Caught by the River

Undercurrent 

28th April 2023

In ‘Undercurrent’, published earlier this month by Hodder & Stoughton, Natasha Carthew returns to the cliff paths of her childhood, where poverty and political neglect converged with the wealth of picture-postcard Cornwall. Kirsteen McNish reviews.

‘The village of my childhood is a keeper of secrets. If you take a minute to stop, turn an ear to the tide or the earth, close your eyes and listen’.

There is no avoiding that Natasha Carthew is angry in her newly published book Undercurrent — so much it almost stings to read at times — but this feels like a more than justifiable ire, and Carthew is nothing if not a candid and illustrative writer. Undercurrent is a raw and vibrant reflection upon childhood from a writer that is simultaneously aware of what thwarts her growth and what feeds it. Here you will find citrus-sharp acidity, insight, warmth, bravado, self-reflection and scrutiny. It’s no surprise to read she was lit up as a child by Laurie Lee — the ability to evoke a scene, create a social commentary, but retain the first-hand lucid innocence of being right back in that moment as if new. Carthew’s directness can be disarming at times, but one feels she is striving to let the reader into the pages rather than peer at her life voyeuristically — and to do that you have to crack a few eggs. 

There are so many familiar scenes within this book I can relate to from the industrial town I grew up in, but also so much I do not recognise, having not grown up in a place that people desire to break off into chunks and devour like artisan chocolate — or lock up and save until the next holiday celebration. Cornwall is a complex place, and Carthew does not shirk from the cold hard facts: twenty of its neighbourhoods are within the most deprived 10% of the country; inequality is stark; job prospects and cultural opportunities for young people are few and far between; availability of affordable housing is almost non-existent, and post-covid donations to food banks are slowly sliding. The second homes issue is crucifying communities — a fact that it’s hard to ignore, illustrated tangibly by director Mark Jenkin in Bait. Whilst being one of the most beautiful parts of the UK and generating a huge swarm of Instagram holiday hashtags, there are real lives and battles going on behind the seafront and delicatessens: it’s not just somewhere to dip one’s toes in for a jolly. There is a lucid, salt-sharp poetry in this autobiographical account of the real heart of Cornwall; the stories, mythology, music and creativity that lies within its villages, fields, fishing community and beach kids; the embedded layers of history not found in the Airbnbs, or families whose homes and holiday lets are cleaned by the locals but who take little care to know anything about their permanent neighbours. 

Carthew easily conjures childhood memories like a campfire raconteur and is straight from the hip about boredom, frustration, larking about, finding glints of gold in the dirt (especially through access to library books), and instinctively learning at a tender age that being a “good” working class girl is to be seen and not heard, which rightly irks her. You feel a thrashing around for the sheer fight to exist as one’s authentic self, and not be caught in the net of others’ making. 

Undercurrent is a proud, defiant account and despite all the bluster and squalls, Carthew is walking fire, fury and sinew, and yet not afraid to show her more vulnerable underbelly. One thing is clear — that this book is also about love. Familial love, love of community, platonic love, unrequited love, love of words, poetry, people and place — but where her words really sing is in her love of Cornwall, its coastlines, laneways, open skies and hidden places — places she wants to survive and thrive.

She paints her mother like a Turneresque sea in all its hues, and doesn’t fall into cliché or nostalgic mythologising. Carthew does not need to overpaint the canvas. I felt that her mother could step off the page — formidable and flame-like around her children, encouraging creativity from imagination, juxtaposing the brittle spectre of Carthew’s father, whose own personal damage and subsequent damage to his children permeates like an oil slick stain and rocks up occasionally like a stray cat. He is blood and feathers, charismatic, unpredictable and cruel, and yet she has the generosity to not make him two-dimensional, despite his neglect, seeing his fissures like an unseaworthy boat with multiple temporary moorings.

As Carthew’s story reaches her teenage years we can taste and smell the beaches, bonfires, dry dust roads, clifftops, parks, slugged drink and sucked-on joints, spit and sawdust pubs, and the shallows where teenagers prowl like foxes, play, preen, and provoke each other in the fading light. She grows ever aware of her “differences”, and slips between the gaps, often not quite fitting in but able to hold her own, revealing very little to others. Quick as a papercut to react, Carthew slopes off under the radar when she really she needs to be seen, her shapeshifting an art. This is amplified once her mother re-partners and is busy with a new sibling, and Carthew finds herself cast adrift, given too much freedom, her lack of boundaries creating a jellylike whirlpool of chaos — all conveyed with little self-indulgence or bullshit. 

There are painful wounds that tattoo this young life, be it her negligent storm of a father and his wilful ignorance towards her, the lads that found a safe harbour, unjudged in her mother’s kitchen but died young, friends that drift and dissipate like sea mist, demons that get drummed out by her bare knuckles at the raging sea edges or get taken out on her physically by others in a homophobic attack and rape. The sheer holding on by the fingertips is palpable — scars that can never completely heal. How might one process this and not drown? Carthew keeps on walking with both eyes on the waves.

In the end the main character of Undercurrent is Cornwall itself. This book is not so much a wake for things lost – it’s moreover what Carthew feels she is indebted to that is alive — grain and gold, the unruly, that which shimmers and slides. It is therefore about things that cannot be taken — unless, of course, the sea itself chooses to.

‘Standing in the wind and the rain, that ocean sound is as loud as a fist making contact; it is the smell of memory once decayed and the decline resurfacing, the beginnings of a storm gathering on the horizon, my own undercurrent resurfacing, an ocean of memories rising’.’

*

‘Undercurrent: A Cornish Memoir of Poverty, Nature and Resilience’ is out now and available here (£16.14).