Biography


I was born in Penzance in 1945 and raised in Marazion, in sight of St Michael’s Mount. Not a bad start.

My mother was an artist, very involved in the West Cornwall art scene as well as amateur dramatics, as I was as soon as I could walk on a stage. My father was in the RAF but left home before I was five. I went to school in Penzance and Truro, the latter at boarding school, taking A levels at Humphry Davy. Failing to get into university to study English due to an aversion to Latin, I went into the theatre, spending a season at Northampton repertory, and then the Central School of Speech & Drama in 1966. It was the year of dropping out, so I left after a year, doing odd jobs in John Lewis and London Zoo while enjoying the flower-power summer of 1967 as a Hyde Park hippie. It wasn’t the only time I was lucky enough to be on the spot of a great music scene.

Michael Sagar-Fenton with Brenda Weston

With Brenda in 1968

In 1968 I came back to Cornwall to cool off, and worked in the now-collectable Tremaen Pottery in Newlyn. This was run by Peter Ellery and his family including his sister Brenda Wootton. I had been part of the local folk scene even before the amazing Count House Folk Club at Bottallack began, and encouraged Brenda – whom I already knew through amateur dramatics and her legendary pantomimes – to get involved. I became one of her accompanists, wrote her some songs, and was later a resident performer in her various folk clubs.


In 1969 I went back to London. I wanted to work in music and found a job in a record shop in Streatham just as reggae was beginning to break through. Alongside this was the exciting British electric ‘underground’, although I kept up an allegiance with folk music and ran a folk club in Greenwich. But at the beginning of 1970 a job came up in my family business at home and after some soul-searching I decided to come back to Cornwall to stay.

As my family job was mainly seasonal I decided to open my own record shop, “Chy an Stylus”, firstly in St Ives and afterwards at the bottom of The Terrace in Penzance, and I soon gave up the ‘day’ job to run the shop with my wife Liz until it closed in 1980. We were also renovating a derelict farmhouse and I was still a resident in the folk club for several nights a week. We had a good relationship with the local dance hall, The Garden / Demelza’s which was booking major up-and-coming bands like Queen and Dr Feelgood. Our shop was at the forefront of the punk movement and soon had a punk band rehearsing in its cellar (some of whom are still playing as “The Surgeons”), The Damned made a personal appearance, the Sex Pistols played the Garden, though nothing compared to the night the Ramones played Penzance – I still have the poster.

By the 80s the record trade had died, we had moved to another dilapidated smallholding and had a son. I filled in for a while as a builder then decided to farm full-time and acquired a small dairy herd of Guernsey cattle, which I milked until 1984 when the EU Milk Quotas made it impossible. Soon afterwards our second child, a daughter, was born.

Michael at the helm on the RNLI Lifeboat - his 60th birthday present.

At the helm, a fantastic 60th Birthday treat.

Throughout this chaotic career path I considered myself – with little justification – as a writer. I started at the age of ten and carried on through teenage poetry and songs, TV scripts, plays, half-books etc. I was first published in “Folk Review” magazine but all else was rejected. When the Penlee Lifeboat was lost with all hands in December 1981 I discussed writing a book about it with a friend from amateur dramatics days who happened to be the lifeboat Honorary Secretary, and he encouraged me to go ahead despite widespread opposition. It was to be another ten years before it was published – most publishers assured me that “people had forgotten about it”, but it is still in print today and about to go into a fourth edition. After the publication of “Penlee – The Loss of a Lifeboat” I joined the Penlee RNLI committee and later became its press officer. Also in the 1980s a small group of us formed a collective and published a monthly community magazine “Peninsula Voice”. This ran for nearly ten years with no personnel structure, no outside funding, no office, but plenty of talent, and is now something of a legend.

In 1985 a shop belonging to my family became vacant and Liz and I shocked all our friends by opening a small estate/letting agency, which has somehow survived through good times and bad until the present day.

In 1991 at the age of 45 “Penlee…”, my first book, was published. Strangely the publisher had formerly been the English teacher who first encouraged my writing in primary school. It was well-received by everyone (including John leCarre, and even more importantly by the families and crew at Penlee). After finally breaking through other books followed:

A history of St Michael’s Mount in 1999 – a travelogue around Mounts Bay in 2000 –  “The Rosebud and the Newlyn Clearances” in 2003 – a study of Lizard Serpentine and a history of Penlee Lifeboat both in 2005 –  and my first published novel “True Colours” in 2007. Both the “Rosebud” and “True Colours” won awards from the Cornish Holyer an Gof committee.

Through the nineties I had also begun writing newspaper columns and at one time was writing four a week – “Old Mike” in the Cornishman; “Country Byways” in the Cornishman; “Huer’s Call” in the Western Morning News and “Sidetracks” in the West Briton, as well as a monthly “Cornubian” in Cornwall Today. As well as supporting the RNLI I undertook several other voluntary activities – five years as a governor of Humphry Davy School (made more delightful by knowing how much my old headteacher would have disapproved) – five throroughly enjoyable years back in theatre as Deputy Director of StageStruck Youth Theatre Company, including performances at the Minack Theatre – Chair of Trustees of Golowan Festival – drummer in the Golowan Band, etc. In 2005 I was honoured to be elected a Bard of the Cornish Gorsedd.

Gallowan Festival, Penzance

Golowan Festival

At the end of 2006 the Golowan Festival organisation, which I had left several years before, collapsed. I volunteered to try to put together the 2007 Festival in addition to my full-time job, and continued as director for another three exhilarating but exhausting years. This was even further complicated when in 2009 I discovered the beautiful but derelict Ritz cinema and formed a charity to try to save it from demolition (happily it was bought for preservation by Merlin Cinemas in 2013 in the nick of time). All this put a stop to book-writing, but in 2014 I was commissioned by Amberley Publishing to write a full-length history of Penzance. “Penzance – The Biography” came out in May 2015 and has been very well received, and this led to another exciting commission, to write the new guide book for Godolphin House for the National Trust. Another first is the production of my play “The Rise And Fall of Magbeth” – a Shakesperian spoof on the career of Margaret Thatcher at the Minack Theatre in September.

My ‘spare’ time is spent on a small boat, watching the Cornish Pirates live and Manchester United on TV, walking a pair of Scotties, gardening, and playing guitar and singing, but above all I love spending time with my wife and family, living in Cornwall, and wondering what’s around the next corner…

Michael, Liz & Tom Sagar-Fenton

Myself, Liz & son Tom

Mike Sagar-Fenton with his daughter Beth

With daughter Beth

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