One day in May 1944, with the harbour of Fowey packed with vessels of all shapes and sizes ready for the invasion of France, Mr Spreadbury, our history master, turned up in a gown with very noticeable tears in it – almost as though someone had purposely rent it.
A row with Mrs Spreadbury, we conjectured? Then the bell of St Nicholas Church, down the hill, began to toll, and a little posse of masters set out for the funeral of one of the school’s governors – as it happened, a rather distinguished one: a critic and novelist, and the creator of the school of English literature at Cambridge – Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch.
‘Q’ – for that was how he signed himself throughout his writing career – is now, I suppose, pretty much forgotten. It is time for a revival. I first became conscious of him because he wrote what is still the best book about Cornish village life, Nicky-Nan, Reservist, which is set in the little village of Polpier – the ancient name of Polperro, where I spent a lot of my childhood. Q knew it well, and knew it – as I did – when he was an infant, for his grandfather was the village doctor, living in a house precariously perched above the stream which runs down through the village, just before it makes its final dash into the harbour. Dr Jonathan Couch was the village historian (his history of Polperro is still a small classic of village history), and one of Q’s earliest memories was of the old man’s funeral (he says nothing of the cause of death, though he does mention that at 69 he had married a second wife, a buxom girl of 22, who bore him three daughters).
Q was a normal village boy, swimming and fishing and indulging in mild fisticuffs – but his father was a reader. One day the boy was riding with his sister in his father’s dog-cart (just such a dog-cart as that in which my grandfather would drive me up Talland Hill to an uncle’s farm) when it overturned, and ‘we children were gently slid
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