In Wild Mary, his biography of the irrepressible Mary Wesley, Patrick Marnham describes Cornwall in the 1930s as ‘a lost world, a world that had its own rules and customs and mysteries’. While Wesley was bed-hopping on the Lizard peninsula, around the Atlantic-battered rocks at Newquay, Emma Smith was enjoying a most peculiar childhood in this odd, seductive realm. It is this batty pre-adolescence that Smith captures with beguiling warmth in her wonderful memoir, The Great Western Beach.
Emma Smith was born Elspeth Hallsmith in 1923 into a tense family environment. Her father, Captain G. Hallsmith, DSO, was a hero of the Great War reduced, thanks to his father’s financial failings, to the level of general clerk at the Newquay branch of the Midland Bank. His dream was to be an artist. ‘His angry eyes proclaim: I could have been, should have been, a painter of worldwide renown.’ As his bitterness seeps into the fabric of family life Elspeth, her sickly siblings, Jim (double hernia) and Pam (TB glands), and their resilient mother all learn to placate his tirades against the ‘guttersnipes’. Their temporary haven is the beach where they unfurl their rolled sausage of bathing togs and settle down to picnics and paddling. ‘We became aware of a letting-go at last,’ says Elspeth. ‘Like a sigh exhaled.’
Smith perfectly captures the time and place in present-tense prose that has an ethereal touch. It reminded me of the spectral voice-overs Powell and Pressburger used so effectively in A Canterbury Tale and I Know Where I’m Going. Naturally, Smith’s milieu demands comparisons with Laurie Lee, but this writing has such a disarming immediacy, particular to such a feisty young girl, and idiosyncratic style that the subject matter is where any similarity ends.
Cornwall, with its dizzying scale and magical names — Kynance, Marazian, Lamorna — is a feast to a child’s imagination. This is the land of creeks and camomile lawns, breakers and wreckers, conjured through nostalgic but never cloying memories. ‘If it bores you, this following little memoir of mine, feel free to skip it,’ recommends Smith. ‘My advice is, never read anything that bores you.’ No fear of that. The cast of long-gone characters alone is enthralling. These include retired colonels, lonesome Barnado boys and the fabulous Misses Clark-Ourry, matronly proprietors of the Rose Café, and residents of an abandoned railway carriage. And the Hallsmiths themselves are deeply peculiar, with their inexplicable traditions and codes.
In addition to the whimsical stories and colourful locals there remains a valuable account of the period. We learn of lives blighted by the loss of loved ones in the first world war, of the tendrils of development — the glamour of macadamised roads — and wavering class distinctions. Some superb photographs are dotted through the text, punctuating the narrative with candid illustrations of a burgeoning life.
Ultimately, this book forms a sort of belated release of spirit. ‘I always do say what I am told to say, and do as I am told to do,’ states young Elspeth. ‘My obedience is a matter of policy, but my thoughts are rebellious.’ Nearly 80 years on those thoughts run riot in this charming book and they prove to be as rich and heart-warming as a cream tea.