Setting is hugely important in One Big Echo of a Much Nicer Place. I mean, how could I begin to suggest the rambling, decaying mind of an old bachelor without Hayle’s crumbling North Quay as a backdrop? Here’s a few of the places you’ll see in my stories. I think of them more as characters than locations – sometimes the lead, other times making a cameo appearance.
Foundry Square, Hayle.
If my stories were movies (not much chance of that) Foundry Square in Hayle would be the opening shot: the hustle and bustle of people and cars, the train rumbling over the viaduct, someone effing and blinding because they’ve been boxed in outside Spar again.
My locations are personalised, fictional sketches. Spar is a beacon of hope (really), the viaduct always looms ominously, old men grumble in deep voices outside the bakery, the fruit and veg shop is run by a couple who are sad but revelling in their sadness. The sound of rain pattering on the canvas roof on wet Tuesday afternoons is music to their ears.
Market Jew Street, Penzance
Have you ever wondered about Humphry Davy statue’s odd pose? All hands on hip and starey eyes like he’s frozen in a moment of consternation. Never has a statue cast such a supercilious, haughty gaze on his townsfolk. He judges the citizens against his own achievements and finds them wanting. One of my stories is set in Penzance in the Eighties. From what I remember of the time – the lines of boarded up businesses, endless charity shops, the terrible hairstyles of my generation – Humphry Davy was striking just the right pose for the occasion. But I still don’t like him. I’m going to write a story where he hits the skids and spends his last guineas on cheap cider and drinks it sprawled under his own plinth. That’ll show him.
Whenever a character needs to tell someone something important – declare his love, reveal that life is a big crock of ordure – I pack him or her off to the dunes in Hayle. This is Hayle’s strange, whispering, marin-swaying border between prosaic reality and a world of dreamy sunsets and infinite possibility. It bring about that crack in the psyche, that pause or gap in a person’s life where they break from the illusion, see and reveal things.
The dunes also say something else about Hayle. They evoke the breadth and range of the place. See the strange, breeze-block structures squatting in the dunes, then look out beyond to an infinity of blue. It’s all there. All of it. (Just watch out for the bags of dog pooh. Oh, please don’t get me started on that subject…)
The Weir, Hayle
My collection is called One Big Echo of a Much Nicer Place because it is a phrase a character uses about the world in general. But later I realised it also said something about Hayle: at least when you’re in a certain mood. There is the echo of zeal and activity about Hayle, the ghosts of working-class industrial workers kicking about the rubble. Usually, they’re down at the Weir. Can a place be beautiful and ugly at the same time? Yes. Go to the Weir. The rubble, the cry of a curlew, the swirl of tide and pool, dithering like it can’t find a way out from a nostalgic daydream, this is the Weir. It is broken and it is beautiful. (And I’ve just fortuitously come up with the title for my next collection (self publication due 2037.)
Chapel Street, Penzance
Chapel Street, the upper-middle class neighbour of proletariat Market Jew Street. The bistros, the antiques, the expensive furnishing, the immaculate pubs – Chapel Street smiles at its own reflection in wine bar mirrors and antique silver tea trays. Whenever a character is beginning to feel alienated or dispossessed I quickly push him down Chapel Street. He inevitably starts to feel worse and that is always good for a story. (You’ve got to be heartless, ruthless even, in such matters.)
I use real names for places and that includes pubs but, in truth, all of these are composites and impressions and not the real places in question at all. The important thing about pubs is that they are places where things happen to people. They are the venue for reconciliation or humiliation, the grand operatic moments of a life amid the crackle of a crisp packets, the click of pool balls, the flash and bleep of the fruiter, the ostentatious belch of Fatty Thomas, the soporific drone of Terry Nine Pints at the bar as he sets the world to rights by recommending burnings and floggings for people not of Cornish origin. I love pubs. But only fictional ones, where I am the hand that brings justice and retribution. It’s one of the perks of writing.