We know that during World War Two, Jeffery Farnol left Eastbourne, from 1940 to 1944, and went with his wife Phyllis and his daughter Jane, to live in Cornwall. Quite naturally he found Eastern England too hot at that time for his family or his writing! Air attacks were taking place that made Eastbourne impossible, given that Jane was small, and Jeffery was past the age for active service.
As I was spending a few days touring in the West of England, before settling in Fowey, along the coast to the east, for a week or so - (Daphne du Maurier and all that, but that's another story!), I decided to go to the sea side village where the Farnol's had lived so long ago! I wondered, after sixty years, whether anyone might remember him, and equally importantly, be able to throw any more light upon our hero!
Even before I left home I was fortunate enough to be offered a fragment of memory of JF; for, when I booked my B and B, the proprietor asked for a cheque for my stay. This I was happy to do, and we conversed about my reason for going there! A couple of days later the lady rang me to confirm that my cheque had arrived, and we both made further brief reference to Jeffery Farnol, before putting the phone down. Only a matter of minutes later she returned the call, to tell me that our conversation had been overheard by a resident currently with her, who claimed to remember JF also! I was completely amazed, at the c oincidence, or serendipity which had placed 'Dr Elliot', a retired English doctor, currently resident in France, within earshot of my conversation re Jeffery Farnol! Thinking about the odds against it sets my head spinning!
I was able to have a conversation with Dr Elliott about Jf; apparently their family had evacuated to Portscatho in very similar circumstances that accounted for his being aware of Jf. As for everyone else that I had talked to, the memory seemed to be pleasant and says much to confirm our image of Jf as a gregarious, pleasant fellow. Another wry twist on Jf's personality; the Doctor's childish memory had been an image of Jf in 'home made' shorts (it was wartime!); apparently the boy's family had noticed that the legs didn't match, and that the stitching was less than perfect! Dr Elliot appears to still find this amusing; but the War Effort no doubt caused myriad examples of 'necessity being the mother of invention' ( scrimping I E-N ), so I don't suppose too much should be read into it!
Portscatho, on the beautiful Roseland peninsula, north and east of St Mawes, appears to be a typical Cornish fishing village which has been compelled by circumstance to do what so much of 'Olde England' has had to do, and adopt tourism as a way of making 'a crust'. It's a very pretty village, with a small harbour, and houses built down to the sea side. The Anchorage where the Farnol's stayed is one such house. Along with the small fishermen's cottages, Portscatho boasts larger houses, probably Victorian, apparently built for more affluent owners, and along the coast road leading from the village. Whether, as seems likely, they were built for visitors, I was unable to ascertain; I did covet 'Tregerien', Mrs. Evans house where I stayed, just such a Victorian property, atmospheric, with lovely sea views, large rooms, and a seaside conservatory.
I discovered the following day that out of the back gate, on the seaward side, was a path running down into the village, which is in fact a small section of the 'South West Coastal Path', which seems to snake it's way all around the south coast; the map certainly indicates it's presence up to near Bournemouth, so it's length is considerable, and must present a major challenge to the most dedicated of hikers!
I arrived just before lunchtime, and knowing that I had much to attempt in the limited time I had available, I went almost immediately down into the village. Commencing my Philip Marlowe act, I went to the deli for some 'snap', and took the opportunity to inform the pleasant lady there of my reason for being in the village! Straight away she suggested that I needed to see 'Hilary Thompson' whose father was mentioned in 'Murder by Nail'. I was told that her home was 'by the post office'. Even now I wonder at my own audacity, for knocking on stranger's doors is not really something with which I am comfortable, but, having driven many miles for the purpose, I had to 'do what a man's gotta do'.
Hilary was briefly not at home, but Mr. Thompson invited me to call back shortly. This I did, and found Mrs. Thompson to be as helpful and kindly as I could wish. Over such a gulf of time, her reminiscences of JF were not too extensive, understandably, but I gather that JF was known then as a wonderful storyteller, with a very considerable celebrity! I doubt whether any of us would argue with that! I already knew from the lady at my B and B that Hilary was very involved in local history, so I was not surprised that she was splendidly organized, with PC and scanner facilities with which she was able to copy some of my Farnol material, to add possibly to her file. Also Hilary very kindly copied the inscription from her father's first edition of 'Murder by Nail', which pleased my immensely, together with his letter to Mr. Greet, dated 1942; I gathered that Mrs. Thompson was unaware that there was an extensive online interest in JF, so hopefully I was able to help her a little bit too!
One curious item which Mrs. Thompson mentioned was that JF was ALREADY known in Portscatho, before his time there during the war! This seems interesting, as I had already speculated as to why Portscatho had been chosen! It might be that I have missed some reference in Pat Bryan's biography of 'The Man', but hopefully may be put right on that matter! I have no recollection, either, that Mrs. Thompson was able to clarify this point for me. It does seem that the Farnol's may have taken holidays there; that too invites speculation. Who had found it for them, and when?
After introducing me to her sister who lives nearby, who was unable to add much to what Hilary had been able to tell me, they suggested that I might call on another lady whose home was within sight, Sylvia Chaffin, who though unwell, might be able to throw a little more light onto JF's time there.
Due I think to her indisposition, Mrs. Chaffin did not invite me in, even though I did initially explain of course how I came to be upon her doorstep; she too remembered JF well, and commented upon how well liked he and his family were in the village. As I write the above I must pause, because Jane has told Pat that she was knocked about, as an 'outsider' by the village kids, so the Farnol's welcome was not universal apparently! Although it has been remarked that children are notoriously tribal, resenting the 'outsider'; William Golding (was it?) had a lot to say upon that matter!
The 'tit bit' of information that I brought away from Mrs. Chaffin, was that Jeffery was very 'hail fellow, well met' with everyone, so much so that when visiting in others homes, he was known to comment upon delicious cooking smells, and then blithely invite himself to dine! This was in war time, when as Jane recounted to Pat, food was scarce! Only recently, in Eastbourne, my friend Julia Riding brought 'the butter letter' to my attention; and in the light of this recent revelation, I can't but wonder if there wasn't more to the butter letter than has so far been proved! It does certainly suggest that Jeffery was indeed an enthusiastic trencherman; a very likeable human trait, with which this writer heartily concurs-as a thickening waistline must confirm (or would that be the result of copious quantities of 'nappie ale, Pat?). Having recently re read the two Cornish novels, I am again struck by the almost voluptuous delight with which Jf described bacon, and eggs, and beef, and cheese and bread, and butter (dare I say it!) It was no new thing; he had been regaling his readers with such delights, right from the beginning, with Peter in the dell, Peregrine with the tinker, Beltane in the wildwood, and all the rest.
Courtesy of Mrs. Chaffin, my next call was upon Mr. Warren Peters, who lived back along the landward side of the road where my B and B was situated. By this time the afternoon was far advanced, and I was beginning to flag somewhat; sleuthing is more tiring work than I had anticipated. Although; Humphrey Bogarde always looked extremely tired I remember, so maybe I should have known what the situation might be!
It is amusing to see how JF used local names in the books, such as Freddie Chaffin and his fellows who saved Edward in the cove used by the wreckers, and Vic Peters the landlord of the Plume of Feathers is in Portscatho; actually The Plume of Feathers is about a hundred yards from Anchorage, and not in Gerran; one supposes that was a bit of dramatic license. However, these details do bring Jf and his stories very near!
I found Warren and his wife to be as pleasant as I had come to expect, and as helpful; apparently Warren's father, Vic, had been landlord of the 'Plume of Feathers' pub during the war, and had been in the Home Guard with Jeffery. Warren remembered that JF would sometimes have Jane with him; and this struck him as remarkable. I'm inclined to agree, as even Private Pike in Dad's Army was not SO young! I wonder if Jane recollects the Home Guard; unlike poor 'Pikey', I'm sure she wound not be on 'active service' surely. Pat's biography certainly includes Jane's reminiscences from those times, talking of the relative local status of novelists and butchers. Times of shortage inevitably alter public perceptions, when self interest colours so many things.
Warren was amazed to learn that so many people still remember Jeffery and his stories; if nothing else has issued from my visit there, at least it has been possible to rectify at least that misconception. But then, how many of us went onto the internet believing only WE remembered The Man! Warren confessed that he had a lot of JF's books boxed up in his shed, not believing they had any intrinsic worth; my fingers itched to get to them, but it seemed inappropriate to suggest it at that time. How wonderful it would be if, like Hilary Thompson's inscribed first edition of Murder by Nail, Warren might have a cache of similar treasures!
Warren and his wife were pleased to see the picture I had of a young Jeffery, and too my copy of Pat's biography, the chapter therein about the Farnol's time in Cornwall pleased them a great deal! Actually Mrs. Peters seemed less interested; I find this noteworthy, for her indifference seems to match the attitude, not only of biographer Pat Bryan's wife, but also of my own sister in law, who expresses irritation when my brother (another devotee) is deeply absorbed in one of the stories! But then, not everyone has the time, or takes pleasure in reading 'books' ; some people I speak to refer to 'reading books' with such distaste as to suggest that it's an almost 'improper' activity. Amazing, if only they knew what unadulterated delight they miss, they would surely adjust their opinion!
Warren was able to tell me an amusing story of Jeffery's time in the Home Guard; he, Warren, remembers as a boy, seeing the Home Guard, in full rig, turned out for duty, and the lad was struck by the fact that Mr. Farnol's puttees did not match; one was correctly in place but the other was not correct. I don't know how puttees fasten, with studs or buttons or laces, but one was as required and the other was spectacularly not so!
When I left the Peter's home I had spent much more time with them than all the others, and I did feel I had gained a wider insight into what JF was like; obviously only from others memories, but that is all we have now isn't it? Everyone I spoke to seemed to think well of him; he is remembered with affectionate smiles, which is as good a memorial as anyone can hope for. His amazing command of language (archaic and 1920's 'modern') remains a constant delight, and his story lines never pall. His command of his subject was always fine. I suspect the sheer pressure of writing book after book became tiring, latterly- I think of his comment in his letter to Ronnie Greet in the Western Desert during the war, where he comments wryly on having to start 'another book'! Perhaps this is why his practical limitations-shorts, puttees and the like should be taken, not at face value, but with a backward glance at all he had to do, just to put the 'stories' together. What he really needed was one of his own characters-a valet!
I do find that he appears to have been a very 'human' sort of chap, or should I say 'humane'; his writing certainly reflects a well developed belief in his fellow man, or, perhaps, 'in the difference between right and wrong'. I wonder what he would think of our present world, with all its gray areas and it's fudged morality, and expediency, and political correctness! Nowadays nobody is 'right' it seems unless they share 'my' opinions! I guess that Jeffery's philosophy might have been evolved from the 'New Commandment' - 'Love One Another'.
I left Potscatha the following morning, another lovely sunny day; I'd taken a handful of photographs with my aging Minolta camera before I left, which I hope will give some indication of the beauty of that beautiful area.
I hope too they will aid our perception of JF's time there; they will certainly be a constant reminder for me of my summer of discovery; not only had I been to Eastbourne for the 'Laying on of the Flowers', and met Jeffery's family (to my constant amazed delight!), and touched the wooden chair he had made so lovingly with his own hands, but I've seen his place in Cornwall too, and discovered that he loved that beautiful 'country within a country'!
I had loved the place, from a small child, even before I could have hoped to go there; (I wonder who remembers a wartime film called 'The Dream of Olwen', with Sonia Drezdel, that was the trigger for me!); to discover from my internet connections this last year that Jf had written stories set there, which I had never read; and too obviously had a similar feeling about Cornwall, really for me is 'the icing on the cake'
All Farnol information
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