facebook search twitter close-envelope printer web-link close
read on
(Photo by Ales Krivec)

The geography of beloved books

Essay | 10 minute read
The place we are born and raised not only defines us but shapes our literary loyalties and tastes. A reflection on the shared geography between reader and writer, viewer and artist

The first time I saw a living writer was in a newsagents in Cornwall. I must have been very small; I remember putting my head back to look up at my father as he indicated a man across the shop who was picking up a newspaper. He appeared unassuming, ordinary, with nothing flamboyant or remarkable to signal public renown or creative talent. ‘That’s Charles Causley,’ my dad said. ‘The poet.’

I am not sure whether I had thought much before then about who wrote poetry or where books came from. Given the jumble of misordered family memories, neither can I say with certainty whether the child me had yet been introduced to the small store of family stories about Causley, stories which added flesh and bone to the author’s credit on works such as ‘Timothy Winters’ and ‘Figgie Hobbin’.

Causley is a writer most people are likely to discover in school – though for a man once spoken of as a contender for Poet Laureate, a straw poll indicates it is surprisingly possible not to have encountered him at all. Dying in 2003, aged eighty-six, he is principally remembered for ballads, some haunting, others humorous, that seem rooted in English folklore, as well as poems drawing on his experience in the Royal Navy during the Second World War.

In my family, he was the schoolmaster who had taught half my aunts and uncles and their friends at the National School, one of the schools named in recognition of the learning it had offered before the era of universal state education. It sat under the shadow of the Norman castle in Launceston, the ancient Cornish town where Causley was born, lived and died.

Town landmarks pepper his poetry – the castle, of course, in poems such as ‘On Launceston Castle’, but also the church of St Mary Magdalene, where legend has it that throwing a stone on to the relief carving so that it lands on Mary’s back will bring good luck, and Zig Zag, a notoriously steep footpath. He wrote of St Thomas Water, by the church where my parents married and I was christened, and he immortalised the white stone eagles that guard the gate to the Eagle House Hotel up the hill from the National School.

He also wrote of places nearby such as Camborne, Bodmin Moor, Marazion and Mevagissey, and of saffron cake, which we only ever ate in Cornwall, and stargazey pie, a Cornish dish with fish heads and tails sticking out of the crust which we never ate at all.

Launceston Castle in Cornwall (Photo by Education Images/UIG via Getty Images)

You don’t have to know Cornwall to appreciate the poetry just as you needn’t ever have been to Nottinghamshire to read D. H. Lawrence. Or Dublin to follow (or not follow) James Joyce’s Ulysses. Or Edinburgh (and its underbelly) to grasp the verve of Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting.

Yet if you grew up in the West Country in the seventies or eighties, you saw little of your world reflected in public life. The need to see people like yourself means a proper representation of Britain’s black, Asian and minority ethnic population is quite rightly now encouraged and expected. From a very different perspective I understand that. Growing up in the West Country, my life seemed represented only by ‘I’ve Got A Brand New Combine Harvester’ and other ‘comic’ songs of The Wurzels and the original TV adaptation of Poldark. Much later, the Gloucestershire vowels of Dennis Potter in his searing last interview – the one where he revealed he had dubbed his cancer Rupert because of his loathing for Murdoch – served only to highlight how rare it was to hear in public life the voices of the counties where I grew up.

Despite the addition of Doc Martin and the new Poldark with added pecs, it is little different today, when parts of Devon and Somerset have the lowest social mobility in the country. For a little girl with a love of writing, the existence of Causley made the art of being a writer a possibility, if a distant one.

There were other authors I grew to know and love more but he was real, a living writer. His influence permeated my schooldays. A school trip to the war cemetery at Caen, Normandy, prompted a poem of my own, indisputably modelled on his entitled ‘At the British War Cemetery, Bayeux’.

Yet he was not alone as inspiration. For all our Cornish roots, my parents had crossed the Tamar – as leaving Cornwall was always described – to travel north. I was born in Gloucestershire and for a short spell we lived close to the green hills of the Slad Valley, immortalised by Laurie Lee in Cider with Rosie. Reflecting on dates now, I realise that it would have been published not so very long before we moved to the area and came to know the surprisingly steep hills and wild-flowered fields of the succession of valleys which were the setting of Lee’s autobiographical novel, and which now draw thousands of visitors to the Woolpack pub.

The significance of a writer vaguely regarded as ‘ours’ cannot be underestimated. It triggers strange connections in the mind. Even now, learning of a new book on Pablo Picasso’s epic painting Guernica, I am reminded of As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, Lee’s second autobiographical tale. I have twice made the pilgrimage to the Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid to stare at the contorted faces of the Spanish people suffering under the bombs of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy in Picasso’s monumental work. As an adoptive Londoner, I mentally add the crucial detail that the only time it was exhibited in the UK was at the Whitechapel Gallery in the East End, raising funds for the Spanish Republican cause. But the starting point for my understanding of the whole Spanish Civil War is what happens to the young Lee when he finds himself caught up in its outbreak. It is not the point of the novel, nor what he expects when he sets out from the Cotswolds with his violin on his back, but, oddly, it is how I remember the book. It is thirties politics through the prism of the Cotswolds. There is a peculiar power to the influence of a (then) living writer, even one I came close to encountering only by walking the same fields and lanes.

Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, in Madrid (Photo by O. Louis Mazzatenta/National Geographic/Getty Images)

Generous authors understand this. I came to know the Devon-based writer Michael Morpurgo a little when the success of the stage adaptation of War Horse, followed by Steven Spielberg’s film, gave him a fame which he lent readily to promote good causes and events for children. We spoke of the true-life inspiration for his story and why it was understandable Spielberg had chosen nearby Dartmoor, an altogether more dramatic landscape than the rural backdrop of Morpurgo’s original. In one of our discussions, I mentioned my own West Country ties. It was a connection offered with the logic of the person in a far-flung continent who discovers you are British and tells you of their family in London. But of course Morpurgo knew Launceston – and Causley. (Later I realised the charity where my cousin worked was Morpurgo’s Farms for City Children.) He spoke warmly of how he and Causley were friends – and both friends, too, with Ted Hughes, that giant of poetry in the second half of the twentieth century, who also lived nearby.

The Causley–Morpurgo–Hughes connection made such perfect sense I really should have guessed. My reaction to the evocation of nature in Hughes’ work, Tennyson’s ‘nature, red in tooth and claw’, had been transformed when I learned the greater part of his life was spent not in the rugged Yorkshire of his birth but in a small town just outside the Dartmoor National Park. That is where he lived and wrote from his thirty-first year onwards, after the publication of The Hawk in the Rain, his first collection, in 1957, but before the acclaimed Crow of 1970 or River in 1983.

As a student, I attended a Hughes poetry reading and remember just two things. The first was a profound sense of intruding on personal grief, where whatever poems he read – and I can’t recall – seemed shot through with what the student feminist me perceived as the pain of his marriage to Sylvia Plath, her death, their tragedy. It felt quite wrong to me then that he should apparently flay himself so publicly. The second revelation was the mention he made to ‘home in Devon’. Whatever Hughes said, the reference was very clearly not to the tame coastal pleasures of Agatha Christie’s Torbay or even the rivers and woods of Henry Williamson’s Tarka the Otter country, but the tougher, sparsely inhabited landscape of the moor.

Ted Hughes (Photo by Reg Innell/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

At school, we were taught that Hughes came from the alien-sounding Mytholmroyd in a northern England of which I knew nothing. I could imagine it only as the literary landscape of the Brontes’ Yorkshire, with blasted trees, rushing streams and the craggy moors of Charlotte’s Jane Eyre or Emily’s Wuthering Heights. Suddenly, with one allusion to Dartmoor, his literary backdrop became one I recognised, the reality of the granite tors, in turn glittering and grey, and a terrain of dangerous bogs where sheep and ponies were not cute attractions but perilous obstacles that could emerge from the rain and fog on remote roads. That both landscapes were, I assume now, as likely as each other to have influenced Hughes’ mature work did not matter to me then. Suddenly I could see and understand Hughes as a man hewn in the granite I knew, whereas Yorkshire – fabled to be populated by plain-speaking, stubborn men – remained a world as alien as all the countries visited by Jules Verne’s Phileas Fogg. It made Hughes mine.

That’s the point here. This is a reflection on place; it is not about biographical criticism and what might be added or amplified by an understanding of the experiences that inform a writer’s work. It is how geography can draw the reader in. The popularity of book festivals and signings shows how keenly readers want to see the people whose books they buy – or might buy if the author performs well. There is a particularly fierce pride in the local literary hero. Only connect, as E. M. Forster wrote in a different context in his epigraph to Howards End and as the mantra of his heroine, Margaret Schlegel. Make it real.

It is why it remains important to give children and young people the chance to encounter writers in the flesh. It seems so uncontroversial, so obvious, that all children without an accidental link to a local poet should have the opportunity of a live encounter just as they should be able to watch plays in a theatre and not only in cinematic relay (however good) and to see art not only online but in galleries with all the physicality of brush strokes and accretions of paint. This is an ambition worth re-stating when schools are increasingly judged by test results and narrowed views of what a ‘proper’ education should include.

The personal connection is why the book you would choose for Desert Island Discs, like the records themselves, is not just about taste. Your choice might be because you discovered the author at a hugely impressionable age, probably your teens, when literary passions are formed. On these grounds, John Donne’s collected poems would be mine.

Or you might select your desert island volume, and your records, for reasons of romance. Take my soft spot for Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s. He was as much reporter as writer in work such as In Cold Blood and – ignoring what are, admittedly, a few rather important questions of veracity – therefore close to my journalistic heart. Breakfast at Tiffany’s was loosely adapted into a film, deeply flawed but starring Audrey Hepburn, whose delicate elegance has prompted innumerable imitations. (One friend modelled her wedding dress and hat on Hepburn’s outfit for a trip to the eponymous store. She is surely not alone.) And it boasts the Henry Mancini classic, ‘Moon River’, which I sang, badly, to the man I love the evening I met him in central London.

It means that I associate Capote’s classic novella not only with downtown New York and a store where I will, one day, have something inconsequential engraved, just as Hepburn’s Holly tries to do on screen. ‘Moon River’ and Breakfast at Tiffany’s mean a bar in Soho. I made it mine.