Obituary: Derek Tangye
Wednesday, 6 November 1996
In the early 1950s Derek Tangye and his wife Jeannie were walking along the cliffs near Lamorna, above Mount's Bay in Cornwall, when they saw a buzzard drifting overhead.
“Suddenly we saw below it in the distance a small grey cottage on the edge of a wood. It was as grey as the boulders heaped haphazardly around it, as grey as the ancient stone hedges which guarded long forgotten meadows. This was Minack. We knew at the instant of seeing it that it was to become our home”.
The quotation is from "A Cornish Summer" (1970), the seventh in a series of autobiographical books, all bestsellers and describing their life in that cottage, their early struggles on a flower farm, and their love for the wild landscape and their various animals, that has become known as the "Minack Chronicles". The 19th, "The Confusion Room", was published this year.
Friends in London had been amazed that this good-looking and sophisticated couple should take such a plunge. Derek had worked in Fleet Street as a gossip columnist on the Express and elsewhere. Jeannie had been an agony aunt on the Mirror and had been press officer for the Savoy Hotel Group, which inspired her book "Meet Me at the Savoy", published under her maiden name Jean Nicol, and also a bestseller. Their friends included Danny Kaye, David Milford Haven, the photographer Baron, Beverley Nichols, A.P. Herbert, Noel Coward and Tyrone Power; also, surprisingly perhaps, George Brown, the future Foreign Secretary. It is said that when Jeannie came down the stairs at the Savoy the orchestra would strike up with the tune "Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair".
Derek Tangye had Cornish ancestry and had spent happy childhood holidays at his family home at Glendorgal, near Newquay. He had always admired a house called "Boskenna" at Lamorna, but when he took Jeannie to see it they decided that a simple cottage was really their ideal. Minack, or Dorminack, was certainly simple when they moved in, with an earth floor, no water and electricity, a mile down a bumpy muddy track. However they still returned once or twice a year to London, where they took a luxurious suite first at the Savoy, then at Claridges.
In 1961 Tangye published "A Girl on the Roof", which was a great success. He and Jeannie had been adopted by a succession of cats - notably Monty and Lama - which became the heroes (or heroines) of subsequent books. A Drake at the Door (1963) was so named because of a pet Muscovy duck named Boris (after Pasternak), and A Donkey in the Meadow (1965) was in honour of Fred, a donkey rescued from the knacker's yard.
The books were illustrated by Jeannie, and nearly all were serialised in popular illustrated magazines. The fan mail grew. The Tangyes' romantic story struck a chord with many who felt that they longed to escape from the stresses of modern life. There were also pilgrimages of admirers, mostly unsolicited.
In spite of all this Derek Tangye constantly needed reassurance, as I discovered when I was his publisher. He was touchy about the promotion of other bestselling writers on country matters - Gavin Maxwell, for example, or James Herriot (tricky for us, at Michael Joseph, as Herriot was also one of our authors). He was afraid of missing out on new readers and in each book would in some way recapitulate the story of how Jeannie came to Dorminack, and then go on to the previous years' adventures which could be a shipwreck, swallows nesting for the first time under the eaves, or a gala at Lamorna village.
After I had left Michael Joseph, I used to be invited to a special post-Christmas lunch at Dorminack. The big fire blazed and the cottage would be strung with hundreds of cards from all over the world, champagne flowed and we ate in a miniature conservatory watched by donkeys from the hedge above, maybe also with a gull on the roof. Jeannie was a very good cook and baked her own bread. She died suddenly in 1986, and Derek tried for two years afterwards to keep up the tradition of these lunches. It became too much for him, and he could not be persuaded to resume them at our house, at the other end of Cornwall. Indeed, after Jeannie's death he scarcely left his patch, as he called it, except for a yearly excursion to Claridges in the old tradition.
Jeannie's funeral was made especially memorable by an address by John Le Carre. Derek also spoke of her on the television programme Songs of Praise in 1992, and many of us were moved to tears when Baron's photograph of her beautiful face appeared as if from the clouds. Derek's book about her, Jeannie (1986), also part of the "Minack Chronicles", I consider to be his best. Some time before they had bought several acres of meadow sloping down to the sea, looking out to St Michael's Mount, and when she was dying they decided to form it into a trust, the Minack Chronicles Trust, as a place for solitude and preserving natural life.
The possibility of a television series based on the books kept Derek Tangye buoyed up in his last years, when he became increasingly crippled by arthritis and gout. This and the extraordinary flow of admirers who continued to make the pilgrimage and wade through the stream known as Monty's Leap.
Derek Alan Trevithick Tangye, writer and journalist: born London 29 February 1912; married 1943 Jeannie Nicol (died 1986); died 26 October 1996