I have Cornish longings on me. Maybe something to do with those poor Greek flower-pickers reported rescued last week from the horticultural hell of Hayle. Or BBC2's A Seaside Parish, transmitted concurrently with its series about the National Trust. The Seaside Parish in question is Boscastle in North Cornwall, itself a National Trust village, and on and off, I spent 12 years of my life there. What if still in chasmal beauty looms that wild weird western shore? Not my question, but Thomas Hardy's, Boscastle's presiding ghost, and part of the reason I stayed so long.
Funny the difference words make to a place. Though it has to be said that his were not just any words. Boscastle was where Hardy met his first wife, and it was to Boscastle he returned, long after she was dead, to mourn her, find her, discover whether the bitterness that overtook their marriage was written in it all along, or could be undone in memory. The greatest poems of regret ever written. And impossible to imagine the place without him once you've read them - an old man faltering forward, leaves around him falling, "Wind oozing thin through the thorn from norward / And the woman calling."
A local Hardy scholar called Kenneth Phelps wrote an affectionate book about Hardy's Boscastle connection - The Wormwood Cup. We sold it in a shop I helped to run, not a big seller, nothing like witches' brooms or badgers etched on Delabole slate, but there was a steady interest. Two or three times a week Kenneth Phelps would come into the shop to see how his book was doing. He kept a small supply in his backpack so that if stocks were low he could replenish them. I was setting out to be an author myself at the time and hoped I would never be reduced to carrying my books on my back. But there is no knowing what will befall an author.
I am sorry now that I felt scornful of him. It is a wonderful thing to put your life into a single book, to think about its progress every day, and to be absorbed in its subject matter to the exclusion of all else. Years later I wrote to a distinguished biographer of Hardy, querying something in his book. He wrote back saying he would have loved to help, but frankly could barely remember anything about Hardy now. He had moved on to someone else's life. Kenneth Phelps was not like that. Day after day he retraced Hardy's steps, the scenes of those heartbreaking poems, up the cliff down, till he was lonely, lost. The idea of forgetting Hardy or moving on to someone else was inconceivable to him.
I seem to remember we fell out over the National Trust. The trouble with people who love poetry is that they are liable to confuse it with the mawkishness of heritage. Myself I found no contradiction in loving Hardy and hating the National Trust. The latter made life hell for those of us who hadn't come to Boscastle to retire. They ran the place like an army of occupation, and if any of us stood up to them they sued. Just how many membership fees paid over by peaceable, unlitigious, nature-loving ramblers and mug-buyers got spent on fees for QCs I dread to calculate.
We went to law with them ourselves once. Against the wishes of the village, certainly against the wishes of the business community who kept the village alive, they wanted to close the harbour approaches to traffic, so that they could prettify the walk outside their own shop. That was how we read it anyway. In response to which we organised a sit-in, preventing their vehicles from entering the contested area. DON'T TRUST THE TRUST we shouted. My slogan, I fancy. The novelist in embryo.
They won. They always win. They have all those membership fees and profits from rare-species butterfly tea-towels to win with. But in the course of our quarrel I was vouchsafed a brief but terrifying glimpse into their unexamined assumptions. "If you think we're going to allow the place to be trampled all over," the head of the whole shebang told me in a moment of temper, "just so that you people can sell brass candlesticks to ..." He didn't finish. "To whom?" I asked him, ignoring the "you people". I knew who the "you people" were. "To whom?"
He was a man of distinguished not to say military bearing, as befits a senior officer of an occupying power. He was not afraid to look me in the eye. "The wrong people," he spat out. And perhaps I only imagine the horsewhip.
The wrong people. There it was in a nutshell. The wrong people were coming to Cornwall in general, and to Boscastle in particular, buying brass candlesticks and wearing away the cliffs, and he intended to stop them.
Well, the wrong people get everywhere. I can't pretend I never felt that myself in the course of being elbowed into the sea by the contents of a tenement block from Walsall, a many-headed monster in jesters' hats and comedy Valkyrie pigtails, which had blundered into a part of the world that did not have slot machines and was unable to find its way out.
But I was not a charity. I was not in trust to the nation. I sold books about Thomas Hardy - a wrong person if ever there was one - not know-your-hedgerow serviettes.
So remember that the next time you're seduced into joining. It's not the National Trust you'll be a member of, but the Trust for People of High Income, Supercilious Class and Maudlin Pastoral Aesthetic.
Hardy hated such idealisation of the countryside by those to whom it was a mere plaything. Real places indurate, and wound the heart. (Ask the traumatised Greek flower-pickers.) Hence Hardy's own fraught pilgrimage to Boscastle in remorseful old age. But the village would not yield him what he wanted, would not be in actuality what it had become in fantasy. Real places never do.Reuse content