It seems fitting to write about Cromer on World Poetry Day. If you are new to the blog, please don’t be baffled by this! Regular readers will know that Cromer is the adopted home of Salt Publishing, which is becoming ever more renowned for its fiction. Last year it achieved international fame with The Lighthouse, Alison Moore’s debut novel, which was shortlisted for the 2012 Man Booker prize. (Its crime list includes In the Family, my first crime novel, and will shortly also feature Almost Love, the second in the DI Yates series.)
However, Salt built its reputation for literary excellence on its superb poetry list; in my view it is the greatest current British publisher of contemporary poetry. Some Salt poets are poets’ poets, though most are very accessible. I believe that perhaps, of all its achievements, Salt’s greatest has been to develop its ‘Best of’ lists, especially the Best of British Poetry series, and the Salt Book of Younger Poets. Now widely adopted by undergraduate courses in English literature and creative writing, these books bring contemporary poetry alive to a new generation, as well as supply more mature readers with an impeccable selection of great poems. The Best of British Short Stories series achieves a similar effect in a different genre. And, not to spare his blushes, Chris Emery, the founding inspiration behind Salt, now publishes his own poetry under the Salt imprint. If you have not yet read The Departure, I recommend it wholeheartedly.
Back to Cromer. I was there for a long weekend because, as I mentioned on Sunday, I was asked to play a small part in the Breckland Book Festival. I stayed at The Barn, one of the cottages owned by The Grove Hotel (itself steeped in history – parts of it are eighteenth-century and its original owners were the founders of Barclays Bank). I called in on Chris and Jen Hamilton-Emery after the Breckland event and my husband and I were kindly invited to have dinner with them. They were brimful of ideas as usual and delighted that Chris has been appointed writer-in-residence at Roehampton University, as well as looking forward to celebrating Jen’s birthday today (that it is on World Poetry day is a poetic thing in itself!).
The rest of our time in Cromer was spent exploring the beaches and the streets of the town. Twice we walked along the beach in the dark and, on Monday morning, we took our dog for a very early morning run there. Even in bitterly cold weather, the town itself is enchanting. Developed in the mid-nineteenth century to cater for the emerging middle classes, who could for the first time afford holidays away from home, it seems to have been preserved intact from any attempted depredations by the twentieth century. There are not even many Second World War fortifications in evidence, though a pill-box languishes in the sand of the west beach, its cliff-top site long since eaten by the sea. The pier retains its pristine Victorian originality – it is well-maintained but has not been ‘improved’. Some of the hotels, again ‘unreconstructed’, are quite grand and all serve superb food at reasonable prices, as do the many cafés and restaurants. It is true that some of the shops seem to exist in a time warp. My favourite is the ladies’ underwear shop that does not appear to stock anything designed after 1950; it even displays ‘directoire’ knickers – much favoured by my grandmother – in one of its windows.
Cromer has a literary past, too. Winston Churchill stayed there as a boy and Elizabeth Gaskell was a visitor, as the pavement of the seafront testifies. (Churchill apparently wrote to a friend: ‘I am not enjoying myself very much.’) That Tennyson also came here, even if I had not already decided that I loved it, alone would have served to set my final stamp of approval upon the town: Lincolnshire’s greatest poet, he is also one of my favourites. (I’ve always considered James Joyce’s ‘LawnTennyson’ jibe to be undeserved.) I know that Tennyson would have been fascinated by Salt if he had been able to visit Cromer today. I can picture him perfectly, sitting in Chris’ and Jen’s Victorian front room, sharing his thoughts about poetry – as one fine poet to another – in his wonderfully gruff, unashamedly Lincolnshire voice.
And so, Jen, Chris and Salt, have a very happy Cromer day, listening to the lulling rhythm of the rolling, scouring waves and painting salty pictures in the sky.