The sandy beaches in St Ives, Cornwall, are supposedly the cause of a pink light that glows over the town in early morning and late afternoon. That and the sea air. (I didn’t notice this light, perhaps because it was overcast.) In From a Seaside Town, Norman Levine describes an after-dinner walk as having blue light: “The blue light at the end of the pier; the row of white lights on the other; and between, the cottages and houses lit up, from inside, looking like pumpkins in the dark.” And later, “The time of evening when the sea is lighter than the sky.”
The light drew artists to St Ives early in the 20th Century. By the time Norman Levine (1923‑2005) arrived in St Ives in 1950, there was an established artists’ community (today organized by the St Ives Society of Artists). Levine not only made friendships with some of the artists, but also took inspiration from their ideas and work. I know this only because I spent a few hours at the St Ives Archives (volunteer run) during a rainy week in Cornwall. If I had read his essay, “Sometimes It Works,” or the booklet published by Tate St Ives in 2002 by Alison Oldham, Everyone was Working: Writers and Artists in Postwar St Ives, I would have known this (and thus lost the pleasure of the discovery in the chill room of the Archives).
Norman Levine was a Canadian writer from Ottawa. Most admired for his lean prose style, he published nine books of short stories, two novels, two collections of poetry, and the controversial Canada Made Me. According to his Guardian obituary by Oldham, he first arrived in the UK at the age of 20, with the Royal Canadian Air Force, flying with a Lancaster squadron based in Yorkshire.
After the war, from 1946-49, he took two English Literature degrees at McGill University in Montreal, during which he wrote his first novel, about the war: The Angled Road (1952). Levine returned to England in 1949 on a fellowship to study at King’s College London. Despite finishing his thesis, he abandoned academia for fiction. In 1950 his St Ives poetry collection, The Tight-Rope Walker, was published. By 1952 he was living in Mousehole, Cornwall. That year he married his first wife, Margaret Payne. His last novel, From a Seaside Town, seems to be set in St Ives.
Levine and his family lived in St Ives for 30-40 years, so I thought I’d wander by and take a snap (we took the train from our rental cottage in Tywardreath and transferred at St Erth). The ultimate procrastinator, I hadn’t found his address before going to Cornwall. I just thought I’d show up, ask a couple of questions at the museum or library, and get directions. Library closed for the day, museum closed for the season, and Tate St Ives closed for renovations. At the Archives, I was welcomed in and given a file of general clippings to start with. His box at the Archives had been moved because of a flood, but it was waiting for me after lunch. Although it consisted mostly of photocopied letters to his daughter Rachael, an artist living in St Ives, I did find some nuggets of information. The archivist, Janet Axton, checked on me several times, asking if I’d found what I was looking for. When I was packing up the box, returning items to various envelopes, she asked again and I replied, “No. Not his address, anyway. I found only that he lived on Bedford Road.” At which point she suddenly remembered that he had lived on a corner, and showed us on the map.
Levine helped arrange an exhibition in Canada for his Cornwall artist friends and wrote the introduction to the catalogue: Six Painters from Cornwall: Peter Lanyon, Patrick Heron, John Wells, Terry Frost, David Haughton, Bryan Wynter: Canada 1955-1956. He later collaborated with Canadian artist Ron Bolt for a painting that accompanies a poem, The Beat and the Still (1990), copy at the V&A.
Norman Levine is one of our overlooked writers, perhaps because he was abroad, despite his pre-war youth in Ottawa and his residency in Canada in the 1980s. His critical book, Canada Made Me, pissed off people at the time. Yet there is always someone somewhere trying to promote his work.
Check out these:
Canadian Notes & Queries
Brian Busby has a couple on his site
George Care’s penwithlit
“So these confessions. I began them out of desperation one morning in April with the rain coming down outside and the town grey and empty as the sea.” … “Life seems to be a series of unconnected brief encounters.”
-Norman Levine, From a Seaside Town