One of the highlights of the year, for Hastings residents, is Pirates Day. Hastings proudly holds the record for most people dressed as pirates in one place, as verified by the Guinness Book of World Records. So what, I hear you say. Trust me, it’s pretty damn important in Hastings. Despite attending several Pirates Day events, neither Marigold nor myself ever took the trouble to don piratical attire, so can claim no credit whatsoever, but many thousands do take the trouble and it’s a remarkable sight.
We’re in Penzance today, of Pirates of Penzance fame, and are keeping our association with Hastings very much to ourselves. Penzance and Hastings are deadly rivals and the world record has alternated between the two towns for several years.
Penzance first won the Guinness World Record for the largest pirate gathering in 2011, stealing the title from Hastings. But in 2013, their south east rivals won back the title and has held it ever since. The record is pretty daunting. In order to win back bragging rights over Hastings, Penzance needs to have more than 14,231 pirates in one place on a specific day. The closest Penzance got was in 2014 when the official count (and subsequent recount) showed Penzance was just 77 pirates short of the record. Figures later showed the organisers actually sold 14,849 wristbands on the day but at least 77 pirates were in the pub at the time the count took place!
There’s been a furore in Penzance over the cost of the attempts, paid for by Local Authority funds, and it appears unlikely that Hastings will lose its pirate crown any time soon.
We park alongside the harbour and sit in the car for a while watching a man struggling to launch a boat on a fast receding tide. The boat is half on water, half on mud and the mud is winning. He gives up, eventually, and clambers ashore leaving muddy footprints all across the car park.
Penzance is one of those towns with a rich variety of shops, confined almost exclusively to just a couple of roads. We walk up the hill, just steep enough to make the building housing Lloyds Bank at the top look even more imposing. There’s a statue of one of the town’s most famous citizens, Sir Humphrey Davy, in front of the bank.
Humphry Davy was born on 17 December 1778 in Penzance, was apprenticed to a surgeon and aged 19 went to Bristol to study science. In 1800, the Italian scientist Alessandro Volta had introduced the first battery. Davy used this for what we now call electrolysis and was able to isolate a series of substances for the first time - potassium and sodium in 1807 and calcium, strontium, barium and magnesium the following year. Pretty impressive stuff.
In 1815, he received a letter from some Newcastle miners which told of the dangers they faced from methane gas. The gas often filled the mines, and could be sparked off by the candles they had in their helmets to light their work. The resulting fires and explosions caused many deaths. Davy separated the flame from the gas, and his 'Davy' lamp later became widely used.
His assistant, Michael Faraday, went on to establish an even more prestigious reputation than Davy, but Penzance is quite rightly proud of its most famous son.
I have a particular interest in Sir Humphrey Davy, dating back to being a twelve year old boy at school. My best friend’s first name was David, shortened to Dave. When chemistry lessons threw up the name of one of Britain’s foremost scientists, ‘Dave’ became ‘Davy,’ then ‘Humphrey’ and finally ‘Stumpy.’ Another friend’s given name, Gordon, morphed into Gorgonzola, onwards to ‘Cheesy’ to which ‘Richard’ was eventually added. In fact, Richard was not the actual end of the process, being merely the respectable form of his universally used nickname, but that’s as far as I’m prepared to go on the subject.
We wandered around town, met someone we’d not seen for many years and had no idea they now lived in Cornwall and enjoyed an hour’s browsing and window shopping. Returning to our car, the harbour by now a sea of mud and stranded boats tilted alarmingly at their moorings, we can’t decide whether to turn left to look at the (relatively) newly restored Lido or turn right to St Michael’s Mount. In the end, we do both.
We’re too early to swim in the Jubilee Pool – it doesn’t reopen for the season for a few weeks – but the café is open and we get some idea of its setting and Art Deco architecture. The original Jubilee Lido, Penzance’s ‘concrete beach,’ dating back to 1935, the name commemorating King George V’s silver jubilee, was devastated by the massive winter storms of 2014, when freak waves breached the walls, twisted railings, and demolished the changing rooms and terraces. Locals fought many a battle to ensure the lido’s survival and their reward is the restoration of what is one of only a handful of saltwater tidal pools left in Europe. It’s fully restored now and looks magnificent. We just wish it was open for business.
We’ve been to St Michael’s Mount many times and are well aware of the parking difficulties in the narrow roads close to the causeway approaches. As I dared to pause for a moment, off the road, to consider the limited options for parking, an officious panjandrum wearing a spectacularly ill fitting uniform dashed across and told me I had to ‘move along.’
We moved along. The tide is out so access to the Mount would be a pleasant stroll, but we took umbrage at the attitude of the local ‘jobsworth’ and decided to keep on ‘moving along.’ St Michael’s Mount is a smaller version of Mont St Michel in Normandy, one of our favourite places, and was given to the Norman Abbey of Mont St Michel by Edward the Confessor after the Norman Conquest. I read recently that the Mount featured in the 1979 film Dracula as the exterior of Castle Dracula.
There’s well over a thousand years of history there, yet my first thought as we approached had been its connection to the St Aubyn family. The mount was sold in 1659 to Colonel John St Aubyn whose descendants, the Lords St Levan, retain an ancestral home on St Michael's Mount.
One of my favourite writers, based on writing ability rather than actual content, is Edward St Aubyn whose almost completely autobiographical series of five novels form the basis of the Patrick Melrose television series with Benedict Cumberbatch in the title role. I’ve just finished reading the books again and they are not an easy read, St Aubyn was repeatedly abused by his father as a child, devoted much of his adult life to the excessive consumption of heroin and cocaine and the novels are both harrowing and brilliant in equal measure. I said to Marigold when I heard about the forthcoming television series, ‘I’ve no idea how they’ll film that story, or if it will retain an audience beyond the first episode.’ The main character has no obvious redeeming features, his hedonistic lifestyle is repellent, yet credit the author with the courage to expose his weaknesses and bizarre actions to public scrutiny and, above all, the man is a consummately brilliant writer. As a television series though…
We watched the first episode the other night. Cumberbatch makes a fine job of his role, but television cannot possibly convey the full nature of the novels. It’s a universal truism that films/television fail to do justice to the original book. I can only think of the first two Godfather films as examples of the written word being adequately represented on screen.
Edward St Aubyn was born in 1960 into a family that has been prominent in Cornwall since the Norman conquest. His cousin is Lord St Levan, whose ancestral home has been St Michael's Mount for hundreds of years, and he is godfather to Earl Spencer's son, Louis. Even for the famously ‘posh’ Benedict Cumberbatch, the role requires him to play the part of someone with far greater claims to upper class status than himself!
I’m writing this in a café – as I often do - and it’s one of the least suited environments to the creative muse that I’ve ever experienced. Whoever decided the caterwauling that’s blaring from the wall hung speakers is conducive to a relaxed atmosphere needs to seek urgent medical attention. I suppose it’s jazz, but as background music it’s appalling. I think it was the late George Melly who said ‘bad’ jazz sounded like a fire in a pet shop. Nail on head, George.