The End of the Line: Christmas and New Year in Penzance

I’ve been making the perennial pilgrimage to Penzance for some years now. My mother moved us there from maritime Greenwich, a town full of nautical product placement, when I was eleven. The change felt natural to me. It’d been our holiday destination for years. Who doesn’t want to go on holiday forever? I imagined it would be permanent. In keeping with every important assumption I’ve ever made, I was wrong.

Mum was soon restless, isolated, perhaps even bored. The family she’d fled became missed; such is the romanticising tendency that blights us all from time to time, informing wordless catch-ups. Disillusioned, she pulled the plug. I was fourteen. I wasn’t ready to go yet. Cornwall is a gift to the very young. I had four years of feeling alive left in me at least.

Most Cornish youth remains grateful until they’re old enough to enter wage slavery. Up to that point you don’t have a care in the world; you’re free to explore coves, copper beaches and market towns peppered with palm trees. That’s right, real palm trees! In England! It’s a mysterious land of nooks and stony country divided by skinny roads. For a tadpole the Cornish landscape is childnip. I missed it when it was gone.

Seven years later, again sick of the metropolis and in search of that enchanted place from her childhood holidays, my Mother was back and this time permanently. It was too late (and many decades too early) for me. Since the land of Du Maurier passed away, employment for young bucks and does is a joke with a flat punch line. Cornishmen and women must be industrious in a land without industry. Starting your own business; a restaurant, a craft shop, a porn production company; is the antidote to low wages. There’s a smattering of jobs for would-be bureaucrats; the government provides as it does in other ailing economies; but for those wishing to avoid a matt existence in this colourful world, art is the only growth industry. If you can’t create, the road to retirement can seem so very long.

The land seems made for artists, which is fortunate because their numbers run grains of sand a close second. Art is the last tranche of the Cornish economy to be truly self-sufficient. The landscape provides the painters, for they’re mostly painters, with sustenance and these pastiches are sold back to the locals who hang them in view of the very thing painted. It’s not an imaginative cottage industry but it beats working for a living and it shows the essence of the Cornish character; they’re dreamers, contemplators and craftsmen. They’re enchanted by their talismanic topography.

The Journey

For a fortnight a year, Christmas and its aftermath, I pack my books (a couple of which I may even read) and board the Great Western train at Paddington for the six-hour journey. This was indeed once The Great Western Railway, Brunel’s towering achievement, and the route remains great, flanked by Devonshire Tors, lush forest, Dawlish’s red cliffs, complete with geology’s best known stab at pornography, a phallic rock formation indecently jutting from the waterline, and that final approach to Penzance with its welcoming smile crescent.

Nowadays the Great Western trademark has been co-opted by another of privatisation’s failed rail companies. Victorians must have imagined greater luxury as the age of the train advanced; one shares their imagined disappointment at these filthy carriages and what passes for toilets – non-flushing bogs with a generous deposit of urine and excreta from your fellow passengers. The bowel fill is dark, the stools diarrhetic; that’s train food for you. The automatic taps are ornamental, the hand-towel, the kind that’s fed through the dispenser on an unhygienic loop, is sodden, through it’s a mystery as to how when the tap head remains dry. It’s hard to imagine a vehicle less suited to Brunel’s seminal piece of engineering. No one uses a horse to ride a rollercoaster.

After Plymouth the character of the train changes. An intercity choo choo stuffed with businessmen and families becomes a local service traversing the county’s lone thoroughfare. In the 19th century this was a channel of iron with many tributaries. Those lost destinations, like Bude and Perranporth, can now only be reached by road. Beeching’s act of vandalism dismembered what was once a comprehensive network.

Once you’ve crossed the bridge into Cornwall it takes a further two hours to reach Penzance. That’s two hours to cover seventy-eight miles. It took just three to plough through the previous two hundred and twenty. Now the train is two thirds empty, a lawless bone rattler with pockets of old hippies and bored kids travelling between stations to visit other bored kids. Shouting and hyperactive pacing from one end of the carriage to the other is not uncommon. The old carpet is worn. The guard, usually a local man or woman who got on at Plymouth and only works this graveyard stretch, is never anywhere to be seen. There’s nothing these kids could do to this train that a seasoned commuter would notice. Besides, that guard led a similar band once.

When at last you approach the terminus, quite a bit older than when you left, there’s the sense of the exotic to compliment that stubble: salty air, crying gulls (it’s impossible to know if they’re welcoming you or warning you off) and the odd native, waving you by on the coastal path to Marazion. Once I’d have waved back.

Arrival and Beyond

The tourists, resented by the very people who rely on them for their livelihoods, come in summer when the sea is cobalt and the microclimate trumps the continent. In winter, when the only visitors are returning émigrés and men visiting their mothers, the Cornish Riviera is grey and deserted. Perhaps this is what Penzance looked like before the railway, a town plunged into morbid darkness at the close of business.

The week before Christmas I arrive in the early evening and the only flickers of life are to be found behind the windows of pubs. Market Jew Street, that hasn’t seen a Jewish face in a century, is part illuminated by fairy lights and patrolled by the odd delinquent. The elderly stay in; barricaded in their nearby fisherman’s cottages. They fear Lithuanian immigrants and kids with flick knives.

Those that were here twenty years ago know that the real enemy is within. I walk past the picture gallery that was once a newsagent; I remember the girl who worked behind the counter and was suddenly gone one morning and the report in the local news that revealed her fate: strangulation by her boyfriend’s hands. I remember my mother’s friend regaling us with a charming anecdote about her abused neighbour who turned up, like a character in a bad soap opera, in a filthy pit dug by her husband in their back garden. This vigilant member of the neighbourhood watch listened to the victim getting pulped every night, her screams muffled behind the thin partition, and minded her own business. Oh Lithuania, send us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses!

Hopeful chip shop proprietors smoke in their doorways and look despondent as I pass trailing my suitcase. Its wheels weren’t designed for the cobblestone surface. It regularly tips over. The intermittent patter of wheel over stone is deafening. How can those food shacks survive with fewer than five people on the street? I pass a missing person poster in a newsagent window: “Have you seen Madeline Trenchard, age 13?” There’s my answer. My pace quickens; they can sense my imperiousness at twenty clicks; it’s time to get inside and sample my Mum’s only discernible dish – Spaghetti Bolognese, and start riding out what’s left of the evening.

When I began to return to this place on a regular basis, perhaps five years ago, I became obsessed with rekindling lost ties. It seemed like the most natural thing in the world to do, like visiting the site, now a cul-de-sac, where my Victorian school building once stood, or trying to find the 16th century pub lit by gas lamps that I’d once discovered on the road to St Ives. I believe a bigamist drank there. Penzance is the last outpost. You feel that you could knock on all the old doors and the same people would open them. It’s not true of course, they’ve moved a quarter mile down the road, but your school friends are still here. They’ll always be here.

Parochialism is a pejorative in the city, anathema to the pluralist outlook that flatters the London psyche. Here it’s often a virtue. The land seizes the locals at birth and pulls them close. This is a grip to challenge a black hole. Bewitched by tranquillity, by nature’s bounty and its simplifying effect on life, few see a future beyond the county limits. That bridge that borders the Tamar, a valiant attempt by Brunel to provide a way out, may as well not be there.

At first I was astonished to meet a girl who could count the times she’d left the place on one hand with fingers to spare. She’d never leave Cornwall, she said, it was everything she knew and wished to know. Initially that thought terminating tendency shocked me. There was a whole world out there; a sinister, dangerous world, packed with new experiences; why would anyone turn their back on that? Then I remembered something; this place had once felt like the world to me too. You don’t feel like life is passing you by here, you feel like you’re getting to know it.

In summer the economy in this town is fed by hoards of holidaymakers and, to the understandable chagrin of county lifers, Londoners, who’ve bought holiday homes on the sea front; homes abandoned when the weather turns. In a part of the world where housing is at a premium, so every barn, outhouse, shed and grave plot has been converted, there’s just resentment that the best homes lie vacant or that you’re paying your absentee landlord’s mortgage during those austere off-season months. Thirtysomethings in Cornwall, as across the nation, find the housing market to be an unbridled scam in which the haves have a bit more and make it impossible for the have nots to join in. But few elsewhere know a buy-to-let occupation like this one. The money only flows into Cornwall one way. The free market keeps the natives servile.

Attitudes harden in the face of this legal exploitation. In the evenings, when there’s little to do except retire to that pastiche of a pub, the local Weatherspoons, and meet up with old schoolmates, you can catch the fallout. As a refugee from the big smoke I’m the problem personified and before long, after the cursory questions about city life, I’m listening to talk that would sing Cornish nationalists to sleep.

There’s a desire to possess the county, claim it for its own and churn up some old myths, in the land of myth and legend, like the oft touted claim that Cornwall is legally independent of England. Didn’t I know Cornwall was a Dutchy? Well I did, but these nebulous notions of nationhood are hard to ply, it’s like holding on to gas. You soon realise that talk of sovereignty and governance is pointless; no one’s interested. For those Cornish that seldom venture beyond the border, the notion of being a kingdom in the 21st century – the plaything of monarchy and wealthy Earls, whom I’m told are awfully good to the local plebs – has plenty of romantic currency. It’s to be celebrated not derided. Not for them the politics of the present or the absurdities of hereditary rulers. History confers legitimacy on a way of life that the modern world threatens to take away. If the youth believe it, and many of them do, then you realise that continuity, not change, is both an allure and a trap that is willingly embraced.

For some of my old chalk and slate buddies, pride in being Cornish goes beyond half-notions of ownership and the politics of the 11th century; they’ve imprinted themselves upon the land. There’s a preternatural relationship with nature which bleeds into culture. Paganism still has a foothold here, though some you meet will be coy and call it “nature based belief”. Superstition holds sway in a great many lives. Young Cornish men and women, who’ve been suckled on the golden beaches and crags, remain attached, as though planted with the ferns. They see themselves as part of a holistic system. They worship the twin gods of spirituality and earthiness. They like Tolkien because he created a world that’s only a short imaginative leap from their own.

The metropolis is viewed with suspicion because it’s life with the ethereal elements stripped out. My friend Mark tells me, without irony, that the trouble with London is that “there’s nothing to do there”. Doctor Johnson would choke; I feel a little bilious myself. Nothing to do? In London? But then life through Cornish eyes looks very different. When I travel down the line I notice the absence of things. When the Cornish travel up the line they see the world piled high with unnecessary clutter. Both views have a foothold in reality. How’s that for even handed?

What to do?

The time of year robs me of many holiday options. It’s too cold for beach walking, swimming seems pointless when the clouds half drown you and most attractions are closed. Consequently I spend my fortnight seeking out the impossibility of a gourmet meal in Penzance town centre. The Blue Snappa at the top of Market Jew Street is the closest to Cosmopolitan there is. It’s the perfect place to enjoy crayfish and salads, the kind of food I never eat. Thankfully they do a burger too; the kind you get with two laid buns. I make a mental note to raise this with The Ministry of the Middle Class upon my return. There are still places that imagine we like to build our own food.

Throughout the fortnight I alternate between the Snappa’s home cooked gruel and its one high-end rival, The Renaissance Café on Waterside Quay. The Quay is just a shopping centre but the view from the Café is stunning, even in Winter. I can munch on my steak sandwich and take in the bay and the twinkle in that crescent smile; St Michael’s Mount, an island parish garnished with trees and a medieval monastery. I look around me and I notice the locals taking it in too. It’s quite a vista that fails to bore those that wake up to it every morning.

The day before departure I have a mini-ritual, a nod to my school days. At the summit of Market Jew Street, I sit at the feet of Humphry Davy, immortalised in Cornish stone: the 18th century chemist who lent his name to the local school and the gas lamp that illuminated many a coal mine. The town has many sons but he’s undoubtedly the favourite. One feels sorry for the council employee charged with finding commemorative alternatives. A few yards away, on the wall of the post office, a pretender, Robert Menzies, the two-time Prime Minister of Australia is recognised by blue plaque. It’s only when you read the full inscription that you discover that Menzies is no Penzance resident, rather the great grandson of one. Little wonder that Davy got the statue.

When it’s time to leave there’s always regret. I won’t mourn my mother’s abortive attempts at cooking or the gales that barrack my cheeks in winter, rather the character of the place – its quirkiness, its sharp sense of humour. London is my home but my time in Cornwall left an indelible mark on whatever passes for a soul in this atheistic age. That’s why I, and many like me, keep coming back.

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Published in: on February 29, 2012 at 23:16  Leave a Comment  
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