Last weekend I visited St Ives for the first time in twenty years. In the latter part of the last century I went there regularly, for holidays, when I used to take regular holidays. In spite of its popularity, I adore the town. Even when it is jam-packed with tourists at the height of summer, one does not need to wander far to avoid the throng, and out of season it is a delight. On the last weekend of September it was not too hideously crowded, and not greatly changed from how I remembered it.
One change, which, given the passing of time, I expected, was that my favourite shop would have vanished, and indeed it had. This was The Mirror And The Lamp, on St Andrew’s Street, just along from the harbour and Market Square. In truth, I had never quite understood how the shop survived as long as it did, given that it was a secondhand or antiquarian book dealer with a very limited stock, mostly of poetry, and that, I recall, of a fairly narrow range. My memory may be askew, but I seem to remember it specialised in French symbolists and surrealists – not, one would think, exactly what the casual tourist in St Ives was looking for.
The proprietrix of The Mirror And The Lamp was Gertrude Starink, who I remember as a fragile bespectacled bluestocking. In addition to books, she also sold her artworks, some paintings and collages, but more enticingly small limited-edition illustrated booklets. Of course, ninety percent of the population of St Ives consider themselves artists, and bash out seascapes and nautical daubs for the tourists. Gertrude Starink’s work, while often informed by the locality, was of a different order. Her bestseller (I presume) was the commercially-published St Ives Alphabet, twenty-six cards reminiscent of a more benign Edward Gorey. An additional pleasure of The Mirror And The Lamp was that every purchase was individually wrapped – with exquisite care – in paper printed with the shop’s emblem, reproduced above.
When I returned home, it occurred to me to discover if Gertrude Starink had left any trace on the interweb. I was saddened to learn that she had died in 2002, aged just 54. At the same time, I was intrigued to learn that she was originally from Holland, born Ruth Smulders. (Given that my own mother spoke Flemish, I was surprised I had not picked up on her accent.) She was also considered one of the finest Dutch poets of the late twentieth century, having published, over twenty years, a series of “bundles” under the collective title The Road To Egypt. Most interestingly – and somehow absolutely in keeping with the woman I remember sat behind her desk in the dark interior of that shop – she and her husband Jan (who died earlier this year) had spent fifteen years translating into Dutch The Life And Opinions Of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman.
I still adore St Ives, but it is diminished by her absence.