What’s afoot in the UK?

Featured image: Geraniums in a planter at St Erth train station brighten our wait for the branch line train to Carbis Bay on our return Thursday from Penzance.

Cornwall Cogitation 11/189 Saturday 16 March 2018  I wish I knew the solution to the United Kingdom’s legislative chaos in coming up with an approved deal to leave the 28-member states of the European Union.

The latest vote in the 649-member House of Commons was to extend the exit from March 29 to who knows when. Even if I had a crystal ball, in the whirlwind of intra and cross-party debate, I’d be hard-pressed to be heard.

Clearly, I have no cogent analysis on what’s needed to resolve Brexit. I appreciate the enormity of the task and wish the government and all the MPs the best in coming up with an acceptable deal. What I can do, is take a brief look at what constitutes the UK.

First, food

While many foods are sourced locally or within the UK, the salad we had this week contained greens-England, broccoli-England, tomatoes-Spain, cucumber-Canary Islands, Olives-various Mediterranean countries. Had Marty popped in carrots, those would have been British carrots.

We’ve enjoyed plenty of fresh seafood, most recently at the Tolcarne Inn in Newlyn, the main fishing port in Cornwall. Marty had hake, I had sea trout. Delicious.

The UK’s constituent parts

The UK’s official name is the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. It’s capital city is London and the head of state is Queen Elizabeth II.

The term Great Britain refers to England, Wales, and Scotland, each somewhat autonomous regions.  The northern one-sixth of the island of Ireland is known as Northern Ireland. The rest is the independent country known as the Republic of Ireland.

The UK joined the current 28-member states of the the European Union on January 1, 1973. Instead of adopting the euro, it kept its pound sterling monetary system.

A major sticking point in Brexit negotiations has been the insistence, confirmed in a vote, that there be no hard border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, that is staffed check points for movement of people and commerce between the two. The Republic is a member of the EU.

So, United Kingdom (UK) is the country. Great Britain is the island across the Irish Sea. England is one of the UK’s four administrative units: Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and England. What the near- and long-term future holds remains to be seen.

A welcome diversion

In following parliament’s debate, votes, jockeying, and seemingly lack of progress, I’ve had a pleasant respite in reading the novel, A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, by Marina Lewycka (Penguin, 2006).  It’s funny, poignant, true-to-life, cringingly painful, yet satisfyingly honest,  rounded, and illuminating as fictional literature should be.

The story takes place in England, some forty years after a family of four emigres came from Ukraine. Ludmilla, the mother, died two years earlier. Now the 84-year-old father tells his daughters he’s in love with a 36-year-old Ukrainian women, Valentina. Valentina’s tourist visa is about to expire and the father is going to marry her.

“She exploded into our lives like a fluffy pink grenade, churning up the murky water, bringing to the surface a sludge of sloughed-off memories, giving the family ghosts a kick up the backside.”

The father rationalizes his seemingly blind pursuit of Valentina, despite all the red flags, as an effort to save her from the horrors of the country he experienced long ago. In the middle of this, and of not taking proper care of himself or his house, the father is writing a book about tractors in the Ukrainian language, translating it for his son-in-law to read.

Meanwhile we are propelled from one comedic familial and cultural clash to another. The daughters have to put their own estranged past with each other to post as they try to deal with the unending economic needs and wants of Valentina and her son together with the needs of their father with whom they lack a ready intimacy. The daughters have to come to terms with a fragmented, somewhat dysfunctional  past. Despite these cringe-worthy goings-on, humour pops out of the pages left and right. I’m only half way through the novel and am prepared for more tractor-size surprises.

To push a point, the story reminds me of modern day issues facing countries worldwide: aging, family systems, generational dissonance, immigration, and not least, money and inheritance, our ability to imagine a better future.

Marina Lewycka before her retirement was a lecturer in media studies at Sheffield Hallam University in Yorkshire.

Enough diversion. I’m pulled back to Cornwall.

Back to Cornwall

Cornwall would love to become the fifth administrative unit of the UK. There’s a resurrection of  the Cornish language, pride and protection of Cornish foods such as pasties, the style of eating cream teas jam in the middle, clotted cream on top), history, prehistory, culture, and resurgence of its Celtic heritage.

It’s dangerous for an outsider to try to define the Cornish character. I don’t pretend to be able to do that. At the same time, I do try to capture some of the Cornish essence from reading, conversations, and travels across the Duchy, observations from our ninth long-term winter/spring stay here.

A vivid picture of contemporary Cornwall surfaces in music, sculpture, food, landscape, gardens, sport, religion, film-making, and yes, tourism.

The Cornish in recent years achieved status as a recognized national minority within the UK. That achievement reflects a renewed self-consciousness of the county’s, or Duchy’s, place among historically Celtic nations. The Celtic language, cultural self-awareness and self-government interest permeate the air.

Cornwall, farthest south west county of England, is 80 percent surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean and English Channel.
Statue of St Michael at St Michael’s Hospital in Hayle.” St Michael has been depicted as a guard and defender.

Daphne du Maurier

Daphne du Maurier (1907-1989) adopted Cornwall as her home. She wrote 15 novels set in Cornwall. In the foreword to Daphne du Maurier Enchanted Cornwall, Her Pictorial Memoir, she wrote,  “It [the memoir] tries to give an idea of the way in which Cornwall has communicated with me, and I with Cornwall, for here I found myself both as a writer and as a person.”


From the Foreword of Enchanted Cornwall.

Daphne du Maurier made her home at a house called Kilmarth, near Par. In her memoir she wrote: “I have an awful feeling that the spirit of Cornwall is changing, the quietude, the solitude of it all.” Kilmarth in Cornish, she wrote, “means ‘Retreat of Mark.’  Perhaps this site was also the last outpost of the aged Cornish king (King Mark of the Tristan legend) who, with passion spent and jealousy forgotten, came, like me, to rest and look out in peace across the sea.”

I sense du Maurier’s sentiment, expressed more fully in Vanishing Cornwall. in the press of development, traffic congestion, the love/hate affair with tourists, and the rising cost of housing. The person who cut my hair this week suggested we visit Ireland where she lived for a time, a place like Cornwall used to be 20 years ago.

Destination Tolcarne Inn

We walked in drizzle and heavy wind from Penzance train station to Newlyn for lunch at the Tocarne Inn. Worth every step to dine and dry beside a wood fire.

The Promenade was only occupied by a few dog walkers, unlike the time in 2011 when a total of 8,734 people dressed as pirates crowded onto the Promenade allowing Penzance to claim the Guinness Book of Records title as “pirate capital,” celebrated in the Gilbert and Sullivan musical Pirates of Penzance.

The photos are scenes near or along the Mount’s Bay route from Penzance to Newlyn.


The Litter Mermaid created by Cans Anderson. Nice sense of humour and imaginative use of litter to create art.
Gateway to one of a cluster of handsome terrace houses in Regent Square in Penzance.
Walkway to Marmalade House. The stuccoed and painted walls of these 1830s houses reflect the Regency style of the early 19th century.
Ship waiting out the wind in Mount’s Bay.
Monument in Newlyn to Lifeboat volunteers who stand ready to risk their own lives to rescue those who encounter misfortune at sea. Anchored ship on the horizon.
That’s the walking group to which we belong. Saw the card at the Tolcarne Inn.
“The Broccoli Juggler,” by artist Kurt Jackson, located outside Penlee House in Penzance, depicts the difficulties faced by farmers in West Cornwall. The farmer, standing of a base made up of old machinery parts, is juggling cauliflowers (broccoli in local dialect), a tractor and a house. The sculpture was dedicated in 2015.

Carbis Bay

The wind whips up waves in this narrow view of the sea from our terrace.
Carbis Bay, just below St Ives in this far west area of Cornwall where we spend most of our time on foot, train or bus, and occasionally taxi.

Wayside greeters

From this week, again, I take away, in du Maurier’s words, “A sense of continuity with ancient times, and more than this, a present which resonated with past and future. . . .”



8 thoughts on “What’s afoot in the UK?

    1. The Tamar River separates Cornwall and Devon. We’ve gotten to some fascinating places in Devon a few times during our stay and may get to Bath in Somerset this time round. Best! -John


    1. If there are any pirates afoot in Penzance they must be adverse to the rain and wind we encountered there on Thursday. Will keep a lookout. Best! -John


  1. So glad to get my first blog post since I managed to sign up after an earlier false start. Thanks, John, for a nice mix of reflections, information, and photos. After a week in Cornwall and doing some reading on my own, I am totally in to all things Cornish.


    1. Thanks, Steve. Your grasp of history as well as the current scene here and worldwide speaks volumes of sense which I wish people in the high echelons of power could grasp. We enjoyed your time here. Glad you got latched onto the blog. Best! -John


  2. A short history of tractors in Ukrainian
    by Lewycka, Marina, in the Elkhart library… checking it out!
    Enjoying all the GREEN – in short supply here
    Following Brexit in the NYT… interested in your observations


    1. I just finished the book. The word pathos comes to mind as does pathetic. Smiled at the “Big Idea.” Mind blowing. Couldn’t stop till the end. What would we do if we did not have laughter to accompany life’s trials. Enjoy. -John


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