Category Archives: Cornwall

Winterwood Lessons

brown spaniel

Me: We need to take Brown Spaniel out somewhere – he’s bored.
Spouse: Ok.
Me: Where shall we go?
Spouse: Dunno. Let’s just get in the car and see what happens.
Me: Well… wouldn’t it be better to have a plan…? I’d like to go somewhere interesting…
Spouse: No. Too much kerfuffle. Let’s just go.

[after  15 minutes driving]

Me: Oh. We’re not going to Tehidy woods are we?
Spouse: Yeah…
Me: Oh… we ALWAYS go there… that’s boring… can’t we go to a beach instead? Somewhere we’ve never been before?
Spouse: I like trees best.
Me: Yeah, but woods equals puddles equals filthy brown spaniel, and it’ll be me that has to bath him when we get back.
Spouse: It’ll be fine. We’ll go in the North Cliffs way so it’s a bit different.
Me: Hmph. Boring. There’s nothing to photograph in woods. Just trees and mud.
Spouse: Well, it’s too late. We’re here now.

[out of car and trudging through trees]

Me: I suppose that fern is quite pretty.

fern smAnd those trees are acceptable. But I like photographing things with a bit of visible human input.

Oh! Someone’s tied ribbons in that tree. I suppose that’s something.

ribbon sm

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

HOLD on… what’s that in that clearing? I’m SURE I saw a ticket booth! Right in the middle of nowhere! Hang on… come with me through these trees a minute.  THERE! Look! A ticket booth!

tickets tiny smI’m going to look at it.
tickets med cp smIt’s brilliant! Just look at it! Sitting there all on its own in the mud!
tickets close cp smSpouse: You should see what’s through here as well…

…and come and see this!
Me: What’s that ringing noise?
Spouse: Come and see.

Me: Christ. Don’t ring it in case something weird happens.
Spouse: There’s more down here… come on.
Me: Do you think it’s supposed to represent a snowy bit?

white sm
Spouse: Maybe. Look, you’re supposed to follow where the bunting goes.

Me: There are keys everywhere…

key 2 smSpouse: Look, they’ve made mushrooms…

glass mushrooms 2 smMe: Yes! Out of gran ornaments!

glass mushrooms smAnd there are things hanging everywhere…

Spouse: Even better things round the corner…
Me: Ha! Gran lampshades!
Spouse: I bet the charity shops couldn’t believe their luck getting rid of those all in one go.

lampshades 5 sm
… And look over here. Your mum would like this…

hearts smMe: Bloody hell. That is amazing. This is the best trip to the woods EVER. It’s made my week. Or month.

Spouse: And you didn’t want to come here.

Me: Yes, well I’m very glad we did.

Spouse: So the moral of the story is that even the ordinary can be brilliant if you look at it from a new perspective.

Me: No it’s not. The moral of the story is that going to the same old place is only fun if someone goes there before you and hangs up a load of hearts.

spaniel sm

The Gwelhellin Experience

trumpet sil 3Weeks ago I was contacted on my other blog by a singular human being by the name of Jonathan Xavier Coudrille. Coudrille introduced himself and sent me a photograph that I, with my fondness for eccentricity and facial hair, could not have resisted even if I was inclined to try.

Coudrille saw in my blog a chance to promote the work of his band Gwelhellin, and after some chat, he invited me to a lunchtime gig they were playing at Amelie’s in Porthleven, and despite the fact that I have no particular attachment to jazz, rampaging stallions could not have kept me away from a place where bonkers moustaches would mingle with hats and cups of tea practically on my own doorstep.

Did I live to regret my hasty decision? I did not. And nor did my family who I forcefully dragged along with me. Gwelhellin are a revelation. They describe themselves as ‘an eight piece trio’, partly for the sake of absurdity, but partly also because between them they play at least eight instruments during a three hour set, and they do so with heart bursting aplomb. NOW I understand what jazz is all about. Clearly it’s not a genre designed to be listened to on the radio – it’s all about being there. Dangerous (“yes, that’s why they hide me at the back”) Dave, the gentlest drummer you could ever imagine, held everything together unassumingly in the background; Tony Apple, an accomplished jazz musician (even I could tell that) was doing that gently weeping guitar thing that excellent musicians can do, and when he wasn’t beaming all over his magnificent beard, was resurrecting Louis Armstrong right there on Porthleven harbour with his emotion seizing vocals. And the star of the show, of course, was Coudrille himself who is one of those human beings you only get one of. Ever. “He won Melody Maker International Soloist of the Year, once you know”, whispered Dave like a proud father. “And he lived with Cossacks for years – that’s where he learned to play the balalaika.” And play it he does – wondrously. He energised the whole place with the force of his personality and the speed of his blue-fingernails on the strings of the balalaika, banjo and his beautiful guitar. AND he wears Russian boots and changes his accents and hats at intervals throughout the set, AND he plays the trumpet with one of those muffling things on the end, AND he sings Cossack songs in Russian, AND he tells genuinely amusing anecdotes, AND he sang me a romantic song like an olden days troubadour (I am far too British to know how to deal with that of course, and my son found it too much to handle, but it was great fun).  Not bad for someone 23 years older than me – I have to have a bit of a lie-down after a particularly strenuous conversation. Not only that, Coudrille is an extraordinary Surrealist painter, too (it’s obvious there’s no God, because if there was he’d have shared the talents out a bit more evenly).

So, I can’t recommend seeing Gwelhellin enough. Frankly, it should be made compulsory for the sake of the nation.

Learning to listen

miner and moustacheI haven’t been writing lately. I’ve been reading the Internet too much again and I’m not sure why, but for the last few months my brain has not been processing the data I’ve been inputting effectively enough to produce any writeable trains of thought. I think I may be suffering from Toffler’s ‘infoxication’, or information overload. Someone may need to invent a new idiom to cover this state of affairs because I bet I’m not the only one experiencing it. How about: Too many opinions spoil your convictions…?

Ok, that’s embarrassingly lame, but it’s a start.

Anyway, while I have been unable to settle on any firm opinion about anything, and have also been wondering what the hell I want to do with my last 30 odd years on the planet, I have been working relentlessly on my other blog. This blog involves me walking around Cornwall with a camera permanently glued to my hand and a notebook and pen in my back pocket, accosting innocent passers-by and forcing them to talk to me.  As I’ve relaxed into the process of approaching a stranger, explaining what I’m doing and then asking their permission to photograph them, I have become more and more addicted to the whole thing. Only a few people say no, and these people usually have a very good reason to want to remain private, although the occasional older Cornish person still has a fear of the Internet based on not quite understanding how it works. One man today explained carefully to his wife, that if he had his photo on the blog, it would be seen by millions of people all over the world. If only that were so.

A serious and elegant lady I met in Falmouth this week

But what is so compelling about the whole thing is learning firsthand how almost everyone has something interesting to say if I can relax them enough to talk to me, and how moving even the most seemingly ordinary lives actually are. Although I tend to approach people who stand out to me in some way, often those who are more discreet in their appearance are just as interesting as the more noticeable ones, and on more than one occasion they have been much more interesting. I have always been someone who has faith in people, but doing this project confirms every single day that human beings are fascinating, funny and innovative. I met a man who is building a replica in his garden of one of the first planes to ever fly successfully, a homeless man who writes jokes on William Hill betting slips and keeps them in his rucksack, a woman whose husband accidentally asphyxiated himself on the back of a door and a man whose job it was to clean up drowned animals from Cornwall’s beaches. To name a few.

The home-made Penny Whistle of a busker in Penzance
The home-made Penny Whistle of a busker in Penzance

But I realised today that although I have been listening to the stories people have been telling me, I maybe haven’t been really listening. I mean listening in the sense of actually drawing things from these stories that could teach me, or remind me of, things of importance. I’m not the sort of person to start getting all I-Ching or anything, but it struck me today that I could draw things from what people are telling me. Last night, for example, I couldn’t sleep until very late because my brain was exploding with thoughts about what I want to do with my life. I have some business ideas that seem very difficult and out of reach, and I haven’t really focused my brain on making them into something real. So I (like everyone else probably) am feeling trapped and frustrated creatively which is making me lethargic. I woke this morning, tired and confused and went out to do some food shopping for the family. As usual, I had my blogging kit with me and ended up talking to two people. The first was a lady who told me about how her grandmother brought up four children all on her own while running her own small business and ended up owning three houses through sheer determination and hard work. The second was a man who talked about the ways he had come to terms with life in a Czech prison.

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Now, if I WAS a New Age type or spiritual person, I could start thinking some sort of higher power is trying to tell me to get off my arse and grab life by its testicles. Or at least its handlebars. I’m not one of those, though – but what I do think is that if we listen – really listen – to things people are saying to us, our brains can focus in on bits and pieces that we need to hear.

So I’m off out tomorrow with my camera and notebook. I wonder what the people of Cornwall have to teach me next.

Harry Potter and The Black Swan Inn, Gweek.

Foreword: I’ve had such fun with this post and all the ensuing chats with the lovely people of Gweek, and I am reliably informed that this pub is now under new ownership, and is being run by the best people you can possibly imagine so this story will never be repeated again. Hoorah!

* * *

If you don’t count man’s inhumanity to man, the education system and Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall, there’s not much that makes me angry. I’m one of those people who can placidly cruise away from driving situations that would cause many to pop a socket, and I generally smile understandingly when faced with rudeness, in the possibly deluded assumption that the poor perpetrator must be having a bad day and their attitude is nothing whatsoever to do with them being fundamentally a horrible human being.

So it’s odd that I can’t seem to let go of my simmering irritation at something that happened a short while ago in a beautiful Cornish village called Gweek. http://www.oliverscornwall.co.uk/gweek.jpg

This tiny village is the home, not only of the eveningy loveliness you see in this image, but also of the Cornish Seal Sanctuary, and it was there that my good friends and I decided to take some lovely visiting Bristolians on a cold day earlier this year.

The sanctuary was, as expected, an enjoyable experience despite the bitter sea winds and the fact that I couldn’t see over the fence when the biggest fattest seals were being fed. The enjoyableness was caused by the fact that there were baby seals and otters and penguins to gawp at. Everything is always better under those circumstances.

Here is a picture of brown spaniel and a penguin encountering each other.
penguin and dogAfter all that semi-aquatic creature admiring we turned our attention to the now pressing issue of afternoon tea and cake and were delighted to find an attractive pub in the centre of the village. Here it is:

The Black Swan describes itself here as providing a “a warm and welcoming atmosphere”, and I think it’s this that makes me want to stomp around booting things instead of just laughing it all off, because when we pushed open the door of this inviting but almost empty establishment we came face to face with three men who have since transmogrified in my memory into Draco Malfoy and his two lumpen henchmen.

Malfoy was sitting at the bar, looking quite a few years older than he did in the Harry Potter films, but with exactly the same sneering look on his draco-malfoyface.

It was clear from his proprietorial air that Malfoy was the pub owner, and Crabbe and Goyle, despite their now-long hair and more wizened faces were still the same simpleton henchmen laughing eagerly at Malfoy’s every word as they had been in their Hogwarts days.

goyle-draco-crabbeI noted Malfoy’s sneery face immediately, but in my Polyanna-ish way I decided that the landlord was probably one of those people whose face falls into a negative shape when resting, so I began the conversation with a perky, “Hello! Is it OK to bring a dog in?” The conversation proceeded like this:

Malfoy [in a sardonic tone]: Depends on the dog.

Me [assuming this was a joke]: Would you like to inspect him first? [displaying dog in magician's assistant fashion]                                                                                       

Malfoy: Spaniel’s OK. [henchmen snigger]   [Spaniel shakes water over floor]                       

Malfoy: I’ll get you a mop                                                                                                       

Me: Yes, I’ll do that. Sorry.

Malfoy: No you won’t. [awkward silence]                   

Me: OK. Erm. Do you have any cake? [Henchmen laugh. Clearly cake is preposterous]

Malfoy [not making this any easier]: Kitchen’s closed.                                                        Me

[beginning to wish I'd never started this 'conversation']: Oh, OK. Do you do tea? [all laugh again - tea is preposterous too]                                                                      

Malfoy: Not really, but I suppose you could have some.

Me: Great. We could get some cake from the shop opposite.

Malfoy: You could, but you’re not eating it in here.

Me: Right. OK. Is there anywhere around here that sells tea and cake?

Malfoy: This is Cornwall, luv. It’s Sunday.

Me: [relieved to be about to escape] OK. We’ll be off then.

Malfoy’s strikingly inhospitable attitude and hilarity at our expense didn’t make too much of an impact at first, until I began to wonder if that’s how he treats all his customers. We decided we’d do tea and cake at my house instead and crossed the road into the shop, laughing at his awfulness as we inspected the bakery section. One of the customers in there overheard the conversation and said, “Oh him. He’s a dick.” But we didn’t have a chance to follow up that interesting remark because Crabbe or Goyle suddenly appeared in the doorway, clearly sent over, like in a children’ playground scenario, to find out what we were saying. (I don’t know why they didn’t use extendable ears like the Weasleys did in The Order of the Phoenix, but maybe they didn’t want to use magick around Muggles). As he skulked into the shop Crabbe or Goyle joked to the lady at the counter, “don’t wind them up,” and pointed at us. This is how the next conversation went:

Me: Wind us up how?

Crabbe or Goyle: “Well… you’re all emmets, aren’t you.”

[note: 'emmets' is an uncomplimentary slang term for holiday makers in Cornwall]

Me: No. I’m from Redruth, she’s from Bodmin and these two are from St.Ives and Hayle.

Crabbe or Goyle: Oh. You don’t sound like it.

Me: But even if we were on holiday, that’s a bit of an odd way to run a hospitality business, isn’t it?

Crabbe or Goyle: You’ve taken it the wrong way.

Me: Yeah, right. Thanks.

So the moral of this story is that the target market for The Black Swan in Gweek is quite niche. If you are hoping to be spoken to in a friendly way in that establishment, you need to:

a) not be on holiday, and

b) have a Cornish accent to prove you’re not on holiday.

My friends and I have a habit of scouring the county for tea and cake, and this is the first place we’ve ever been from Saltash to the Lizard where anyone has been less than brilliantly friendly, so don’t think this is a Cornish thing. I think it’s an extra-specially Black Swan thing. When I got home later I was still ridiculously irritated so I looked at the pub reviews on Trip Advisor expecting to find some tumbleweed and raging, but I think they must have written all the reviews themselves because they are glowing. Either that, or Malfoy’s wife completely changes the atmosphere when she’s in charge. Or maybe since those reviews were written, Voldemort has taken residence in the basement and the dementors have been doing their business. Or all those customers had Cornish accents and lived in Gweek. Whatever the reasons, those reviews depict a place completely unlike the one we visited.

To top it all, turns out that Malfoy and Mrs. Malfoy aren’t from Cornwall themselves, and that their aim is “to provide a high level of customer care and service.”. Laugh.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Change

Retired Cornish Miner
In Cornwall, this is an iconic image which never fails to move me. Unfortunately I don’t know who took it, but I found it on http://mysaffronbun.com/2011/11/17/a-bleak-day-at-south-crofty/

I suppose it’s grimly appropriate that, in the week of Margaret Thatcher’s death, I have been out photographing evidence of the decline of tin mining in Cornwall. But if I’m honest, I have no idea whether or not Thatcher had anything to do with the post-industrial landscape of my native county. I should really ask my dad, a former mining engineer, about it all before I go around having opinions on things I know nothing about. So, I’ll refrain from comment, apart from to observe that this area in which I live was once one of the richest places in the land due to the tin that shot through its substratum. You can see for yourself how it has changed in the following images; from thriving industry to dereliction to heritage theme park.

 

My grandmother’s drawings

I’ve been blitzing the house today. My kitchen is so clean I’m scared to go in it and I’ve filled a box big enough to sleep in with recycling from the spare room.

This afternoon I started tackling the bookshelves and piles of paper and crap that surround them and became absorbed in… well…. everything: academic books from perspectives that now irritate me, brochures for holidays we could never even conceive of affording, pretentious poetry books I forgot I had, spouse’s slightly alarming political books, science books I keep not quite getting round to reading… and that sort of thing. I also found some more personal things: a purple flowery book of drawings and stories I wrote when I was small, a collection of significant poems I collected when I was a teenager, and a black hardback book of my grandmother’s drawings.

Looking through them reminded me vividly of her living room. It was painted a light coffee colour and featured paintings that her mother had done; a harbour scene of a jetty surrounded by red wooden houses, and my favourite – a representation of my great-grandmother’s weaving room with a floor-length blue patterned curtain swept aside to reveal shelves of yarn and weaving equipment. There was an old oak settle with a cushion that she had woven the cover for, and a massive extra cushion with a really itchy also-home-woven green cover. Inside the settle were all her Christmas things – wooden stars, hearts and goats, little Father Christmasses made by my Auntie Helen, electric candles, a plain white wooden angel with wispy hair like a little old lady and a candle holder in the shape of a lady with a wooden dress and a round nose.

My grandmother must have learned to weave from her mother and she did try to teach me, but I was far too teenage to take it on board. I regret that now she’s gone, of course. And I felt that very strongly when I visited Golant church this year where her woven cushion covers are still in use on the pews many decades after she made them.

My grandmother's weaving
My grandmother’s weaving

There were two cupboards in my grandmother’s living room on either side of the fireplace. One was next to her chair and contained her braid-weaving equipment and the other contained drawing books and a huge (or it seemed huge to me when I was small) tin of felt tips. I loved that tin of felt tips. It was made by Caran d’ache and what was splendid about it was that it didn’t seem to be made for children. My grandmother was the only grown up I knew who used felt tips, and these ones were in a tin instead of a rubbish plastic folder. Each one had a special niche so you could arrange them neatly by colour, they felt nice when you rolled your hand up and down them and the tin made a satisfying gentle click when you opened or closed it. They were so POSH.

And it was these very felt tips she’s used for her sketches in the book I found today. If you’ve ever coloured in with felt tips you’ll know that they can be quite a blunt instrument, so I find it interesting that she chose to use them instead of pencils or paint, but I suspect some of these drawings are ideas for weaving and the felt tip might be more precise – appropriate for the precision of designs for the loom.

These last two pictures are more meaningful to me than all the rest. When my brother and I were little, we used to find those little flat, green bugs (I now know they’re called Shield Bugs) really cute. My grandmother called them, for reasons I still don’t know (is it Swedish?) ‘Fifs’, and she told us stories about the Fif family and their children, Fif, Fifalina and Fifalotta. In the book there are two drawings that can only be of the Fif family. Here they are.

fifs 2 fifsOne excellent thing about having creative relatives is that you have something left of them when they’re gone. I have prints and drawings by my spouse, one painting by my mother and one by my dad’s cousin, some of my grandmother’s weaving and other paintings by my aunt and my great grandmother, and also this book of sketches. My creativity is largely digital, though, so I wonder if I’ll have anything physical to hand over to my sons when I’ve kicked the bucket.

.

Macsalvors: For all your wheelchair, fishing buoy and plastic groin needs.

I wasn’t notably enthusiastic when spouse suggested I accompany him to Macsalvors this morning.

Macsalvors is a shop that is famous in Cornwall for selling… well… all the sorts of things that practical people like. It started as a marine salvage outlet, and has evolved into a place where spouse wants to spend a million quid every time he passes through its automatic portal.

I have nothing against the place at all. In fact I quite like it, but it’s not enough on its own to make me leave the house on a seriously rainy day. Spouse, however, pointed out the error of my slatternly ways as I lolled on the sofa frustratedly reading other people being wrong on the Internet, and thereby persuaded me it would be healthier to look at rope with him. So Macsalvors it was.

I’m glad I went. I hadn’t noticed all the slightly morose shop dummies before.

Thank you for my life, unknown man.

missing drain-coverThere was a feature on the radio this morning where listeners were invited to express gratitude to people who’d done splendid things for them and who they’d never had an opportunity to thank.

As I listened to a man thanking a music teacher for introducing him to Beethoven, I suddenly remembered that I have someone I’ve never been able to thank, and this person has made a significant difference to my life. Significant indeed, because if he hadn’t happened to drive down a street in Threemilestone 38 years ago, I wouldn’t even have a life. But there’s no way I’m going to listen to my own voice on the radio, so I’m thanking him here.

When I was five or six I used to hang out a lot with Jonathan next door. We usually played Robin Hood (the cartoon fox version), but on the day in question, some workers had left the cover off a drain on our street and it was full to the brim with viscous, gloopy mud.  The obvious thing to do under these circumstances is to find some long sticks, lie face down on the pavement and start stirring and sloshing and squelching. So that’s what we did.  It was extremely enjoyable, as you can imagine.

After a while, Jonathan was called in for his dinner (I was mildly middle class, spouse would call it ‘tea’), and the mud and I were alone together. You can see where this is going.

I decided I was going to get my stick much deeper into the gloop now that Jonathan’s head wasn’t in the way of the hole, so I wriggled forward, reached my arm as far in as I could and slid gently face-first right into the drain with one arm outstretched in a Superman pose (not like in my erroneous illustration).

me in a hole

So there I was with my red shoes and white socks sticking up out of the drain hole; helpless, upside-down and presumably slowly realising that at any moment I was going to have to start inhaling mud and dying (I wasn’t a stupid child). I can’t remember how long I was there, but it couldn’t have been very long before I felt a firm grip on my ankles and an interesting sucky squelchy feeling as I was pulled rapidly backwards out of the drain.

I can only imagine the image my rescuer beheld once he’d plonked me the right way up on the pavement. I was a bewildered human-shaped mud-being with incongruously clean red shoes and knee socks.
Not meI remember the man asking me where I lived, and me just pointing to my house because I didn’t want to open my mouth in case mud got in. Then the man took my hand-shaped appendage, led me to my front door and knocked. My mum opened the door with my wailing baby brother in her arms and encountered a strange man and a mud apparition. All I remember next is being plonked in the bath and hosed down. I don’t know if the man explained in detail or if my mum really took in what had happened, and I don’t know if she thanked him properly, but he actually did save my life. Our street was completely empty when Jonathan went in for tea; there was absolutely nobody about. I don’t know where this man appeared from, but I’m bloody glad he appeared from somewhere, because if he hadn’t, I’d have had to give in and inhale the mud.

So thank you for my life, strange man 38 years ago. I expect you’ve told the story of the pair of red shoes sticking out of a suburban drain a few times. I would if I were you because to me, you’re a hero.

Weekly Photo Challenge: My neighbourhood.

Anyone who has heard of Redruth knows that it, and its neighbouring town Camborne, are considered among the roughest and dodgiest parts of Cornwall.  Once, when I told a man at a car boot sale that I taught in the area, he quipped, “do you have to wear a flak jacket?” I forgave him though, because he had a nice beard.

Jokes about the general seediness of the population abound:

Q. How can you tell if a Redruth girl is having an orgasm?

A. She drops her chips.

Seems that Redruth’s status has been pretty poor for a long time. Daniel Defoe dismissed it in an offhand way in the 1700s in  A tour thro’ the whole island of Great Britain, divided into circuits or journies, suggesting that there was nothing worth mentioning between St.Ives and Padstow:

From this town and port of St. Ives, we have no town of any note on the coast; no, not a market town, except Redruth, which is of no consideration, ’till we come to Padstow-Haven, which is near thirty miles…

Shortly after Defoe’s cheeky comment Redruth was to experience a massive turn-around in its fortunes thanks to the Industrial Revolution, the age of steam and tin mining, but now, like many post-industrial areas of Britain, it has slumped back into poverty which is why there are so many jokes about it.

Not that the stories about Redruth’s ills are all lies. I live right in the heart of the town and within a few weeks of moving here my son had to encourage an intruder out of our house with a hockey stick, and we regularly enjoy the lilting sounds of drunk people yelling abuse at each other within inches of our front door.

Having said that, though, the town itself is quite visually pleasing if you mostly look upwards and ignore the boarded up shops, the drunks and the pale, spotty teenagers with their arses displayed over the tops of their sagging tracksuit bottoms. And despite the downsides, the first thing we all noticed was the chattiness of the people in the town. We experienced more street banter and friendly faces in our first few months here than we ever did in the more middle class town we moved from. Plus there are sofas in the cinema.

Here are some of the visual reasons why I love this town despite everything: