The mystery of mid-Cornwall’s literati

The cottage in which Clemo grew up.

On this day in 1916 one of Cornwall’s foremost writers was born at Goonamarris, in Cornwall’s clay country. This was Jack Clemo, writer of dialect tales, autobiographies, novels and theological works, but best remembered for his poetry. Clemo’s works – stark, harsh, unforgiving – and his opinions – from Calvinism to obscure mysticism – do not make him an easy or comfortable read in our shallow post-modern times. However, his achievement was immense, even without taking into account the physical disabilities which left him virtually blind from an early age and then deaf.

More widely, Clemo was one of a band of writers who hailed from the St Austell district of mid-Cornwall. These include the academics A.L.Rowse and Quiller-Couch, Rowse also being a poet and Q a novelist. Ann Treneer was the daughter of a teacher at Gorran, on the other side of St Austell Bay from Q, and wrote Schoolhouse in the Wind and Cornish Years. Then there were the Hocking siblings, Joseph, Salome and Silas, who wrote hundreds of novels between them and came from the same parish as Clemo – St Stephen in Brannel. In the contemporary period we have the prolific output of Alan Kent, poet, dramatist and novelist, who is also from the clay country.

What is it about the St Austell district that makes it a hot spot for literature, with more than its fair share of writers? Is it just luck? Or is there a deeper factor involved? The question is particularly intriguing when we note the reputation the clay businessmen had for cultural philistinism, although this was probably exaggerated by snobbery, Rowse being particularly adept at this. Nonetheless, when Passmore Edwards offered to finance the building of a library as long as the local council paid for its upkeep out of the rates, St Austell Urban District Council was one of the few to turn down the offer.

For more on Clemo see Luke Thompson, Clay Phoenix: a biography of Jack Clemo, London, 2016.

For the Hockings see Alan Kent, Pulp Methodism: The Lives and Literature of Silas, Joseph and Salome Hocking, St Austell, 2002.