finisterre, kernow


Cantrix: I’m sure I’ve asked you this before, but have you ever tried skiing at all?
Cantrix: I know you don’t generally, I just wasn’t sure if you’d had a go
Brosencrantz: I tried it once ages ago and sucked, but I’d like to give it a proper shot!
Brosencrantz: I went on one skiing holiday with a school friend when I was like 13, I definitely preferred the toboggan, I kept falling over and twisting my ankle in skis
Brosencrantz: we were staying with his uncle in Austria
Brosencrantz: his uncle had a cool lodger called Gunther who was meant to be working at the ski lodge but just sat around all day eating coco pops in his underpants
Brosencrantz: the day we left he got fired from the lodge
Brosencrantz: then he actually went outside to go skiing, and crashed into a tree and broke all his arms and legs
Brosencrantz: then he got called up for national service
Brosencrantz: such is life in Austria
Cantrix: This is not how skiing normally works.
Brosencrantz: Oh.

they got little hands, little eyes, they walk around telling great big lies

Cornish is a weird mix of a lot of things. Like many languages, it mostly died out when the local lingua mercatoria (in this case, English) became the lingua franca and came to dominate; like a lot of silly little historical curios, it was subsequently revived in a romanticised, semi-fictionalised form by nostalgic Victorian types. How completely it died out, and how historically authentic the current form is, is a debate for Cornish nationalists and actual historians; I am neither.

Either way, it’s rooted in an ancient language somewhere between Breton and Welsh, and bits of it are subtly alien to the English ear. Cornwall was known as West Wales back in Heptarchy days (though that was “Wales” meaning literally “barbarian lands” rather than, er, Wales) and there’s a strange grammar to Cornish things, neither Latinate nor Germanic. Besides the approximately ten million towns here named after saints, Welsh-sounding place names like Trewellard and Gwithian are mixed up with immensely English ones such as Whitecross and Newquay, and there’s a category of pure Cornish: towns which sound like they belong in fantasy novels, like Zennor and Perranzabuloe (the latter is actually Latin, but spelled in weird Cornish phonetics.)

From this last comes the name of the minehead-turned-mining-museum at Geevor, just down the coast from St. Ives. One of the last tin mines in Cornwall to close, this has by the grace of charity and whopping EU grants survived as a very classy and quite unique little exhibition. It has an extremely well executed example of the standard geological museum and shiny collection, a nice Heritage Section about Cornishmen (“Cousin Jacks”) going off to dig holes all over the world, and collections of various artefacts relating to mining, miners and Cornwall: all the standard museum stuff which I love. I have been to plenty of museums full of arch nostalgia, weak collector-plundered collections and dumbed-down-too-far science/history. This is not one of them.

But beyond that, it has a near-complete, near-working mine and processing plant that has only been abandoned for a couple of decades. A few of the bigger machines had been torn out of the massive ore-processing works (interestingly, the great old sheds are largely wooden in construction; in a very wet working environment, right by the sea, and of a business where large pieces of machinery were often being moved and upgraded, using wood and having an in-house carpenter was apparently far cheaper than iron) but most of the workings were still there, the Victorian-looking crushers and grinders with fist-sized rivet heads and the great automated shaking-tables of wood and linoleum, flotation tanks outside gradually growing over with weeds hardy enough to weather the poison.

There was the usual gold-panning thing, which was actually made interesting by comparison with the machine versions in the next room along (also, a harvest of tiny shiny things!); there was a tour of an abandoned 17th century mine lying above the more modern Geevor workings, which I was far too tall for (even craned over massively I banged my head many times, and furiously sang Short People to combat the seething realisation that my girlfriend would have absolutely no trouble), and an amazing scale map made of wire showing the full, absurd extent of the labyrinthine tunnels under the land and sea. (Low-res phonecam pic to come.) The original workings are still there, and although the tunnels are largely flooded these days, they’re sealed off and could be pumped out one day, if it ever became profitable again.

“The Dry”, the changing-rooms for miners (so called because it was where they hung up their filthy, sodden mining clothes at the end of the day) had been left as it was the day the mine closed; an eerie Chernobyl-esque frozen snapshot of an eighties business rooted deeply (hurr) in a millennia-old trade. The too-apologetic intro bumf at the door hinted at treasures far more risqué than a distant Playboy calendar and a locker containing a home-recorded VHS tape marked “BIG BLONDES 4” in blue crayon, but the whole place was brilliantly evocative. There were grubby mud-stiff overalls, sarky blackboard notes, printed Polite Notices about the misuse of bandages, a locker covered in motorbike stickers with a helmet perched on top, clunky seventies tea machines. Everything smelled of soap and grease and history. Like the armoury at Shrivenham, I found it utterly wonderful to be in among the artefacts, rather than seeing them cloistered away behind glass and security alarms. Unlike Shrivenham, I didn’t touch anything, but it mattered that I could.

a dog could smear better with its tail

My parents and middle bro had arrived in Cornwall before me, and apparently had interesting enough times for Mum to fall over on some rocks and horribly injured her leg (and finger; the bruises are amazing), which has resulted in no lasting damage but a serious limp. My mum is a total trooper, and would probably walk to John O’Groats on a busted leg without complaining, but it still seemed prudent not to strain her, and so we found suitably close Cultural Enrichment in the form of the town’s apparently-renowned artistic establishment. “Thriving artistic community” usually means “wanker-oriented boutiques”, and there were definitely plenty of those, but the town also has two paid-up Establishment establishments run by the Tate, whose non-Modern corners have been acceptable to my appallingly old-school art tastes (17th century was best century for painting, all other centuries are pale imitations).

So the first item of Cultural Enrichment after I got off the train was a museum and garden devoted to the sculptor Barbara Hepworth, who I quickly learned was famous for her pioneering work in those odd-looking shapeless modern sculptures you’ve seen everywhere. The exhibition and garden were all very well laid out, in that rather pretentious artistic way, and there was some genuinely impressive craft involved (evinced by the incredible collection of fancy files the late Hepworth left behind), but the works themselves did little for me; I’ve seen so many different examples of that “vague forms” style (probably mostly inspired by her; possibly even her actual work) and none of them have evoked any interesting feeling in me. Still, I’ll happily call that subjective; this stuff is so generally vague that you can hardly come up with objective reasons for liking or disliking it (which is probably why I dislike it).

I can without qualification say that the second piece of Enrichment was just rubbish. The Tate St. Ives (one of those rare modern buildings with an actually attractive design, albeit one let down by tacky materials, very shoddy build quality and general neglect; the building has no corners, but they still cut them) had taken out all its actual art to run an exhibition by the painter Alex Katz. Now, credit where it’s due: he does bold colours well, and a couple of his paintings had a certain slightly evocative quality (possibly by random chance); but his work is hideously lacking in technical ability, imagination or at the very least some pretentious statement to rub into our faces. His composition is tedious, his proportions are awful, his subject matter is trite, his detail is childishly inept and he really can’t do hands or feet. (Google imaging his art mostly turns up better pieces than they had at the Tate, which means that either it gains something by being reduced to a hundred pixels a side, or the curators specifically picked out his worst pieces.)

For once my bro agreed with me on this sort of thing, and feeling thoroughly cheered by this mutual outpouring of cynicism and high-handed contempt we headed out onto the headland above St. Ives via one of the town’s impressive beaches, which was chocka with pasty people gradually sunburning. There’s an old gun emplacement on the spit (I’d guess Palmerston era), with one of the barbettes half-filled with concrete and another housing an incongruous little “Coast Watch” (volunteer Coast Guard, apparently) mini traffic-control-tower. We sat watching sparrows and starlings peck grass seeds from the tarmac for a long time, and then, as banks of mist suddenly descended on the sunlit town from landward, hunted down a tasty (if costly, and somewhat small) fish and chip supper on the waterfront, and wandered back home.


[23:01:27] Hovercraft: but yeah, verisimilitude is such a good word
[23:01:29] Hovercraft: and concept
[23:01:29] Brosencrantz: it IS
[23:01:58] Hovercraft: maybe we can work it into the title of our new “Sweet Brosen and Hover Jeff analyse vidya, while trying their damnedest to avoid turning into wanking hipster cunts about it”
[23:02:02] Hovercraft: feature
[23:02:30] Brosencrantz: well
[23:02:33] Brosencrantz: I’m writing art criticism right now
[23:02:39] Brosencrantz: I think that ship has sailed, and is about to be torpedoed

I passed a man with seven wives

Up early into a morning washed in pale gold, walking through air that hadn’t had time to recover from the heat of the previous day. Having heard that in the last few years Bristol buses have gone from “laughable overpriced shambles” to “running approximately to timetable”, and not hugely wanting to schlep down to Temple Meads in the muggy air, I tried my luck on the #9 bus, which to my great surprise worked out just fine.

The train ride down to Cornwall is much longer than I’d expected (over four hours; who knew England was big enough?), and would have been stunning even on a bad day, let alone in the endless, glorious sunlight. There’s good transport infrastructure in those parts. It’s very bad train country – lots of rolling hills, requiring strings of viaducts and cuttings through inconsistently unhelpful geology – but they really went at it, and creamtealand/pastyland are criss-crossed with picturesque lines.

All of which made me wonder: where the hell did the money come from? I didn’t think Cornwall had much of an economy beyond pasties; there’s a bit of mining, but nothing which would warrant (or pay for) so many nicely made little stations and attractive little branch lines rolling off into the hills. Admittedly, most of the infrastructure looks more than a hundred years old (including the ancient semaphore signals which fall to “GO” when broken, which I thought had been banned), but that nobody’s put the money or effort into shitting everything up with ugly concrete modern stuff is hardly a bad thing.

‎“There is no smoking anywhere on this train. That includes this train’s toilets; that includes this train with your head sticking out the window.” I’ve noticed a lot of sarkiness in train guards’ announcements lately, and I really like it.

Changed at St. Erth, for an interval of sunburnt platform between the slick air-conditioned 125 to Penzance and a solid old four-coach diesel clanker which rolled down the quiet, shady branch line to St. Ives.