Wednesday, 11 November 2009

The Great Western Beach

I read The Great Western Beach by Emma Smith because it has been heavily promoted and heartily recommended, especially in bookshops in Cornwall which I visit regularly, though, despite its current fame (or notoriety), I've never visited Newquay, the specific area featured in the book. This is the story of a childhood in the 1920s and 30s which though there is plenty of justification for it being a misery-memoir, is resolutely not one.
Emma Smith is a warm, engaging narrator, who brilliantly manages to convey the inner voice of a child and a child's-eye view of the adult world, trying to understand and guess at what is going on around her. Her parents are not happy and, unfortunately, her father comes across as an embittered, self-pitying bully who spouts the prejudiced received ideas about class, race and religion common to his time and who is always ready to mete out violent punishment to his children. Emma Smith traces his behaviour both to disappointment at his failure to be a successful artist and, having been 'reduced' to working as a bank clerk, an unsatisfied sense of entitlement to the life and income of a gentleman.
Against this lurking fear of her father's anger, Elspeth (her real name) relies heavily on the companionship of her elder sister Pam and her nanny/housekeeper Lucy. And as a counterweight to her oppressive home-life, always in the background are the beaches of Cornwall, especially the Great Western Beach, an ever-present playground and source of pleasure. Unlike the Cornwall I know, it hardly ever seems to rain, except, with excellent literary timing, at the end of the book, when the family are preparing to leave the town forever.

Smith has amazing recall and there are many amusing anecdotes recounting both the pleasures and the perplexing events of childhood. An aborted one-off visit by Lawrence of Arabia (an old friend of Elspeth's mother) is described from a filmic distance by a confused Elspeth. Having wandered off to play in the sea, the children watch uncomprehendingly as their father (who had been earnestly hoping to make arrangements to paint Lawrence's portrait and at last make his name as an artist) strides off in a huff from the planned beach picnic, followed shortly afterwards by Lawrence roaring off up the cliff on his motorbike (the selfsame bike on which he later suffered a fatal crash).

This is a very good read, though it could have been cut in a few places as there is a fair bit of repetition, but this can sometimes reinforce the authentic feel of a child telling the story. (Also no proofreader? Or proofreader not paid enough [more likely]? Lots of howlers, e.g. sailing in a 'dingy', learning how to 'crotchet' a woollen hat, and 'Anglesea'!)


  1. This sounds like an interesting read but whoa what a lot of editing mistakes! I've only read Emma Smith's the Far Cry from Persephone and loved it.

  2. Nice review, I wonder why editing standards are slipping? (Mind you I can't talk, I realise I often put up posts with terrible punctuation and spelling mistakes, much to my embarrasment later.)

  3. Isn't it lovely?! I was impressed, and moved, by the way Emma Smith balanced her childhood emotions with her adult understanding.I worked in Newquay for a while a couple of years ago and there were aspects of the town I recognise, but I wouldn't recommend going there unless you want surfing and nightclubs. My bit of West Cornwall is much nicer!

  4. Mrs B: Yes, I'd forgotten about A Far Cry, Must have a look for it.
    Book pusher: Well, I can't talk either! But when I'm paying for a book (rather than reading a free blog) and there are more than one or two typos, I can't help doing the day job and feeling a bit annoyed with the publisher for cutting corners.
    fleurfisher: Welcome! Yes, I know Penwith and Helston much better. Newquay these days doesn't appeal, though I was interested that Emma and her friends used to surf as I thought it was a fairly recent phenomenon.