Some time in the olden days, an Irishman called St Piran took the trouble to float over the ocean on a millstone and land in Cornwall, with the purpose of introducing the natives to tin-mining and Christianity. Today, the mines are closed and the inhabitants under the age of 75 are indifferent to the saint’s religious legacy. But it is St Piran’s Day in Penzance. (Or Pensans, as the nationalists call it. One remembers Kingsley Amis’s Old Devils, emerging from Swansea station to see a rank labelled Tacsi, ‘for those who could not understand the word “taxi” ’.) The St Piran’s Day procession is led by Jan Ruhrmund, who used to be a librarian at the Morrab Library and is now the Lib Dem mayor. She is followed by a band of flower-decked musicians and dancers. And then all the schools of the district have amassed, each with their own band. They start at Causeway Head, frolic down Market Jew Street, up again, down into the Morrab Gardens, ending in St John’s Hall where 600 young voices were raised in song: ‘And shall Trelawney die? There’s 20,000 Cornishmen shall know the reason why.’
A friend who was at school in Penzance during the second world war mused, ‘When I was a child, we’d never heard of St Piran. The GIs were in town, getting ready to sail to the Normandy beaches. We even had a visit from General Eisenhower. When we were herded into St John’s Hall, we did not sing “Trelawney”. We sang “The Star Spangled Banner”.’ His generation were involved in real history, whereas we inhabit an ersatz version of it, with our visitor centres at Stonehenge and our Celtic nationalisms. ‘The Croxley Green revels!’ exclaimed John Betjeman in his immortal tele-docu-poem Metroland of 1973. ‘A tradition dating back to 1952.’ Don’t many scholars now believe that the Homeric Greek epic tradition itself was ersatz, being an Iron Age ‘take’ on a Bronze Age past?
I am down in Cornwall for the AGM of the Morrab Library, of which I am the proud president. It is one of the last subscription libraries in England — a sort of London Library on Sea (though, with an annual sub of £27, much cheaper). It has a prodigious archive, both of Napoleonic materials and of early photographs. It is also the best club in the West Country, with friendly staff and volunteers. Coffee is served — an improvement on St James’s Square! It nestles in the Morrab Gardens, which on St Piran’s day is ablaze with pink camellias and an abundance of spring flowers. Beyond, in Mount’s Bay, the sea glistens. Sun catches St Michael’s Mount. Is there any more beautiful town in this archipelago than Pensans?
Some would answer, ‘Yes, Bath’ — my next port of call. They are having a literary festival, and here come the culture vultures, mainly from the category classified as ‘active retired’ people, swarming up the steps of the Guildhall to hear such figures as Dame Joan Bakewell, whom God preserve, giving her views on the corrupting power of magazines for teenagers, and Sir Michael Holroyd discoursing wittily on the art of biography. As I stumble through my ill-thought-out speech (on Dante) I realise that I am the only writer in the building wearing a tie. A survey of office workers carried out this week has revealed that in 20 years’ time, the tie will be as obsolete as the top hat. Fine by me, though it leaves several questions unanswered. One, a fairly major one, is what on earth my wife will find to give me for Christmas presents. The other is how an active retired person like myself can disguise the poor old broiler-chicken throat. Lucian Freud, who so mercilessly exposed every wrinkle and blemish on his sitters’ bodies, must have been aware of this difficulty. He habitually draped his gizzard with a scarf, and perhaps that is the answer. Sir Roy Strong lately had himself photographed in an Elizabethan ruff, but I do not have his courage.
On my way home in the train, meditating upon Sir Michael’s words on the biographer’s art, I yet again read what for me is the finest biography in the English language — yes, finer even than Boswell — namely J.A. Froude’s Life of Carlyle. It caused howls of dismay in 1885 when it was published (nearly always a good sign in a book), because of the candour with which it described the lack of harmony in Carlyle’s marriage. Froude was as frank as Freud in his depiction of blemishes, but he was not cruel. You finish the book admiring both the Carlyles for the heroism with which, dragging two all-but-impossible temperaments along with them, they smoked and quarrelled their way through this vale of tears.
A.N. Wilson is a former Spectator literary editor. His latest book is Dante in Love.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated March 10, 2012