Q in his own Words

by Gerry Hones

 

One can also learn a great deal about Q by reading the prefaces to his novels – especially those that he wrote much later for each of the 30 volumes of his work published in the Duchy Edition of his Novels, Romances and Short Stories (1928). These relatively short pieces of his writing provide very important evidence of the strength and vitality of his opinions on life in general – and Cornwall in particular.

Occasionally he tells his readers of his own dreams as a chivalrous knight errant. The early (1906) preface of his favourite novel, Sir John Constantine, says: ‘…if you would know anything of the writer who has so often addressed you under an initial, you may find as much of him here as in any of his books.’  In similar vein, his 1889 dedication to The Splendid Spur finishes by admitting that he saw himself as the hero for ‘…under the coat of Jack Marvel beats the heart of your friend.’

In the 1929 edition of Nicky Nan, Reservist, Q writes with considerable emotion about the complicated effects that the war had on young men in Cornwall during 1914–15. He was able to draw on his own direct experience and reflected ‘the anger I must have shared with many at the cruel obstacles to persuasion put in our way by unthinking, and worse than unthinking, people’. Taught by Church and Chapel to regard War as anti-Christian, ‘the idea of any special enmity against Germany was a strange one’. Even though around the coast it was quite natural for the young men to be part of the Royal Naval Reserve, ‘the Army seldom came within their ken, almost never within range of their domestic concern.’

Before writing his new preface for The Shining Ferry in 1928, Q re-examined what he had written a quarter of a century before. He almost seems surprised that ‘it dealt seriously with one of my strongest feelings – hatred of tyranny and the deliberate cruelty it engenders and especially under the cloak of religion’. With the story of Mrs. Butson and her school he shows why he put so much effort into improving the provision of elementary education in the county over the next decades. Q describes the tale of the old ferryman, Nicky Vro, as ‘a truthful annal of the poor’ but in which he had ‘avoided excess of sentiment’.

These are only three examples of the way in which Q was able to look back after a quarter of a century and draw attention to some of the social issues around which he had created his story lines. Clearly he was never afraid to challenge the established system even when he knew that his approach could lose popular support.

Conclusion 

To gain an idea of the far sighted influence that Q had on Cornish literature and the development of the county in an ever changing world, one only has to read the appreciations from Phillip Payton and Alan Kent.

Included in this collection of ‘Views of Q’ are the tributes paid by a number of his friends. However, it is the letter dated May 14th 1944 from an unknown Fergus, which perhaps gives the most apt personal picture of ‘the man who was Q’

‘If I were writing a tribute to Q, I should not lay so much stress on his literary attainments, famous as they were.

I should say that no one else has ever known (the simple, the humble) people of Cornwall, his people (the fisherfolk, the miners, the townsmen and the county folk) as he did.

No one could ever have done more for their well-being than he did or was loved by them as he was… a great inspiration for young people because he understood them and they had a natural confidence in his judgment’.

How would Q have described himself? Certainly with no pomp – probably with an element of wicked humour. He once used these words when asked to talk about ‘The Cornishman As I Know Him’.

‘To my thinking, the Cornishman is a very good-tempered, genial fellow. He is fond of meeting his friends in the little town each week on market day. He is jovial, fond of children, and very courteous to strangers, though somewhat suspicious of them.’

Was this how he saw himself?