I meant to write about the little bit of England I am in now, a part few people know except as tourists. Instead, I got involved with Margaret Thatcher.
So now that it is has come to the last day of my blog, I shall at least give you a tiny glimpse of life in this ancient fishing-village, where the fishing boats still go out daily to catch fish, as well as crabs and lobsters.
The boats are fewer now, and many of the old fishing families have turned to the tourist trade. In the summer, they move out of their houses and live in a large shed in the garden, or at the back of the house, or with friends, while they let their houses to tourists or take in guests for Bed and Breakfast. The permanent population of the village is no more than about a thousand, but in the summer or in the school holidays the narrow, winding and steep main street can get so full of tourists that it is hard to make your way up or down it. Many of the old village houses, centuries-old “two up, two down” cottages, have also been bought up by second-home owners from London or Birmingham, who come down for week-ends. The village needs them all – you can’t make a living out of fish any more, and what they earn in the Season hopefully sees them through the winter – but it breathes a sigh of relief when the coaches leave at 5 o’clock, or the Tourist Season comes to an end, and the villagers are left to their own lives.
Tourism has altered the village. There are still two thriving fish shops, and a shellfish shop where you can watch the women cleaning the crabs every day, but most of the other shops, like the butcher’s, the grocer’s, the chemists or the newsagent’s now sell icecreams or Cornish pasties, shells and other souvenirs, as well as children’s buckets and spades for the beach. If you want anything else, you either go to the small supermarket at the top of a steep hill, or you drive or take the bus into the market town twenty minutes away by car. The bus goes twice a day. If you want a bigger town or a train station, you have roughly an hour’s drive in front of you.
So this is a rather different England to the one most visitors see. In fact, it is even wrong to call it England. This is Cornwall and the Cornish are Celts, like the Welsh and the Scots, or the Bretons in France. The Cornish are fiercely proud of being Cornish and not English. Like any small, tight-knit community, it can take a long time to be accepted into the village here, especially if you are not Cornish. The people are wary of “incomers”, those from “up country”, “emmets” (the old Cornish word for “ants”), are all phrases they use to refer to them. A stranger has to become accepted and known. He or she has to have a reputation for not exploiting the place, for spending money in the village by using the local shops and the local workers, for paying bills in full and on time, for giving to local charities and good causes, and also attending local events and giving time to help with them – in short, for being a friend of the village. In return, you will be greeted warmly everywhere you go; if you need help, they will give it freely and at once; they will ask after your health and your family; and they will make you feel welcome whenever you come. You will never, of course, be Cornish, and never quite a villager, but nor should you expect to be.
The local families have mostly been here for centuries, and, as in any village, they know a great deal about each other, both past and present generations. They know about old and new scandals, they know who makes the best cakes, who always visits the lonely, who was married to whom, who got divorced and why, who is a miser and who is generous. They do not all like each other, of course, but they are a strong community, and if disaster strikes, they will forget everything else and band together in support of one of their own.
There is an example of this at the moment. About a month ago, a local builder called Trevor, a man with a lovely tenor voice, went off with a group of other men from the village to sing some of the traditional sea songs at a concert not far from London. While they were rehearsing, an iron door weighing over two tons suddenly crashed down on two of them - one of them was the manager of the group, the other was Trevor. The manager died outright; Trevor died on his way to hospital. The group whom the iron door had just missed were all friends of his: they had all been at school together, their families had known each other all their lives. Trevor had mended this person’s roof, had built that person’s porch, had repaired or built things all over the village. He had often done work for me too, and I liked him very much. He was a member of the volunteer life-boat crew and rowed in the village longboat. He was cheerful, kind and friendly to all, a central part of village life. A cloud of shock and grief was still hanging over the place when I came, his men friends can barely smile. It is a close society – the kind that Margaret Thatcher denied existed – and people stand by each other, as they now try to help Trevor’s wife and three sons.
I heard today that Trevor is buried up in the churchyard of the beautiful local 15th century church, which stands almost alone on top of a hill. The majority of the names on the graves are those of local families, and there are several which are marked “Lost at sea”. It is a lovely and atmospheric place, although rather overgrown, like most country cemeteries in England. It is blowing a gale at the moment, but tomorrow I will go up there and put a candle on Trevor’s grave as the Finns do at Christmas.
So, unexpectedly, this blog ends with the death of two people: one an English Prime Minister, one a local Cornish builder in the village where I am privileged to live when in the UK. Two very different people, two very different aspects of Britain.
Soon the time will come to leave this home in a Cornish fishing-village, and return to my other home in Esbo –neither of them are a second home, because I love both equally. For I am also privileged to have two countries: Britain and Finland.
Goodbye. It has been a pleasure talking to you, whoever you are out there, but for now I shall leave blogging and return to writing what I hope will be my next book.
Hoppas at våren kommer snart till Finland också. Vi hörs!