Chapter 26 – “Christmas Goose”
I must confess that Jemmy Penwarden has a resemblance to a little boy in my family, which comprised one little boy with two big sisters. The little boy was very inquisitive. He pestered his mother with questions all day long and always saved one to ask his father when he came home from work and tucked him into bed at night. A special one was, “Dad, how long is a whale?”
In Chapter 26 the Penwarden family celebrates their first Christmas in their new home after Addis has been made captain of the Wheal Hykka mine. Lizzie decorated the house and prepared a traditional roast goose dinner with all the trimmings. I describe her baking a saffron cake. Young Jemmy is unstoppably inquisitive and distracts his mother with questions.
“Why do us put ’olly in the ’ouse at Christmastide, Mum?”
“Us be rememberin’ the birth of the baby Jesus,” explained Lizzie, “an’ people say the red berries be ’is drops of blood when ’e were crucified.”
“But why do us put up stuff loike the crucifixion on ’is birthday?” Jemmy asked, “don’t make sense. Wouldn’t put a coffin on my birthday table.”
“That’s just what people say,” said Lizzie.
“What people?” pressed Jemmy.
“Well, I ’spect it says so in the Bible,” Lizzie tried.
“Where in the Bible?” Jemmy persisted.
“You’ll ’ave to ask Reverend Perry when you see ’im down chapel; he’ll know for sure,” parried Lizzie.
When I was researching work in the tin and copper mines and the tools and methods used, I learned about the danger of blasting with loose gunpowder. It often resulted in fatal accidents. An ingenious miner invented a safer fuse, called the Rod of Quills. I tell the story as if Jemmy had discovered it. On Christmas Day, when his mother was not keeping an eye on him, Jemmy made his own toy. His father sees promise in it and later adapts it to test it successfully down the mine.
Addis had been experimenting with gunpowder, wrapping up small amounts in twists of paper, trying to work out a safe way of detonating it. Jemmy had found the almost empty tin, taken some of the quills plucked from the goose wing, cut off the tips and filled them with the powder. Then he threw them in the stove where they smoldered and sizzled and then burned with a satisfying whoosh, filling the kitchen with a dreadful smell of burning feathers. Addis to Lizzie’s surprise did not scold Jemmy for his mischief. Rather, a look came over his face that signified that he had an idea.
“That lad will be a real somebody some day,” Addis said to Lizzie, when they were out of earshot of Jemmy.
One summer when my family was on holiday at Tregrill Farm, Colin Hocking the farmer’s son and I made charcoal and ground it up, then mixed it with sulphur and saltpeter to make gunpowder. We exploded it on the old-fashioned cast iron kitchen stove with a satisfying whoosh. Not very safe!
When my wife Penny and I visited Cornwall on a research trip in 2012 we stayed at Tregrill where the milking barn had been converted into guest cottages. I’m glad to report that the stove in the farmhouse kitchen is still intact.
During my book tour of Cornwall in July with my daughter Sarah I gave a talk at The Book Shop in Liskeard, my home town. A young woman came up to me at the end with The Miner & the Viscount in her hand and asked me to autograph it. She said, “Colin Hocking is my grandfather, and my husband and I farm Tregrill.” We gave each other a big hug.
Oh, the joy of writing!
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