‘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.
‘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 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.
‘And on the eighth day, God opened his bowels and out came…’ – Russell, Orkney, on home.
A weird young man greets me on the road leaving Auckengill where I slept the previous night. In the midnight confusion, what seemed like the disused remains of a former country lane turned out to be a road drainage ditch. Once nestled inside my tent, I could hear and feel great piles of discarded plastic bottles and car debris crumpling under the thick grass. The cool morning and unfamiliar landscape is already disorientating.
He has a large rock tied to the back of his bike, and dons an old farmer’s tweed blazer and a pair of dirty jeans, several sizes too large. At first I can’t understand him. Accents have changed since Wick, gas a more lilting and Irish twang, a kind of Hollywood attempt at rural Irishness. That’s not to make light of this distinct north eastern Highlands lilt. Kevin asked me where I’d heard the best spoken English. ‘I’m not sure, everywhere I hear good and bad’, I’d told him. I don’t think there is a good model. He disagrees, and says that it’s in the Highlands. ‘Here people speak most clearly. We’re the easiest to understand, it’s our articulation’.