I first began to visit Cornwall after my father retired, remarried and settled here in St Breward, in a cottage less than a quarter of a mile from where I now live. His second wife, my stepmother (of whom I have become increasingly fond as the years go by) was born of an Irishman and Irishwoman in Bodmin. Her father, Ignatius Aloysius O’Keeffe, ran the local - well, what do you call it now? In years gone by it was, tactlessly, called a ‘lunatic asylum’ or, more colloquially a ‘looney bin’. I can’t offhand remember what his qualifications were, whether he was a medical doctor or a psychiatrist [she has since told me he graduated from Dublin University in ‘medical pysychology’, so really your guess is as good as mine], but I can tell you that the mental hospital - a more genteel, not to say kinder, description was St Lawrence’s Hospital. It was (according to the website I have just googled) ‘originally known as ‘Cornwall County Asylum’ it was founded in 1815 at Westheath Avenue, Bodmin and became known as St Lawrence’s Hospital under the National Health Service’.
Ignatius Aloysius was one of four: he had three sisters, one who, as it was told to me, ran away from home to become a nun and went off to China to work as a missionary, a second who died of cancer in her early 30s, and a third, Fanny, who came over to Bodmin with him and worked as a physiotherapist in the local hospital. My stepmother’s mother, Gertrude, a name she always hated, came from a far bigger family: she was one of 14. Both Ignatius Aloysius and Gertrude were Irish born and bred, and my stepmother, who will be 75 on March 19 and was born the fourth child and third daughter, has a great many of the virtues of that admirable nation. But as she was born and grew up in Bodmin, she might reasonably also be able to call herself Cornish. I put this to her yesterday, but she was having none of it. She regards herself as Irish, not Cornish.
In the early Seventies her Aunt Fanny died and left her a legacy. With this my stepmother - born Patricia Mary Josephine O’Keeffe, though known as Paddy O’Keeffe, a name perhaps familiar to some who regularly tuned into BBC radio’s From Our Own Correspondence which she produced until she married my father and took early retirement in the mid-Eighties - bought a cottage here in St Breward. My father had a little earlier sold our family home in Henley-on-Thames (which, oddly, makes it sound rather grander than it was) after my mother died in 1981 and with the cash he and his new wife the cottage. The kitchen became bigger, as did the bathroom, and above the kitchen a new room was created which was officially my father’s study in which he wrote the book he had always wanted to write, a history of relations between the Germans and the IRA.
Initially, after my father’s second marriage, relations between myself and my stepmother were, on my part at least, a tad frosty. Until, as they say, my father made an honest woman of her, my stepmother had been my father’s mistress for around 20 years, and I found it a little difficult to adapt to the new set-up. I had been close to my mother almost all my life, although in my early 20s, after a kind of very silly disagreement over my then girlfriend, I did not treat her as well as I might have done as is the way of the kind of self-regarding idiot I was in those years, and her death hit me rather harder than could reasonably be expected. She died of a heart attack at the comparatively early age of 61 and, more to the point, I had found her dead. Looking back, it took me quite a few years to deal with a shock which, at the time, I thought I had completely taken in my stride.
But my stepmother is a good-hearted sort and when, within two or three years of her marriage I began to come to see her and my father regularly, she was very kind to me. At 67, my father developed prostate cancer. The cancer eventually spread and he died at the age of 68 just over 20 years ago. One of his last wishes was that we, his four children, should take care of Paddy, so I began to visit her here in Cornwall more and more often.
From mid-1990 until I moved down here myself at the end of 1995, I lived and worked in London. I didn’t then run a car - there was no need to do so - so when I came, I caught the train at London Paddington to Bodmin Parkway. And - this is the whole point of this entry - every time I got out of the train at Bodmin - every time - I was struck by how much slower and more tranquil was the pace of life down here in Cornwall, and how much more peaceful. I must stress that this struck me the moment I opened the carriage door and stepped out of the train.
An hour or two ago, I arrived back home after leaving work in West London and taking the train to Exeter and then driving the 60-odd miles back here to St Breward. (I get out at Exeter and drive the rest of the way because it’s a damn sight quicker like that, quite apart from the fact that the last train to leave London which makes its way all the way to Bodmin leaves at 6.35pm.) But each time I get out of the car once I arrive back home, I am conscious that I no longer get that sensation of life being slower and more peaceful. I have, unfortunately, become immune to the change of pace. It’s something I reflect on every week when I arrive back home, but tonight I didn’t immediately go into the house after locking the car but stayed for several minutes to try to recapture that sensation. I’m sorry to say I didn’t, but I did once again appreciate being able to call deepest rural Cornwall my home. The weather was misty and drizzly and I love it. I really couldn’t tell you why, but I do. One day, I hope, I shall really be able to slow down properly and fully appreciate it. But I was glad that tonight I did manage it, if just a little bit.