cThe ornwall is really two places, and it’s more visible in St Ives than anywhere else. When I arrived late in the morning, I found a gray Ferrari parked in the loading bay next to the Talay Thai restaurant. She was stopped at an offensive angle, indicating neglect. This is Cornwall’s first. Cleaners walk next to her with large bags of laundry, and this is the second. It’s change day: They have six hours to transform Airbnb from one guest dream scene to another. Most of the Cornish stories are brought from outside the duchy: Myths of Travel. The Lighthouse on the Horizon in Virginia Woolf Godrevy. Wolf was born in Kensington. Daphne du Maurier was born in Camden, but moved to Cornwall and wrote Rebecca, a novel about a house.
St Ives used to be a fishing village. Now it is a tourist resort around a dwindling fishing village. The old town – “Downalong” – is a cobbled hotel full of Airbnbs and second homes. In winter you will hardly see light. The locals live up the hill on the Penbeagle estate and look down on what they used to own.
Visitors slowly stroll along the front end licking ice cream. Like all leisure participants, they are hardly able to speak. The sea is far away at the moment: the harbor looks like a bathtub that has been pulled out.
Herring gulls are the most attentive creatures here. It is exceptional for its brutality, even for Cornwall, which must be a bit of a metaphor. They watch carefully as Trevor Penman empties the box and tosses the entire suitcase into a cart on wheels. Garbage is collected five times a day to deter gulls from attacking people, and is hidden in a yard behind the Sloop Inn (1312), which already engages a local night of competitive stag drinking, as do stag nights.
“It’s a famous little village,” Trevor says. “I’m trying to stop the seagulls. Fight a losing battle. They are getting wiser.” This was Du Maurier’s fear as well. She put it in her short story The Birds, even though they stopped eating people’s food, and started eating people instead.
I met Rachel and her two dogs, Bebe and Beau. She has just arrived, but she does not stay; Something here ashamed her. “You feel like you’ve come to a place made for tourists,” she says. “I try to find authenticity. We share the problem. That’s exactly what I thought it would be.”
I find two fishermen on the pier. Someone is throwing snow from a cell in the back of his truck. He doesn’t want to talk: he’s busy. He regrets and says he collects ice to cool the beer at a party. Ask about fishing. “It’s a joke,” says his friend. “It is my pleasure to replace the pleasure boats. A bunch of…” Stop. “It’s all right, we’re making wages.” But the pleasure boats, he says, “frightened the fish. They have great engines. It costs us a fortune. There’s nothing you can do.” They fish early when the tide allows, but visitors still complain about the noise of trucks on the pier.
I met the harbor master in his office on the pier. He wears elegant clothes. It is magic. When a visitor comes to ask when the tide is coming, he consults the yellow tide book in front of him. Then the man comes to ask for change, but he has nothing. It’s not crowded today, he says: fishermen love to spend their weekends. The offshore sailing club, he says, looms over the pier for boats in the distance; An eel boat and two boats went looking for crabs, lobsters and lobsters this morning. Welsh yacht stays overnight. There are now 30 boats fishing from St Ives and 18 excursion boats: two Cornwall walls at sea. “We had a dolphin a few weeks ago,” he says. He was called Dave. Sailors give common names to visiting marine life, as if they were their friends. Dave the Dolphin lived in the harbor, but he moved. “Who knows where Dave is now? Or who is he with?”
After lunch comes the rain. It seems, as it always does in Cornwall after the sunshine, like a surprise. A woman comes to the shelter. She looks tired, almost annoyed. As a child, she lived by the harbor, then moved to Benbeagle. “I read about colonialism, and that’s what happened to us,” she says. “These people”—she points to Dawnalong behind us—“were the poorest of the poor—now they are rich. The people of Benbeagle, she says, “It’s almost as if we don’t exist. People who come here don’t know it. Why does someone’s vacation deserve the death of culture? If you apply colonial theory to Cornwall, you would call it a genocide. You have to come to terms with tourism, or you have to leave, and leaving is really painful.” She is looking for it. “Making a false culture kills a culture.”
I walk into Downalong. It’s polished, blank and pure: perfect for a fishing village that doesn’t feel like a real fishing village. I go to Tate St Ives, tracing concrete curls, and I find someone in blue, in an evening gown wearing a crown. Their name is Alex Billingham and they perform Fishwives Revenge as part of We are Invisible We are Visible: 31 Disabled Artists Respond To Dada, With Real Fun. They say it “reflects my experience of being with a fluid body”. They say they attacked the sea this morning like Emperor Caligula. Now they ask him to forgive them. They walk slowly to the sea with a stick (“My handicap and strangeness sit beside me at work, always present but never defining me”). I looked up and saw a graveyard perched on a cliff, threatening to fall into the waves. Now Alex has reached the sea and is talking to him. “What we took from the sea we will return. The treasures we took from the sea we will return to her.” They empty the sand from a flask attached to their waist. They say “it seems to be working”. “The sea is surging. It seems he accepted the apology.” Alex walks with inexhaustible faith: This is the word I find. It goes without saying that there are two types of Cornwall walls. But there is a third, too, that has a special and lasting power: personal transformation.
I come back via Downalong and watch the local kids jump off the harbor wall and make figures into the sea. The islands are now full. The sun is receding. Saint Ives is cursed and confused by her raging beauty. It affects people, too. I met a Cornish woman still living in Downalong. She says the man next door is considering putting glass on the entire back of his house. She faces the sea directly, she says, and the storms will come in the winter, and she laughs.