Tarquin fights back: The Sunday Times response to Cornwall Now

ImageMy post, in response to last week’s Sunday Times ‘Style’ magazine article on Cornwall has generated a lot of debate. I thought it only fair to give the author of the piece, Fleur Britten, a chance to respond. Hats off to Fleur for engaging in the discussion. It would be very easy for a journalist to write a piece and forget about it, so credit to her for explaining her thinking.

I do think though that there was some misunderstanding of the main point of my post. Fleur comments that: “Of course, there will be locals – as there have been for a long time – who will resent tourists, as they are free to.” Unfortunately, this continues a bit of a tradition of seeing any critique of the presentation of Cornwall to visitors as being anti-tourism. As I said in my response, ‘resenting tourists’ is a ridiculous position to take. First, it makes no sense financially – visitors are vital for the Cornish economy. Secondly, it is plain illogical since any time a person leave Cornwall, they becomes a ‘tourist’ themselves! No, my point was that most articles on Cornwall in the national press have a depressing sameness about them, presenting the luxury end of the visitor spectrum which is affordable by only a small urban elite. That inevitably paints a picture of Cornwall as a playground for the wealthy. While I suppose any exposure for Cornwall as a visitor attraction in the national press is welcome, I can’t think of another region of the UK that is written about in such a caricature way. It’s as if articles on Scotland were exclusively about holidays spent grouse shooting and fly fishing while staying in a large castle and being serenaded into breakfast every day by a kilted piper.  

Anyhow, enough of all that. Here is the correspondence between Cornwall Now and the Sunday Times. Please add your thoughts in the comment section of the Blog.

From: Cornwall Now                                                

To: Fleur Britten, Sunday Times 

Re: Sunday’s article on Cornwall by Fleur Britten in the Style Magazine. As you can see, the article got me more than a little miffed. I have posted a response on my blog, copied below.

Kind regards,

Colin Bradbury (St Agnes, Cornwall) 

 

From: Fleur Britten

Dear Colin

Thanks very much for sending in your thoughts regarding my Cornwall feature in Sunday’s Style magazine – we were sorry to learn that you were disappointed by it.  

To address your issues, my role as a journalist is to report on behaviour. Whether we approve or not, this is what is happening in Cornwall, and the reader is free to form their own opinion. To be fair, I don’t think I painted a picture of Cornwall being “just another place for the affluent to go to”, rather that, as described, Cornwall has so much to offer, with its history, its culture, its landscape, its food etc. 

Some Cornish folk have written to me saying they were really pleased with the piece as it will be very good for the Cornish economy. There are many, many places in Cornwall that depend on the tourist pound – it’s not, after all, a new tourist destination. Of course, there will be locals – as there have been for a long time – who will resent tourists, as they are free to. 

In any case, thank you again for taking the trouble to write in. We really do value readers’ opinions. Your comments have been noted and taken on board; I hope that despite recent misgivings you continue to be a valued reader of our publication.

Very best wishes,

Fleur Britten

 

From: Cornwall Now

Dear Fleur,

Thanks very much for taking the time to read my response to your piece. I do appreciate that your job is to report rather than to express approval or disapproval and that’s as it should be. From the perspective of the general reader, I thought that your article was very entertainingly written and I certainly enjoyed it as a piece of prose.

The problem in relation to Cornwall is that the articles written about the county recently tend to be very much of a kind, right down to mentioning the exact same laundry list of ’boutique’ hotels and celebrity chefs. Which means that the descriptions of what Cornwall has to offer are seen through the prism of lunch at Jamie Oliver’s or a weekend at the Idle Rocks. Whether this is the intention of not, the implication seems to be that Cornwall has become another addition to the list of ‘in’ places for a certain set in S.E. England, interchangeable with the Maldives or Chamonix.

Despite the popular view of Cornwall as an insular place, I think there are very, very few people here who resent tourists – I very definitely do not – and we recognise that the economy here would be in dire straits without the tourist pound. However, you can probably understand that in a part of the country that is economically deprived, with many on poor wages in seasonal jobs, the picture of wealthy ladies merrily ploughing at high speed down country lanes in ‘Chelsea Tractors’ and boasting about the number of speeding tickets picked up in the process, is a bit hard to stomach. I suspect that there was an element of caricature in your piece and it works admirably. The problem is that we’ve seen so many of these caricatures in print that it gets a bit old! Just for once, it would be nice to see a view of Cornwall presented in the media that didn’t feature the same-old same-old.

Anyhow, I remain a loyal Sunday Times reader and thanks for your comments.

Regards,

Colin Bradbury

 

From: Fleur Britten

Dear Colin, 

Thank you for your response and for your understanding. It’s very good for us to receive these letters as it does keep us on the rails, and I really appreciate your taking the time to write such a thorough critique in your blog!

Very best wishes,

Fleur

Load up the Range Rover, Tarquin – we’re off to Cornwall!

Bollinger

F. Scott Fitzgerald: “The rich are different than you and me.”                                                                                   Ernest Hemingway: “Yes, they have more money.”

I should have known better, I really should. There, in the contents section of the Style magazine that accompanies the Sunday Times, was an article entitled ‘Go West: Why Cornwall is our coolest county’. The fact that it was sandwiched between articles on ‘Sloane Ravers – The New Party Posse’ and ‘AA Gill on How to Wear Sunglasses’ (I’d always assumed you just balanced them on your nose and ears but apparently, if you’re posh, there’s much more to it) should have been sufficient warning. But no, I had to go and read the article anyway, with predictable, blood pressure-raising results.

So apparently, ‘For the new breed of wealthy holiday-maker, Cornwall is now de-rigueur.’ Wealthy visitors are drawn to our corner of the world by chi-chi hotels, haute cuisine and a desire to re-live the halcyon holidays of their childhoods. Seaside holidays are terribly fashionable in a retro and doubtless slightly ironic way at the moment, but these are not like the ones you and I remember. These are seaside holidays in 10,000 pound a week serviced houses (with personal chefs) or luxury boutique hotels, complete with an ‘adventure butler’ to arrange quirky activities for you to brag about at Chelsea dinner parties when you get home. If you have your own second (or third or fourth) home in Cornwall, it will, of course, have ‘monogrammed linen, cinema room and a heated pool by the beach’. And you will go to the same hotels and restaurants as all the other DFLs (Down from London) while you’re here. Have you noticed, by the way, that there appears to be a checklist of hotels and restaurants that journalists are obliged to mention when writing about Cornwall? Watergate Bay, Tresanton, Idle Rocks, Scarlet, Nathan Outlaw, Jamie Oliver, Rick Stein. Check, check and check again. Yup, they’re all here. Full (bijou, waterfront views) house.

I was so irritated by the article that I immediately sat down to write a blog post, but then I paused. Was I walking into a cleverly laid trap? This must surely be a spoof, packed as it is with clichés and cardboard cut-out characters. Home-county hooray Henries and Henriettas roaring around Cornish country lanes in their Range Rovers, all the while bemoaning the lack of a Waitrose delivery service but jolly excited to be going to the Veuve Cliquot sponsored ‘Polo on the Beach’ at Watergate Bay. As satire, it would have been brilliant. But then I noticed that it is full of quotes from real people and I realised with horror that it was actually serious.

So this is where I launch into a rant about the iniquities of second homers and the hypocrisy of spending tens of thousands of pounds a week in pursuit of the ‘simple’ joys of a seaside holiday, right? Well actually, I detect something much more sinister lurking below the surface. In the article, the director of an upmarket estate agency describes Cornwall as a ‘playground’. Think about that for a minute. Isn’t a playground somewhere children go to amuse themselves? The rich, it seems, view the world as a series of playgrounds which they move between during the year. Places exist only as backdrops for their playing and partying, with the locals providing the colour and, of course, the discrete, waited-upon-hand-and-foot service which is so essential to getting ‘back to basics’. The head of Visit Cornwall (the Cornish Tourist board) appears to concur: “Nowadays the top-end holiday-maker might have a week in the Seychelles, a week skiing and a week in Cornwall.” So there you have it. Cornwall is just another name on the list of playgrounds for the wealthy to enjoy. Even more alarmingly, those who are responsible for selling Cornwall as a visitor destination seem to agree.

But spare a thought for these poor little rich people. It’s not easy being affluent in 2013, apparently. 40 or 50 years ago, the newly rich didn’t have to pretend that they were after anything other than a good time. They could drive their gold plated Rolls Royces and frolic in baths of champagne with an “I’ve got loads of money and if you don’t like how I spend it you can get stuffed” attitude. Now though, it’s imperative to be tastefully rich, and that is such hard work. These people abhor old-fashioned vulgarity, they want to get ‘back to basics’, they crave ‘authenticity’.

Dismantling the ‘back to basics’ idea makes shooting fish in a barrel look difficult. Back to basics, it seems, is the new ostentation. The owner of a luxury hotel in St Mawes, ‘with it’s own helipad, Nepresso machines in every room and the scent of fig electronically pumped into the air’, who has “loads” of boats moored in the harbour, says that “We live such a false life in so many ways – this is a way of getting back to reality.” I hope he has recovered, since (I assume) his tongue must have been so far in his cheek when he came up with that gem that he risked causing himself permanent injury.

The authenticity angle is even more disturbing. In conversation with the proprietor of yet another boutique Cornish hotel, the author of the article comments “It’s this authenticity that makes it so right for now”. So ‘authenticity’ is trendy, its zeitgeisty, it’s now. What kind of people are we dealing with here, people for whom authenticity is just another fad that will be here one day and gone the next? The real irony of course is that people like this aren’t searching for authenticity at all, at least, not in the sense that mere mortals would understand it. They want their version of it, a sanitised, idealised, version of reality. Their lifestyles and their ‘need’ for luxuries actually erects a huge barrier between them and anything approaching authenticity.

And here’s a thought that will have them choking on their organic asparagus. The best comparison I can think of for this achingly trendy set is with the first wave of English holidaymakers who ventured overseas in the 1960s and 70s. These pioneers flocked to places like Benidorm and Torremolinos. Why? Because the scary prospect of going somewhere ‘foreign’ was made less frightening by the presence of English beer, fish and chips and lots of other Brits. Replace the pints of bitter with glasses of Bollinger, the fish and chips with dinner at Rick Stein’s and the Sharons and Erics with Cressidas and Ruperts and the mindset is exactly the same. This is just another group of people who want to go somewhere superficially different, but crave the comfort of the familiar things that their tribe deem essential to civilised living.

Which brings us full circle to the idea of ‘authenticity’. I wouldn’t expect holiday makers, whatever their social class, to want to learn about the real Cornwall. The fact that as well as its undeniably beautiful landscape, Cornwall also has an industrial (and post-industrial) history that makes it unique. That its peripherality, which is part of its attraction, is also potentially its biggest drawback when it comes to providing jobs for its young people. You don’t come on holiday to hear about that sort of thing. But it really does stick in the throat when journalists paint Cornwall as just another place for the affluent to go to spend their cash. “Look – you can have the same things you’d find in your ski chalet in Switzerland or your boutique hotel in the Maldives!”. They want homogenisation. A very upmarket version of it, but homogenisation nonetheless. And the biggest irony? It may have the sheen of wealth and class about it, but ultimately ‘Polo on the Beach’ is just a more exclusive version of the conga around that hotel swimming pool in Benidorm.

Let’s leave it to the ever-pithy Ernest Hemingway to puncture the pretentious bubble surrounding wealth and taste. He is reputed to have retorted to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s awe-struck assertion that the rich are different to the rest of us with a withering: “Yes, they have more money.”

Hopefully, before too long, some new destination will catch the eye of the style gurus at the Sunday Times and their ilk. Then Tarquin and Annabel will dutifully load their equally absurdly named children into the Range Rover and roar back up the A30 to the next newly-discovered playground. And we’ll be standing at the Tamar to wave them off.

 

ShelterBox: A proper Cornish success story

Image“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” (Edmund Burke)

I’m just recovering – there’s no other word for it – from a 9 day course run by ShelterBox to train people who are joining their disaster Response Team. As most people in these parts know, Helston-based ShelterBox is a disaster relief agency specialising in sending emergency shelter (tents) and other essential items such as blankets, cooking facilities and tools, to areas of the world affected by natural and man-made disasters. It’s the job of the Response Team to actually deliver the aid, in the organisation’s iconic green boxes, to the disaster zones. Joining the Response Team, which is made up of volunteers from all walks of life and nationalities, is no small undertaking. Those hoping to join the Team must pass an interview and a 4 day selection course before being accepted onto a 9 day intensive training programme aimed at preparing them for the demands of operating in parts of the world that have been hit by earthquakes, floods, civil war and other calamities. As I can testify, it’s a mentally and physically demanding process which tests the ability to absorb information, to work in fluid situations where the rules of the game are often unclear and to understand the complexities involved in getting aid to the needy in often chaotic parts of the world. It’s one of the hardest things I have ever done but also one of the most satisfying. I’m now looking forward to the chance to go out and put what I’ve learnt into practice.

But why, you may ask, am I writing about this in a blog about business, politics and culture in Cornwall? Well, although ShelterBox is an international organisation with affiliates around the globe, its base and, I think its heart, remains in  Cornwall. While funds for its operations come from donors around the world, the people of Cornwall in particular have taken ShelterBox to their hearts. That might have something to do with the fact that, like Cornwall, ShelterBox punches above its weight. The organisation’s £15-20 million annual income makes ShelterBox a comparative minnow in the world of humanitarian aid (Oxfam, for example, had revenue of £385 million last year) but its philosophy of reacting quickly and decisively when a disaster occurs means that its profile and impact is disproportionately large. Other aid agency workers, operating within more bureaucratic structures, are frequently envious of the speed with which ShelterBox is able to move when the need arises. Cornwall’s no-nonsense, get-on-with-it approach to life is reflected in the way ShelterBox goes about its business.

But speed doesn’t mean sloppiness. Spend any amount of time with the ShelterBox team and it quickly becomes apparent that all aspects of the business, from operations to training to procurement are constantly under review. In particular, an almost obsessive attention to detail is lavished on the equipment that is sent into the field. One example is their long term partnership with Vango, one of the world’s largest outdoor equipment manufacturers. The ShelterBox/Vango tent has been constantly refined and improved, reflecting a belief that families in a disaster zone deserve the best possible shelter. The same goes for other items of kit like water purifiers and mosquito nets. You sense that Richard Trevithick and other great Cornish innovators of the past would approve.

Another thing that struck me was that ShelterBox pulls people from all over the world to our little corner of the British Isles. My course was made up of individuals from as far afield as California, Texas, New Zealand and Belgium, plus a handful from other parts of the UK (as well as Cornwall itself, of course). Some of them would have never even heard of Cornwall before getting involved with ShelterBox and would certainly not have envisaged spending the best part of two weeks on a windswept airfield on the Lizard Peninsula! Yet here they were, being crammed with state-of-the-art knowledge about global humanitarian operations and participating in exercises simulating deployments to overseas disaster zones. That’s another thing that I think Cornish businessmen and politicians can take from the ShelterBox example. The scale of the organisation’s ambitions, the quality and focus of the people who run it and those who work on a voluntary basis makes a nonsense of the idea that Cornwall’s peripheral location will always make it difficult for businesses to succeed down here.

So as well as being a success story in the world of humanitarian aid, I think that ShelterBox is also a Cornish success story. And, in true Cornish fashion, success has not bred arrogance. You don’t get any sense that the individuals in ShelterBox believe they are better than the average person as a result of what they do. They simply recognise their obligation as human beings not to sit back and ignore the suffering of others. An obligation, to paraphrase Edmund Burke,  for good men and women NOT to do nothing.

Back in the heyday of Cornish mining, they used to say that wherever you went in the world, at the bottom of every hole in the ground you’d find a Cornish miner. These days, in disaster zones from Haiti to Jordan and from Peru to Myanmar, you’ll find a little piece of Cornwall in the shape of those green Shelter boxes. And that, I think, is something that everybody in Cornwall should be very proud of.

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