‘It’s lovely, you forget how blue it can be.’
– Conversation by Porthmeor beach, St. Ives.
Who makes the English?
A common History story. Regular defeat in football, cricket and rugby. The earth beneath the feet, the place of one’s birth or the place that one works, or lives to work, or works to live, whichever’s first. The national curriculum. The tax man, the lawyer, the politician, figures most loathsome. A driving licence, or other government documentation. Milky tea and stiff conversation. Roast beef and fried bacon. A bit of ooh err, hanky-panky and how’s yer father. Getting knocked out on penalties, again, again! A national anthem that no-one can sing. Ancient buildings where no-one’s been. A dragon-slaying Palestinian patron who never stepped foot in the land. Michael Caine, Lenny Henry and Brian Blessed. Bowler hats and a spiffing good day old bean. Unseasonably seasonal weather. Going to the dogs. And going to the dogs. Inexhaustible yet tedious moratoriums in the broadsheets about the national character. Embarrassment about, well, umm…, everything.
My sketch is affectionately ridiculous, because I want to point to how a collective identity, like being English, Cornish, Welsh or Scottish is something imagined. I’m not the first to make that point, but there’s something useful in considering it as a label or ’empty signifier’, absorbing different values and meanings imposed on it. To me, it suggests that just as it can be associated with anything from pisspoor football performance to the atrocities of imperialism, so it can be used to group together some common values and a desire for a new kind of political settlement, for a better kind of society. One where fair play, equality and equal opportunity, toleration, democracy and due process rule the day.
Travelling through Scotland, the label of a shared collective identity based on the ‘country’ was being effectively used to advance universal ideas about popular democracy and people’s sovereignty. It wasn’t an exclusive or xenophobic identity either: ‘Scotland’ was an inclusive term, incorporating those born there, those working, studying or living there at the moment, and those ‘honorary’ Scots who supported its development. (Let me add that I am proud to have been offered the role of Scottish ambassador to south east London by Chris in Edinburgh, a post I will gladly take up once the country becomes independent, however long this takes). I was impressed by the knowledge and energy of the young Scots I met, most of whom overwhelmingly supported independence. I didn’t write about it at the time, but I was thinking a lot about Ireland’s independence a century earlier, and the difficulties there (nothing given without a fight, though nothing won by fighting alone either). Language, sport, violence, religion, and material conditions were all shaped and mustered to create a new country out of the United Kingdom, where previously there had been eight hundred years of repression.
Identities are tethered to traditions, and how those traditions are constructed, giving them an appearance of being fixed. Take the English, and my sketch. Bring together three generations of whoever you wish, from Northumbria, Nuneaton and Norwich, and will it not make sense? But to the citizens of Nijmegen, Nairobi or Narbonne? Yet in the last three generations, traditions of employment, diet and lifestyle have substantially transformed. The problem is no longer scarcity but abundance, of a cheap, unhealthy kind. Poverty is no longer an issue of quantity but quality. The establishment of pensions, welfare and free healthcare – a victory achieved by an organised working class movement and social democrats – and the export of industries overseas has, in fairness, provided even the poorest UK citizens with a standard of life previously called ‘middle class’. This has had implications for any radical movement still clinging to pre-WW2 century conceptions of poverty and class that have yet to be satisfactorily explained.
Some call this a new era of ‘cognitive capitalism’, but the only new work that seems to going requires not thinking, in the supermarkets, call-centres and other services of the land. Not thinking is the norm, not thinking is convenient. Anxiety and stress also aids not thinking. Based on current government policies and those of the last thirty years, and the arrogance of those ministers in ignoring and overruling the democratic voice of the British people, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to suggest that free healthcare and universal welfare coverage (including a state pension) will become historical curiosities. I want that last statement to feel as outrageous and unthinkable as it was to type. Because what is thinkable and unthinkable, as opposed to not-thinking, is the property of common sense. And if there’s one thing that can’t be privatised, asset-stripped or sold off into the shadow banking system, then it is common sense. And that’s something just as open to change and adaptation as something like one’s identity. Recycling, being comfortable about homosexuality, or finding smoking repulsive are now common sense, whereas forty years ago were quite unusual.
As I’ve found whilst eating and drinking across these islands, lifestyles and diets are also in transition. Tourists in Cornwall sure do eat a lot of pasties, but the Cornish eat the same supermarket and mass-supplier takeaway grub as you find everywhere else. Variations are decreasing wherever they correlate with a cheaper, hence easier, way of life. Tesco towns, a Tesco way of life. Supermarkets seem to have taken over not only the high street, but have become often the primary employer and primary community centre in the towns and suburbs across these islands.
Even lifestyles and diets are splitting apart in contradictions: the cafe, takeaway and supermarket serve traditional meals that meet the high calorie needs of the industries, fishing, farming and gadget-free domestic labour, a kind of labour that’s largely disappeared. Unless you’re a postie, the average workplace has seen a marked decline in the physical intensity of labour required. A widening gulf between appetites and needs, and new psychological needs around food, from comfort, or class, to excessive self-control. At the same time, unregulated and irresponsible retailers have flooded shops with sugary snacks and energy drinks of which there was previously no market. New needs are being manufactured. The permeation and normalisation of energy drinks and personal digital technologies, particularly among children, is another new cultural development and one that reflects another chasm among generations whose implications are yet to unfold.
All this indicates that pre-existing forms of identity are in a process of transformation. One can sit on the fence about that, abdicate responsibility, claim that ‘identity’ is only the preserve of marginal groups, give up ‘the people’ and popular identity as the prerogative only of right-wing bigots, tourist offices and alcohol retailers. Or, something more creative can be done with it.
Nationally and internationally, manufacturing, wages and national gdp growth are stagnating, yet activities within banking are booming. Thomas Piketty’s bestseller earlier this year spelled out the problem: decreasing growth + increasing rates of financial return = rising inequality. But as Piketty argued, this is how capitalism works. There is no crisis, this is the norm. And so it is inherited wealth which makes all the difference, not the industry, determination or pluck of the Grantham shopkeeper’s daughter or the American Dream. Rather than being the ‘crisis’ it was presented as, the events of 2007-8 enabled capitalism to continue its reaping of financial returns with further government assistance.
Much of this recent increase in financial returns has been through ‘shadow banking’, in havens like those surrounding the British mainland, managed through the City of London. These profit-chasers continually need new markets to invest their capital in. Governments since Thatcher have encouraged this through ‘accumulation by dispossession’ as David Harvey calls it, through seizing publicly-owned utilities, housing and infrastructure and transferring them to private owners, allowing for new forms of profit from previously uneconomic areas. The damage has been obvious. On my trip I am beginning to notice new signs: hospital wards run by private health care companies; prisons run for profit by disreputable firms with unaccountable shareholders. Overseas, the damage is being demonstrated in developing countries, where during the same time-period expensive debt packages, international buyouts of formerly public-owned utilities and a pressure to create tax-free economic zones has plunged those countries into similar levels of debt. This logic will continue, til there’s nothing publicly-owned left to sell.
Now, if you were to throw a stone into the air, and that stone suddenly developed consciousness and self-awareness, what would it think? WTF, yes (though trust me, this example comes from Spinoza). But it might also think that it was free, and that this motion was of its own choosing. I’m flying in the air because I want to, and I’m heading to where I want to be. It’s pretty absurd, right? Aside from the silly image of a thinking stone, we can laugh at the stone for not being aware of the prior causes that forced it into motion. But with no freely-available yet influential source of news and political information, we’re like that stone, hurtling without control, babbling about the ‘cost of the bailout’ or welfare scroungers whilst ignoring the evidence of our eyes and the testimonies of the people actually around us. And any faith that the people, this pushed-down people just need to ‘get up’, ‘wake up’ or ‘discover’ these problems voluntarily is well-wishing. Surveys repeatedly indicate a startling ignorance among the population about the extent of crime, welfare fraud or non-white UK residents. In an era with access to free information, ignorance, bigotry and stupidity remain social facts. A sizeable number of people still vote Conservative, something that will never stop confusing me. Democratic decisions have always been based on emotions, not reason. This people doesn’t even know its name, doesn’t even know its born.
Crossing out of London and into the monotonous suburbia of Essex, I’ve seen the rapid rise of the UK Independence Party across southern England and the Midlands. There’s no reason to doubt that it will succeed at the next election, perhaps becoming the country’s third party. What do they offer? I’ve been hard-pushed to find anyone who can explain a policy of theirs. That’s not the point: their support has always stemmed from emotions, not reason. They recognise their popularity arises from representing a rejection of the Westminster political class. ‘End London rule’ as Scots nationalists shouted in Wick; something similar’s murmuring south of the border.
But theirs is a safety valve. Discontents around low pay, crumbling local infrastructure, unemployment and scarcity of affordable housing could be lobbed at the government. The growing realisation of the electorate that their quinquennial tick changes only the coloured ties of the cabinet could, properly articulated, force a constitutional crisis. UKIP offer a simple message that codes this swirling and multiform discontent: blame Europe. Blame European politicians for the country’s slide into oligarchy; blame Eastern European workers for the low pay and crap housing. Leave the European Union, job done. Show ‘the politicians’ a message (ah, this time they’ll listen!). All this gives the illusion of change by voting in some ‘outsiders’, who funnily enough happen to share the same backgrounds and powerful connections as, well, the insiders…
In the process, international business frees itself from European regulations, and the country further slides into a low-pay, low-tax haven for the international rich. Great news for the business backers and neoliberal ideologues that are starting to back the party. A momentary twitch of democratic power by disaffected voters. And after the fireworks subside, back to steadily declining wages, rising debts and worsening social conditions for the people, a people without common sense, a people without even a name. What happens next? If nothing else, this majority, this people without a name, may momentarily recognise that they have been rejected by the same political establishment, one merely appointed as administrators for financial capital. Rage, again, but by whom? If it is to be more than just a blip, this majority will need to go out knowing its own name, and demanding rights it will believe itself entitled to.
There is good reason to oppose in principle the unaccountable legal powers of unelected EU trade bureaucrats, without worrying that this is ‘conservative’ or anti-European. Tony Benn was a prolonged critic of the EU: ‘My view of the EU has always been not that I am hostile to foreigners but I am in favour of democracy’. But for a democracy, one firsts need a people. So, how to define that grouping and call on them to wake up and stand up for their rights?
What is ‘English’ (or ‘Scottish’, or ‘Welsh’) about the material forces that construct our social lives, and hold them in rigid shape? They are forces within an international field of economic relations. The directors and shareholders of the gas, electricity and water utilities we use, telecommunications through which we see and understand the world around us, the supermarkets that feed us, the public transport and cars that move us – each, more often than not, is internationally owned, and/or based in a tax haven. Receipt of income for the public good is not a priority for the current government, and more tax breaks are promised. In France, a recent study found that the majority of its public debt had come from declining tax revenues (so, caused by tax cuts to ‘attract’ foreign businesses and wealthy individuals) and through rising interest rates, making it more expensive for governments to borrow further. It’s not hard to recognise that low tax and high interest rates benefit international banks and those with significant investments in them. So, with more tax breaks promised and with a rise in interest rates looking inevitable once either quantitative easing comes to an end, alongside a possible new credit crisis of developing countries, then the current deficit and public debt will continue to massively increase. People on the Left warned that ‘austerity’ wouldn’t be the exception but the norm; the case in France adds just a little more evidence to that.
When was the last time that the English people possessed power over their own affairs? Apart from a brief flirtation with ‘King Oliver’, there has been no ‘English’-sourced royalty since the mid-11th century. A quarter-century back, Fredric Jameson theorised ‘postmodernity’ as the cultural condition of our late capitalist era. One feature was an inability to imagine the future (or, historicise the past), to be locked into a shiny, flattened eternal present. Since then, a few books have come out, dining on it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. Rather than bemoan apocalyptic movies, isn’t what’s being indicated here to do with history, and popular history? Uprooted and dispersed communities cannot pass down stories; a national curriculum that reports the triumph of English spitfires over Nazi monsters gives up nothing about the fight for the old age pension or contraception, of fair pay movements for women, of the establishment of the welfare state or the right to vote. Unable to conceive its history, the English are unable to imagine their future.
The English can recognise themselves in something, even if for now it remains a frustrated ‘British’ or UK(IP) nationalism. The Cornish have, so too the (north) Welsh and (urban) Scots. From my morning view in St. Ives, sitting on a stone bench outside St. Nicholas’ chapel on The Island, I worry about the future. I could keep sitting on the bench… figuratively!… and do nothing except observing and commenting on these depressing and worrying currents. Well, there’s no deadline on having to leave this bench. What harm in a little imaginary exercise?
So, the English people… I’m not thinking about ‘nation’ or ‘natives’: inclusion is in being resident, without some stipulation that one must ‘work’ or ‘contribute’ in the way other European constitutions hammer out. A constructed identity, built of a common history, language, values, and stated rights. Common rather than being exclusive. But a ‘people’ that knows its own name, and not some disorganised multitude like ‘the 99%’, grouped loosely around a single platitudinous issue, easily divided and dispersed.
But not a ‘class’ either – class is far too confused. Bring together ten strangers into a room, each of which must work in order to live, and ask them to define ‘working class’. I’d bet you’d have ten quite different answers, and probably heated disagreement. Cultural associations now muddy it, particularly around aspiration. ‘We’re all middle class now’, John Prescott announced in 1997, declaring a new era of social aspiration, of small share-holders, self-employment and the property ladder. Middle class didn’t mean ownership of property, but was synonymous with a set of individualistic social values. Ironically, all this in an era that’d see rising social inequalities. The forces that structured and gave shape to communities and a feeling of communalism, like geographically-static families, trade unions, pubs, industries, even churches, have diminishing influence. So if one hopes for a political movement for equality or emancipation from any class, then perhaps one should turn to the ‘middle class’: equality in television sizes, emancipation from the tax-man.
There are no ‘dreams of the people’, only individuals who collectively disrupt and demand as ‘the people’. It’s a construct, but a useful one. There is already a body of literature about English nationalism that’s been produced by liberals and socialists, from George Orwell’s The Lion and the Unicorn to Billy Bragg’s The Progressive Patriot. Owen Jones’ new book, The Establishment, makes a persuasive case for a ‘restoration’ of British democracy based on social need. But all of these accounts become vague or weak on the subject that undertakes political change. Outriders or think-tanks, common sense ‘waking up?’ Nothing’s given so easy.
Face the future and trace the possible outcomes of these economic and social transformations. They’ll be some damn good gadgets, and at least lager and cookies will stay relatively low in price, even if heating one’s cramped, crumbling dwelling has become an expensive indulgence. But the penetration of market-speak and profit-making into every area of social life will be damaging. I feel like we need to close England to international business, and open it to the people, the English, those who live in this old, distinct region. Choose not growth but degrowth, or, call a spade a spade: shrinking. Statutorily cap rents and costs of goods; close loopholes and quasi-dependent tax havens; and begin a new programme of infrastructure and home building that will create, employ and protect a large skilled workforce.
Reformism, apologist for bourgeois capitalism, discredited Keynesianism, living in the past, an economic catastrophe! My arguments are untimely and won’t please everyone. Nothing there is remotely sexy, but it is conceivable, and feasible, based on some historical precedent. To believe that producing any skilled industry in England is now impossible, as some on the Left do, feels defeatist: there are qualified engineers here, and sufficient natural resources and spaces yet to be tapped. First, it needs a people. Why do I not address Scotland, or Wales? Because they are already culturally distinct and at different stages of securing their independence. Many of the English wonder when they’ll become independent of Westminster. I’m hardly sure of what I’m arguing, but over the final few weeks, I still have a chance to test this out.
Well, that’s the weather forecast from St. Ives. I suppose I should get up off this bench and explore Cornwall…
I awake on The Island, a a grassy peninsula surrounded by the roaring Atlantic, and attached to the pretty seaside town of St. Ives like a weaker siamese twin. There are a few walkers roving across the undulating hills and grassy knolls, and my tent remains camouflaged and hidden, even in the bright light of the morn. My sleep has been restless and I’m tired. I pack up quickly, then wander over to the old and peaceful chapel to St. Nicholas, situated on a promontory overlooking the tumultuous seas, and sit awhile, and sit awhile, gazing at Porthmeor beach and the small town in the distance.
Artists have been drawn to St. Ives since the late 19th century, first attracted by the rugged unspoilt splendour of the landscape and its people, and the remarkable lucidity of its light. Whistler and Sickert began to stay for periods from 1889, and artists followed in their wake, notably Ben Nicholson, Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth during the 1920s-30s. The town celebrates its artistic heritage, though places a foot in the present too, demonstrated in the thriving number of artists schools and galleries around. I pop into the Tate St. Ives in order to connect with these different imaginations of the landscape around me. The building, closeted and imperious in its own way but airy and light inside, is a worthy container of a series of disappointing works, I find. Too much is given over to overly-formal, cold, and pretentiously intellectual works. The experiments in ‘Constructivism’ by Naum Gabo during the 1930s were heavily influential. In their use of geometric lines and abstract shapes, Gabo and others hoped to produce both a ‘spiritual’ and antifascist artwork. In their emphasis on cold abstraction and the subtraction of anything organic or human, even in sensual or symbolic form, they seem so feeble and ill-suited to their goals. If anything, the primacy of the cerebral and the refusal to realistically represent the horrors of political violence is a fitting reflection of the passivity and complicity of many western European states against the rise of Fascism during this period. That the critic Herbert Read could describe Gabo’s ‘Spiral Theme’ (1941) as ‘the highest point ever reached by the aesthetic intuition of man’ indicates this staggering blindness and pretentiousness. Or consider how Clyfford Still explains a yellow splodge in his abstract painting ‘1953’: ‘a reassertion of the human context – a gesture of rejection of any authoritarian rationale or system of politico-dialectical dogma.’
There are some interesting works here hidden among the mediocrity. Doesburg is more effective in communicating their ideas of universal order and social harmony through geometric shapes, though the experience remains cold. Kandinsky’s colourful forms are objects themselves, not illusions or attempts to represent material reality. Fine, but I think far more space could be given to local artists capable of producing a unique envisioning of the area, like the ‘naïve’ but evocative paintings of fishermen Alfred Wallis. The exhibitions are improved by their collections of works by Hepworth, and the English-Japanese pottery suffusions of Bernard Leach and Shoji Hamada, but I’m more stimulated by the views of Porthmeor beach and the surrounding seas when I eventually leave.
Leaving St. Ives along a south-west road, I cycle up a steep incline into a plateau of extraordinary and unspoilt wilderness. This is the West Penwith peninsula. To my left is sweet flowering heather and thick bracken, its glossy fronds flickering in the breeze; to my right, the turquoise bays that give way to the Atlantic. Cattle graze on the plains, and in the distance I trace a line of undulating hills that thread into each other like dinosaur teeth. All around me, thick grey rocks are strewn about the fields, as if flung by some inland giant, narrowly missing the ocean. I reach Zennor first, a small and isolated village. A cluster of buildings are strung together, each morosely grey and spartan in adornment, a contrast to the jaunty Mediterranean shambles of old St. Ives. I peer into a small church, where the legends of a mermaid from medieval times still survive in a small mermaid bench inside. There’s a memorial plaque to John Davey, who died in nearby in 1891. He was the last person with a traditional understanding of the Cornish language; inside, I find the Lord’s Prayer written in Cornish, and wonder if even back then Davey uttered those words in his ‘indigenous’ tongue, or that of the more common English.
D.H. Lawrence came to live in this small village back in 1915 in quite improbable circumstances. Such a contrast to Eastwood, which I passed through, and London, where he later lived. For the better? He thought so, at first, and wrote to John Middleton Murry and Katherine Mansfield in March 1916, describing this ‘tiny granite village nestling under high shaggy moor hills, and a big sweep of lovely sea … the best place I have been, I think’. Zennor Head, the ‘promised land’, he writes in Women in Love. He and his wife Frieda sought a similar kind of spiritual escape as the artists nearby, among ‘that fine thin air which nobody and nothing pollutes’. But their attempt to create a writers community with Murry and Mansfield quickly ran aground amidst arguments and tortuous fallings-out, later immortalised (from Lawrence’s view) in Women in Love. The couple were unpopular with the locals, and suspected of being German spies. They were summarily evicted in 1917 from the village under the Defence of the Realm Act. So ends Lawrence’s love affair with Zennor, and a fitting point to part ways with this strange and eerie village. Before I head out, I pass by the curious Wayside Museum, the Tinners Arms and down towards Zennor Head, lunching briefly whilst resting against a rock, before riding out west.
I’m charmed by the place names of Cornwall. There are the tre-, pol- and pen- villages, and the diverse forms these take. But I’m charmed by the names of the saints, of which so many villages are named after. Many do not appear on any early list of saints nor are mentioned elsewhere, like Ives, Endellion, Erth, Just, Burian, or Austell. Some were Irish missionaries, others Cornish hermits who survived on improbable diets and were martyred in unfortunate circumstances. It adds to the charm and uniqueness of the place, already reflected in the rugged and turbulent landscape.
The ride out of Zennor is a delight, along a narrow but quiet road that threads through plains blanketed in bracken and distant rocky tors in the distance. In one innocuous field, beside a tractor, a I spy a large standing stone. Further west, I stop at the remains of an engine house belonging to the Carn Galver tin mine. All around this area, going towards St. Just, you can trace in the distance the ruins of chimneys, engine houses and shafts belonging to an extensive tin and copper mining industry based here. Many were active until the late 19th century, though some mines remained productive until much more recently, as I’ll discover later. For now, the chimneys cast a spectral shadow over the rest of the landscape, and carry the same aura of prehuman timelessness as the distant crags and cries of the hunting-birds.
I suddenly realise that I have lost my bicycle pannier.
Where? It has my laptop in, my chargers, fuck, fuck… Panic kicks in quick. Where did I last see it? Zennor, possibly, but I can’t be sure. It may have fallen off anywhere on the road behind me, anywhere from here to the Island. And someone may have picked it up…
Frenzied, I pedal back to Zennor, past the ferns and the standing stones, past Old Gurnard Inn and the sleepy cattle. My catastrophic worries are, mercifully, cut short when a well-spoken old fella shouts at me in his car as he passes. I recognise him from Zennor Head, contentedly chewing his sandwiches besides me whilst I looked on. ‘You left a saddle bag? It’s still there’. Fortunately, a miserable drama is cut short. I find the bag, sigh with relief, then resume the ride.
I pass Carn Garver again, then detour off the coastal road at Morvah. After some difficulty I eventually find Men-an-Tol, one ring-shaped standing stone between two pillars, situated in a small field at a great distance from the road, and along a narrow and bumpy footpath untroubled by human life for some months. The bizarre shape of the stone has been likened to the ‘devil’s eye’, but I imagine it more like a science fiction portal between two worlds. During the Middle Ages, myth has it, locals believed the stone to possess magical healing powers. They would climb through the stone, hoping to be relieving of spinal pains, ague, or rickets.
The heather is flowering all around me. The fields are peaceful and undisturbed. I cycle up in search of another neolithic remain, this time Chun Quoit and Chun Castle. It involves another long and obscure trail into nowhere, and once again parts of my bicycle crash off against the rubble and bracken. The castle is unprepossessing to the eye, but I feel a remarkable tranquillity as I wander around it, alone and with a blissful absence of human life. Archaeological evidence suggests that tin mining occurred here around two thousands years ago. My imagination is having a field day, picturing Joseph of Arimathea and young Jesus bartering with the hard-headed and burly blokes of Cornwall. Further ahead is Chun Quoit, a giant dolmen like that at Carreg Coetan Arthur in Newport. The labour and purpose behind this remarkable arrangement of stones piled upon another is unusual and fascinating, though probably marking the site of a burial chamber, like Men-an-Tol. As I wander through the fern, I stumble into a middle-aged Australian woman whose sartorial style wouldn’t be out of place in Glastonbury, improbably here and also lost. We give each other directions as best we can, and travel in contrary ways. She is the first human life I’ve encountered in some hours.
From Chun Quoit, I push the bike down a very narrow and uneven footpath which eventually reaches the coastal road. I pass through Pendeen, an unusually large village for this area, built of the same austere grey brick and spartan style that suggests a mining community, like those cramped quarters of Northumbria and the Valleys, building the working class into their inferior place. Just down the way are a series of much larger mines, one of which remained active until 1990. I take a stop at Geevor tin mine.
Today it is a large visitor attraction, but by the time I arrive it is about to close. A poet could read into the implications of that, but I waste no time in finding out more about mining, and its relation to the surrounding community, from Rhonda, a worker at the museum.
‘It was a way of life’, she tells me. The closure of Geevor in 1990, opened back in 1911 and with reserves still remaining, ‘had a devastating impact’, she remembers, at the same time that she first moved to Pendeen. ‘I remember coming to the village, there was just a cloud of gloom, it was as if they were in mourning. … It was a generational thing, father and son. It wasn’t just mining’, she says, reflecting on what else was lost. ‘Other trades depended on it’. But she links the decline of mining with that of farming, and fishing. The economic costs in continuing these were outweighed by the social value of employment, passed through generations of family members and through friends in a specific community. These were not ‘jobs’ but ways of life, and they were successful and viable up until, I’d argue, the mid-to-late 20th century, when the prerogative of free-market capitalism penetrated these areas, subjecting workers to increased productivity, longer hours and lower pay whilst reducing their share of the value produced. ‘Dispossession by accumulation’, remember? On an international level, and against workers in developing countries paid on starvation wages, how could those fishers, farmers and miners compete? And so the copper in our smartphones now comes from the Congo; our greens, from Peru; and our fish, from Vietnam.
‘Those were the three main industries: mining, fishing and farming. Even farming’s in decline. Farmers are having to convert their barns and land into holiday lets. There’s just no money in it. And the younger ones, they’re not interested in maintaining the traditions, which is a shame’. But do they have a choice? What legacy have they been handed down? There is nothing to pass on: the full-scale disappearance of industries or a scarcity of jobs have killed off the first two. And who would step into aged father’s boots and galoshes and struggle each day, every day, for less wages than a family can survive on, never mind live well, and dependent on EU subsidies? I do not blame the young, and make this point to those I meet. I’ll never forget that encounter with Father Michael in Tongue, back in the rugged Highlands. ‘We’ve left the young a terrible inheritance. The world, the planet, the social problems for the young. I’m really sorry…’
I cycle out of Geevor Mine, and in the distance spy the shadow of the Levant mine, where 31 miners lost their lives after the shaft collapsed in 1919. St. Just shortly follows, a large village with a pleasant triangular space at its centre. I grab a half-price pasty at Warren’s, just as the bakery’s closing, then ride on out. It fusses over pleasantries like other frontier towns, but surrounding St. Just is just bleak nothingness. Those chimneys and shafts of the mines, but what else of 19th century life…? Nothing is left except these ruins of industry, as solemn and ruminant as the neolithic dolmens. Nearby is Cape Cornwall, once acknowledged as the ‘end’ of Britain until Land’s End by Sennen stole the accolade. The view is supposed to be spectacular, but lacking time, I continue down, cycling through the village of Sennen, and through to the true end of the land.
Shall I spoil the surprise? Many travellers will already be familiar with the garish and idiotic theme park that’s been built at Land’s End. See Arthur’s Quest in 4D! Experience 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea! So boring West Penwith would be without these! It’s only mildly offensive, though at least there’s no charge to ride through and reach the jagged maws of the coastline. Drink in the view. Countless thousands of walkers and cyclists have pushed themselves to breaking point to reach this place, the most south-westerly point. I meet four Chinese students, whose photo besides the famous signpost I take. They’ve travelled across the country after finishing their studies, and are more awkwardly polite than I’m accustomed to, but very friendly. I talk to a woman waiting for a group of cyclists to arrive, this their terminus from John o’Groats. Otherwise, I spy no-one completing a personal marathon. The charges for a photo are similarly steep, and trade equally weak. Besides the ‘first and last refreshment house’ (oh, save us!), the Atlantic surges and roars with typically magisterial fury.
Most roads from here reach Penzance, but I’m inclined to continue cycling off the major roads and along wayward trails. Who cannot smile at passing a series of road signs warning speeding motorists about a wandering deaf cat? I love all this. I take the road west but detour off, riding through St. Levan. I’m too late today, but I pass the road down to Porthcurno, site of the open-air Minack Theatre and where telegraph wires with North America surface. Further ahead is St. Buryan, an isolated village with a solo pub, church, and post office, stickered in archaic services and homely local events. Farmers call and chat to each other amiably in the street. Sam Peckinhah’s violent paranoiac thriller Straw Dogs was filmed in this village, the story of an overly-intellectual mathematician and his ‘sexually liberated’ wife who move to the area and eventually find themselves at war against a malevolent, dangerous and wilfully ignorant local community. Over-dramatised echoes of David and Frieda in Zennor? Possibly. The story was utterly far-fetched even then, but one remarkable characteristic of this wild West Pentwith peninsula is the relative lack of holiday homes or tourist towns. Get away from the attractions, and this remains a remote and enchanting landscape. Today has been such a pleasure, just one given over to pure exploration.
Down a spindly little road, I ride to Lamorna. The rough vacant fields of ferns, rocks and little else now give way to lush and overspilling forests. The blackberries are very sweet in the hedges here, like boiled sweets. I plunge down towards Lamorna Cove, a delightful haven away from the world, but then there’s a brutally steep hill back up. The chain comes off, bastard! I struggle on up, though my mind is ready to mutiny, so tired and hungry, and today’s exertions have been continually hampered by the moods of my bike.
After Lamorna, a final neolithic mystery: the Merry Maidens. A circle of nineteen granite stones stand in a field. Alienated by five thousand years of history, myth today suggests that they are the petrified forms of nineteen girls, turned into stone for dancing on the Sabbath. As I arrive at the edge of the field, I hear a female voice singing harmoniously and beautifully, somewhere in the distance. I trace where I think it’s coming from, but the most thick and gnarled thorns obstruct an overgrown footpath between her and I. It is most mysterious. I’m surprised to find no-one by the stones, nor anyone nearby. I have no idea about their symbolic significance or ceremonial usage, but in the evening sun I am ready to let my head fall back and hit the grass, as I lie down and just listen to the gentle quietness about me.
Penwith does not cease in its pleasures, and I can count today as one of the most wondrous of all these adventures. I ride on, cycling down through the lovely old fishing village of Mousehole. The sun glows heavily in the horizon, a bright and tangy ochre. Families are strolling down towards the harbour, bellies rumbling with thoughts of a luxury fish dinner. Further down the road is Newlyn, a place I love best. It is a large fishing village dominated by its harbour. There was once an artists’ colony here too, and its gallery remains significant, whilst the Chartist leader William Lovett was born here. It remains one of the largest fishing ports in the country, and past the tumbling and cramped fishermen’s terraces perched over steep hillsides, a large and fairly-thriving port can be found. I wander by the family-owned fish export companies, where local pilchards and other unpopular fish are sold overseas to Italy and Spain, whose cuisines are more open and accommodating to them. I grab some fish at the sole chippie in town, Lewis, where the staff bicker with each other and a queue of holiday-makers totter from foot to foot in bored and hungry apprehension.
I take my chips and mushy peas (nowhere near the gustatory grace of Scotland or the north!) and wander down to the harbour, where I make conversation with a local fishermen. He invites me into their ‘market’, a large harbour-side warehouse, where freshly-landed fish are being thrown onto a conveyor-belt which weights each before distributing them in various iced boxes. Another fishermen tells me that they catch ‘everything’ here, and gives me a long list of fish types which I quickly lose count of. Another shows me the iced fish in each box and explains what each is. The workers are all quite bemused that a stranger like me has wandered in and started asking about their work, but each is patient and friendly in explaining how the process works. As I leave, another gives a less optimistic prognosis. Trade has been hit bad by declining stocks and European competition, and the future is uncertain.
It’s getting dark now, around nine PM, and I’m pretty exhausted. My final stop is just up the road, mercifully, so I ride the short way up to Penzance. I take a stop at an out-of-town Lidl to pick up some cereal. Inside, I talk to Jenn, a warm-hearted young local who tells me about being homeless, her love of Penzance and of stone circles. She’s surprised that wild-camping’s even a thing, and we laugh about it. I wish others knew. In the Co-op next door (I’m seeking out supplies), another local guy tells me about how routine it is to work three or four jobs, and gives his wife as an example. He smiles when I ask him about Cornish independence. Though he doesn’t know anyone who speaks Cornish – he thinks it might be useless for children to learn – he thinks there should be a Cornish Assembly. ‘Those politicians in Westminster, Cameron, they don’t have any idea how it is in our distant corner’, he says, smiling. The English desire for independence from Westminster once again.
Originally, I’d arranged to couchsurf in Penzance, but as is unfortunately often the case, I was blown out at fairly short notice. I decide to stay in a youth hostel for the night, where with various discounts I can get a bed for a tenner. It’s a chance to shave, wash, charge my phone, and eat a hot meal. After a little ride around Penzance I find the hostel, very much out of town, and settle in for the night. Weary and tired, I eat my rice and beans til time disappears, and sleep creeps up on me again.
One thought on “Day 107: St. Ives to Penzance”
Glad that you managed to get that fantastic ride between St ives and St Just on the scenic coast road-I love that stretch with the moors looking over the sea, the mines, and the neolithic stones. You passed right by my caravan, just under Chun qoit (your farm picture with the back end of a cow on it!). If you ever return with your wife, I can give you the caravan details for an inexpensive holiday.