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Passionate patriot's book is a cracking yarn full of originality and enthusiasm

By This is Cornwall  |  Posted: June 08, 2010

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To claim that Donald Rawe is an ardent Cornishman would be a gross understatement.

An articulate, passionate patriot and bard, he is Padstow to many and Lodenek to most. His bardic name gives another spelling Scryfer Lanwednoc (Writer of Padstow), so take your choice.

Spargo's Confession, his latest novel, is launched this week.

"It may be my last, after publishing 152 books for many authors since 1970," he said. "And this one has been 20 years in the making. A lot of work has gone into it."

This is only his second novel but he is celebrated for his poems in the Cornish language, his tartan, his theatre productions and a wide range of writing.

With mariners on both sides of the Rawe family, links to customs and excise, and several years spent in Australia, he has knowledge and experience of many aspects of his Spargo's Confession story.

A cracking yarn, full of originality and the enthusiasm that readers associate with him, it tells of the Reverend James Spargo, who takes up his pen "to confess my past misdeeds and unlawful exploits".

Today we have a sneaking Cornish regard for those who bring back the baccy and the grog from continental holidays because, in a small way, it smacks of our heritage. This story is set between 1810 and 1822, when smuggling was not only a way of life but a necessity of life.

As a lad, Spargo heard the vicar thunder against "free trading" and declare that this would sink the culprit "into the mire of dishonesty and immorality that will surely damn him".

Yet his skilled mariner father said moral considerations were all very fine for those who could afford them – but life in Cornwall was very hard.

His Irish mother was even firmer, who accused the reverend of wanting to "take the bread out of the mouths of half-starvin' children".

What a dilemma for the boy.

The author, now 80, brings in a large slice of local history in the remarkable stories of the Rowlands, local nouveau riche merchants who over-reached themselves, and of the Devereaux, genuine gentry. All Cornish life is here.

And what was the "confession" of the title? By using the proceeds of the great Cornish smuggling industry in his younger years, and his contacts, James, from his humble background, was educated at Oxford, married his Devereaux sweetheart and became a parish priest. He had little difficulty defending his trips to the French coast to earn a living.

The story races along. James first went to Roscoff as a mere "gally monkey" with his father, taking Cornish "fermaids" and returning with a contraband of pipes of port and casks of brandy.

The author traces social history with his stirring story of the hard times facing the local tenant farmers, of the huge chasm between rich and poor, of celebrations at the "big house" and crisis times galore.

As a mature Captain Spargo, caught by the more powerful excise men, he is close to a long spell in jail after trial at Bodmin. His ship was impounded and destroyed. He finds love and marriage with Lucretia Devereaux and a new life, as the Rowlands empire crumbles. So he writes of the exciting illegal years of contraband, now a widower and respectable clergyman.

Cornish at home and Cousin Jacks abroad will delight in this historic drama, filled with colour and the salty flavour of the sea, as well as the class divisions of local life.

Spargo's Confession, a novel of Cornwall by Donald Rawe is published by Lodenek Press, Woodlands, Bodieve, Wadebridge, Cornwall PL27 6EY at £9.95.

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