Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers – and in Cornwall

Clare Chambers, Small Pleasures. Weidenfeld & Nicholson, paperback, 2021. First published 2020

I bought this for Mrs TD, who so enjoyed it she urged me to read it when she’d finished. I was less enthusiastic.

Clare Chambers Small Pleasures cover I did enjoy the depiction of the central character, Jean, a middle-aged small-town newspaper journalist whose existence has shrunk to that of a Barbara Pym routine of longing for love and kindness while caring for an ungrateful, spiteful and embarrassingly rude old mother. When she does find a caring, sensitive man who returns her love, there’s a strong sense of fulfilment but also of foreboding.

This is the best element in the novel: a heartwarming and moving portrayal of the kind of woman not often given such scrupulous and sympathetic authorial attention.

The virgin birth plot is less satisfactory. Jean is investigating the extraordinary story of a woman who claimed she’d given birth to her daughter, now aged ten, without the intervention of a man. Chambers strings out this mystery for over 300 pages, and I felt she sort of lost interest in its outcome about a third of the way through.

There’s an early spoiler, too, which partly caused my lukewarm reaction to the central plot.

I’d recommend Small Pleasures, however, as a not too demanding and often very touching portrait of a woman who thought her chances of experiencing love and passion again had vanished. There’s always hope, even though life has ways of thwarting those chances.

Cove nr FalmouthI’ve been pretty busy with a work project lately, hence the silence of the blog. So I’ll finish with a few images of some recent small (summer) pleasures in Cornwall. Between work sessions I’ve been enjoying coastal walks with Mrs TD. This cove is near Pendennis Castle (built in Henry VIII’s reign) in Falmouth, where we went early this month. The footpath takes the walker past some smaller, less venerable and imposing military installations that would also have guarded the entrance to the Carrick Roads and Falmouth docks and harbour. Just before I took this picture of the pleasant cove a seal popped its head up and scrutinised us with what looked like a mix of interest and disappointment. He’d gone by the time I got my phone out, unfortunately.

Trevone The following week we went up the north coast beyond Padstow, now brimming with posh London tourists, to the less frequented and beautiful beach at Trevone. This picture shows the rocky foreshore nearby; the sandy beach is just to the right of it. We’d read about a rockpool a short walk along the coast. It turned out to be an ideal little natural swimming pool, without the currents and waves of the open sea. Three generations of families were enjoying it at the same time as us – there was a lovely sense of shared (small) pleasure.

Carbis Bay gull A few days later, during Britain’s week-long hot spell (aka summer), we returned to Carbis Bay with Mrs TD’s sister and brother-in-law. When I reported about this beach last month, just as the G7 conference was ending, it was closed to visitors; now it’s much busier – but still didn’t feel crowded. Here’s my usual picture of a truculent seagull, glaring at me for having the effrontery to take its picture without some sort of recompense. Godrevy lighthouse is just  visible in the background. This is the one that (partially) inspired Virginia Woolf’s novel To the Lighthouse; as is well known, she and her family used to holiday regularly at St Ives, just round the headland from Carbis Bay.

Now we’re back to cooler weather and showers. But there are occasional swooping, screeching groups of swifts over our house to brighten the days.

 

Spring awakening – #BlossomWatch

Holywell Bay beachYesterday I posted about the heart-warming sights and sounds of nature in spring. On Monday the most severe lockdown restrictions in England were lifted slightly: Mrs TD and I took advantage of the new rules and drove to Holywell Bay, near Newquay. Apart from longing to see the sea again for the first time in three months, I also wanted to find the holy well in its cave under the cliffs. Whenever I’ve been there in the past the tide has been high and the entrance unreachable.

View out of the cave

The only picture worth sharing: the view out of the cave on to the beach

It was a fine, brisk day, and there were surprisingly few people about. The tide was far out, and I entered the first sizeable cave and took a – not very good – picture. It didn’t look much like the images I’d seen online. On reflection I think this was not the right cave.

The right cave has a natural spring deep inside it, and multicoloured stains on the rocks, caused by the minerals in the rock over which the spring water drips. The holy well itself is named after St Cuthbert.

Legend has it that Aldhun, bishop of Lindisfarne and Durham, was instructed in a vision to transport the relics of St Cuthbert, the first bishop of Lindisfarne, to Ireland. He was blown off course, and ended up at what is now Holywell. He remained there long enough to build a church a mile inland at the village now called Cubert.

This story doesn’t tally with the well-known history of Cuthbert’s relics. The monks of Lindisfarne had to remove and hide the relics several times in the early middle ages to protect them from hostile forces, but the saint’s remains eventually found a permanent shrine in what became Durham cathedral. (I posted on several Cornish holy wells in the past; posts on Bede’s Life of St Cuthbert – link HERE.)

Folk legends have great potency, however; Aldhun is said to have had another vision in which he was told to take the relics back to Durham. While the saint’s bones were being removed from the cave where they’d been stored, they touched the rock-pool’s sides, thereby infusing them with their legendary miraculous healing powers.

Local people, and many from further afield, would bring sick children to the cave on certain auspicious dates to dip them into the healing waters, or to drink the mineral-rich water. Disabled people would leave their crutches in the cave as votive offerings after taking the waters. Stories of miraculous cures, like those at so many other folk shrines, circulated widely.

It’s a nice story, and the cave has a mystical feel to it – even if I was in the wrong one. I should have taken a torch.

Wednesday was Mrs TD’s birthday, and we were able to meet her sister and brother-in-law at a beach a short drive away and go for a walk – and a picnic on the beach in front of the Carbis Bay hotel. This is where the G7 conference will take place in June. Workmen were busy sprucing the place up in readiness. What an inspiring place to gather the world’s leaders to sort out the world’s mess. They could do with a bit of St Cuthbert’s healing influence.

St Ives gullWe moved on to St Ives, eerily deserted. After a short rest on a harbour-side bench, soaking up the warm sun, we passed a small group of strangely tame sandpipers, gossiping and preening on the pavement. My picture didn’t do them justice, so I won’t include it here. Instead here’s a rather truculent gull.

A sea-mist descended with the suddenness of a stage fog machine. Very Stephen King.

It was so good to feel the restorative power of the ocean and beaches again.

White blossomNext day I visited our local park to check on the progress of the blossom. This magnificent tree took my breath away.

So did the symmetrical perfection of this camellia flower.

PS added later: today is the feast day of a saint I’ve posted on several times in the past – the subject of my postgrad research – Mary of Egypt.

Camellia

 

 

 

 

Kingfishers, halcyon days, and walks

Last time I mentioned the painted kingfishers on a branch above the river just below my house. In Greek mythology, the bird is known as halcyon. Our expression ‘halcyon days’ derives from the legend that Alkyone or Alcyone and her husband Ceyx angered Zeus by setting themselves up as his equal. Zeus wrecked Ceyx’s ship while he was at sea and he drowned. When she heard the news his wife drowned herself. The gods took pity on them and transformed the couple into kingfishers.

According to other legends, the halcyon laid her eggs on sea rocks or the beach during the winter solstice. Alcyone called upon her father Aeolus, god of the winds (hence Aeolian harp) to produce this period of calm to enable her to care for her brood safely. The expression therefore referred originally to any period of calm weather, then, by extension, to any period of calm and tranquillity.

It’s the feeling we get when we witness a scene like the river in those pictures in my previous post.

A few days ago, when our government in its wisdom relaxed lockdown constraints to allow us to drive to remote places for our walks, I went with Mrs TD to Goss Moor, some ten miles away. It’s a nature reserve on the edge of the area where china clay was once extracted, leaving the landscape scarred with quarries and spoil heaps. This moor is a huge, Fluffy seed headsswampy, pool-filled area of wilderness: lichen-draped trees, reeds and wildlife abound.

It’s a popular cycle and walking trail, being so flat. We saw plenty of these strange fluffy bundles like cotton wool balls. They seem to be the seed heads of certain kinds of reed.

My trusty plant identifier app confidently informs me that the pretty purple-violet flower here is a marsh orchid.marsh orchid

Another day we drove a shorter distance for a walk to one of the tidal creeks on the coast. Not quite the sea, but almost. Many of the neighbourhood houses were guarded by these peculiar plants that resemble miniature Thai temples. They’re called echium pininana, aka giant viper’s bugloss. This popular name apparently derives from the alleged Echiumresemblance of parts of the flowering stem (a favourite haunt of bees) to the head of this snake.

They flourish here in Cornwall, but are more striking than handsome, in my view.

Today we ventured further down the county and had our first walk by the sea since lockdown. This area of dunes is called the Towans. The lighthouse is Godrevy, across the bay from St Ives. This is the one that Virginia Woolf and her family would see from their holiday home Godrevythere. In her novel To the Lighthouse she transposed it to Scotland.

The beautiful weather of the last weeks (halcyon days during the pandemic?) has gone, and it was grey, blustery and much cooler. Still lovely to see the surf and breathe the ozone. A handsome stonechat sat on a gorse bush a few feet from us and sang us a song.

I’m still making glacial progress through Phineas Finn. Just reached one of those tedious foxhunting scenes that Trollope is so fond of. Wish he’d stick to the more interesting parliamentary shenanigans.

Which takes me seamlessly to our illustrious leader of the house of commons, the unctuous Rees-Mogg. He insists on returning to physical co-presence during parliamentary debates, risking the lives of the MPs, and disenfranchising those who have to isolate or who can’t attend for other reasons (carers, etc.). It’s his way of trying to cover up the haplessness of the PM, which has been badly exposed while the chamber is nearly empty for sessions to ensure social distancing, and when the usual braying claque of sycophantic Tory toadies can’t drown out opposition while cheering on the inane blustering of their leader.

With solipsistic narcissists in charge, who will care for the people?