‘The world’s changing.’ – Colin, Christow.
I’ve stayed the night in Plymouth, with Imke, Andrew and their three teenage children. Their large family home is cluttered with the treasures of lives well-lived. Down at the breakfast table, I drink coffee slowly and talk with Andrew, a farm manager back in Cornwall.
He sees himself as one of the last of this dying way of life, and is pessimistic about the future. ‘Young people now, they don’t want to work hard’. Would more and better-paid apprenticeships make a difference? ‘No, no’ he chuckles, heavily. ‘People just don’t want to do hard work.’ As a child, there would be long days at school, and then ‘we used to go into the fields in the evenings, and the weekends, picking spuds’. He looks back on these scenes with disappointed nostalgia, like the veteran of a narrowly-defeated platoon. Like many experienced farmers, he describes his work not in terms of animals but of food, working with ‘beef, some corn, some lamb’. Despite his experience, he owns no farm himself, but manages one for a retired couple who have bought some land as a ‘hobby’. By contrast, he describes the farming culture he grew up in as ‘a way of life’, as others do.
This culture has been a blessing and a curse on farmers. Unable to take up any other employment, they’ve been ground down into accepting decreasing pay for their produce. The public have (mostly) wrongly associated them with CJD disease, bloodsports, GM foods and the needless slaughter of badgers, when instead responsibility lies with conflicting government directives or the toffs who own much of the countryside. Meat and veg have become unsavoury. Apples and potatoes must now conform to an ad-agency’s glossy image of roundness or greenness, or supermarkets will not sell them, claiming we will not buy them. The general public has become ignorant of its own food production. Fruit must be chopped into ‘five a day’ salad bags; meat must be de-boned, skinned and bread-crumbed. A niche has opened up among the urban middle classes for organic and ethically-nourished foods. Unaware of the necessary intensity of food production to feed a massive human population cheaply, the criminal antics of massive agricultural companies have been conflated with the everyday practices of farmers. Ask for immediate word associations with ‘farmer’ among your average town-dweller, and the results will not be positive.
‘Before there’s something new, there must be the death of the old’.
– Samantha, inside the Sahara, Falmouth.
A young woman is meditating right besides my tent, as I clamber out and blearily rub consciousness back into my eyes. I’m perched by the remains of Little Pendennis on the edge of Falmouth, a place where the average man and woman come to walk the dog, peer out at the distant tugs in the Bay for a moment, before boredom shoves them back into their cars. I wouldn’t mind a car. I’m getting worn out, mentally, particularly. Loneliness is singing its bitter catchy melody. One thing or another cheats me of a good night’s sleep. But at least I have the weather. This September has been unusually hot and dry, and the waterproof gear which I rarely took off during August has become crumpled and forgotten at the bottom of my bag. And improbably, there must still be some money left in my bank account, as my occasional card payments for a pint here, bag of granola there and ice-cream yonder are still going through.
So, this meditating girl…
She smiles as I wander over, and we get talking. Her name is Samantha, and she lives in a camper van, parked just nearby. She’s seeking a reliably safe and undisturbed spot to park for the next couple of weeks whilst she starts a full-time crafts course at the university. Something about the possibility of movement is very important to her. Despite the looming winter, she plans to live permanently in the van. She’s found a farmer somewhere nearby who will let her stay in his field for £80 per month. I am intrigued! She laughs, and invites me in for a cup of tea.
‘The poor man, he asked me what do I want, as if I knew…’
– street talk, Falmouth.
For most of its history, Cornwall has not been considered a part of England, but a separate country in itself. Over the last few days I’ve explored its unusually rugged, desolate and mysterious landscape, one where neolithic dolmens and hillside forts stand besides ruined chimneys of tin and copper mines. Few people, few signs of settlement. The terrain seems to reject any settlement. Each act of building feels like a tenuous incursion, one that’ll be washed or blown away by the storms and the sea, unless it meets with the approval of this magic landscape. If so, some air must hover it over it, rendering it jagged, granite-like, immovable and ancient in appearance. The extinction of humankind will not disturb this place. One can picture the great rows of satellite dishes, like those I’ll pass today, surrounded by glossy bracken and covered in lichen, still receiving the faint bleeps of satellites circling in orbit, obsolete, our final trace along with the concrete ziggurats and plastic waste.
The Atlantic lashes against the snarling coastline with unusual ferocity, and the maws of each secluded bay hide the remains of countless drowned men and wrecked ships. There is only one cathedral in the entire county, a late 19th century extravagance in Truro, built when Cornwall was starting to fall under the culture of England. As Wilkie Collins wrote around this time, in Cornwall ‘a stranger is doubly a stranger’. Elsewhere there are countless incidences of very different religions, from the innumerable standing stones to the frequency of non-conformist chapels serving the fishing and mining communities.
‘It’s pure viridian’ – Marianne, Halangy Down, St. Mary’s.
Long distance cycling can affect you in all manner of ways. First, there’s the continual smiling, laughing and singing. It’s impossible to keep a straight face as you plunge down a quiet cliff-road and into some tranquil fishing village or secluded aquamarine bay. Pleasure is your mainstay, even on those stiff hills back up again. Then there’s the loquaciousness. Starved of friends and loved ones, you’ll find yourself making conversation with absolutely anyone around. There is a very basic need for contact and communication with others. This, like the singing, or a new awareness and sensitivity to the weather and climate, are abilities that you’ll probably have neglected or not realised you had. The shape of the clouds or the cut of the breeze are things you can read. Experience corrects instinct, until one can glean the same information from these as a mundane work email. And then, strangest of all, is sleeping. Or a lack thereof. Despite the long gruelling days I am struggling to sleep for more than five or six hours. Perhaps this isn’t a common experience. Overstimulated with sights and scenes, my dreams are turbulent and often leave me as weary when I awake as when my head hit the pillow (– or forearm, as is the case when wild-camping).
I’m up early in Penzance, at a youth hostel on the edge of the town. The dorm is deserted except for a friendly old German man, who tells me about his Catholic faith and his travels across England. Rarely one finds any youth in these hostels, particularly from these islands. One can stay (or live) in these places very cheaply, but I can understand why. The thought of holidaying in the British islands elicits heavy laughter and grumbles about the weather. Yet these last few months, I’ve rode through one of the warmest summers, and never before has my skin been so tanned . The morning is cool but clear, and I cycle by the quiet and grey promenade to the Penzance’s busy harbour, where I wait to board the large Scillonian III boat. I’m leaving the mainland for a day trip out to the Isles of Scilly, a rocky archipelago set apart from the south-western tip of Cornwall.
‘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.
‘I think boyfriends are irrelevant, because of what’s happening to the planet. This is about the planet, and it’s called ‘Foolish Man’.
– Open mic night at the Kettle and Wink, St. Ives.
The feeling from up above Greenaway beach is serenity. I climb out of my tent and into a clump of shrubbery, all that protects me from the suspicious glares of dog-walkers behind me, or an easy tumble down into the maws of the seas below. This beach is special in the memories of people I met yesterday. It was also preserved in poetic aspic by John Betjeman, the poet who died and was buried by here.
‘I know the roughly blasted track
That skirts a small and smelly bay
And over squelching bladderwrack
Leads to the beach at Greenaway.’
‘You don’t buy and sell idiots. You don’t buy and sell chavs, like you do here.’
– conversation in a Trebetherick boozer.
The dawn light suffuses into the open cottage living room where I’ve slept. As it creeps across the ceiling wall, these dusty dressers and dining tables seem to shriek and recede, shrinking from incongruously large shapes to something more everyday. This cottage has been uninterrupted for many decades. The walls could crumble into nothing in your hands, but are strong and robust, like the hives of termites. It breathes an aged air, exhaustedly occupying the intelligence of its years like a hyperthymesic savant. The carpets and furniture have been preserved in tea and tapioca pudding, board games and bridge, and quiet disagreements, stiffly stewing the atmosphere as lips are chewed, from the christening of a child’s name to the executors of the selfsame will.
Cast open the curtains. Today, the sun has risen without an email alert. No alarm clock stirred the cattle from the warmth of their grassy-belly-beds. The songbirds flittering over those hedgerows had no automated reminders or morning emails to motivate them from their slumber. Tammy’s doggy, still coy from the kick of a malicious horse, has not been reassured of his existential importance by Facebook or Twitter notifications. This delightful late-summer morning is not trending. Such losses, theirs!