Reading at sea


On a recent sail down from Plymouth to Newlyn (supposedly en route for the Scillies, but that idea was scotched by 55mph winds bringing the heatwave to an end) I read Sir Francis Chichester’s memoir of his solo race across the Atlantic in 1960, the race he won on Gypsy Moth III.

What a story and what a man. He took to sailing late in life and was in his 60s by the time he attempted this race. The man’s immense practicality, stamina and resourcefulness is quite remarkable, particularly viewed from today’s perspective. On our sail last week, it was easy for us to reef in the foresail when the wind got stronger, because the rolling reef system just lets you pull on a rope. On Gypsy Moth, Chichester had to get up in the middle of the night, crawl on deck, take down the foresail, roll it up, bring out a different-sized one, put that up, and an hour and a half later go back downstairs to bed.

He suffers from seasickness so is often to be found skipping supper and opting instead for a large glass of whisky and two SeaLegs tablets. He has three crates of Guinness on board which provide his lunchtime beverage and in classic solo sailer style, he anthropomorphises various items on his boat, particularly the redoubtable Miranda who is his self-steering mechanism which he built himself before leaving Plymouth.

If ever there was a book to inspire you to keep on keeping on, it’s this. Pithy, entirely lacking in any kind of self pity or regret and full of excellent humour, it’s a delight from start to finish.

Two additional pleasure on this short trip: one the sunrise in the east at 5.40am as we sailed westwards past Fowey Sunrise.JPG which followed the equally beautiful moonset an hour before in the west.

The second was finding Frenchman’s Creek in the Helford River estuary, the creek made famous of course by Daphne du Maurier. As I walked down the overgrown path towards the creek itself, with branches creating a roof for the path and huge tree roots lying exposed in the mud of the creek itself, it reminded me what a brilliant storyteller she was: the place looked precisely as she had described it in her great novel about the dashing French pirate and the independent English gentlewoman. Frenchman's Creek

Daphne’s secret


The stone building on the right of this picture is the original inspiration for the boathouse in Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier’s famous novel of love and betrayal set in Cornwall. If you haven’t read the novel, I won’t give away the ending by revealing what goes on in the boathouse so do get yourself a copy: it’s an excellent story.

The house is set right on the beach in south Cornwall and looks out towards the English channel and the Atlantic. It’s part of a much larger estate which du Maurier leased for 30 years, living with her family up in the big house which itself was the inspiration for Manderlay in the novel.

Du Maurier, of course, is exactly the kind of novelist one is not meant to mention in polite literary society in London. She is, my dear, quite beyond the pale. Really not someone anyone with any kind of literary sensibility could bring themselves to mention. Terribly popular, you see.

Like Jeffrey Archer, Jilly Cooper and other brilliant storytellers, du Maurier is forever cast into the outer reaches by the literary type. This distinction between “good” writing and “bad” writing became entrenched in the English-speaking world around the middle of the 20th century as the professionalisation of literature took over and universities stopped teaching classics and started educating their students in book snobbery.

Metropolitan literary types love revealing what they call their guilty secrets over a glass of Picpoul: a secret stash of Jilly Cooper books, an irresistible desire to buy a Harold Robbins in the airport bookshop. But their gleeful sense of guilt is entirely misplaced.

The urge to write should always be encouraged and its achievement in whatever form celebrated. The commoditisation of art begins when those who should know better start differentiating between the intrinsic worth of one book against another.