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This Britain

Plea to preserve cottage of Clemo, Cornwall's poet

Admirers of the Cornish poet and novelist Jack Clemo are trying to save the granite cottage where he was born, lived and produced the bulk of his acclaimed work.

The small semi-detached property faces demolition at the hands of Europe's largest producer of kaolin and china clay. The company, Goonvean Ltd, says the cottage, in the village of Goonamaris in central Cornwall, is falling apart and it needs the site for a laboratory.

But fans of the writer, once described as one of the most original of the 20th century, say the cottage must be saved. Clemo left it in 1975 and died in 1994, at 78.

Dr Philip Payton, director of the Institute of Cornish Studies in Truro, said he would like to see the cottage as a museum. "You cannot think about Jack Clemo without thinking about the china clay country. And you cannot think about the china clay country in any serious sense without pondering about Jack Clemo.

"To obliterate the cottage would be to erase [Clemo] from the landscape of Cornwall. He is hugely important in a Cornish context and also as an international poet. He is one of the greats. There is something about Jack Clemo's cottage that says so much about him as a person. It is so humble and in such a bleak place and it speaks volumes about his disabilities and achievements."

Clemo, whose father was an illiterate clay-kiln worker, suffered his first attack of temporary blindness at five. By the time he was 39 he was permanently blind and had been deaf for 20 years.

But he produced a considerable body of work that bore the influence of the white clay landscape as well as his religious upbringing. He believed the best way to experience God was through sexual communion, and claimed "a talent for the erotic, for being mystical and theological about it".

His fans say the cottage is in the heart of Cornwall's clay country and is a fitting reminder of the influence on his work of his surroundings. In the poem A Calvinist of Love, he wrote: "This bare clay pit is truest setting, For love like ours, No bed of flowers, But sand ledge for our petting."

With some irony, the clay landscape that surrounded Clemo most of his life may be responsible for the demolition of his old home. Goonvean, which employs 200 people, wants to knock it down to create a research laboratory and improve the entrance to its headquarters.

Andrew McGowan, the managing director, said: "The cottage is in extremely poor condition. It has rising damp and has been boarded up since Christmas. We had vandals inside and we are worried about safety. We have thought of every way we could find a use for the cottage but we cannot. We need to improve our service to customers and guarantee employment for people."

He said he had spoken to the county's archaeological unit about what it may wish to remove before demolition, and he offered the cottage to anyone wishing to take it down and rebuild it somewhere else.