The darker side of Cornwall, tailgating in Virginia and Elvis Presley from the waist up

Jonathan Smith's Diary.

I am a Friend of the Royal Academy and make far too little use of it. So last week I popped in to see the George Bellows exhibition. When it comes to knowing about American art I am in poor shape: Edward Hopper, yes, George Bellows (1882-1925), never heard of him. More fool me. I loved his realistic paintings. But then I have always loved realism in literature and art, and realism has had a hard time of it with the critics these past hundred years.

Bellows paints the Manhattan rush hour or tugboats in the frozen Hudson or raw boxers knocking the hell out of each other: all vivid, muscular, even macho stuff, with the occasionally surprising seascape that could be Cornwall. In fact, he surprised me a lot, making me turn back to look again.

Bellows played basketball and baseball for his university before hitting his artistic stride. As I walked round the gallery, noting his taste for violence and brutal frankness, I found myself muttering the names of those who might be his kindred spirits, and the names were Goya and – although they came later – Ernest Hemingway and Francis Bacon.

Elvis, Kerouac and complex maths

At Heathrow last month, en route to Washington, I bought the big centenary issue of the New Statesman. It was packed with good things and meaty enough to see me through to the US. In a funny way I felt I “was back where I started” because I first bought the NS in 1957 as a schoolboy. Politically I didn’t have a clue what was going on then, but I carried the NS everywhere as a statement and as a provocation, but mostly so that I could be taken as an intellectual. Obviously the big story of 1957 was my O-level maths retake (it took me three shots) but elsewhere Harold Macmillan became prime minister; Jack Kerouac’s On the Road was published; and Elvis Presley appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, but with his body filmed only from the waist up. “He was a real nice, decent guy,” Ed said.

You can bet on it

In fact I was heading beyond Washington to Middleburg, a small town in rural Virginia. It’s beautiful country, with handsome houses set in a rolling landscape, and the National Sporting Library and Museum of America was hosting a double bill.

It was mounting an exhibition of Alfred Munnings – an English painter much admired over there – and showing for the first time in America a film based on my novel Summer in February, to be released in the UK on 14 June. Two of the stars, Dan Stevens and Dominic Cooper (who plays Munnings in the film), were unable to come, so our warm hosts had to settle for the producers and your diarist.

The day before the show we were taken to the Middleburg races. It was a sunny, blustery day, and the sheen on the horses and the bravery of the riders would have fitted Munnings and Bellows like a boxer’s glove. On the sloping land around the course, everyone was eating and drinking out of the boots of their cars and wagons. This they call “tailgating”.

I was tempted to bet some of my dollars just the once. Critical Point was the horse I fancied. I liked the name (I taught English) and – the clincher – it was an English horse. Anyway, while tailgating, I had another glass of red and didn’t place the bet and of course Critical Point won.

Fine tuning

Most Americans famously don’t “get” cricket, and when it’s as cold as it was during the Lord’s Test, the first of the summer, I can sympathise. I thought I was through with open fires until next winter, but with the wind and rain scattering the apple blossom across the lawn I was soon carrying in some kiln-dried logs.

I’ve heard there are people who watch cricket on television without the sound, but with Test Match Special on the radio. Well, an admission of fatherly bias here: I’ve started to do this since Ed, a columnist on the NS, has joined the commentators. When he is talking to Geoff Boycott or Michael Vaughan or describing the action, I feel no nerves at all. He can’t nick it or be LBW, can he? How different it feels from those years when I sat in the crowd watching him play.

Is there a vicarious sporting experience more nerve-racking than being the parent of an opening batsman?

The end of the line

Come rain or shine, many of us have a lifelong love affair with Cornwall. But what is the best way to get there? Car? You need to get up at five in the morning to beat the rush down the M5 or the A303. Fly to Newlyn and hire a car? Never done it, but I suspect it feels like cheating. No, it’s got to be the train, curving its way down to south Cornwall, until you pull into Penzance knowing, in the words of the Traveling Wilburys, that it’s the end of the line.

If I’m in north Cornwall, I often sit up by the war memorial on the Padstow side of the Camel Estuary, looking across to St Enodoc where Betjeman is buried, before dropping down to the happily crowded harbour for fish and chips.

This time it will be a sobering walk up there, as I will be looking down at the exact spot of the recent speedboat tragedy in which a father and one of his daughters died.

Cornwall has been a happy place for us – the best of times with my children and grandchildren – but there’s a sense always that the darker side is never far away. In 1912 Florence Carter-Wood, escaping London and her father, took the train to Penzance, then a pony and trap to the tiny fishing cove of Lamorna. There, at a party, she met Mun - nings, who later became the president of the Royal Academy.

But that is another story.

Jonathan Smith’s most recent book, “The Following Game”, is now out in paperback (Peridot Press, £6.99)

This article first appeared in the 27 May 2013 issue of the New Statesman, You were the future once