusual feature of the church’s design is the separate tower (although there are several examples of similar detached towers in Cornwall), located at the top end of the sloping grounds outside, beside the road that runs through the village. This too has been dated 13C. It may have been an early church in its own right, but the writer of the guide admits this is speculative. It doesn’t have regular windows, just window-shaped openings covered by louvred slate. It’s now a bell-tower.

The present church building was entirely rebuilt in 1875-76.

The parish of St Feock spreads across a fairly wide district, and according to Wikipedia had a population of over 4000 in the 2011 census. The village of Feock itself is much smaller.

The tower with church roof below

The tower with church roof below

We walked from the church down a lane to the end of the promontory. The sumptuous houses on either side of the lane command magnificent views over the Carrick Roads (and the sea beyond) on the SE side, and over Restronguet Creek on the other.

There’s a bench at the furthest tip of the promontory – a very pleasant spot to sit and admire the tranquil scene. The only sounds are the curlews’ liquid calls and the slapping of the mast-ropes (I know that’s not the mariner’s term) on the moored boats.

View across Restronguet Creek towards Pandora Inn jetty

View across Restronguet Creek towards Pandora Inn jetty. Clouds already gathering

Across the creek is the jetty projecting from the yard in front of one of the most attractive pubs in Cornwall: the Pandora Inn. Parts of the building date back to the 13C. It was named after the HMS Pandora, the ship sent to Tahiti to capture the mutineers of Capt. Bligh’s Bounty. It struck the Great Barrier Reef in 1791 and sank with the loss of crew and mutineers. Its captain, who survived, was arrested on his return to Cornwall where he is reputed to have bought the inn.

A fire in 2011 destroyed much of the first floor, but it has been sympathetically restored and re-thatched. It’s a lovely place on a summer’s day to sit and have lunch outside on the jetty, watching the yachty folk coming and going. Mrs TD’s sister’s friend held her wedding reception there.

Yew tree

This impressive yew tree in the churchyard is said to be 500 years old

I am indebted for much of the information in this post to the 92-page printed guide by C.D. North, available from the church. There’s no place or date of publication, but it seems to be from 2003.