Sunday, May 04, 2008

May Bank Holiday Angst

Early May always finds me slightly maudlin and homesick. And, this year in particular, a couple of recent discussions - one with my best friend Huw and one with Tom Hodgkinson - have dropped me even deeper into the swamps of feeling-sorry-for-myself. I'm in a real quandary. Something that has been for 30 years a never-wavering goal for me has suddenly become the subject of much internal debate and angst. And I'm not sure what the outcome will be. It concerns Cornwall and whether I want to live there.

Even at an early age, I was interested in sourcing my own food.

In many ways, I have been extraordinarily lucky. I grew up in a solid, caring family. It was never a big family - it's even smaller now with the untimely death of my father, my grandparents and one of my two uncles - but we always looked after each other. We lived in a succession of ever-lovelier places in Cornwall: Launceston, Blackwater (nr Truro), Penzance, Helston, Binnerton, St Erth and now the family homestead is in Hayle. And, as I've said previously, I enjoyed an almost idyllic childhood. I ate amazingly well as we grew most of our fruit and veg (or bartered it with other home-growers), and we lived on freshly caught game like rabbit and pheasant and fish with occasional chicken, lamb and pork from neighbouring farms. I had great schools and inspirational teachers. I wasn't bullied and I had great friends - true friends like Huw Williams, Phil Gendall and Tom Matthews; people I am still friends with now nearly 30 years after leaving school. I had glorious beaches and acre upon acre of countryside to play in. And in Helston, the town in which I spent the best years of my Cornish life, there was a strong sense of community, the main focus of which was the annual Flora Day celebrations on May 8th. Just pump 'Flora Day, Helston' into Google to see what it looks like. It's a fantastic, mental day of 24 hour dancing, celebration and Cornish tomfoolery. Early May was always a time of great joy for me (apart from Flora Day, there's the Padstow Obby Oss, the St Ives Parades ...)

My brothers Andy and Simon and me at Botallack. I was the face of Ladybird clothing.

Now, that last paragraph wasn't intended to be in any way gloating. I'm just scene-setting. That's how I remember Cornwall. But I was lucky. For many others it was a terrible place to live. Cornwall has never been the rural paradise you see on TV and the holiday brochures. For the people who live there, life can be tough. It has the highest unemployment rates in England. It's so far from the centres of industry and, until recently, the road links were so crappy that companies didn't want to set up there. The tin and copper mines slowly shut down. The fishing fleets grew ever smaller and the farms found themselves battling against Euro red tape, foot and mouth, BSE, rising feed costs and the constant pressure of cheap foreign imports (it may scare you to know that some of the so-called British beef in your supermarkets comes from South America but, due to a legal loophole, can be called British because it was processed here). Therefore, even as far back as 1979 when I left home, my job prospects were limited. Most work was seasonal and tourism-based. So unless I wanted to stay living at home forever, I, like most of my generation and the generations since, had to move away. Most of us didn't really want to go but if we wanted any choice of career or possibility of advancement, it's what we had to do. And, for 29 years all I've wanted to do is return like some love-sick homing pigeon.

Me dancing the Furry Dance on Flora Day with Deborah Gritten. Phwooaaarr.

All of which brings me to my quandary. Now that I am close to being able to move back down there, I find myself - for the very first time - questioning my motives. Do I really want to live that far away from my kids, and Dawn's family, all of whom are in the South and South-East? Do I want to be so far from London and other major cities where my agent and publishers and TV and film companies are all based? Do I want to move away from the many good friends I've made here? For a long time, I've always been able to say 'Yes' to those questions as the pull of Cornwall and its culture was always so strong. But in the past year or so I've found that the magnet is losing its power.

I was in Penzance late last Summer and spent at least 10 minutes walking in and out of shops in Market Jew Street before I heard a Cornish accent. Nearly everyone was either a holiday maker or a second home owner or someone who had retired to the area. Later in the same week I was in St Ives and couldn't actually go about my business because of the weight of tourists. In Mevagissey, an old friend pointed out to me that almost every cottage around the harbour was empty as they are now holiday lets and the locals have been priced out of the market (Cornwall is still the poorest county in England). In my beloved home town of Helston, the evening streets were full of the ubiquitous Chavs (or Neds as they call them in Scotland - a much better name I think) drinking and being abusive and using a strange form of estuarine English with a barely Westcountry twang. And a sudden realisation hit me: What I want to return to is the Cornwall where I grew up. But it's gone.

Me, a gun and two gun dogs. About as far from shopping at Tescos as it is possible to be.

It's no surprise to me that there's been such a huge rise in nationalism as the very foundations of the Duchy are crumbling. All sense of what makes Cornwall unique is vanishing. Every town centre is a homogenous shrine to McDonalds, Aldi, Tesco, Greggs and oh so many pound shops. The estate agents' windows boast prices on a par with London even though most of the locals earn half of what they'd need to get on the first rung of the property ladder. Ex-industrial towns like Camborne, Redruth and St Austell just look run down and depressed. Outrageously priced car parks fleece even the locals for the right to visit the seaside. And, most depressing of all, at Lands End - the most romantic place in Cornwall - you now have to pay to sit through an audio-visual 'experience' to show you what the place was like - rugged, natural, untamed - before they built all of their theme park crap all over it.


So unless they invent a time machine, I may well end up staying a little further East. The Cotswolds are just as beautiful as Cornwall. So are Dorset, Somerset, Wiltshire and Devon. Any of them would make me a very happy man I'm sure. And because they sit around halfway between my life up here and my life down in the South-West, visits to one or the other would be manageable enough (it's a four hour drive between them at the moment). And the house prices are substantially cheaper than in Cornwall and the South-East. So maybe I should be looking in new directions?

It's difficult. The lure of Cornwall is still strong - I still think of it as home despite having now lived longer out of it than in. If I don't return to live there, I risk missing out on the unique flavour of the ancient kingdom of Cornwall; the richness of its culture, traditions and folklore, the joy of its landscapes, the warmth of the Cornish people ... but I'm no longer sure they exist any more.

And without them, Cornwall is just another county that's too far away.



The Factory said...

I know exactly how you feel, as I have the same thoughts about Norfolk, where I grew up. A few years ago I moved back there after a decade in London, hoping to recapture my childhood. Sadly things didn't pan out the way I planned, and many of the things happening in Cornwall have also happened there.

Most of the best houses are owned by people from London who hardly ever go there, and thus the prices are not affordable for the locals. There has been a mass infiltration from other parts of the country, mainly London, and the chances of finding a real Norfolk accent are slim. The crime rate has soared, and a sprawl of ugly housing estates has sprung up to accomodate all the new people.

I finally moved away in March after failing to find what I was looking for. I will always love the place, and plan to visit it often, but my childhood has gone, and it's a bitter pill to swallow.

Stevyn Colgan said...

It's like reading my own thoughts in a mirror.

Norfolk, I know, has really become quite 'sexy' in recent years just as Cornwall has. I was in Scotland and Ireland a lot last year, and the same is happening around Edinburgh and Dublin. It seems the best way to preserve a place's essential character is to fight tooth and claw to stop the developers and local authorities from trying to 'raise the profile of the town'. We're going through this at the moment in nearby High Wycombe. The entire town centre has been redesigned with a huge shopping mall, cinema, bowling alley ... and the very reason I moved out here - because it was a quiet market town - has suddenly gone. It now looks just like Reading or Watford or Hemel Hempstead or any other of London's satellite clones. So I moved further out last year ... and now I'm contemplating another move westwards. Hence my dilemma.

Thanks for the comment ... er ... Factory. What sort of a name is that anyway? Are you large and angular and full of complex assembly machinery and disillusioned workers?

The Factory said...

What also makes me sad is that when these large developments are planned, almost no thought seems to go into making them beautiful. They are just utilitarian, grey and faceless. Just like the towns they are slowly ingesting.

I am quite large, and a bit angular I suppose. However there is no complex machinery here, and the only worker is me. And I'm not half as disillusioned as I used to be.