‘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.