It is deep summer in west Cornwall, the season of the emmet, and we natives must be grateful, for there is nothing else to be done. The emmet (ant) is a tourist. In August, they overwhelm us; they provide one in five jobs, and 20% of GDP.
The contrast between the native – average income £20,602 – and the emmet – they shop at Waitrose so who knows? – is satirical. They lay waste to whole districts with Range Rovers (which are ant-coloured), occupying holiday cottages, which are decorated offensively in quasi-nautical style. It is nautical style for people who have never been on a boat; the fisherman I know decorate their boat-houses with discarded snack wrappings and tobacco leaves. There is an entire soliloquy about faux nautical soft furnishings in BAIT – Mark Jenkin’s forthcoming film about gentrification in fishing villages, a masterpiece that I fear only emmets will watch – and a short homage to Cornish cheese.
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Even so, the decline of Cornish industry – fishing, agriculture, tin mining – is known, by the emmet, to be part of the duchy’s charm. What they consider, and fetishize, as the simple life, is really the kind of poverty that led Catrina Davies, author of the recent memoir Homesick, to live in a shed near Lands’ End, because she can afford nothing else. They will not admit it, but they find the contrast between poverty and affluence charming.
The decline is everywhere. Only a few boats fish out of the cove of Porthgwarra, where Poldark flashed his arse; instead, the Poldark tours come to gawp at the patch of water where the arse was flashed. The loveliest houses at Porthgwarra – owned by the St Aubyn family, who live at Michael’s Mount – are holiday cottages now. Mousehole is no longer a fishing village, even if it is still called that. It is a holiday park, and in winter – but not at Christmas – every window along the harbourside is dark.
The famous story of Mousehole is of Tom Bawcock, who went to sea in a winter storm with his cat to feed the village children. Now there would be no lights to bring him home. He would die, and the cat would die, and the children would die.
The tin mine at Geevor closed in 1990. A few miners remain to tell tales to tourists, who like to frighten themselves by going down the mines. In St Ives, tourists complain about fishermen – those who survive – driving to work across the beach. It spoils the view.
If the only sensible course is to be grateful – what else is there for Cornwall now? – August is a month of moaning. We moan about the traffic jams to Porthcurno, which were 90 minutes long last year because the emmets do not know how to use passing places. It requires good manners, and fatalism to use a passing place – fatalism is the Cornish inheritance, for no help is coming.
Emmets do not know how to park either, and clog up the lanes. They impale themselves on granite walls disguised with wild flowers, which are very Cornish: lovely but hard. The local buses are expensive and irregular; on Sundays in winter, they feel like imaginary, or even mythical, buses.
Newlyn, where I live, is newly-gentrified because the housing bubble at Mousehole –£850,000 for a semi-detached cottage in an area where most people work three minimum wage jobs – can grow no bigger. We have an arthouse cinema, a wine bar and two famous sea-food restaurants. It is a truism that, in emmet season, you cannot park near your own home.
The children’s playground in Marazion, an emmet village, is a fairyland. The one in Newlyn, used by locals, is shabby. It feels offensive, but if you hate the emmet pound, you are worse than them. You would have Cornwall be poorer; you would fetishize the Cornish past more than they do.
At least the summer tourists leave at the end of August. They go back to Muswell Hill. The affluent retirees, who own holiday cottages or worse, motor homes, do not leave.
The affluent retiree loves the west country; the population has increased by almost 50,000 in twenty years. He has, then, almost by himself, reversed the trend that emptied Cornwall of people, who left to seek work elsewhere, and seems determined to make you conscious of his happiness. He hounds you with his presence. He follows you. He is always seeking your company – for teas, coffees, suppers and matinees.
Among other things, he upholds the late-flowering career of Judi Dench all by himself. She has a holiday home at Zennor, from which she opposed the building of a mobile telephone mast which would have benefitted the locals. (Typical emmet behaviour: gild the myth, ignore the living). He turns up at your gate, just as you are sitting down to work. He is a time thief, because, at least subconsciously, he knows he has none.
The Cornish retiree is competing for space with young children. Retirees and young children like very similar things: cream teas; sand; good service; dogs. (Dogs will approve anything).
Last summer I went to a performance of Peter and the Wolf at a local church. The retirees arrived early – so early I wondered if they had been there all night. The natives arrived either on time, or, if in possession of more than two children, late. It would never occur to the retiree to move so a person only three feet high could see over them, and so I watched a concert for children at which none of the children could see anything, because the stage was obscured by retirees, who presumably long for children to be cultured, and yet, given the chance, will literally block them from culture with their own bodies.
The young mothers of Newlyn – doughty, sweary, and fiercely tattooed – fear no one. And yet, as they curse their lovers over morning coffee, they are almost drowned out by a chorus of retirees tutting at their language. The tut is, essentially, their whole speech; they have an arsenal of tuts, and money.
They are a monstrous force of conservatism, policing good manners in areas of outstanding natural beauty while showing very few themselves. They hold up the patriarchy almost by themselves, stuffed into Leave rallies and church pews and the car parks at garden centres (they like flowers because they are obedient). They also hold up traffic, with their ponderous motor homes that signal, though obliviously, the retiree world view, which tends towards Lebensraum: everywhere is their home.
But the mature truth is, he that hates the emmet, hates Cornwall. We must accept. Fatalism, the Cornish inheritance, remains useful.
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