When I was a child growing up in Devon, I held a rather dim view of Cornwall. The landscape of claypits and roadside caffs glimpsed from the car en route to the beach seemed bleak. It wasn’t that I found the far west boring, simply that my interest was unconnected to twentieth century realities and focused instead on the romance of Daphne du Maurier’s historical novels. If I found the modern county prosaic, I could bury myself in tales of dashing French sailors or murderous smugglers on the high moors. Later, John Betjeman’s Summoned by Bells alerted me to less flamboyant but equally seductive charms. Still, I was in the realm of romantic sentiment, aware that most lives in the county were not as enchanted as that of a privileged young boy on holiday from Highgate in the early twentieth century.
In the years that saw Betjeman taking exciting train journeys from London to Wadebridge, Alfred Leslie Rowse, later to become an eminent academic and historian, was living in rather different circumstances a few miles to the south in the village of Tregonissey, on the outskirts of St Austell. The son of a clayworker, he spent his entire life up to the age of 18 in this small community. His only experience of train travel was the annual Sunday School outing to the sea at Pentewan, three miles away, in china clay rail trucks that had been specially cleaned for the occasion. Like Betjeman, he later wrote vividly about his childhood and the resulting memoir was published in 1942.
There will be readers who find A Cornish Childhood too rooted in the egotism for which A. L. Rowse was well-known, or uncomfortably tinged with disdain for others – he dishes out verdicts such as ‘vapid’, ‘deplorable’ and ‘puerile’ with seeming equanimity and is unafraid of making dismissive generalizations about ‘the people’. At a distance of almost eighty years from publication, I mostly feel fairly forgiving towards such comments, amused rather than outra
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