The biblical “Last Trump” probably sounds (and looks) a bit like this.

The Lizard lighthouse foghorns
Is Cornish culture on its last legs?

I can’t find a single photograph I’ve ever taken of the Lizard Village. We’ve visited it many times and, in the past camped there; in fact yesterday we saw a decommissioned helicopter parked incongruously in the paddock of a farm where we once washed ourselves in with nothing more than a cold tap and an outside privy. The post office where we waited for an emergency bailout from my sister has closed; the pub where I tried to sample every whisky and ended up knocking myself half senseless (the other half had already gone), on a low beam – closed. The little restaurant where we spent the last of our money and I tasted guinea fowl for the first time, closed. The only supermarket has gone and the last of the serpentine turners appears to have turned his last lighthouse ornament and then turned up his toes. The trippers still arrive like locusts in the summer and strip any green shoots of the old culture bare, so everything is distorted and could ultimately be destroyed by tourism. There’s barely a pig shed in Cornwall that’s not been converted into a holiday let or an airBnb, and hardly a spoil heap that’s not been turned into an “experience” by a small time entrepreneur.

Years ago John Betjeman described the Lizard as depressingly full of buildings like army married quarters, and it hasn’t improved over the past 50 years. The only remnant of our first ever visit is the Regent Cafe on the green where, a few summers ago we saw a poster advertising the ancient Cornish sport of whippet racing.

All that said, we still love the knackered old place and come back year after year because a short walk beyond the village takes us to the coast path and the lighthouse whose fog horn is a thing of wonder. I’m sure I permanently damaged my hearing, sitting as close as I dared when it was working and listening to the fan starting up and build steadily until an almighty blast straight from hell poured into the air and echoed all around the surrounding bays. It hit you in the belly and rattled your teeth; the tinnitus lasted for hours afterwards then there was silence. For a while.

Why so, then? As politicians often say “I’m glad you asked me that” and then go on to talk about the new cycle lanes they’ve personally fought for in their constituencies. Cornwall’s a mess but nobody could argue it’s all the fault of the English or the tourists. The road improvements to the A30 and the A38, and many other important infrastructure and cultural projects were paid for by the EU which the Cornish voted in force to leave. The fishermen who were especially keen to regain our sovereignty soon found that they could no longer afford to sell their fish in a Europe from which we’d separated ourselves. Some skippers known locally as slipper skippers sold their boats to the scrapyard and their quotas to the Spanish who repaid their naivety by dredging the sea empty. The NHS failed to receive the promised £350 million a week and the GP surgery in Lizard is now in a single tiny prefab building, and in spite of the enormous success of the lost gardens of Heligan and the Eden Project which have brought money and good jobs to the poorest part of Cornwall, when Tim Smit tried to open an education centre in Lostwithiel the objections from the locals poured in and the project looks like being scrapped. It seems that finding a future for Cornwall other than hospitality and seasonal homelessness is rather like the kind of hopeless task presented by what Michael Balint the psychoanalyst called “heart sinkers”.

All of which mournful thoughts floated around in my mind during what I thought was a terrible night but which my Withings watch scored at 100%. Re -reading Fred Pearce’s “The New Wild” recently I began to wonder whether our negative attitudes towards invasive plant, insect and animal species didn’t find an exact parallel in some of our instinctive responses to tourism. These attitudes in humans draw from deep wells. Apparently just as the English tell jokes about the Welsh and the Irish and never fail to wonder at the meanness of the Scots – none of which stereotypes have any foundation in fact; the Russians make fun of the Ukrainians, and we all know where that leads to; so the Cornish refer to out of county visitors as “grockles” who, given a moment’s reflection, are the one reliable source of income in a county which has lost virtually all of its traditional employment. The tin and the copper mines are gone. Fibre optics will probably mean that the copper market will never really gain strength. Fishing is largely gone due to overfishing which wasn’t all down to Spanish supertrawlers. The quota system is the bastard child of overfishing in the face of all the evidence.

Looking around there are no obvious replacements apart from tourism – I’ll probably get hate mail for this – so right now, any attempt to go back to some imagined past by legislating against the one reliable source of income is doomed to fail. The lithium mine being proposed is about the last thing Cornwall needs at the moment. The specialist workers may well be brought in from beyond the Tamar and in any case if you add in the principle that the polluter pays the environmental damage and the excessive use of water ought to scupper the project on the drawing board. The world needs what Cornwall needs – better mass transport systems and less cars on the road and a new vision of fulfilled life.

Living in Bath can feel a bit like living in a theme park at times but without the tourists (and the students) the local economy would collapse. We have become inured to the shock of crossing Royal Crescent in front of a battalion of portly Roman re-enactors, or weaving a course down Milsom Street between 100 variations of a Jane Austin character. I don’t suppose the Cornish are any more pleased at seeing people queuing on a beach to take Poldark selfies.

The Lizard is a real botanical hotspot as well as a half legendary miasma of once upon a time gallimaufry. In two days I’ve found a couple of real rarities and one local newspaper recently latched on to the possibilities of enticing visitors here with a different quarry than ice cream, pasties and fish and chips. Writers like Fred Pearce are arguing that alien species often bring new and vital energy to an ageing or damaged ecosystem and simply eradicating them is an expensive way of doing even more damage.

Changing the profile of visitors would be slow work and the massive problem of housing shortages would need a great deal of new affordable building alongside restrictions or (as in Wales) financial disincentives to second homes. Schemes like Tim Smits proposed Lostwithiel education centre need to be encouraged whilst perhaps steering them away from the NIMBY strongholds. There will need to be a huge emphasis on secondary and tertiary education because farming and fishing will remain profoundly important to the local economy, but embracing ecologically sustainable methods would pay a premium. Of course this would cost money, but the UK government seems to have £billions at their disposal for lining their rich mates’ pockets.

And let it never be said that the village communities are now broken beyond repair. We were chatting to a woman in a local Farm shop who told us that a local fishing boat had sunk just before Christmas. Luckily the crew of two were members of the lifeboat crew and did all the right things but spent 20 minutes in freezing water before they were rescued by their mates in the lifeboat. Within days the community had rallied round and raised thousands of pounds to support the two men who now had no means of earning a living. A few years ago the same village crowd funded the purchase of a vital building on the seafront that had been used by the fishermen for generations. What these threatened communities need more than anything else is a long term plan and the long term funding to bring it off.

Old Watermill in Poltesco.

A fishy story – thinking about the commons

People often look at the allotment and say – “surely you must be self-sufficient, now?” Well no we’re not, and I’m not a bit sure I even agree with the concept which always strikes me as being isolating and rather egocentric. We learn to become more human by living in interdependent communities. Although the allotment site often feels like and even functions as a sort of village, aside from our 200 square meter plot there’s nowhere we can graze an animal or run a few chickens; nowhere close we can easily forage for the things we can’t grow, and nowhere to gather most of the medicinal herbs that take up more space than we can afford. Of course there are plenty of opportunities to forage far and wide for them – way beyond where we live but the whole point of the Commons is to bring to hand all of the above, plus firewood to a small community. Without commons the community has less reason to live, work, celebrate and lament together; as many people who move into the countryside discover when they soon start to feel lonely. The 21st century default position is to live like strangers, and whilst we worship the wild, we have very little idea of how to learn from it and celebrate with it.

Back in 2020 I was searching the local bookshops to find a copy of Gary Snyder’s “The Practice of the Wild”. I’ll say a little more about the book later, but I’ll begin with one of the most depressing conversations I’ve had in years.  So I walked into Waterstones and searched the most likely places for anything written by him. Poetry? zilch! ….  ecology? zilch! ….. spirituality? ditto!  Eventually I resorted to the cash desk and asked a bright young bookseller – “have you got anything by Gary Snyder?” ….. “Who’s Gary Snyder?” he replied.

That I was quite so shocked caused me to wonder not so much about the illiteracy of the bookseller, suckled on the mayfly life expectancy of our current literary scene; but about the diminishing of that whole culture which existed for perhaps five millennia in which the urgent existential questions we face today were first identified and often answered. For me, Gary Snyder is one of those thinkers who raised the waters from that well and brought them into the 20th century for us. He is – at 91 years old – so much more than a short-lived Beat Poet. Our culture is locked into a groundhog day in which the hard gained wisdom of the past is clearcut and replanted with fashions that rarely survive twenty years. In the absence of a literary canon, we fret our lives away, endlessly seeking solutions to long solved problems. We live in windowless bunkers of our own making. 

So one of the chief sadnesses of growing old in our Western modern and postmodern  wordview; is that the canon – musical, literary, poetic, spiritual and liturgical which has been both lighthouse and lifeboat to us, is breaking up and sinking, and these sharp and careless reminders leave me feeling adrift. “Never mind” I say to myself “where you are is the only place to begin”  – or put it in (I think) RS Thomas’s words, echoing Odysseus in the dim past before the troubles began; ‘home is the harbour you set out from’. And I’m immediately unsure of the quotation because we’re camped on a clifftop field in Pembrokeshire overlooking Ramsey Island and away from any confirmation by books, internet and even my mobile which drifts in and out of consciousness like a dying man. Ithaca feels a long way away. 

Sadly the book was easily available on Amazon and arrived from an American publisher a few days later, priced in dollars; but at least I tried; but I flunked the opportunity of sharing its significance with the young bookseller who might – had I convinced him to read it – have sold it to many other seekers.  Gary Snyder has a lot to say about commons.

When we arrived here we found the campsite engulfed in a thick sea-mist that looks set to stay for a couple of days, so the presence of the sea and Ramsey island are extremely notional at the moment. However I struck up a conversation with a neighbouring campervanner and in the course of one of those long meandering chats, full of oxbows, he told me a story. He used to be, he told me, a professional lobster fisherman but he lost his best friend and deckhand to a rival fisherman after jointly surviving being swamped by a massive wave with the help of  a powerful engine and a lot of luck. Most people have a story to tell, but his wife – having heard it many times in the past – left us and wandered off to a more congenial conversation nearby that involved a comparison of the number of medications the participants were taking.  Non fatal illness is such fun – it seems. Anyway the coda to the fisherman’s yarn was by far the most interesting bit and here’s where Gary Snyder’s discussion of the so-called tragedy of the commons comes in:

“So what about the so-called tragedy of the commons? This theory, as now popularly understood, seems to state that when there are open access rights to a resource, say pasturage, everyone will seek to maximise his take and overgrazing will inevitably ensue. [ …….. ]  When [Hardin et al]  try to apply their model to the historic commons it doesn’t work, because they fail to note that the commons was a social institution which, historically, was never without rules and did not allow unlimited access.”

Source – Cox, Susan and Jane Buck – “No tragedy in the commons” – Environmental Ethics, Spring 1985.

Rough justice

I asked the retired fisherman – now a builder – why did his deckhand and friend leave the boat? Was it the day they were nearly engulfed by a wave?  “No”, he said, “he moved to a better paid deckhand’s job on another boat”; and went on to explain that the other boat was owned by a man who had previously fished in Cornwall, and had developed a reputation for stealing other fishermen’s gear.  In the end, tempers boiled over and he was confronted and told that unless he took his boat out of the county  it would be taken and sunk.  “Fishermen can be very rough” he explained, as if I didn’t know. 

So the ‘marked’ fisherman moved up to Pembrokeshire and was barely surviving, scratching a living from those bits of the shoreline not already fished by the locals.  Then one day someone suggested he ran out a line of pots along “the 27” (no idea what this means – possibly a latitude line on the charts).  So he took himself off into these waters which were left alone by the local fishermen because they were known to be dangerous. He immediately struck gold, making – it was said – £10,000 a week. The deckhand left his sustainably fishing friend and went for the money. 

So there you have it – the tragedy of the commons and its historical solution encapsulated in a chance conversation in the mist.  And which of the characters in the story best represents the future? Sadly, I know for sure that thievery and overfishing have played a large part in the present state of our fisheries and that the smaller fishermen have taken the hit. But whatever happens, unless the commons – in this case our inshore waters – evolve some kind of agreed local governance with achievable sanctions apart from sinking offending boats, it will be too late. The story demonstrates that the draconian local sanctions applied worked very well at first, but when the man moved to another community where he was not known and into a winner takes all culture there were no inhibitory moves that could be made, so in his new home the so-called tragedy of the commons became a reality because it wasn’t a social institution any more, it didn’t have any rules and it couldn’t limit access. This sad tale isn’t a critique of the commons but a critique of our extractive economy.

Several years ago we were with the Bath Nats on a fungus identification field trip, when one of the participants hung back and cut every single ragged parasol mushroom in a clump that I mentioned a few days ago. She rejoined us later with her cute handmade basket groaning with spoils – more than she could ever possibly eat. We stood back astonished, but said nothing. That’s the true tragedy of the commons; that we’ve become so isolated and detached from one another that we no longer even have the means to challenge the abusers of the vestigial remains.

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