Thursday, August 6, 2009

The Great Western Beach

In theory, I'm painting more of the upstairs floors white, as the furniture likes the sensation of floating away on a bright cloud. In practice, however, I'm shirking duty and reading The Great Western Beach.

This is Elspeth Hallsmith's memoir of her childhood on the beaches of Newquay: Towan for the gurriers, Tolcarne for the smart cocktail set, and the Great Western for the middle classes. It's Guthrie, Elspeth's thwarted and enraged father, who creates this sense of class consciousness and gives the book its fascination: he yearns to be famous, but has to settle for being, above all else, perceived as a gentleman. Janet, her mother, had the misfortune to lose three fianc├ęs in the war and her character is so overshadowed that this almost careless loss seems to define her.

But this isn't a modern memoir of a dysfunctional family. There's no sense of soap opera, but something more subtle: the careful detail of a children's book - the Tea Rooms and the Misses Clark-Ourry who run them, the dresses that had to make do, the pasties and Fyffes bananas scrupulously administered after a swim, set amid a world of grown-up trouble that forms a fog around the idyll, so that Elspeth's wide stretch of beach is closed in upon by oppression and the need to study the tactics employed by her elder brother and sister as they too grapple with family life, aided and hampered by her sister's stubborn lack of fear and her brother's weakness.

And now they've just had a visit from the unmannerly and famous TE Lawrence (of Arabia), who struggled with his large motorbike, and there was a vague altercation and her father stormed off, and although I know that not much will happen, I feel as though I have a deckchair on this beach and must keep a watchful and powerless eye on Elspeth, and my half-painted white floor and the sea will sweep around us in sepia until I've finished the book.


  1. Well, if you put it like that, I think I must read this book.

  2. Wow - you have such a gift for descriptive writing! You put the book reviewers in the national papers (over here, at least) to shame.

    PS - and yes, of course, I now absolutely MUST read that book :).

  3. Ha! So you do have a blog. Very nice, and a lovely review of a book which I will now have to read...... :)

  4. LOvely review. Will have a look for this book!! xx


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