AS I SORT papers for the British
Library, a toppling pile of letters from Cornwall says something
like: "We dare you to read us; for here is your early self." They
are from the poet and novelist James Turner, my first
writer-friend, mentor, and, I suppose, hero. He looked unheroic in
his indeterminate tweeds, and with his bonfire of a pipe.
He and his wife, Cathy, had moved from
Suffolk to Cornwall in the 1950s, thus this huge correspondence. He
wrote in a gothic hand or on a gothic typewriter. Publishers fell
before him. Critics were consigned to hell. My own work was put
through the mill. But he never lost his power over us, the youthful
group of artists and writers he had left behind in East Anglia;
and, once a year, whether at Christmas or in summer, I would take
the blissful Penzance train to stay with him in a series of stone
houses near the Atlantic Ocean.
So I began to re-read the answers to
my letters. They would end abruptly in May 1975, when I once again
travelled west, but to a funeral. Alone but for the youthful
rector, I took James to Truro to be cremated. I read his poems in
St Teach's. All the way - about 30 miles, and in an early heatwave
- I saw signposts pointing to our walks, the Cheesewring, St Juliot
- where Thomas Hardy courted his wife, and where, bewilderingly,
after her death (for their marriage sounds to us anything but
happy), he set some of the greatest love poems in the language - to
slate-floored pubs, where we talked books by the hour, and where he
urged me to leave "cold old East Anglia and to come west".
Thus the day passed with little
getting done. I had forgotten how cross he could get. People who
had long dropped out of sight re-entered the present. So busy were
we with them that it is a wonder either of us got anything done.
James broadcast from Plymouth on gardening. He wrote self-confessed
thrillers to finance his poetry; he made the usual freelance
In my early 20s, he and I read Herbert
in Suffolk churches. His voice was perfect for this. And my
favourite photo of him is where he sits in a deckchair, holding the
works of Thomas Traherne. "Take something from the library to
remember him," Cathy said. So I took this.
His Anglicanism was '20s Lancing
Chapel, plus Herbert and Traherne, plus a certain chilliness. We
always seemed to kneel in the dampest corner of a church for the
eight-o'clock communion, which in Cornwall was frigid. He needed to
get away before "all them" - the 11-o'clock congregation -
He had tuberculosis, which his wife
called bronchitis just to soften it a bit. He thought that tobacco
did it good. He typed away in what I thought in those days was a
nice smelly fog. They were psychics, and when they moved house they
needed or looked for a good haunting as the rest of us required
Two close friends could not have been
less alike. Yet this letter-hoard is proof of our devotion. His
wild romanticism also required that I placed his ashes beneath a
rock on Bodmin Moor.
"Don't throw them into the wind," they
advised, "or you will find some of them in your turn-ups."