Cats, mermaids, & Cornish eccentrics

Stray Attention from Katherine May


I’m starting a new format over here because, well, I get bored…which is exactly what this newsletter is about. Every month, I’ll be sharing something that has captured my stray attention, usually pushing my more legitimate work aside. Fascination is, after all, contagious.

I hope you enjoy the new format - if so, pass it on!

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Lately, I’ve been re-recording the audiobook of my memoir, The Electricity of Every Living Thing, and that means I’ve been irresistibly drawn back into the mythological world that rolled around my head as I walked the north coast of Devon and Cornwall.

It seems so natural to us to find that landscape beautiful, with its craggy cliffs and lashing sea, but that’s because, nowadays, it’s relatively safe to travel to remote places. Wild, isolated regions used to be fraught with danger. When the eccentric Reverend Robert Hawker arrived in the Cornish parish of Morwenstow in 1829, he found himself in the midst of a wreckers’ coast, where, and I might as well quote myself here:

‘…workers subsisted on starvation wages, children baited drunks as they once would bears, and wives were sometimes sold at market to the highest bidder. Hawker wrote to friends about unwed dissenter mothers committing infanticide, and children dying of exposure after being driven out of the house to collect firewood.’

In this context, shipwrecks were seen as an opportunity to raid for firewood and food. When Hawker first arrived in Morwenstow, he found a drowned sailor on the beach and asked a local parishioner what should be done. ‘Sarch ‘is pockets,’ came the reply. The survivors and the dead were of no concern to a community who themselves were rarely shown any compassion.

Hawker is now perhaps best remembered for his collections of Cornish folklore (he originated a myth that there once lived a race of Cornish giants), but at the time, he was infamous for his eccentricity. He built a wooden hut out on the cliffs, where he used to retire to smoke opium and write poetry, and he was known for his penchant for exuberant clothing. According to local legend, he liked to dress as a mermaid, with a wig made of seaweed and a tail fashioned from an oilskin cloth. Every now and then, he would row out to a rock in Bude habour in his mermaid costume, and sing to locals for a while. He owned upwards of ten cats, but once excommunicated one of them for mousing on a Sunday.

But Hawker’s lack of interest in convention made him fearless in restoring his parishioners’ belief in the sanctity of life. When, in 1942, a ship called the Caledonia was wrecked and its crew lost, he rallied a team of local men to carry every single body to the top of the cliff (which is, I can testify, quite a climb), and interred them all in the churchyard. The ship’s figurehead - a woman with a sword and cap, painted in thick white gloss - still stands over the grave of the captain.

It seems to me that Hawker’s very strangeness made this possible.

The Reverend Hawker’s hut is open to the public, and, if you catch it on a quiet morning, you can sit in there undisturbed for a few minutes and gaze out to the wild sea. Piers Brendon’s excellent biography, Hawker of Morwenstow, is out of print but worth seeking out.

The Electricty of Every Living Thing lands in the US on 19th October - if you loved this newsletter, please pre-order online, or ask your local indie bookstore. It really helps to spread the word.

UK readers can already buy it here.

Thanks for reading!

Katherine x

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