Friday, 5 March 2010

Cornish Cornucopia #5 The Isles of Scilly

"The thing about an island," she said, "is it has edges, so you know exactly where you are" (Molteno)

The Isles of Scilly are an area that is within the county of Cornwall, but somehow slightly outside it. I'd be interested to know how the Cornish view it actually. It's not somewhere that I have ever been, although my parents visited on a rare child-free break when I was a toddler and brought me back an amazing selection of shells but I would absolutely love to visit the region (one thing I am wondering about doing is this trip swimming around the Scilly Isles – wouldn’t that be a good way to see it?!). So I thought it would be a good idea to do some Scillian reading as part of my bookish tour around Cornwall.

Somewhere more simple by Marion Molteno is the beautifully told story of a woman named Cari, who was captivated by the Scilly Islands as a child, and who comes back as an adult to teach in the secondary school as a maternity cover, having sought an escape from her gruelling job in an inner-city school. Her story becomes intertwined with two other people who have moved back to the islands - Anna, a doctor who is grieving for her son who drowned, and Hugh, left by his wife.

What fascinated me most about the book was the insight it gave me into life on the Scilly Isles.

Describing the main island, the school's headmaster says:

"It's a small piece of earth we're on...two and a half miles at its widest, under nine miles all the way around. An environment that takes your breath away every time that you stop and look. Still does that to me after twenty-five years. Safe. No traffic, no crime, everyone knows everyone. You couldn't find anything more ideal for the younger children. But for the older ones - too little stimulus for growing minds. No challenge - they settle too easily for the average."

As a result, the school arranges trips to the mainland where the children can learn how to navigate around the towns, and this provides a central episode in the novel.

It creates an isolated state of mind:

For example, Andrew, Cari's husband is watching tv one night:

"Cari joined him on the sofa, but he knew it was just for the cuddle. Things happening on the mainland seemed to her to have lost reality. Island vision, he called it privately, like tunnel vision but leading nowhere."

I felt that the book realy evoked the landscape and atmosphere of the islands, or at least enabled me to imagine it, and overall, I loved Molteno's style and storytelling, and although she has not written anymore novels set in Cornwall I am certainly going to seek her out and am sorry that I had not come across her before.

I plan to do some more Scillian reading and read An island parish (Nigel Farrell). It ties in with the TV series, A seaside Parish, following members of the Scillian community over one summer.


  1. I live in Cornwall and for me the Scilly Isles is my favourite place: I have travelled abroad quite a lot, but for me you can't beet the Islands. Stay on St Mary's and then travel to the other islands; my favourite is St Martins', but they are all lovely. For me when I visit it's like the most perfect place. I just love it.

  2. I love Cornwall but have never been to the Scilly Isles - my Cornish friends all rave about them though - there seems to be a real sense that they are the most relaxing place anyone knows of!

    Thanks for sharing


  3. Jennifer - thans for popping in and for hte recommendations. It does really sound like a perfect place and I would love to visit.

    Hannah - I'm glad to hear another endorsement for them. Maybe I can suggest it for my honeymoon?!

  4. The Scillies are indeed lovely, and if you would like a quiet honeymoon and are prepared to risk Cornish weather you couldn't do better.

    I'm pleased to hear a good report for Marion Molento - my library has four copies!

  5. I love the sound of both these books and will check out our library...

    Have also borrowed from the library and am half way through the DVD of Camomile Lawn - fueled by your review. Am really enjoying it purely as entertainment and also as a social history wartime commentary from the perspective of the privileged classes.

  6. Jane - that's good news - you'll definitely have to borrow it - I thought it was a lovely book.

    Merenia - so glad yo uare enjoying Camomile - I thought it wonderful. Fingers crossed for finding some Scillian reading.

  7. I so liked the quote about islands having edges that I've sent for Marion Molteno's book, thanks for that. I live in a cabin on an otherwise uninhabited island myself - my wife is an artist and I write - so I'm a sucker for anything on islands. My fovourite is Tove Jansson's The Summer Book, but I recently came across an American writer called Rachel Field, who lived in a beachfront house on Sutton Island, off Maine. She wrote poetry and children's books, and died young in the early 1940s. I thought you might enjoy this poem from 1935 called If Once You Have Slept On An Island:

    If once you have slept on an island
    You'll never be quite the same;
    You may look as you looked the day before
    And go by the same old name

    You may bustle about in street and shop;
    You may sit at home and sew,
    But you'll see blue water and wheeling gulls
    Wherever your feet may go.

    You may chat with the neighbour of this and that
    And close to your fire keep
    But you'll hear ship's whistle and lighthouse bell
    And tides beat through your sleep

    Oh, you won't know why and you can't say how
    Such change upon you came,
    But - once you have slept on an island
    You'll never be quite the same!

    Rachel Field (c.1935)

    I'm sure you'll enjoy Nigel Farrel's book about the Scilly Isles - I enjoyed it enough to review in on Amazon, where I make a point of only doing 4 or 5 star reviews in case I've got it wrong!

  8. Oh how lovely Michael, what a nice poem and how fantastic to live on an island. I hope you enjoy the Molteno and really hope you'll let me know what you think. I also enjoyed The summer book, but I can't think of many other adult novels on islands, though Enid Blyton and Arthur Ransome aplenty!

  9. Likewise Verity, though I'm working on adding to whatever canon there is: my wife Lynn says (and I'm sure she's right) that I should take a break from non-fiction, that I'll only make a living at writing when I come up with a blockbuster novel! Something tells me an island might creep into the narrative..

  10. I went to the Scillies several times as a teen, twice on school trips and a day's outing with a cousin. It's beautiful in the extreme but I don't think I was old enough to appreciate it at the time. I want to take my husband one of these days as I know he'd love Tresco gardens. Whether we'll ever make it is another matter.

  11. Cath - I think that is why I got left behind when my parents went! I really hope we both get to go there someday.


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